ON MRS. BRADLEY
by B.A. Pike
The following essay was written by B. A. Pike and published in The Armchair Detective, Volume 9 No. 4, October 1976 as part of the article "In Praise of Gladys Mitchell."
At the center of all the fun and games, all the treasons, stratagems and spoils, from the first in 1929 to the latest in 1976 [and, indeed, right up until Ms. Mitchell's death in 1983], is that "singular old lady," Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. We receive constant reminders of all four of her names: to Chief Constables and other old friends she is "Beatrice;" to her principal nephews "Aunt Adela;" and her family comprises both Lestrange and Bradley elements. She is Mrs. Bradley until 1955, making her first appearance thus in Watson's Choice, where there is a curious passage in which Laura seems to be laying false claim to the honor of D.B.E. for her employer, to impress a gullible matron; but she is Dame Beatrice in earnest in Twelve Horses and the Hangman's Noose (1956), and so she remains.
She is already old on her first appearance in 1929, and as the years advance Miss Mitchell solves the problem they present by ignoring it. Laura ages, and so does Hamish, her son: Dame Beatrice does not. Were she subject to the aging process like the rest of us, she would be over a hundred now, conceivably older, even, than Poirot: if 55 in 1929, as Miss Mitchell suggests, she would be 102 now [and 110 when the last Bradley stories were published, posthumously, in 1984]. In the same way, Miss Mitchell from time to time takes up members of the Lestrange-Bradley family when she has a use for them, but without any great concern for the march of time; thus, the Sally who is making her own way to her cousin Carey's farm in Laurels are Poison in 1942 is presumably the young woman of the same name who goes monster-hunting in 1974, in Winking at the Brim, a mere 32 years later!
Dame Beatrice has a large and devoted family of whom we meet only one who is her co-eval, her "massive sister-in-law," Lady Selina Lestrange. Lady Selina's title must be her own, that of a nobleman's daughter who took her husband's surname on marriage, like Lady Violet Powell or Lady Antonia Fraser: it follows that she married one Lestrange brother and Dame Beatrice another--and a third must have fathered Carey. Lady Selina has two children, John, removed at 16 from Rugby to receive the benefits of a co-education at Hillmaston, and Sallie (not to be confused with her cousin Ferdinand's daughter Sally). She alone of Dame Beatrice's relatives seems to dislike her, disapproving of her unconventional approach to life, and rather in awe of her gifts and her fame.
Dame Beatrice has been three times married, and she has at least two sons, one by her first husband, a Lestrange "of French and Spanish descent," and one by her second, whose name we never learn (and Miss Mitchell doesn't know it, either). Bradley must be the name of her third husband, the one who put an end to her "brief second widowhood." She refers in Tom Brown's Body to "other sons" whom she likes less than her nephews, but she is trying to disconcert Miss Loveday at the time, and the only documented sons are these two.
Her elder son, Ferdinand Lestrange, is a barrister, subsequently a K.C. and, at least as early as St. Peter's Finger (1937), Sir Ferdinand. He is of "distinguished" appearance and has, like his mother, a "beautiful voice." In court, defending his mother against a murder charge, he is "suave" and "hypnotic," with "the stage sense of the born actor." We learn from his mother that he "never quite accustomed himself" to her second marriage "and its aftermath of a half-brother," but the adult Ferdinand has no cause for unease on that score, since his half-brother takes himself off to India as a young man, to specialize in tropical diseases, and we learn little more of him. His son, John, "a lively child, healthy and quite well-behaved," appears in Watson's Choice. Ferdinand has two sons, Derek and Sebastian, and one daughter, Sally. Derek seems not to have a case of his own, but the others do, Sebastian in Gory Dew, where he emerges as a chip off the old block, defending the Moonrocket Kid with attack and finesse; and Sally in Winking at the Brim, where she joins Sir Humphrey Calshott's ill-fated monster-hunt. Ferdinand also appears to have at least two wives: Mrs. Bradley sends her love to Juliet in St. Peter's Finger, but it is Caroline who joins the Christmas reunion in Laurels are Poison.
