by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

Humiliation, Round Five: A Slight Difference

Posted 30 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been slack on the blogging front the last couple of days, due to enthusiastic birthday celebrations. But a discussion last night that we should really have another round of Humiliation segued into a suggestion of holding a round of Film Humiliation.

That’s an idea I like, but it’s trickier, I think, than books.

For all Bayard argues that it’s not necessary to have read a book in order to claim to have read it, it is fairly straightforward—for the purposes of this game—to say, “No, I have never actually opened a copy of this book.”

But films—it seems to me that it’s trickier to say, “Nope, I’ve never consciously watched this film.”

And I’m not even talking about the broad tendency to use the television set as a kind of aural and visual wallpaper, because I don’t do that myself: I don’t put the telly on unless I’m actually intending to watch it (with the exception of test cricket).

But films seem to be more easily and readily quotable than books—or perhaps I mean that we’re more likely to recognise a quote from a film than from a book. It depends, of course, on the book and on the quote: anyone will spot “To be or not to be” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but unless we’re actually looking for literary influences, more obscure quotes may well slip past in casual reading.

But I’m not convinced this works with films, when the quotations are as often visual as they are verbal, not to mention the broad geek tendency to speak almost exclusively in quotations from film and television.

I, for example, have never consciously watched Citizen Kane—how’s that for humiliating? But I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable taking that as my offering in this game of Humiliation, because I’ve seen the core scenes, The Simpsons episode based on the film, the episode of Mad About You that focused on when Jamie had seen the film, documentaries about Orson Welles . . . and so on.

But it’s been too convivial a weekend for me to work through these ideas clearly.

So, how about a round of Film Humiliation instead?

Same rules apply as in the book version: in the comments thread below, nominate a film you haven’t seen but that you think everyone else has.

Nominations will close on Tuesday 2nd December at 5 pm. Then I’ll open up a new thread for the voting. One point per person who has seen your film—and the person with the most points will be the humiliated winner.

Actually, I've Decided To Become Cranky

Posted 27 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve written numerous posts, going right back to the first month of this blog, about my frustration with adaptations of Agatha Christie.

Now, to be fair, I don’t recall ever having seen the Joan Hickson adaptations of the Miss Marple stories, which Nick holds in high regard. And I do rather like David Suchet as Poirot. It’s the mucking around with the plots that drives me mad—when Christie is such a careful plotter.

But my recent reading of Reginald Hill, which I alluded to in my last post, is what’s got me thinking here: Hill isn’t treated any better by adaptors than Christie has been.

And so here’s a rant.

Why are Hill’s books treated just as poorly as Christie’s in adaptations?

Here’s a shortlist of things they’ve done to Hill’s books that have annoyed me:

  • They separated Pascoe and Ellie.

Now, my understanding is that the actress wanted to leave. All well and good. That doesn’t mean the character has to leave. I’m not partial to recasting myself, but it’s a fairly common technique. Or the character could simply cease to play a significant role in the stories and have faded into the background, heard but not seen.

As far as I recall from a newspaper article at the time of this change (I can’t remember when or where I read it, unfortunately), Colin Buchanan (who played Pascoe) was furious about the change, as well: he felt it played into all the standard stereotypes about television policemen being entirely unable to sustain personal relationships.

And I think he’s right.

Ellie was an important part of the balance of the books: she disapproved strongly of Pascoe’s job but was able to juxtapose that against her desire for a sustained relationship with him, and the way in her engagement with his profession mutates as the books move from 1970 to (at last count) 2008 and the nature of the police force alters is actually one of the aspects of the novels that interests me the most.

And the separation was done is such a daft way, as I recall. For Ellie to then move to the United States with their daughter? (Did they, I wonder, omit the subplot about her father having Alzheimer’s? Because surely she wouldn’t have left if he were still ill.) And for Pascoe to move in with Dalziel? (Why? He didn’t need to live with Dalziel before he was married, so why would he not be able to afford a place on his own now, when he’s significantly higher in rank and, presumably, in pay?)

  • On a similar note, why did they drop Wieldy? I stopped watching before this happened, but it still annoyed me.

As with Ellie, Wieldy is a centrally important figure in the books: in later novels, where the focus is on newcomers to the CID, generally fairly low-ranked officers such as Shirley Novello and Hat Bowler, Dalziel, Pascoe, and Wield are known as the Holy Trinity.

Take one away from the Trinity, and it loses balance.

Again, I assume the actor wanted to leave: in fact, I see that he only worked irregularly after leaving the show in 2002 and retired from the profession in 2006 for health reasons.

That’s a shame: he was excellent in the role.

