Recently, Sarah, who blogs at The Old Shelter, did a very interesting review of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. That novel was first published in 1920, at the cusp of some major social, political, and other changes. And Christie captures that ‘borderline’ time quite effectively. On the one hand, clothes are still conservative, especially for women, and so are social expectations. The ‘Jazz Age’ we often think of when we think of the 1920s (you know – bobbed hair, short skirts, rolled-down stockings, late-night crazy parties, and women smoking) is still a few years off. On the other, things are changing – quickly. Some women are actually wearing trousers, and they’re getting (or have recently gotten) the right to vote (I know, Kiwi and Aussie friends; it happened a bit earlier in your countries). Political movements such as socialism are gaining strength, too. And there are other major changes.
If you’ve watched the ITV production of The Mysterious Affair at Styles on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, you see that cusp even more clearly. To give just one example, there are horse-drawn carriages and automobiles. It’s as if the world is drawing a breath as one era ends and a whole new social order begins. Sarah’s done a fine review, by the way, and you’ll want to stop by her blog and read it.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Hercule Poirot is introduced, concerns the poisoning murder of his benefactor, Emily Inglethorp. He’s drawn into the case because he happens to encounter Captain Hastings, who’s a friend of the victim’s stepson, John Cavendish. Hastings is staying at the Inglethorp/Cavendish household for a visit, and it’s he who recommends that the family consult Poirot. It’s an interesting story in its own right, but it’s by no means the only novel that depicts that cusp between the last years of the 19th Century/early 20th Century, and what we think of as the more modern age.
For instance, Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness takes place just a few years after the end of WW I, mostly in and near the small village of Highfield. Scotland Yard, in the forms of Inspector John Madden and Detective Constable (DC) Billy Styles, has been called in to assist with a particularly brutal murder. Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, have all been killed. Only four-year-old Sophy Fletcher has survived, and that’s because she hid under a bed during the attack. But she’s had a severe shock, and can’t help much. At first, the murders look like a robbery gone horribly wrong. But it soon becomes clear that this family was targeted. Now, Madden and Styles have to find out why and by whom. It’s a very difficult case, but, with the help of the local GP, Dr. Helen Blackwell, the team finds out the truth. In this novel, we see a society on the brink of the modern age. Blackwell, for instance, is an independent professional. She has modern views of psychology, of women’s roles, and so on. There are some modern conveniences, too, such as cars, motorcycles, and some telephones. At the same time, the local mores are still very conventional, and the Jazz Age hasn’t come to the country, if I can put it that way.
Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests takes place at about the same time. In it, we are introduced to Frances Wray and her mother, Emily. The war has meant hard times for the Wrays, and they’ve decided they’ll have to open their home to lodgers, who are euphemistically called ‘paying guests.’ Len and Lilian Barber soon respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement, and move in. It’s all awkward, especially at first, but it goes well enough. Then, things slowly begin to spin out of control. The end result is a tragedy that changes everything. Throughout the novel, we see a society caught between two worlds, if I may put it that way. On the one hand, Emily Wray has very clear ideas about how ‘ladies’ are ‘supposed to’ behave. The family still has an outhouse, and the kitchen isn’t really modern. On the other, there’s definitely movement afoot. Some ‘regular people’ are getting telephones (although plenty go to a local shop to make calls). And one of Frances’ friends is a busy professional woman who drinks, smokes, and goes out when and where she pleases. That tug-of-war between the old century and the modern world plays its role in the tragedies that happen in the novel, too.
Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in the early 1920s in India, mostly in and near what is now Chennai. The British Raj is in its last decades, and there’s a real push among many people for some sort of Home Rule. Women, especially English and other European women, are more independent, and don’t always go directly home, shall we say, after a party. There are some modern conveniences, and so on. But at the same time, there are still very strict rules about who may belong to which clubs. The white English are still very much in charge, and the races simply do not mix socially. There are plenty of people, too, who want to keep it that way, and don’t want any talk of Home Rule. Women may be getting more independent, but they are still expected to make it a major priority to find themselves husbands, preferably husbands who are in at least a respectable social class, and who earn a respectable salary. This series is, among other things, a look at a society that’s just on the cusp of the modern, post-colonial, age.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Through the Lonesome Dark. This one’s not, strictly speaking, a crime novel, although there are crimes in it. Rather, it’s the story of three children: Pansy Williams, Clem Bright, and Otto Brader, who grow up in the small New Zealand town of Blackball, just before WW I. It’s a working-class (mostly mining) community, with a rising tide of socialist sentiment. Still, in many ways it’s a very traditional place. Pansy, for example, learns the hard way that, if you’re a girl, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’ll get the chance to prepare for university. Getting ahead, so to speak, will not be an option for her. And the boys are expected to follow their fathers and grandfathers into the mines, whatever their own ambitions might have been. The three children are all best friends, though, and determined to stay together always. Then, everything changes when the war comes. Lives are upended, and the three friends are wrenched apart. In the end, and after several tragedies, the characters have to start all over again. And now, the world is metamorphosing. So, as the characters put their lives back together, they will also have to move from the traditional world they knew to something different.
And that’s the thing that Sarah’s post reminded me of – and I’m glad. The early 1920’s were ‘cusp’ years. You might say they were neither here nor there, neither traditional nor thoroughly modern. Little wonder there was so much anxiety at the time. Thanks for the inspiration, Sarah!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Goldspot’s Cusp.