Review: Sayers, Dexter, Towers, Bronte, Gaskell…

Since I’m rather behind on reviewing a few books I’ve read recently and since my husband is having his surgery on Monday (after which he’ll be in hospital for a week and then I’ll be off work for a week, tending to him), I won’t be around much for a while. Hence, I present a handful of mini-reviews!

First, I’ve just finished Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, after deciding that soothing old fashioned British mysteries were just the kind of hospital waiting room reading I needed, only I’ve already rushed through one in my pre-surgery worry phase. I read Whose Body?, the first in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, a few years ago and wasn’t that impressed with it, but this second one has hooked me and it’s nice to know there’s more cosy little mysteries to indulge in beyond Miss Marple. The golden age of detective fiction is really my favourite, with Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (as a history student, I was fascinated by its reinterpretation of who really killed the princes in the Tower) and Malice Aforethought and The Poisoned Chocolates Case, both by the same author but published under different names (Frances Iles and Anthony Berkley). Many of these stories are innovative in the mystery genre (Malice Aforethought was one of the first to have the murderer as the protagonist) without being grisly and have the added advantage of much delightful Britishness. Dorothy Sayers has all this and she’s also quite clever (one of the first women to get a degree at Oxford and she later translated almost all of Dante), with a plot point resting on the French classic Manon Lescaut and amusing literary references like this:

He set down his towels, soap, sponge, loofah, bath-brush, and other belongings, and quietly lifted the lid of the chest.

Whether, like the heroine of Northanger Abbey, he expected to find anything gruesome inside was not apparent. It is certain that, like her, he beheld nothing more startling than certain sheets and counterpanes neatly folded at the bottom…

This indulgence in mystery novels was set off by picking up Colin Dexter’s first Inspector Morse mystery, Last Bus to Woodstock, which I started reading when I was only 25 pages away from finishing Villette! (More on that in a bit, but basically, it was too sad.) I’ve been watching Inspector Lewis on Masterpiece Mystery lately and enjoying the Oxford setting and academic and literary themed plots and when I found out it was a sequel to the Inspector Morse tv show and books (Lewis was the sidekick originally and has now become the main detective) and remembered further that I had bought the first book in the series at Oxford on my honeymoon (what bliss was that bookstore!), I hunted it out of the closet and read it. It’s a bit sexist and racist and the identity of the murderer is more than a little improbable in my opinion, but my fondness for decent family man Sergent Lewis (I’m not too fond of Morse yet, he’s too busy winking and leering at girls half his age in short skirts) and I suppose, my fondness for most British mysteries in general, quickly brought me through. Even if I have the time, I can’t read a big thick classic like Villette all at once, so it’s delightful to sometimes be able to gulp down a quick and exciting mystery, reading pleasantly for hours in bed. This has inspired me to get books from all the ‘Queens of Crime’ (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham), plus some P.D. James and go on a mystery binge while I’m waiting around at the hospital.

And now… Tea With Mr. Rochester was an utter delight and I don’t know how to do it justice. I even took to carrying it around with me at work in the library during one particularly stressful day, just to stroke its soft, smooth dove-grey cover whenever I needed calming down. Then on my break I devoured two of the short stories, rushing through to see what happened (and I hardly ever rush through beautiful writing like that), even crying in the staff break room! The writing is romantic and old fashioned, like a grown up version of L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott. I’ve heard these stories called ‘samey’ but when I adore the style and subject matter, I don’t care. Most of the main characters are in the ‘literary daughter’ type (my favourite kind of type, personally), young girls full of imagination and notions from reading Jane Eyre, feeling a bit misunderstand by the more clever beautiful people, but eventually proving themselves in their own way, just as Jane Eyre herself does. Frances Towers also reminds me of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, she didn’t write enough to reach her maturity as a writer as they did, but she has similar (although I would say more romantic) sensibilities. I’ve already reread some of the stories, individually some of them wouldn’t appeal to me, but altogether they are beautiful and celebrate the poetry of ordinary life, the beauty in small things. Here’s the beginning of ‘Strings in Hollow Shells’:

‘It’s divine to be here again,’ Sandra said, tossing her pill-box of a hat onto a table and burying her face in a bowl of roses. She seemed to be eating them up with her greedy carmine lips.