Of the nephews whom Mrs. Bradley prefers to her sons, Carey Lestrange is perhaps the most prominent. He is an amateur painter (of inn-signs in Printer's Error), and a professional pig-breeder, long haired, good looking, and with a "lean and graceful strength." Dead Men's Morris takes place in and around his Oxfordshire pig-farm, Old Farm, Stanton St. John, and he is notably active in Printer's Error, where he enters a nudist colony in the cause, and Spotted Hemlock (1958), where the popularity of his classes among the young ladies of Calladale Agricultural College shows that he retains his looks into middle age. Even when not in the front line, he is "kept alive" by constant reference, as are his wife Jenny, his two children, and his devoted servants, the Ditch family.
Another nephew, Denis, is something of a changeling, since he is distinctly referred to as "Lestrange" by a school-fellow in Laurels Are Poison; but six years earlier, in Dead Men's Morris, he is established as a Bradley, and so he remains in The Dancing Druids and Adders on the Heath. He is at least ten years Carey's junior, though, like him, "middle" rather than "youngest" generation, his status as a nephew assured even if his surname is uncertain. He rides a motorcycle and plays the flute, the violin, and the organ, and is known to his intimates as "Scab." There are hints of war-service in The Dancing Druids, not impossible if he left school in the summer of 1943 and enlisted at once. He is certainly no longer a boy on his later appearances, but a young man, "discreet...bold and mettlesome."
One other nephew, the "saturnine" Jonathan, is indisputably a Bradley, and thus a courtesy cousin to the Lestranges. He meets his lovely wife Deborah during the action of Laurels Are Poison, when she is Mrs. Bradley's assistant at Cataret College, and they recur together, married, in The Worsted Viper and My Father Sleeps (1944). Reflecting on the marriage, Mrs. Bradley is "relieved and amused to note" that Jonathan "appeared to have asserted himself with the simple, beautiful, selfish and comforting decisiveness for which his mother...was celebrated throughout the family, and which it had been evident for some time her son had inherited in full measure." A further consequence of the marriage is twins.
Other relatives occur from time to time, including another Lestrange nephew, Brian, active in My Father Sleeps; a great-niece, Fenella, also a Lestrange, to whom weird things happen in A Hearse on May-Day (1972); an unnamed sister-in-law and her son and daughter; and a named nephew, Philip, who knows about gas appliances and calls Mrs. Bradley "Aunt Beatrice" (all in St. Peter's Finger). To tie these in to the main family would require more data than we are given, and, conceivably, more ingenuity than even Miss Mitchell possesses.
On her first appearance, Mrs. Bradley is described as "dry without being shrivelled, and bird-like without being pretty," reminding Alistair Bing "of the reconstruction of a pterodactyl he had once seen in a German museum. There was the same inhuman malignity in her expression as in that of the defunct bird, and, like it, she had a cynical smirk about her mouth even when her face was in repose. She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl." (Interestingly, that first image persists, recurring as late as 1970, when Toby Sparowe, in Gory Dew, is reminded by Dame Beatrice's "yellow hands and wrists" of "the wings of a pterodactyl.") If this is pitched rather strongly (like the description of Mrs. Bradley's teeth as "the teeth of a relentless beast of prey; a creature tigerish, carnivorous, untamed"), its impact is undeniable, and Miss Mitchell maintains and diversifies the saurian image in subsequent books: in The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1930), where Jim Redsey reflects that he has "never seen such a wicked old woman. She reminded him of some dreadful bald-headed bird he had seen in a picture at some time...you got the same sort of sick feeling when you looked at her...her little smile was like that he had seen on the face of a newt--no, a sand lizard--no, one of those repulsive-looking giant frogs. But when the woman...grinned a bit wider...then you could see what she must have been in a former existence!...an alligator!;" and in The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), where the curate Noel Wells, who "liked old women to be soothing," is reminded of "a deadly serpent basking in the sun, or of an alligator smiling gently while birds removed animal irritants from its armored frame." Over the years, the picture is sustained with remarkable consistency and vigor, Dame Beatrice continually unnerving people with the "fiendish, anticipatory grin" of one or other of the larger Sauria (and even, once, with "a herpetological leer"!).
