GLADYS MITCHELL: The Last of the Golden Age Writers
by William A.S. Sarjeant
The following article, "Gladys Mitchell: The Last of the 'Golden Age' Writers" was written by William A. S. Sarjeant and published in The Armchair Detective, Fall 1985, Vol. 18 No. 4.
Gladys Mitchell published her first book in 1929, at the very apogee of the "Golden Age" of detective fiction writing, and her last posthumously in 1984, long after that age had ended. She was a prominent member of the Detection Club, contributing to one of its early collaborative entertainments, Ask a Policeman (1933), and also to a short, jointly authored book that was published after her death, Crime on the Coast (1984). In all, she was the authoress--she would not have resented that feminine form--of some 88 books, more than one for each year of her long life, and almost all of them mysteries.
Nor did the style of her writing stand still in the stuffy atmosphere of the country house, so beloved of the "Golden Age" writers and their readers. Indeed, scarcely did she enter, in her stories, that cushioned and curtained environment. As Jessica Mann has noted:
"Her England is not class-ridden and changeless. She has always set her books in places of contemporary interest, like a progressive school at the time when A. S. Neill was scandalizing public opinion at Summerhill, and her environments have changed with the times."
Moreover, the titles of her books are often arresting--The Devil at Saxon Wall, Dead Men's Morris, A Hearse on May-Day, Uncoffin'd Clay--and sometimes positively surreal--Groaning Spinney, Twelve Horses and the Hangman's Noose, The Mudflats of the Dead, Death of a Burrowing Mole. They are the sort that catch the eye of a casual browser in bookshops and libraries, the sort to attract the exploratory reading so vital if an author is to become known. Yet Gladys Mitchell's books remain little known in North America. Of Mitchell's 88 books, only sixteen have yet found North American publishers. Moreover, one of those, Watson's Choice, was published here, I suspect, only because its plot--a murder at a gathering of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts--practically guaranteed a sale to the numerous collectors of Sherlockiana. Her death, though it signified the ending of an era, occasioned singularly little remark over here.
While this neglect is unusual, it is by no means unprecedented. Such excellent British writers as George Bellairs and Glyn Carr remain equally little known here. (Bellairs, like Gladys Mitchell, did gain mention in Steinbrunner and Penzler's Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection; Carr is not even accorded that honor, richly though he merited it.) In the cases of those other two authors, the reasons for the neglect are hard to understand, but in the case of Gladys Mitchell one can comprehend why many American readers have found her writings too disconcerting, even stupefying, to return for more.
Why is this? Well, there are a variety of reasons. Most North Americans, unfortunately it seems to me, prefer to travel along well-trodden grooves. They like cheese processed to flavorlessness, books predigested to eliminate anything troublesome in verbal or conceptual terms, hotels all built to the same model, beer tasting more like fresh spring water than anything alcoholic. In their television viewing, they prefer soap operas with familiar characters facing familiar problems or thrillers written to a safely predictable formula. Even in their human contacts, a recognizable product is preferred to one that is unfamiliar. Eccentricity is frowned upon and novelty avoided, in reading as in life.
As Michelle Slung has commented: "To put it mildly, eccentric goings-on are Mitchell's hallmark." Not for her the coziness of an Agatha Christie or the essential predictability of John Creasey's writing (in most, not quite all of his multifarious manifestations). Nothing can be taken for granted. The plots may be deceptively simple when one comes to perceive them properly, or so convoluted as to verge upon incomprehensibility. (Even after two careful readings, I am not sure I have correctly followed that of Lament for Leto!) The sweet young couples are quite as likely to be guilty as innocent; the most obvious suspect may have done the murder, after all. An unexpected or bizarre element in the story may be crucial to the unraveling of the plot, or entirely extraneous to it. Conventional values are never to be taken for granted; nor are they necessarily to be disregarded. When the central woman character goes to bed with a young man, they are quite as likely to sleep the night through in childlike innocence as to make love.
