Some of the more colourful members of the Bright Young set in the 1920s consented (in time-honoured fashion) to enter into arranged marriages. The best, in terms of the glorious comedy it offered up, was that of Gavin Henderson to Honor Phillips. Henderson, who later in life became the second Baron Faringdon (rather improbably allying himself to the Labour Party in the House of Lords), was described by one of his contemporaries as a “roaring pansy” and is perhaps best known for beginning one speech to the House with “my dears” rather than “my Lords.”
Here’s how DJ Taylor describes his wedding in Bright Young People.
The engagement was announced in November 1926. On the following day, Henderson left for Australia where he remained for four months. On his return, the atmosphere of premarital tension dominated his relationships with his friends. Robert Byron was present on an evening at the Night Light [a notoriously decadent London nightclub] when Henderson went on the rampage with the young conservative MP Bob Boothby and smashed up the club. Meanwhile, serial misfortune attended the wedding preparations. Forged invitations were discovered to have been sent out to well-known people. The stag night, convened at a hotel in Henley, ended in disaster when the guests, having ordered up twenty gallons of petrol in advance from a local garage, marched down to the river after dinner and literally set the Thames on fire, scorching the establishment’s lawn and burning down an adjoining row of chestnut trees. At the wedding itself, held at St Margaret’s, Westminster, Society notables were put out to find themselves mingling with a group of young black women, the groom having invited Florence Mills and her troupe as a way of annoying his mother. The marriage lasted only a few weeks. Henderson was rumoured to have spent his wedding night with a sailor picked up earlier in the evening.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was one of ten titles in the 1935 launch catalogue for Allen Lane’s new paperback imprint, Phoenix Books.* Phoenix was a proverbial no-brainer of a name for a paperback imprint that aimed to breathe new life into once popular hardback titles – especially in light of the fact that the world’s first paperback imprint, Albatross Books, had just failed in the UK. Hitting on Phoenix as a name was a stroke of genius – a signal that this bird was going to fly.
And The Mysterious Affair at Styles was a perfect catch for Lane. Populist yet stylish, it was written by one of a handful of authors acquiring celebrity status in the new media age.
And it was a time of unprecedented development. Talking pictures had just arrived: and they offered not just song and dance but reels of news too. The BBC’s wireless service celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1932 and the medium was now developing sophisticated ideas about target audiences and programming strands. The first regular television service was gearing up to begin broadcasting from Alexandra Palace; while the Daily Express was pioneering a radical new approach to newspaper design, with big, bold multi-deck headlines, lavish use of photographs and stories laid out in patchwork field patterns.
Faster, cleaner, sharper printing presses were creating a revolution in other quarters of the print market too. There was the emergence of glossy colour magazines, for instance; and (in theory at least) a new hybrid form of publishing, midway between the hardback book and the magazine – the paperback.
The economic model was by no means settled, however: as indeed the demise of Albatross proved. The breakthrough came when Lane persuaded publishers and agents to persuade their authors to expect next-to-nothing when it came to payment. In fact, so Allen’s argument ran, authors should be grateful that he was helping them to prolong the life of worn-out assets.
For instance, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Poirot’s debut as it happens), was originally published in 1920 in a hardback edition priced at 7/6; and though it was reprinted in several additional editions, its hardback shelf-life was relatively limited.
Paperbacks, the trade now believed, could not only offer a way for authors to earn a little extra pin money from railway station bookstalls, but would also ensure that their names were kept before the general public. Paperbacks, in other words, could help sales of an author’s next hardback. During this era, authors would typically expect royalties of 1/6 (one shilling and sixpence) on each hardback copy sold at 7/6; now Lane was offering a 2 per cent royalty on every sixpenny paperback. Crudely put, you’d have to sell 2,000 copies to earn £1.
And of course Lane had another ace up his sleeve. In 1935, he stunned the business world by signing a deal with Woolworth – and by the outbreak of the Second World War, he had shifted 17 million units, becoming, in the process, one of the richest men in British publishing.
* Just prior to launch, Lane decided he didn’t like the Phoenix name after all. Too dry and dusty. He plumped instead for a dolphin, equally ancient as a beastly symbol, but somehow more mystical. Thus was born the legendary Dolphin Books brand. Except… Except for the fact that, when it came to branding, birds seemed somehow better. More appropriate. So he then began to consider the penguin. Penguin Books. It might work. Penguins, stated Lane, were “dignified but flippant.”
