Make Me Respectable, Man*

RespectabilityAn interesting post on Patti Abbott’s terrific blog has got me thinking about respectability. Patti’s post focused on respectability in the lower-middle class, but really it’s an interesting question for just about any class. Patti’s blog is a treasure trove of interesting questions, great music and film clips, short stories and more, so please, do yourself a favour and follow it if you aren’t already. What counts as ‘respectable’ has changed a lot over the years, but the question I started thinking about was: Do people care about being respectable? Is the whole concept of respectability still relevant? Of course we can give a lot of examples of people who don’t care what others think of them. But honestly, I think the desire to be considered respectable still matters to some people. Certainly it’s a factor in a lot of crime fiction.

As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell deals with the theme of respectability in A Dark-Adapted Eye. The Longley family has always prided itself on its middle-class respectability, but what a lot of people don’t know is that the family has a dark secret in its past. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was arrested, tried and hanged for murder. Since then the Longley family has buried that fact as best they could, mostly because of this desire to be seen as respectable. Then journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the past for a story he’s doing on the Hilliard trial. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn and asks her to help him put together the family’s history. In doing so, she has to face her family’s past and pull away the veneer of respectability that the family valued so much.

Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour takes an interesting look at respectability. In that novel, Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, is preparing to retire.  He’s faced with the question of who will succeed him and narrows his choice down to two candidates: Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. Both men are equally qualified and have good reputations. Both also have the air of respectability that can make a big difference in a choice like this. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens begins to dig around a bit into the past and discovers that one of the characters in this novel is not quite as respectable as it seems. He decides to confront that character with what he knows and see if he can earn a profit for keeping quiet on the matter. When Owens is murdered, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate to find out whose desire to be thought of as respectable made it worth committing murder.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck returns from Stockholm to her family’s home in Fjällbacka to sort out her parents’ things after their deaths. She’s not been there long when a neighbour discovers the body of Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner, who appears to have committed suicide. Falck is especially shocked by this death because she and Alex were best friends as children. She and Alex hadn’t really been in touch for twenty-five years and it occurs to her that she didn’t really know her former friend. So she decides to try to get to know the woman Alex became and write a biography of her. As local police officer Patrik Hedström investigates officially, Falck begins to ask more informal questions about the death. Each in a different way, they learn that Alex’s death was murder not suicide. And behind it all is the strong desire for being considered ‘respectable.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit introduces us to successful accountant Daniel Guest, who is ‘respectably’ married and has a good reputation in business. But he’s also had some secret relationships with men. He is shocked when someone who seems to know about his trysts blackmails him. Guest is very concerned about being considered ‘respectable’ so he hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find the blackmailer and get that person to stop. He’s even willing to pay the blackmailer just to make the whole thing go away. Quant suggests that it would all be a lot easier if Guest simply ‘came out,’ but Guest refuses. He is determined to maintain his veneer of ‘respectable married life.’ So Quant begins to investigate the matter. The trail leads to New York, a murder, and eventually right back to Saskatoon. The urge to be considered respectable isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s a fascinating theme that runs through this novel.

Respectability is a very important theme in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri’s business comes mostly from families who want to ‘vet’ potential spouses for their children. They hire Puri to do background checks and find out anything he can so that they can ensure their children marry respectable people. Puri gets a very different kind of case though when successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal hires him. Kasliwal has been accused of raping and murdering a family servant Mary Murmu who disappeared a few months ago. He swears that he is innocent and wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. So Puri and his team start asking questions. They run into obstacles right away because the police are determined to prove that they do not look the other way when wealthy and successful people commit crimes, so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Still, Puri manages to get the information he needs and together with his team, he finds out the truth about Mary Murmu. It turns out that a lot of what happens is because of wanting to preserve the air of honour and respectability.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. She lives what just about anyone would call a respectable life. She’s married to a successful lawyer, she has two healthy children who more or less stay out of trouble, and she herself behaves circumspectly. Everything starts to unravel though when Jodie’s daughter Hannah has an accident and is taken to hospital. It turns out that it’s the same hospital in which Jodie herself gave birth to a daughter years earlier – a daughter she’s never told anyone about, not even her husband. A nurse who is still working at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption but when the overzealous nurse looks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. Soon there are murmurs and then very public questions. What happened to the baby? If the baby died, is Jodie somehow responsible? It’s not long before Jodie becomes a pariah. Even her husband Angus distances himself from her. Not only is it possible that she is not the woman he thought she was, but his name is being mentioned as the next mayor. To win that office, he’s going to need the most respectable reputation he has, and this matter with Jodie isn’t helping. As we learn the truth about what happened to Jodie’s first baby, and as we see what happens to her as this story grows and grows, it’s clear that respectability is still important to a lot of people.