Yet the novels remain discernably English in style--and this also can be a problem for the American reader. To quote Michelle Slung again, Gladys Mitchell had a
"special feeling for the mystical nature of things British. Barrows and earthworks and Arthurian relics, morris dancing and May-day rituals: all of these are carefully and intricately dealt into the stories, illustrating Mitchell's life-long fascination with the antiquities of the British Isles and their accompanying superstitions. The "green man" of legend figures in one book, and Mitchell being an unregenerate believer in the Loch Ness monster, a cousin of "Nessie" surfaces to wink a wet eye at Mrs. Bradley in another."
The murders and other crimes may be carried out discreetly off-stage or with clinical fastidiousness on-stage. Alternatively, they may be remarkably unpleasant, even grotesque--a wife boiling up her unfortunate husband in an old-fashioned copper boiler, a murderer carefully dismembering the victim into joints and hanging them up in a butcher's shop. Witchcraft and the supernatural may play a part; such elements are always handled knowledgeably and sometimes can be made quite disconcertingly believable (e.g., The Devil at Saxon Wall).
Then there are the characters. Gladys Mitchell drew them, on the whole, very well and sometimes quite memorably. Yes, they do include a few perfectly ordinary, credible people--the sort who live across the street, the sort whom one meets daily in the town or in the countryside--but such characters serve mostly as contrast or foil for the plethora of extraordinary people who predominate in her books. Some of these are merely unusual or mildly eccentric, whereas others are truly bizarre. Some of them are sane enough; others are (harmlessly or dangerously) deranged, covertly or overtly.
There is her principal central character, in particular. Mrs. (later Dame) Beatrice Adela Bradley, who has appeared in no fewer than 66 books and at least one short story, is not an ordinary or a comfortable person, on any definition. Though twice married and the mother of a successful son, Ferdinand Lestrange, in whom she is prepared to exhibit a degree of pride, she is a character to gratify the heart of any Women's Liberationist, entirely in command of herself and her environment, physically strong, and morally and intellectually formidable. In appearance, there is nothing of the paper doll about her. She dresses badly because she cares little about dress, though capable of following convention whenever necessary. She is quite old now and, even in youth, cannot have been physically attractive. Not only is she characterized as "witch-like" but also as "saurian," having been compared at different times to a pterodactyl, a lizard, a serpent or a crocodile. Indeed, she accepts the nickname "Mrs. Croc" with complete good humor.
Yet, having initially repelled adults whom she meets, she can charm them with her bewitching honey-sweet voice--one is reminded of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Moreover, she can succeed, whenever necessary, in persuading them into actions which they would not otherwise contemplate but which serve the interests of her investigations. The harried curate Noel Wells, though he has described her as "an old woman with the outward appearance of a macaw, the mind of a psychoanalyst and the morals...of a tiger shark," nevertheless risks his life in serving her. With children and animals, she has no problems; they like and respond to her from the very outset.
Intellectually, as I have noted, she is formidable. She is a psychoanalyst, the holder of a whole row of earned and honorary degrees, with many abstruse publications to her credit. She runs a psychiatric clinic, is the holder of a Home Office appointment, and serves as consultant to hospitals, other clinics, and medical and lay colleagues. (Her assistant ensures, by discreetly phrased letters, that she receives adequate financial recompense for such services.) She is entirely self-assured in her judgments, treating adulterous relationships with sympathy, liberal in her opinions of such thing as "filthy" postcards and erotic literature, and arguing for birth control--all these even in books published before 1935 (which was decidedly adventurous of her creator!). She is capable of over-riding conventional legalities when she considers them absurd, allowing murderers to go free if she feels the crimes to have been excusable, and even, in her first appearance, committing a morally justifiable murder herself. (She is found "not guilty" of the crime by a jury, but afterward admits to her son, who has served as her defense lawyer, that she is indeed culpable.)
In the solving of her crimes, not only are her skills, her judgment, and her persuasive gifts important but also her wide range of reading, her retentive memory and habit of making case notes, and her sense of humor. As Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan noted, Mrs. Bradley
"doesn't resort to feminine subterfuges, but keeps her wits about her...She is not accorded special narrative treatment on account of her sex; her qualities might be transferred to a male detective without loss of credibility. Allowing for the edge of fantasy, she exemplifies a type of professionalism which transcends sexual distinctions."
For the criminal, she is a formidable adversary indeed. For the reader, however, she may not be easy to accept as a central figure or to like.