There are variations: there is one striking comparison to "the gargoyles on Notre Dame;" Richard Cowes in The Longer Bodies calls her "a man-eating shark in disguise;" she is on record as "howling like a hyena;" and her "witch-like aspect" is noted from time to time. There are also numerous bird-like references--to the "hawk-like gaze;" to the "little beak" into which she purses her mouth; to the "quick glance" like that "of a bird seeing a worm;" to the hoots and screeches that punctuate her progress; and to her appearance on one occasion "dressed like a macaw." But it is the saurian aspect that most memorably persists, and the motif is developed in a host of metaphors, and recognized and preserved in the familiar name of her employer perpetuated by Laura (though originated by Mrs. Getty of Saltmarsh): Mrs. Crocodile, or Mrs. Croc. (During the earliest days of their acquaintance, Laura also refers to Mrs. Bradley as "the Old Trout," "the First Grave-Digger," "the Third Witch," "the Duchess of Malfi," "Aunt Glegg," "la Belle Dame Sans Merci," and "Boadicea"!).
Despite her years, Dame Beatrice has "raven hair" with "not a touch of grey;" her "snapping black eyes" are often "brilliant;" and she has what Laura's friend Kitty calls "the bones," which give a face distinction regardless of age or lack of conventional appeal. We are constantly reminded, too, of her "rich, remarkable voice," "no bird-like twitter nor harsh parrot cry, but a mellifluous utterance, rich and full, and curiously, definitely, superlatively attractive," its exceptional beauty in dignified contrast to the clamorous cackles and shrieks with which she expresses her delight at the discomfiture even of those she loves.
Her clothes are invariably "hideous," and come "as P.G. Wodehouse would put it, from another and a dreadful world." She is on one occasion "an easily-recognized figure" in a tweed suit in a "lordly purple," a jumper in another shade of purple and a bright yellow hat; or she outfaces all comers in a "blue and sulphur jumper," or an outfit in "sage-green, purple and yellow." En route for the dance at Cartaret College, she encounters Kitty, whose face visibly drops at the sight of Mrs. Bradley's "orange and royal blue evening frock which was then in its fourth season." At Saxon Wall, she descends the stairs "fearful and wonderful in a bright blue silk dressing-gown on which great dragons, gold and red-gold and bronze, sprawled in the insolent splendor of Chinese hideousness." Some of her garments are evidently made by her own hands, since she is forever clicking away at her "indescribable knitting," and is once observed as being engaged on "a shapeless piece of work in a particularly oppressive shade of gamboge."
She is, as Deborah realizes on their first meeting, "one of the most famous of modern women," preeminent in her sphere, and of commanding intellect and erudition. Both to Deborah and the staff of Hillmaston School, she is "the Mrs. Bradley." As "psychiatrist and consulting psychologist to the Home Office," with, in Laura's words, "degrees from every university except Tokyo," she is immensely distinguished, her services in constant demand, her reputation, both in her professional and amateur capacities, wide and unquestioned. Her publications include "her famous popular book on hereditary tendencies towards crime," the Small Handbook to Psycho-Analysis (1929), a paper on "the psychology of martyrs, both Christian and otherwise," and another "On the Psychology of the Re-orientation of Paranoics." At the Scheveningen Conference in 1964, she delivers a paper on "Traumatic Regicides, with special reference to the death of Charles I."
Her town base is a "tall house in Kensington," and she has lived at the Stone House in the village of Wandles Parva in Hampshire since 1930, when her arrival as a neighbor greatly distresses Mrs. Bryce Harringay (Hannibal Jones' telegram from Saxon Wall places the village in Bucks, but this is clearly attributable to his distracted state at the time of dispatch). She is impeccably served by Henri, her cook, Celestine, his wife, who doubles as housekeeper and lady's maid, and George, her chauffeur, a notably fine driver, who maintains his employer's car to perfection, and is acknowledged as "an advance on Henry Straker." He gives perhaps the noblest service of all, far beyond the call of his primary duty; tough and intelligent, level-headed and resourceful in a crisis, he is absolutely rock-like in his reliability.
Laura Menzies becomes Mrs. Bradley's secretary after The Worsted Viper (1943) and before My Father Sleeps (1944) (possibly in Sunset Over Soho , which comes between these two), and she plays some part in most of her employer's subsequent investigations. As Watsons go, she is notably flamboyant and positive, handsome, confident and clever, full of energy and ideas, of "Amazonian" physique and extrovert disposition. Rather reluctantly, she marries a policeman, the "handsome young Highlander" Robert Gavin (but "David" in Tom Brown's Body); and ther son, Ian Alastair Hamish, known by the last of his baptismal names, creates something of a precedent by maturing from infancy (in The Twenty-Third Man ) through boyhood (in The Croaking Raven ), to young manhood (in A Javelin for Jonah ). [Hamish's younger sister, Eiladh, is also found in Miss Mitchell's books, including her baptism in the opening chapter of Dance to Your Daddy (1969) and taking center stage at a ghost-hunt in Wraiths and Changelings (1978).]