Nevertheless, Wieldy was central to the shape and feel of the books: if you have to abandon two major characters, maybe that’s when you need to start thinking about whether or not the programme is still viable.

  • And for my final whinging point, why did they continue the series after they’d worked their way through all the extant novels?

The later storylines were so far removed from the style and panache of Hill’s writing that I wasn’t even faintly compelled to keep watching, no matter how good the actors were.

Oh, I know complaining about this sort of thing is futile.

And I do know that adaptations aren’t going to be identical to the book: I don’t expect that.

But I am thinking of starting up a small society—very exclusive—called “Well, If You Aren’t Going To Pay Any Attention To The Feel Of The Original Books, Why Not Just Call It Something Else?”

I don’t think I’ll get a usable acronym out of it, though.

Books That Don't Exist

Posted 27 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’m not talking about books that seem to have existed once but have subsequently sunk without a trace, books that left some mark on the ephemera of the publishing industry—catalogues and advertisements—but don’t exist in libraries, of which Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won are perhaps the pre-eminent examples.

I’m not even talking about the fact that I sometimes have dreams in which I’m book shopping, but the books I buy then don’t exist anywhere in this world—sequels to books I love that have no sequels, or entirely imaginary volumes.

No, I’m not talking about those, though they’re closer to the truth.

I’m talking about books that have no existence except in other books.

Perhaps Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series provides the pre-eminent modern example of authors who do this.

(And, by the way, Mr Fforde? May we have another book, please? I’ve read all mine. Doesn’t have to be another Thursday Next, but another book would be grand. Ta!)

When Thursday is working as a Literary Detective for Spec Ops and, even more obviously, when she is working for Jurisfiction and moving in and out of The Well of Lost Plots, she deals regularly with books that don’t actually exist, as well as with ones that do.

Some of the ones she deals with don’t fill me with any inclination to read them, such as the unpublished manuscript “Cavendish Heights” or the fantasy novel that doubles as a menagerie, which off the top of my head I think is called Swords of Zenobia.

But some are more intriguing: I admit, I’d like to see what all the fuss is about with Daphne Farquitt’s novels (especially given how much they appeal to the lobsters)—although I suspect I’ve already read most of them in the guise of my disturbingly large number of Georgette Heyer novels.

But Fforde isn’t the only one.

I’ve recently been re-reading some Reginald Hill, specifically the inter-related Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book.

These two novels are intensely literary: with main characters who are academics, librarians, and novelists, they’re full of literary in-jokes and seemingly effortless quotations from obscure fiction that make me feel very poorly read indeed.

They also refer heavily to two authors whom I’ve never read: Heinrich Heine, the German Romantic, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the English Romantic.

Beddoes, I understand, is not terribly well read by anyone, so I don’t feel too guilty about not reading his masterpiece, Death’s Jest Book (despite completing an M.Phil. on the Romantic novel. I’m salving my conscience with the fact that Death’s Jest Book is actually a play.)

Heine, though, I probably should have read, since he’s significant to German Romanticism. Alas, I never got any further than Goethe.

But the books are also littered with fictional books, books that don’t exist: some are academic texts, like the two competing biographies of Beddoes that circulate through the sub-plots in Hill’s two novels, Dick Dee’s never-to-be-completed dictionary of dictionaries, or the translations of Heine’s poems on which novelist Charley Penn has been working for many years.

But some are fictional novels: specifically, Penn’s series of successful Harry Hacker novels, based partly on Heine. Though these have been adapted into Sunday night bodice-rippers—or what another character calls “claret and cleavage” television, which is my favourite description—the analysis of the novels themselves makes me desperate to read them: they’re described as “full of verbal wit, lots of good jokes, passages of exciting action, good but not overdone historical backgrounds, and strong plots which often include a clever puzzle element which Harry is instrumental in solving” (394). There’s also a supernatural element, through Harry’s doppelganger.

Harry is himself is said to be a blend of Heinrich Heine; Pechorin, the Byronic hero from Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time (1839, revised 1841); and the Scarlet Pimpernel, blended with Sherlock Holmes, Don Juan—“Byron’s rather than Mozart’s,” the woman outlining the novels insists—and Raffles, the gentleman thief (393).

Now who wouldn’t want to read those?

Except, of course, that they don’t exist. Which doesn’t seem fair, somehow.

Neither Fforde nor Hill are unique in this respect, of course. Volume four of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, for example, allows a glimpse at a shelf of never-written books in the Library of Dreams: books by Wodehouse (Psmith and Jeeves. Perhaps Jeeves has finally had enough of Wooster’s inanity?), by Dickens (The Return of Edwin Drood), by Tolkien (The Lost Road), by Conan Doyle (The Conscience of Sherlock Holmes), by Chesterton (The Man Who Was October).