Mrs. Bradley is old on her first appearance, with a grown-up and qualified son who is subsequently honored by a knighthood for his legal work. Witch-like in this particular as in many others, she shows no further signs of aging over the 54 years spanned by the chronicles. She needs a younger assistant, though. In earlier works, she is aided reluctantly by the harried, not-too-brainy curate Noel Wells, who is in some measure a parody of Christie's Captain Hastings and his unsubtle equivalents in the literature of that period. He is a likable enough character, but not at all memorable. Later, during a stay at a women's training college where the minor crimes that have caused Mrs. Bradley's services to be invoked are succeeded by more major ones, she acquires a more effective and original assistant.
At her first appearance, Laura Menzies is a student--an athletic, indeed Amazonian, young lady of considerable physical attractions and prowess. Later, she is employed by Mrs. Bradley as a general assistant, arranging her work schedule, checking references, typing letters and bills, writing up notes on Mrs. Bradley's medical and/or criminal cases, seeing that the household runs smoothly, driving the car when chauffeur George is not available, and in particular, doing the more energetic legwork during the criminal cases. In many ways, she is a female counterpart to Nero Wolfe's assistant Archie Goodwin, treated as a daughter by Mrs. Bradley as Archie is treated like a son and, like Archie, she does no cooking, since a professional cook of high calibre serves the household. Laura's doings, however, are less central to the cases than are Archie's, and, though her descriptions of her activities might occupy the odd chapter, in no instance does she recount a whole case. She differs sharply from the determinedly celibate Goodwin in that she marries a Scotland Yard policeman, Robert Gavin, and bears him two children, but these provide only trivial handicaps to her service to Mrs. Bradley. In all, Laura Gavin provides a recurrent and welcome counterpart of sanity and stability to the eccentric goings-on; but she does not serve, as does Goodwin, as a bridge between detective and reader.
What, then, is the attraction of Gladys Mitchell's writings to the considerable band of British, and the proportionately much smaller band of North American, readers whose purchases and library borrowings have allowed so steady a flow of her books to be published over so many years? Well, first of all, there is a richness of texture and variety of flavor calculated to appeal to the jaded reading palate. Secondly, there is the unexpectedness of the stories, the fascinating unpredictability of pace, plot, and solution. Thirdly, there is the great diversity of settings, from the solidity of English universities (Fault in the Structure) and colleges (Laurels Are Poison, Spotted Hemlock) to the windy wildness of stone rings on remote Hebridean islands (The Whispering Knights). Fourthly, there are the fascinations of a specialized knowledge, of folklore, witchcraft, classical literature, and British or Mediterranean landscapes. Fifthly, and perhaps most importantly of all, for me at least, there is the wit and sense of humor--a humor of comment and observation, sometimes "black" but only rarely slapstick--that pervades her writings.
All these features are equally evident in the six books written under the "Malcolm Torrie" pseudonym, the central character of which, Timothy Herring, runs a Society for the Preservation of Buildings of Historic Interest. (I have not found, and thus cannot comment on, those written as "Stephen Hockaby.") James Sandoe has observed:
"There is nobody writing detective stories who could possibly be confused with Gladys Mitchell. Her sardonic literacies and unkempt plots, bland indifference to consistency and vivid evocation of schoolboys, their masters and sharp old crones is unsurpassable."
This seems to me a very fair judgment.
All authors must inevitably reflect themselves, and their own particular concerns, in their books. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Gladys Mitchell's personality, preferences, and prejudices should be echoed in her writings; but it is interesting to note how neatly she has shared her own attributes and concerns between her two principal characters, Mrs. Bradley and Laura Gavin.
Gladys Maude Winifred Mitchell was born on April 19, 1901 at Cowley in Oxfordshire. (Cowley, destined soon to be engulfed by industry and incorporated into the spreading, increasingly industrial city of Oxford, was then a separate and still-tranquil village.) Her mother was English, born Annie Julia Maude Simmons. Her father, James Mitchell, was of Scottish descent, the sixth child of a family of eleven. He had been educated by the Cowley Fathers, a High Church Anglican community, but had been forced by family circumstances to go to work at the age of thirteen. (For a period he worked as a "scout" in Oriel College.) He was determined that his children, Gladys and her sisters, should have a better and more complete education than his own and sought, by changes of jobs, to attain the financial means which would make this possible.