Sandra plays the part of city sophisticate, but her idea of living artistically is to “play the gramophone all day in the garden and read poetry”, instead of drinking ten cups of black coffee and smoking cigarettes. I much prefer the more Edwardian style of “soak[ing] myself in the view.” Here’s music being discussed in ‘Don Juan and the Lily’:

‘I mean Bach,’ he said, ‘and Beethoven… or Mozart. What’s he like? Like the conversation of tea-roses, or the bees in the lime-blossom?’

‘I think he sounds like witty people in the eighteenth century saying lovely things in a formal garden,’ I said, not knowing that such a thought was in my mind.

Altogether Tea With Mr. Rochester has got to be my favourite book of the year so far (with Miss Buncle’s Book not far behind) and I’m so pleased that Persephone Books has republished them and that other wonderful book bloggers have written about them, so that I could find the kind of innocent and beautiful books I so treasure.

So Villette may have to wait another day, although to quickly sum up: it was sad, it was long, it was rich and deep and I cried near the end and also was annoyed with the love story for not being the main focus of the story and there’s this great scene where someone gives Lucy Snowe an opiate to make her sleep, but instead she gets up and wanders about town at midnight and comes upon this big party in a park and wafts about, seeing various people she used to know, all as if it were a dream. That was unexpected, even from Bronte, and quite a nice touch. My edition also had a great introduction by A.S. Byatt, comparing it on some points to Mansfield Park, which I think is rather apt, I was already thinking it is to Jane Eyre what Mansfield is to Pride and Prejudice, obviously written by the same author, but in a more mature and melancholy mood. She also makes the excellent point that while Jane Eyre has a crazy alter ego / double in the attic, Lucy Snowe is both crazy and sane all together, in one person. This is Bronte’s last finished novel and her most matured work, written in extreme loneliness, but with extreme strength of will. It makes Jane Eyre seem rather tame, actually!

And finally for Wives and Daughters (almost done!), it’s less of a romance and more of an insightful and sweet family story. It analyzes a father and his two sons opposite a stepmother with one step and one real daughter. Most of the events are ordinary, even the romantic hero isn’t a brooding Byronic like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester or even Mr. Thorton, but a practical man of science and yet it has its moments beyond the light and amusing. Mrs. Hyacinth Clare Kirkpatrick Gibson is certainly the most subtly manipulative stepmother I’ve ever read — in the miniseries she was grating but in the book actually funny, while Cynthia her daughter in the miniseries was quite charming while in the book you come to see her true shallow colours underneath much better. Molly the stepdaughter was too naive in the miniseries, but in the book her innocence becomes endearing, something you want to protect against all her stepmother’s machinations to treat her just like Cynthia so that no one will say she’s favouring her own daughter, when Molly only wants to be herself. The book describes parents over-valuing their beautiful, talented children and under-appreciating the ‘plodders’, the steady, faithful, loyal ones. The book also shows how Molly grows up, through some distress caused by her stepmother and sister, to become more mature and poised than the slightly silly and sheltered village women she’s grown up around.

Whew. Now it’s time to pick a new book to start!

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12 thoughts on “Review: Sayers, Dexter, Towers, Bronte, Gaskell…

  1. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    Wow, lots of great reads here. I’m a huge Sayers fan, so I’m glad that you’ve come to appreciate her. I read the books shockingly out of order, starting with Busman’s Honeymoon and then just picking up volumes as I came across them. Murder Must Advertise remains my favourite, though I’m very fond of Gaudy Night as well.

    Since I’m not generally a fan of mysteries, I’ve never picked up any of Colin Dexter’s books though my parents loved them (they made incredibly dependable Christmas gifts for hard-to-buy-for parents when my brother and I were young and Morse hadn’t yet been killed off). I did enjoy the television adaptations though and have been really pleased with the Lewis series since it started.