Also on this shelf are two imaginary books that I am desperate to read: The Dark God’s Darling by Lord Dunsany and Alice’s Journey Behind The Moon by Lewis Carroll. The others I can take or leave, but I’m quite frustrated by the fact that those two don’t actually exist.

There’s no rhyme or reason to this post: just frustration.

Taunting your loyal readers with books that sound fascinating but that they’re never going to be able to read is too easy to be sport.

(All quotes from Dialogues of the Dead from the 2003 Avon paperback.)

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Five

Posted 25 November 2008 in by Catriona

Fair warning: this puzzle was impossible to consider with spoilers.

7. What are Lord Edgeware’s vices? (Lord Edgeware Dies, 1933, with reference to Mrs McGinty’s Dead, 1952)

Lord Edgeware is the unpleasant murder victim in Lord Edgeware Dies: we know he’s unpleasant, because we’re told so (and, perhaps, because his daughter is so highly strung and terrified). But we know very little about the actual man.

Yet we know there’s something about him that is outside the normal. He strikes Arthur Hastings as an animalistic, barely human creature who exercises superb self-control (33). Poirot says that “he is very near the borderline of madness” and that “I should imagine he practises many vices, and that beneath his frigid exterior he hides a deep-rooted instinct of cruelty” (34). His daughter speaks haltingly of his “queerness” (85). His nephew and heir’s “fatuous expression of good nature” falters when he is asked about his estrangement from his uncle (89). And his wife shivers when she talks about him, describes him as a “fanatic” and “a queer man—he’s not like other people” (15).

Yes, there’s definitely something odd about this man.

But his wife’s testimony is not reliable: she is, after all, the one who kills him.

And she kills him for gain: she hesitates not at all to admit that. She wishes to marry another man and, since that man is possessed of a violent and rather morbid Anglo-Catholic fervour, he is willing to marry a widow but not a divorcee.

But just because she has one motive, is that any reason to assume she doesn’t have another? What exactly are Lord Edgeware’s vices?

We don’t know for certain, but we do receive a hint from Arthur Hastings: as Lord Edgeware, with a “queer smile” notes, “But I enjoy the macabre. I always have. My taste is peculiar,” Hastings “had been looking at the shelves near. There were the Memoirs of Casanova, also a volume on the Comte de Sade, another on mediæval tortures” (33).

If these books represent Lord Edgeware’s tastes, then we can plausibly assume two things: his vices are sexual and they are sadistic.

Who is more likely to suffer from those vices than a wife? A wife who leaves him within months of the wedding and, despite her other motive for murder, shivers when she speaks of him?

A clever defense counsel could do something with this.

Perhaps I wouldn’t find this so intriguing if it didn’t remind me of an ultimately irrelevant piece of back story in a later novel, Mrs McGinty’s Dead. This novel turns on the recognition, by the late Mrs McGinty, of a photograph previously published in a newspaper exposé of four female murderers: Eva Kane, Lily Gamboll, Vera Blake, and Janice Courtland.

Eva Kane is clearly modelled on Ethel Le Neve from the Crippen Case. Lily Gamboll is a young girl who murdered her aunt and Vera Blake a woman who was more or less implicated (though not legally) in her husband’s crimes.

Little direct text from the fictional newspaper report is repeated in the novel. But what is describes Janice Courtland as the woman whose husband was a “fiend in human form” (66): the narrative voice, paraphrasing the article, speaks only of “peculiar practices referred to in such a guarded way as to arouse instant curiosity” (69).

The newspaper report is clearly sensational—based on the snippets we get—and, at the confession of the journalist who wrote it, occasionally inaccurate. But Janice Courtland still seems analogous to Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgeware Dies: a woman married to a man who seems to be abusive in a viciously sadistic fashion.

Does this mean Lord Edgeware deserves a knife to the base of the skull? Of course not.

But perhaps there’s more to his murder than simply his wife’s desire to marry a violently Anglo-Catholic duke who looks like a dreamy monk.

(All quotes from Mrs McGinty’s Dead taken from the 1990 Fontana edition. All quotes from Lord Edgeware Dies taken from the 1979 Fontana edition.)

Bow Bells Novelettes

Posted 24 November 2008 in by Catriona

Look what just arrived in the mail!

I found this via the fabulous (and likely to bankrupt me) American Book Exchange, further via (if there is such a thing) the awesome BookFinder.

Actually, it’s lucky I don’t have a credit card: Nick is willing to use his, but far less susceptible to the charms of late-nineteenth-century serial fiction than I am, so he’s talked me down from more than one extravagant purchase.