Few (literary) critics of any real ability have chosen to engage wholeheartedly with the Agatha Christie phenomenon, even at a superficial or “post modern” level. (Perhaps, indeed, she needs someone to do for her what Borges did for Conan Doyle.) The conventional literary take on Christie is that she inhabits a fawning world of drab conservatism; and that, while her plots may be really rather diverting, her writing style is tiresomely (perhaps even comically) dull.
This, we would argue, is to miss the point by a country mile.
That’s not to suggest that she is a neglected master of narrative prose. She isn’t. But it’s also true to say, for instance, that it’s terribly hard to mimic her style. And that’s because there’s a lot more going on there than first meets the eye.
There’s pastiche, sly digs at Edwardian literary conventions; and what can only be described as an archness. “It is an archness one hears again and again in the period – in Wooster, in Wimsey, but also in Waugh and Huxley, and in the essays of Virginia Woolf – a refusal of seiousness, of the cumbrous and weighty, as well as of the moral sententiousness of the older generation,” says Alison Light. “Christie’s dialogue is mimimalist; the conversation between her young people aims, like Coward’s, at a ‘delightful silliness’; like his, her conversation pieces perfect the art of the throwaway remark, the topical and perishable.”
Alison Light’s 1991 study, published in a collection called Forever England, is fascinating in its attempt to restore Christie to a more meaningful context. What we fail to see now, she argues, was that Christie was at the leading edge of something really rather interesting. She was, in point of fact, a “conservative modernist.”
What’s more, she continues, Christie was more sophisticated and forward-looking than the likes of Raymond Chandler, whose “tough guy” protagonists were a throwback to an earlier Bulldog Drummond era.
But of course that’s all rather academic now. Though Christie’s stock (thanks to ITV’s long-running commitment to both Poirot and Marple) has never been higher, no-one actually reads her any more.
And TV’s Christie is in some respects the Christie that the laziest critics of an earlier generation offered us. A nostalgic, High Tory, snobbish Christie.
The thing is, that’s not Christie at all.
If country houses evoke ancestry, settled traditions and kinship, Christie’s, when they do feature, fail on all counts, seeming mainly to interest the writer at the point at which they are no longer inhabited by aristocrats but are modernised by the middle classes… [she] has no Brideshead and there is more flirtation with the idea of the landed gentry as the civilised class in Virginia Woolf or DH Lawrence than in her work. The whodunits are not excuses for bemoaning the decline and fall of the big house, and the death-throes of liberal culture. Where she does use big houses, they are seldom described as repositories of national character or a lost civility; it is their character as private homes which appeals to her. Hers is not a romantic conservatism, cleaving to the aristocratic as a mark of a better past or a model for the good life. Rather she speaks to a readership reconciled to the present, unfrightened by change and confidently domestic. In fact Christie is as likely to be [as] fascinated by “new money” as she is by new homes: both offer different possibilities for economies of desire, for exploring the tensions which lie within any domestic life.
From Forever England by Alison Light, 1991
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, ITV, 8pm, 13 November 2013
In the 1930s, leftist intellectuals in England affected to be rather sniffy about the writing style and subject matter of tyro novelist Graham Greene, whose debut, The Man Within, was published in 1929.
In particular, they reckoned that Greene was pulling a fast one – taking some of the themes and narrative posturings of hard-boiled American detective fiction (Hammett, principally: Chandler had yet to make his mark) and repurposing them for an English market.
This, the critics reckoned, was just plain wrong on so many levels.
Things came to a head in Arthur Calder-Marshall’s review of Journey Without Maps when he seized on a word Greene had used (“seedy”) in an impressionistic survey of life in London, from the perspective of one but recently returned from more innocent shores.
Thus was “Greeneland” born.
The seedy level! That is the location of Greeneland. The sadist and the masochist, the impotent athlete, the incestuous brother and sister, the coward, the braggart, the man with the tie, the hare-lip, the spy maniac, the torturer of spiders and the collector of small foreign coins, the diseased dentist in a foreign port, the one-legged military man managing a road-house, the rich Jew despised by aristocrats, the bullied chambermaid in an all-night hotel, the Major ordering whores by telephone (“a pig in a poke”), the lawyer who married beneath him lusting after typists who pass his window, the adulterous butcher; they are all different… but all seedy, the ingloriously vicious.