Respectability isn’t important to everyone of course. There’ve always been lots of cases of people who simply don’t care what their reputations are. But I honestly think it’s still a factor. In fact, as I planned this post I kept thinking of other modern novels where the desire to be considered respectable plays a big part. There just wasn’t room for them all. What’s your view on this? Do you think respectability still matters? Which novels have you enjoyed that treat this theme?

Thanks, Patti, for the inspiration.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Blue Collar Man (Long Nights).


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Barbara Vine, Camilla Läckberg, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

18 responses to “Make Me Respectable, Man*

  1. Very interesting topic, Margot, and I did go check out Patti’s post and all the comments. I agree, in the US in the 60’s and 70’s, my family was much concerned with appearances, and thus it has never totally worn off for me. Premarital sex was frowned on and hidden in my youth, nowadays it is almost taken for granted. And in the South, where I grew up, I imagine it was even more pronounced. (I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, so this topic has been on my mind.) Moving to California in the 70’s was an eye opener and I stayed here.

    • Tracy – I’m glad you read Patti’s post. It’s a fascinating look at what we consider ‘respectable’ isn’t it? I think there are certainly different standards now for what ‘counts’ as respectable and appropriate. And as you found, region matters too. Certain things are perfectly respectable in some areas and absolutely not in others and I think that’s still the case. The whole topic of keeping up appearances and behaving in a ‘respectable’ way is sociologically and psychologically so interesting I think.

      • I meant to mention that I am now reading Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche. I am sure I will be moving on to Flight of Aquavit, when I can afford to buy it. You have got to quit tempting me with new books, new authors.

        • Tracy – I am so glad to hear you’re enjoying Amuse Bouche. 🙂 And I think when it comes to tempting people with books, turnabout is fair play… 😉

  2. Patti’s post, the comments it attracted and your response are all very thought provoking indeed. Margot. On a crime fiction level I have just finished reading Shona MacLean’s third Alexander Seaton novel set in early 17th century Scotland where people are utterly obsessed with respectability of one sort or another – at times it makes me shudder to think that so much of one’s life could be shattered over loving the ‘wrong’ person or other things that shouldn’t matter to anyone but the people involved. My recent reading of Wendy James’ OUT OF THE SILENCE also addresses this issue using the theme of a woman ‘getting herself’ pregnant (oh how I have always hated that phrase) and the resultant shame she brought on her family. I am truly glad we have moved on to more enlightened times – though I wonder some days if we haven’t gone too far. Several of the young women staff I’ve had in recent years think it is a great sport to take photos of their friends on the toilet (or vomiting or otherwise suffering the effects of a big night out) and post same to Facebook or other social media outlets – and none of them are troubled by the fact that there are plenty of photos of themsevles in similar predicaments all over the internet – I can’t seem to get it through to them that as an employer (indeed as a human being) I am less than impressed by their complete lack of shame – to them its all a jolly great laugh.

    I think the issue of what respectability means in different cultures is still very much alive – especially in countries like ours and yours where people from many backgrounds live in close proximity and there are vastly different notions of what is (or should be) respectable.

    • Bernadette – Societies such as the one Shona MacLean writes about really were obsessed with respectability and what one’s ‘supposed to do.’ The consequences of behaving in a certain way could be devastating and yes, the worst thing about it is that so often lives were ruined over something that shouldn’t have mattered to anyone but the people involved. I’ve just ordered Out of the Silence and I’m looking forward to reading it. From your review of it, it also portrays a society where what ought to be private decisions turn out to have very public and sad consequences. In that sense I couldn’t agree with you more that it’s a good thing that we live in different times, where private issues and decisions are just that and where other people’s judgements of what we do don’t necessarily ruin lives.
      I do know what you mean though about the kinds of things that get posted on the Internet. There’ve been a few ad campaigns here in the States to get people to think before they post ridiculous (or embarrassing, or explicit) pictures of themselves or others. But it happens all the time and I wonder about that too, especially when people post those kinds of pictures of themselves. Just because I don’t think I have the right to judge a person’s private behaviour doesn’t mean I want to see ‘photos of it. To me that shows a lack of good judgement at the very least.
      You make an interesting point too about the fact that each culture has different standards for what ‘counts’ as respectable. And that is an issue as you say in countries like ours where there’s a lot of diversity. Just the fact of those different standards can raise challenges so yes, the question of what it means to be respectable is still alive.

