…and onto the second part of my “books I read this year which I am still thinking about” round-up. No rankings, no ratings, just books which I first read over this year, which stuck with me. The first part is here, and – as I mention below – something of pattern is appearing.
3 The detective novels of Margaret Mayhew, including Old Soldiers Never Die, Three Silent Things, Dry Bones, and several others
Like Susan Scarlett, Margaret Mayhew was another alliterating author whom I discovered this last year, via a publisher specialising in reissues, and about whom I was interestingly wrong. When I began her series of detective novels about a retired Colonel in a small village in the 1990s, that I had stumbled across a sort of crime fiction outlier. She had the same kind of attention to social detail and setting which I associate with the midcentury novelists; the same interest in the craft of gardening or woodworking or military history, coupled with the same feeling for an English rural setting which was experiencing social change. Seeing that these novels were all published in the 90s I thought that Mayhew must be a remarkable rarity: a detective novelist of the second or third generation after the Golden Age. She had managed a feat no other novelist of the “cozy” school had managed (and to be fair, I don’t think they were trying to): writing about crimes in the late twentieth century whilst maintaining the style and feel of the end of the Golden Age.
Of course, this was not the case. In fact, Mayhew was someone even more interesting. She was born in the 1940s, started writing romantic novels about the midcentury in the 1970s, and then turned her hand to detective fiction as the turn of the century approached. She was, in a sense, a late midcentury detective novelist, she just didn’t happen to be writing detective novels during that period. She was also a novelist who had spent a significant part of the postwar years writing romance novels focussed on the 1940s, so her novels are even more consciously “postwar” than the work of many other writers of the era.
The result is a series of splendid classic whodunnits. It may have been sheer chance (or an unusual set of circumstances) that meant Mayhew started writing detective fiction in the 1990s, but for an afficionado of the genre it is a very lucky chance. The main character, a retired serviceman known almost always as “the Colonel”, moves into a small West Country village at the beginning of the series. He has been widowed for a decade, and he and his wife always meant to settle down in the country when he retired. They once passed through this village, and he mentally noted it was exactly the sort of place they might want to come back to. This is one of the keynotes which the early novel sets up: a sense of belatedness, of the presence of the past. The Colonel can never have the life he and his wife intended to lead in the country and the village has itself changed in the meantime. He buys a rather rundown cottage and begins the process of getting to know the locals.
They are a deftly-sketched bunch. His next-door neighbour, a widow with a taste for bright tracksuits and an obsession with gardening. Well, technically only sort of a widow. He actually left her for his secretary, but the bastard is now dead, so in a sense she’s widowed, and anyway it has a bit more social heft to be one. There’s a boozing retired Major with his discontented wife, who embodies the cliches of the ex-military bore in a way which makes the Colonel seem rather more enigmatic and emotionally complex. suspect there’s a touch of delicate midcentury status distinction at play here: as a Major, he holds the lowest rank which it is reasonable to retain in civilian life. (I’m sure I read somewhere that infantry Captains who insist on being addressed as such after leaving the army are a bit suspect, whereas naval Captains, for obvious reasons, are not.) And there may be significance in the fact that the Major is a field rank, whereas Colonel is (I believe) a staff rank. You find yourself pondering these things in Mayhew’s novels, which I think is a mark of the fictional world they draw you into.
The plots are undramatic, and often end in rather inconclusive ways. It is more or less clear who is the culprit, but there is little calling of the police in to see justice carried out, and the denouements are often more distanced and les cathartic than hosting everyone in a panelled library. Which the Colonel doesn’t have, anyway. Most of the narrative is taken up with wandering round an unglamorous English village filled with somewhat odd characters, in an atmosphere of making the best of a slightly melancholy world.
4 Francis Young’s Magic in Merlin’s Realm
This was a book I had been awaiting eagerly. (I am now in a similar state of expectation for the author’s next work, Twilight of the Godlings). Young’s book argues that magic and politics have been closely and significantly connected in Britain since Classical times. Thus it is an area which has been under-investigated for a long time, especially when one considers the attention focussed on religion and witchcraft in historical study. The book begins by exploring definitions and models of magic, its relation to politics, and then provides a set of chronological chapters, covering topics such as “Arthurian Dynasty: The Tudors and Occult Power”, “Politics and the Decline of Magic, 1649-1714” and “Emanations of Albion: Politics and the Occult in Modern Britain”. I found some of these chapters more engrossing than others, but I suspect that is evidence for it being well-written history, since those chapters tended to be about periods in which I have greater interest.
Young makes a tremendous case for bringing magic in from the historiographical fringe, and recognising its ongoing presence in British history. I suspect he is right that most other phenomena, if they had occupied an equivalent amount of energy, money and mental space in the lives of literate people across the centuries, would not have been brushed aside as weird, comic or inexplicable/ unworthy of consideration. He is particularly interesting, in the early pages, on the way some historians have treated magic as either a cover for another agenda or activity (such as political power or economic interests), or framed it as a human universal, one of the instincts which makes us who we are. Though apparently opposite, these two treatments both have the effect of moving magic out of the realm of historical enquiry and argument, either by explaining it away, or expanding it so widely and deeply that it ceases to be a meaningful phenomenon in itself.