The family moved first to London, then to Hordle in Hampshire, where Gladys attended the village school and decided immediately to become a teacher. Her education continued at the Green School, Isleworth, Middlesex, where she won, at the age of ten, a third prize in a short-story competition designed for girls of fifteen. After graduating from that school in 1918, she proceeded to Goldsmith's College, University of London, obtaining a Board of Education Teacher's Certificate in 1921. Thus equipped for the career she had always desired, she went to teach English and History at St. Paul's School, Brentford, Middlesex (1921-25), and then at St. Ann's Senior Girls' School, Ealing, London (1925-39).
During those years, she was pursuing her academic studies as an external student of University College, London, and in 1926 she was awarded a diploma in English and European History. This ended her formal education, but she continued to read widely, developing her interests in folklore, prehistoric and classical archaeology, and architecture. Favorite fictional authors were Louisa May Alcott, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and P. G. Wodehouse. She delighted in participating in or watching vigorous sports (athletics and swimming in particular), taught games when required, and even acted as a coach in hurdling to promising pupils.
Why, in this already vigorous life, she decided to begin writing mystery stories is not clear. Was it through a desire to earn extra funds, or was it a result simply of that urge to write so familiar, and yet so inexplicable, to persons who become authors? (I share it myself and cannot attempt to account for it.) Why did she decide to write in this particular genre? For someone with so wide a range of concerns, other options were open. Was it because she wished to give full rein to her enthusiasms and covert expression to her opinions--very advanced ones for those days--without becoming didactic or a center of public controversy? (One suspects, even so, that in writing even incidentally about such taboo subjects as birth control, adulterous love, and transvestism, she must have weathered some storms in school staffrooms and elsewhere!) Whatever the reasons, whatever the stimuli, Gladys MItchell published her first novel in 1929 and, with only one exception (1931), produced a steady output of at least one a year for the rest of her long life, at least three of her books being published posthumously.
In her listing in Contemporary Authors, she is quoted as saying:
"My vocational [writing] interests are governed by British Ordnance Survey maps, as a definite, real setting is usually necessary to the formation of my plots."
Indeed, though English cities feature rarely in her books, there are few parts of the English countryside that are not featured in one or other of her works. Settings include her native Oxfordshire (Late, Late in the Evening), inland and coastal Dorset (Adders on the Heath, Dance to Your Daddy, Lovers Make Moan), Cornwall (Mingled with Venom), and even such relatively little-known settings as the peninsular Island of Portland (Skeleton Island) and the island of Lundy in the British Channel, very thinly disguised as "Great Skua Island" (The Murder of Busy Lizzie). Several of the most bizarre stories take place in different parts of Scotland (Hangman's Curfew, My Bones Will Keep, Winking at the Brim, The Whispering Knights), and one, at least, takes the reader into Wales (Noonday and Night).
Moreover, Gladys Mitchell, like so many other maiden English schoolmistresses, was an indefatigable traveler during her vacations, but one who preferred benign climates. She visited all the Mediterranean countries except Egypt, traveled in most Western European countries, and voyaged to Madeira and the Canary Islands. These wanderings furnished further material for her books. Two mysteries (Come Away, Death, Lament for Leto) and one children's story were set in Greece and its islands, one mystery in the Italian island of Capri (The Twenty-Third Man), and another in The Netherlands (Death of a Delft Blue), while a death in Madeira is pivotal to a further plot (Nest of Vipers).
In 1939, she left St. Ann's School, for reasons unknown to me. Was she, perhaps, hoping to make a living wholly by her pen? If so, the outbreak of war ended that ambition. By 1941, she had taken up an appointment at The Senior Girls' School, Brentford, Middlesex, remaining there until 1950. At that point, she decided on an early retirement--but she became bored without the stimulus of teaching and so joined the staff of Matthew Arnold School, Staines, Middlesex in 1953, remaining there until her second retirement in 1961. [The essayist's attibution of Ms. Mitchell's motivation to resume teaching isn't exactly correct--for a more accurate explanation, please see the interview between B. A. Pike and Gladys Mitchell. J.H.] For many of her London years, she lived at Swyncombe Avenue, Ealing, a West London address from which she could travel conveniently to the Middlesex schools. On retirement, she left London without regret and moved to Dorset, a county particularly beloved for her, with its variety of scenery and richness of prehistoric monuments. Her new home at 1 Cecil Close, Corfe Mullen was almost in the shadow of Corfe Castle. There she continued to write at an undiminished rate until death claimed her in July 1983.