Two fellow-students of Laura's at Cartaret also recur: Kitty Trevelyan, later a celebrated hair-stylist and contributor to Vogue; and Alice Boorman, who is married to a farmer called Cartwright in Watson's Choice (1655), but six years later, in The Nodding Canaries (1961), is "Miss Boorman" again when, a P.E. mistress at Nodding, she sends an S.O.S. to Dame Beatrice. Wild attempts to rationalize Alice's situation through the death of her husband, the adoption of her children, and a simultaneous return to teaching and single blessedness are totally confounded by the flat, unequivocal statement that Alice is "a spinster" and, by implication, a virgin. (Miss Mitchell comments: "This was a dreadful mistake of mine. I am quite sure that Alice never would have married, in spite of something she says, I believe, in Laurels Are Poison.")
Kitty is the glamorous one of the three, the one who transforms Mrs. Bradley's appearance at the dance, who is bored by the Broads, and who is clearly not destined to become a teacher. She marries Rafe Vinnicombe, by whom she has three children; but at the time of the Brayne historical pageant, of which she becomes the organizer (in Pageant of Murder ), she is known as Kitty Trevelyan-Twigg, either because she has remarried, or because she has adopted this as her professional name, "Kitty Vinnicombe" having rather less chic. Alice is sensitive, serious, and law-abiding, but by no means lacking in spirit. A fine gymnast, "all india-rubber and muscle," she makes a good job of both her manifestations, a capable farmer's wife in one, and a dedicated teacher in the other.
As a detective, Dame Beatrice is a striking exemplar of the omniscient school. Messrs. Barzun & Taylor refer, in Catalogue of Crime, to a story, "Daisy Bell," in which Mrs. Bradley is "cut down to size;" but this is probably the unique instance of that process, since it is rare to find her even disconcerted, and the usual turn of events is quite the reverse. It is a safe prediction that she will "lay down her cards and scoop the pool...She always does. She weaves her web and, in the end, the flies walk into it." Her overall mental ascendancy is quite remarkable. Deep-dyed villains blush and fumble and fail to meet her gaze, and Alastair Bing and Mrs. Bryce Harringay are only the first and second in a long line of people who are "afraid of her." Her habit of addressing most of the males she encounters, from schoolboys to Chief Constables, as "child" is further indicative of her benign Olympian supremacy.
In addition, she leads a charmed life. Other detectives get cracked over the head, or have boulders hurled down upon them, or bullets avoiding brain or heart by a hairs-breadth. But however many dark passages, or dank caves, or sinister, twilit gardens she may investigate, Dame Beatrice escapes all hurt, often turning the tables on those who foolishly imagine they can better her, protected at such times by "a curious sixth sense which she trusted" (as well she might, since it informs her when "all was not as it should be"). "She was not unaccustomed to homicidal maniacs," and predictably knows just what to do when one such threatens her with her own revolver: "Mrs. Bradley suddenly moved faster than could possibly have been expected of an elderly lady. She seized, not her notebook, but a beautiful little bronze which she used as a paperweight. It represented the shepherd boy David.
'Down with Goliath,' she said with an unearthly cackle, as the heavy missle found its mark and she, like a tigress, leapt after it towards the bulge. The bulge fell forward with a crash which shook the room."
On an earlier occasion, during her visit to Saxon Wall, her reactions are equally quick, her behavior just as picturesque: "Something sang through the air. Mrs. Bradley jerked her body to the left. A large hammer swung past her, and cut a chunk of turf out of the lawn when it fell. Mrs. Bradley retrieved it, swung it thrice round her head as the arm clothed in white samite once had waved the sword Excalibur, and then darted in among the rhododendron bushes." It is good to know that in Miss Mitchell's most recently completed novel, Noonday and Night, she is still evading ill-wishers by the time-honored device of retreating to the powdering-closet while a deceptive dummy awaits the murderous attack.