I was very struck by his discussion of the ways in which medieval and early modern kingship has affinities with magical thinking, even without the existence of would-be court magicians such as John Dee, or the supposed royal ability to cure scrofula with a touch. The notion that the person of the legitimate monarch was somehow connected with the nation’s welfare and destiny can itself be seen as quasi-magical, when phrased in that way. This might lead magical practices or beliefs around kingship to seem less like a “superstition” or a political theory gone rancid, and more like an extension of monarchical ideas into other spheres (from which those ideas had already borrowed.) At the same time, Young points out repeatedly the ways in which magic could offer dreams of power to those sidelined by dynastic politics, or the way it could act as a lightning-rod for other anxieties.
That may sound like a contradiction – that magic was both coherent as part of the political system, and parasitic on that system’s failures – but only if one falls into the assumption that magic is “really” something else in disguise. Encouraging his readers to reject that framing, Young elaborates in delightful detail on the ways magic was intertwined with the big political movements which are already part of our mental historiography. Why it was politically necessary for either side of the Civil War to stress or downplay magical beliefs, which generals were called wizards, how the Biblical king Solomon and legendary wizard Merlin provided models for magical self-images, what exactly the historical records can tell us about that alleged attempt by British witches and wizards to combat the Nazis by a ritual in the depths of the New Forest… He provides an enjoyable and informative blend of telling anecdotes or examples whilst explaining how they fit into the overall argument of the book, and the theoretical ideas it takes on.
This is an absolute tour de force of a book, and I look forward to rereading it, and appreciating its ideas at more depth.
4 Paul Robichaud’s Pan: The Great God’s Modern Return
This year’s reading seems to be falling into something of a pattern, when I look back at it. Midcentury novels and works on paganism and magic seem uppermost, which is probably not unrelated to the fact that I published a minigraph entitled Witchcraft and Paganism in Midcentury Women’s Detective Fiction in the summer. Paul Robichaud’s book had been on my shelves since late the previous year, and I managed to read it in the early months. It actually goes further than the title: it covers Pan’s “modern return”, but also Pan in Classical, Medieval, Early Modern, Romantic and Modern eras. Robichaud writes with a brilliant combination of scholarly precision and welcoming style. He is never off-puttingly dense or theoretical, and the book would be valuable to general readers and scholars alike. (I wouldn’t have minded a bit more gnarled theoretical discussion at times, I must admit: sometimes I was left wondering why or how a particular aspect of Pan was separable from another, or on what basis historical judgements were made. But those weren’t essential to the book being written.)
The real strengths of Pan: The Great God’s Modern Return, it seems to me, are its wide coverage and its ability to reveal how images and ideas about Pan appear in odd places. Taking a long view allows Robichaud (and I say ‘allows’, but it must have taken an awful lot of hard work) to trace the stages through which the image of Pan has passed, and how small details become more or less significant at different periods. Most obviously, the fact that Pan was a pastoral god, who was rumoured to have died, became more important much later for Christian poets and thinkers. The pun on his name, “Pan” as “all”, took on great significance for philosophers and occultists, when Pan became a focus of religious devotion in a culture which was used to the idea of monotheism, and when Pan became a symbol of ecological and environmental concerns.
I learned a lot from the book. I had not, for example, seen the way in which Milton’s mention of Pan in his Nativity poem goes further even than Spenser’s use of him in his pastoral songs, in associating Pan with Christ. I was also not aware of the precise historical point at which goat-like elements became associated with the Devil, and then projected backwards to suggest that the Devil was in fact an image of the goat-footed Pan. I was also delighted at points where Robichaud pointed out Pan hiding in modern culture which I had overlooked. I was, in fact, reasonably well acquainted with the witch-rock of the band Blood Ceremony, and their fondness for Pan imagery, but it has never occurred to me that the dance troupe “Pan’s People” were, well, named after Pan.
It even made me see another passage of Dorothy Sayers in a new light. I had remembered that Peter Wimsey, disguised as Harlequin, gives Dian de Montmerie a lecture on the fact that she is feeling “panic” fear as she stumbles around the wood at night, and the Classical etymology of that term. But I had not considered the fact that Wimsey does so whilst sitting in a tree, and playing a tin whistle which might stand for the pan pipes – and is doing so in the midst of a drunken revel which has turned suddenly sylvan. His disdainful rejection of her, and his insistence that he must stay high up in order to avoid being corrupted by her, might even be read through the cosmic or vaguely neoplatonic notions of Pan. Sayers certainly read enough medieval literature to have imbibed some Pan lore, and it might well have come out in the fever-dream of a novel which she wrote whilst herself living a double life.
Robichaud helpfully distinguishes images of Pan as divinity, as pastoral, as occult, as gay or queer icon, as cosmic and ecological, and shows how these ideas were woven in and through each other over the centuries. It is a cracking read, and deeply learned. I believe one of my students has already acquired their own copy of the book, after I mentioned it.
Emily Payne said:
Thanks for a fascinating round up!
I believe the observation about army captains in civilian life may have been made by Roald Dahl in “Boy.”