In The Dyer’s Hand, WH Auden’s 1948 collection of critical essays, he admitted he had a confession to make. He prefaced this confession, produced under no obvious manifestation of duress, with a quotation from Romans, VII, 7: “I had not known sin, but by the law.”
For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: firstly, the intensity of the craving – if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity – the story must conform to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to read one that is not set in rural England). And, thirdly, its immediacy. I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.
Such reactions convince me that, in my case at least, detective stories have nothing to do with works of art. It is possible, however, that an analysis of the detective story, i.e., of the kind of detective story I enjoy, may throw light, not only on its magical function, but also, by contrast, on the function of art.
Whether they know it or not (or, indeed, whether they like it or not), those toiling at the “serious” end of the book trade inhabit an intellectual universe heavily indebted to Raymond Williams. A prominent Cambridge academic from a humble background in the Welsh marches, Williams was not just England’s foremost literary critic in the Swinging Sixties, he was an energetic Marxist who had a dominant influence on the ideological shaping of the New Left’s cultural studies agenda.
And of course this agenda, in dilute form, now dominates our liberal-left consensus as to the roles and responsibilities of literature in a progressivist society.
Williams was particularly adept at tracing the evolution of the English pastoral tradition – and, sadly perhaps, few of England’s most-loved 20th Century authors survive his scrutiny. In what was possibly his most important book, The Country and the City, he argued that, by the Edwardian era, the pastoral game was all but up. Here he is formulating his case that, in the late novels of Henry James, something really rather revealing was happening to the country house, as portrayed in literary fiction.
It has been said that James did not know or understand the best country-house in England, but it seems to me that he knew it all too well. For the shell, the façade, of a quite different way of living, was now the reality. It was possible, of course, to seal off the shell, to concentrate, meticulously, on its internal involutions, as in Ivy Compton-Burnett and some other successors. But more commonly the façade has been presented with an increasing grossness, and James’s moral anxieties have been reduced to a mechanical transience and intricacy. Anyone who wanted to isolate human relationships now had this conventionally isolating and theatrical scene in which to perform. There have been some ludicrous examples, in novels offering themselves as serious, into our own generation. There have also been a few consciously reactionary idealisations of this supposed class and its way of life, as in Evelyn Waugh.
But the true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story. It was in its very quality of abstraction, and yet of superficially impressive survival, that the country-house could be made the place of isolated assembly of a group of people whose immediate and transient relations were decipherable by a mode of detection rather than by the full and connected analysis of any more general understanding. Sometimes the formula is merely instrumental, as in Agatha Christie and others. Sometimes, as in Dorothy Sayers, it is combined with middle-class fantasies about the human nature of the traditional inhabitants. But tradition, elsewhere, is reduced to old architecture, old trees and the occasional ghost. It seems to me very fitting that a mode of analysis of human relationships which came out of Baker Street, out of the fogs of the transient city, should find a temporary resting-place in this façade way of life, before it returned eventually to its true place in the streets. For the country-house, while it retained its emotional hold, was indeed a proper setting for an opaqueness that can be penetrated in only a single dimension: all real questions of social and personal relationship left aside except in their capacity to instigate an instrumental deciphering. In very recent times it had been leased again as a centre for criminal planning or espionage or the secret police. But the point is that the country-house, in the twentieth century, has just this quality of abstract disposability and indifference of function. The real houses can be anything from schools and colleges and hospitals to business retreats, estate offices and subsidised museums. In the same way, emotionally, they can be the centres of isolated power, graft or intrigue, or what are called the “status symbols” – meaning the abstractions – of success, power and money which are founded elsewhere but left conveniently out of sight. It is not a sad end; it is a fitting end. The essential features were always there, and much of the history that changed them came out of them, in their original and continuing domination and alienation.
Postscript: the country manor house actually survived in the pages of literary fiction (which is to say, Bookerish books) right up until Valentine’s Day 2013, when it was burned down by Jim Crace.