    I think I might have to add Tea with Mr. Rochester to my TBR list. Having seen in the catalogue before, I hadn’t been overly intrigued, but with you calling it your favourite book of the year, I’ll have to reconsider!

  2. Steph says:

    The Golden Age is my favourite period for detective fiction as well! I read my first Sayers last year and didn’t love it, but I’m hoping it’s because I read Gaudy Night, which is quite a bit later chronologically speaking, so there was a lot of groundwork that I simply didn’t have to fully appreciate it. I have a copy of Whose Body, which I’m hoping to eventually read and get off on the right Sayers foot. I’ll remember that even if it doesn’t wow me, the next book should!

  3. bookssnob says:

    Oh my goodness, I LOVED Villette. SO unbelievably sad..but you can sort of read the ending the way you want to…even though you know that your version isn’t really the version Bronte meant. Isn’t that scene in the park amazing? I think Villette, more than Jane Eyre, shows how ahead of her time, and how intelligent and daring Charlotte Bronte was. There is a fantastic essay on it in The Madwoman in the Attic by Gilbert and Gubar if you fancy reading more about it.

  4. Penny says:

    I was in the library yesterday, bemoaning to myself the fact that all the detective books seemed to be ‘psychological thrillers’. For me, the Golden Age of detective fiction is well named and I’m constantly looking out for modern ‘cosy’ murders, as I seem to have read all the old ones…
    Dorothy L. is a great favourite with DH and me. And Morse (including the Morse and then Lewis series on TV).
    Did you know Wives and Daughters has been done on TV, too?
    As soon as I go off-line, I’m going to add Tea with Mr Rochester to my Christmas list. (Well, it’s only four months away!)
    I do hope the operation goes well and you can both put all your worries behind you. Sending warm wishes and cyber hugs…

  5. kiss a cloud says:

    I was meaning to bring Villette along for our trip out of town next week. I think sad might not be the right mood for a vacation but a mature Jane Eyre is certainly appealing. Coincidentally, Mansfield Park is the last of Austen’s novels I need to read.

  6. Bina says:

    You’ve read really great books! I can’t wait to finally read a Bloomsbury Group book. Like you I adore the Golden Age cosy crimes, although I was converted to Christie as a teenager and neglected the other queens as aresult. Hope to change that soon though. Will look into the Inspector Morse books, I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Lewis and enjoyed them.

    Hope everything goes well for your husband!

  7. Carolyn says:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments, I’m just going to reply quickly here, all in one…

    Claire, I hope you like Tea With Mr. Rochester, it’s not really that Brontesque! 😉

    Willa, Villette is a good melancholy autumn read, so now could be the time to start.

    Steph, it’s nice to see you here and meet another fan of golden age cozy mysteries. I hope you like Sayers, at first I found Lord Peter Wimsey’s accent off-putting, but overall they’re quite enjoyable as the series goes on.

    Rachel, I think Villette came too close to home for me to love it, but I’m glad I’ve finally read it and I enjoyed Lucy’s eventual romance, even though I can’t quite believe in the possibility of a happy ending there, unfortunately.

    Nicola, yes more Sayers for everyone!

    Penny, Louise Penny writes modern cosy mysteries set in a small town in Quebec that I would love to visit and I highly recommend her. Thanks for the cyber hugs and I hope you enjoy Tea With Mr. Rochester!

    Claire, I think reactions to Villette are likely to vary from person to person. Rachel loves it and I was impressed by it, but because I’ve experienced depression similar to what Bronte describes there, I found it hard to read. Perhaps not an upbeat holiday read, unless it’s an autumn holiday.

    Hi Bina and thanks. I haven’t been able to get into Ngaio Marsh at all, her writing seems too stiff and starchy. But Dorothy L. Sayers is a great next stop after Agatha Christie. I hope you enjoy them!

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