Over the years, the calibre of her books varied to some degree. Craig and Cadogan summarize this so accurately as to merit quotation:
"Many of Gladys Mitchell's early novels occupy a dangerous area between spoof and classic detective fiction; this makes for originality but requires a high degree of narrative assurance and control. Of course they are not uniformly successful. There was a period in the 1940s when contrivance, absurdity and carelessness supervened. Instead of the effective combination of precision and intricacy we find gratuitous convolution. Hangman's Curfew and Death and the Maiden are probably the most extreme examples of the author's tendency to resort too blatantly to the bizarre and inconsequential."
From this abyss of absurdity, she managed to recoil successfully enough, and the later books were managed better, though the improbable and the bizarre remained, to the end, spices in the literary mix. Furthermore, as Craig and Cadogan note:
"The presentation of Mrs. Bradley becomes less exuberant and quirky in the course of the series; the detective is toned down but not diminished, as she abandons that extravagant gesture for a smoother kind of omniscience. An increasing note of mellowness is sounded, but Dame Beatrice remains uninterested in the central concept of propriety and seemliness which activated other women investigators. The moral schema can still accommodate an act of murder which goes unpunished: this is due solely to the detective's heroic disregard for the conventional viewpoint. She has the courage not to insist on convictions."
What was Gladys Mitchell like personally? Earle Walbridge gives a good description:
"Readers who cherish the likeness of Miss Mitchell on Penguin covers (a bit startled, with slightly dishevelled hair) may care to know that she has blue eyes and fair hair, is 5' 6 1/2 " in height, and weighs 9 stone 4 lbs. (130 pounds)"
She was a member of the P. E. N. Club, the Society of Authors, and the Crime Writers Association, as well as of the Detection Club, but seems not to have joined any of London's women's clubs; although she was a Conservative in politics, it is likely that her views were too advanced to be acceptable in such establishments. In religion she was again unconventional, self-avowedly an agnostic, without church affiliation but "certainly not an atheist!" She was a fervent admirer of Sigmund Freud but admitted that her interest in witchcraft had also colored her outlook on life.
The critical attitude to her works has been sharply divergent and is likely to remain so. Positive reactions include those of detective-story writer E. R. Punshon, who wrote of one novel, When Last I Died, in the Manchester Guardian that "her narration is clear, motives are distinct, complications are both bewildering and reasonable, and the...pursuit ends in an exciting climax." Ralph Partridge wrote more restrainedly in the New Statesman of Spotted Hemlock that "the plot, as usual with Miss Mitchell, sizzles with absurdity, but admirers of her pungent style will not be disappointed." The anonymous writer of the obituary notice in The Times of London noted that:
"She frequently satirized or reversed traditional patterns of the genre, succumbing to black humor, creating tongue-in-cheek mysteries and treading with extreme narrative confidence the hazardous path between spoof and classic detective fiction."
The award of a Silver Dagger in 1976 by the Crime Writers Association was a tribute to over fifty years of original and stimulating creativity.
For my own part, I can enjoy her writings greatly, provided that I read them at intervals. I am never tempted to read two of three in succession--whether because their flavor is too strong or because the intellectual exercise they present is too demanding, I am not sure. I do believe, however, that her books will continue to be enjoyed by that minority of mystery story readers who revel in eccentric characters, unusual settings, and plots that are never predictable--and to irritate thoroughly the many others who wish all in a fictional work to be believable and tidy! As Michelle Slung summarized it in 1980:
"Miss Mitchell is significant, most of all, because she is sui generis."
Yes, indeed, Gladys Mitchell was the only one of her kind--and that, for those of us who do enjoy her works, is a matter for regret.