  3. Oh what a great topic Margot! I think in our lifetimes we can really trace a massive change – when I was a young woman unmarried pregnancy was the worst thing that could happen, as you say – not jut for her but for the whole family. I am so glad that has changed. Funninly enough, it was touched on very peripherally in one of my posts this week: the splendid housekeeper in a 1980s book talking about the maids: “They’ve left to get married and not before time, I’ve often wondered, but there’s never been anything said, and why should there, these days?” – which I know you enjoyed as much as I did!

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re right, there has been a major change just in recent decades when it comes to what ‘counts’ as respectable. I’m glad too that women aren’t ‘pilloried’ any more for unmarried pregnancies. Today, single parenthood doesn’t at all have the social consequences that it once did and I’m pleased that our attitude has shifted from punitive to supportive. And thanks for mentioning that housekeeper’s remark from your review of A Question of Inheritance. On so many levels it’s absolutely delightful and certainly reflects that whole feeling of what’s respectable.

  4. When I saw your Ruth Rendell example Margot, I thought it was going to be from ‘Judgement in Stone’ and the famous opening line “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write”. You get a strong sense of how important maintaining a facade is, and the problem of illiteracy which is also used in Bernard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’.

    • Sarah – You know, I almost did use that famous first line and that novel in this post. But I’d already mentioned Rendell, so I just…didn’t You’re absolutely right though that A Judgement in Stone is a masterful story of the desperate need to appear respectable. Thanks for mentioning it and the Schlink.

  5. Thanks for the kinds words, Margot. I think Rendell has made this a consideration for some time. And certainly Christie as well. In fact, most female writers of the 20th century looked at it closely. I think of the novels of Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Edith Wharton. A JUDGEMENT IN STONE is the best Rendell of them all IMHO.

    • Patti – Oh, my pleasure. You have a great blog and that post has sparked some fascinating discussion. It’s interesting too how women writers have looked at this notion of respectability both in the Golden Age (and before, of course) and since then. And yes, A Judgement in Stone is a true classic. I think it ought to be required reading for any crime fiction fan.

  6. Margot, “respectability” is at the heart of Dorothy L. Sayers’ excellent “Gaudy Night,” in which Harriet Vane becomes involved trying to track down the anonymous letter-writer and increasingly dangerous “prankster” who appears to be trying to ruin the reputations of the women scholars at Oxford University’s first college for women. For that matter, the poison pen letter appears in many mysteries and is always a direct stab to the heart of “respectability,” as is blackmail, another regular plot ingredient in many mysteries. Few are the blackmail subjects or anonymous letter recipients with the courage to say “publish and be damned,” if doing so will reveal a secret that affects their respectability.

    • Les – I couldn’t possibly agree more about Gaudy Night. Isn’t it a top-notch example of how the desire for ‘respectability’ affects us? Thank you for reminding me of that aspect of it. And of course, I do love the academic setting, the twits and turns in the plot, the whole thing.

  7. This really is a wonderful topic. My father worried himself to death over anything my brother or I did that violated his standards of respectability. The poor man would not have coped well in today’s world where so many folks expose so much and make it available to so many for eternity. Someone should start an online identity scrubbing service to help those young folks clean up their “acts” before they go job hunting.

    • Pat – Thank you. I’m always amazed too at how many things people post online that are not exactly career-enhancing. And with the Internet as it is, it’s not as though someone can simply tear up that offending ‘photo and be done with it. What you post is there. I know there’s plenty of stuff there that I’d never have been caught dead doing.

  8. kathy d.

    FYI: Flight of Aquavit used is available for uner $4, including shipping at Abe Books, which carries some new and many used mysteries. It’s a real boon to readers, including of mysteries.

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