Physically, she is very much stronger than she looks, her arm "deceptively stick-like" and capable of exerting and sustaining considerable pressure, and even the "yellow forefinger" with which she habitually prods people in the ribs, "like an iron bolt." When Laura is downed in a fight, Mrs. Bradley performs "a feat...to make strong men quail," picking up "the hefty Laura in her arms" and carrying her off "to put her to bed as though she had been a small child" (Laura returns the compliment in My Father Sleeps, bearing Mrs. Bradley in her "powerful grasp...on to Scottish soil, much...in the manner of the Roman eagles being carried on to disputed territory"). Elsewhere, she proves herself "no mean performer at a game in which muscle and temper, skill, boldness and patience all played a considerable part."
Dame Beatrice has nerves of steel, and "alone among those present seemed entirely unimpressed by the manifestations" of the Athelstan ghost. No one as adept at avoiding injury from the forces of evil in this world could possibly fear harm from the agents of any other. At times, even, she seems herself in tune with other worlds, with her "eldritch" cries and oracular pronouncements, and it is notable that even before we first meet her Bertie Philipson expresses the view that she "would have been smelt out as a witch in a less tolerant age." To Nao, the Japanese servant at Saxon Wall, she is "the small wise woman," and in Tom Brown's Body, Mrs. Bradley herself acknowledges her curious kinship with the witch Lecky Harries, from whom she obtains "the magic book of her ancestress, Mary Toadflax:" "We be of one blood, thou and I." As if that were not sufficiently explicit, a chapter is entitled "Hecate at School House;" and, at the end, as Mrs. Bradley departs with her treasure, "a small hedgehog remained motionless. Then it lifted its tiny snout and whined three times." She shares with the Ancient Mariner not only a "skinny hand" but the capacity to hold a man "grounded as though by some magic spell."
Once involved in a case, Dame Beatrice spares no effort or expense, conducting innumerable interviews regardless of the sometimes considerable distances separating those whom she wishes to consult, and instructing George to drive her the length and breadth of England and Scotland (Wales, too, in her fifty-first book, Noonday and Night). Nor does she jib at jaunts overseas: if the caves at Lascaux seem germane to an inquiry, to Lascaux they go: and no sooner has she decided that "the visit to Naples was necessary" than she is organizing the airplane tickets. She also takes physical discomfort in her vigorous stride, scrambling over mountainsides in streaming rain; sinking on her stomach in "the harsh and saturated heather;" or crawling her way painfully but with infinite patience through a narrow, cramping tunnel. Far from dying of pneumonia, or even aching all over, after these and comparable experiences, she emerges serenely unaffected, immune to the ills of lesser mortals.
Dame Beatrice has three or four principal props: "the small notebook which was her invariable companion," in which she records her perceptions and suspicions in "her neat, illegible script," usually in a shorthand of her own devising; "the small magnifying-glass which she invariably carried;" and the "small electric torch" that also accompanies her everywhere. All three are accomodated in her "capacious skirt pocket," at moments of crisis together with a revolver; at other times, with a small tin of biscuits or a flask of brandy.
There is no predicting what she will do next, or what other accomplishments she will manifest. Aubrey Halliday praises her as a "hot" billiards player, and she delights the boy Richard at Saxon Wall by "teaching him how to throw a knife," scoring a spectacular bulls-eye herself "with what looked like a negligent flick of the wrist." Also at Saxon Wall, she practices a 'thirties form of karate on the vicar. She startles a nun by lip-reading, and frequently exercises her power to induce hypnosis. Not the least of her many remarkable achievements are the one and a half murders she commits, for the first of which she composedly stands trial (on the second occasion, to be scrupulously accurate, she knowingly causes a death rather than commits a murder).
Two final instances must suffice to indicate the range of her capacity to take us by surprise. When the ballcocks at Athelstan Hall give trouble, there is no need to send for a plumber: "'Student,' said Mrs. Bradley...'do you understand the nature and function of the ballcock?'
'N-no, Warden,' replied the girl, looking thoroughly alarmed.
'Good,' said Mrs. Bradley, thoughtfully taking her arm in a firm grip. 'Roll up your sleeves as we go. I will teach you all about them.'"
On the other occasion, an indisposed lady cellist is unable to continue with her concert, and Mrs. Bradley deputizes for her, stilling a restive audience with her renderings of "Ave Maria" and a Spanish dance, and "smirking" the while "like a satisfied boa-constrictor."
Beyond all question, she scoops the pool. There is no one quite like her: nor, of course, could there be.