Not this this was extravagant: far from it, considering that it’s still in its original paper cover:

You don’t find that very often. Of course, the front cover has completely separated from the spine, for which I blame the postman—who curled the parcel up and shoved it between the letterbox and the fence paling. Why?—but then that’s not only reparable but also the downside of Victorian paperbacks. Yellowback collectors have been complaining for years about the relative fragility of the books and, in fact, they tend to be bought for their appearance only: they’re hard to read without damaging.

I didn’t buy this purely for decoration: more as a research tool, if I continue to focus on ephemeral nineteenth-century publishing, which I may well. But I’m certainly not planning to read it in bed.

And now, some context.

Bow Bells Novelettes was conceived by John Dicks as a spin-off to the highly successful Bow Bells, a penny weekly: that is, an inexpensive magazine published weekly, specialising in (largely lurid and melodramatic) fiction, and aimed at the working classes (though almost certainly read into the middle classes, as well).

In my thesis, I dealt with Bow Bells Novelettes in the same chapter as Bow Bells itself, partly because Eliza Winstanley didn’t publish many stories in the former—not ones that I could confirm as hers, anyway—and partly because there’s not much distinction between the two journals, except that the stories in Bow Bells Novelettes are longer: each issue contains one “novelette,” a (generally) sixteen-page story, complete with three illustrations, like this one:

(That one looks to me as though it is by Frederick Gilbert, who did a great deal of illustration work for John Dicks’s publications: he was the less famous and less successful brother of Sir John Gilbert) who also did magazine illustration—most notably for The Illustrated London News and, I believe but I’d have to check, later for The London Journal under George Vickers—but was also a Royal Academician. Also, I genuinely made that decision on aesthetic grounds before I noticed the “FG” in the corner. Honestly.)

John Dicks’s publications achieved some notoriety at the end of the nineteenth century (separate from the type of notoriety attracted in the mid-nineteenth century, when G. W. M. Reynolds was editing Dicks’s publications) as the type of pernicious reading material likely to corrupt the working classes. In George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), for example, we know that Esther is likely to find trouble in her new situation (she is eventually seduced by a fellow servant and abandoned while pregnant) because of the porter’s reaction to the books he carries from the station for her:

Sarah Tucker—that’s the upper-housemaid—will be after you to lend them to her. She’s a wonderful reader. She has read every story that has come out in Bow Bells for the last three years, and you can’t puzzle her, try as you will. She knows all the names, can tell you which lord it was that saved the girl from the carriage when the ‘osses were tearing like mad towards a precipice a ‘undred feet deep, and all about the baronet for whose sake the girl went out to drown herself in the moonlight. I ‘aven’t read the books mesel’, but Sarah and me are great pals.

(George Moore’s Esther Waters. 1894. Everyman edition. London: J. M. Dent, 1994. 8-9)

To balance that, though, here’s my favourite quote about Bow Bells Novelettes, from G. K. Chesterton (who, among other things, wrote the Father Brown mysteries):

Nietzsche and the Bow Bells Novelettes have both obviously the same fundamental character; they both worship the tall man with curling moustaches and herculean bodily power, and they both worship him in a manner which is somewhat feminine and hysterical. Even here, however, the Novelette easily maintains its philosophical superiority, because it does attribute to the strong man those virtues which do commonly belong to him, such virtues as laziness and kindness and a rather reckless benevolence, and a great dislike of hurting the weak. (197-98)

(G. K. Chesterton’s “On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set,” from Heretics. 1905. London: Bodley House, 1950. 196-215.

I can’t argue with that.

On a final note, it was not until I saw Bow Bells Novelettes in its paper covers (instead of bound in green cloth, as was usual for the yearly volume) that I realised how consistent John Dicks’s branding was across his various publications.

Look, for example, at this cover from C. M. Braeme’s Lord Lisle’s Daughter in Dicks’ English Novels (which reprinted novels to which Dicks had the copyright, mostly serials from Bow Bells or Reynolds’s Miscellany):

(Another Frederick Gilbert illustration.)

I don’t know if there’s anything significant about consistent branding: it did strike me as intriguing for late-nineteenth-century publications, though.

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Four

Posted 22 November 2008 in by Catriona

No, I haven’t quite run out of puzzles just yet:

6. How seriously are we supposed to take the supernatural? (Sparkling Cyanide, 1945, and The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928)

I’m excluding from this piece 1930’s The Mysterious Mr Quin, which is the most distinctly supernatural of Christie’s works. Mr Quin fascinates me, because he’s a strange and disturbing being who evokes some of the more sinister undercurrents of the Harlequinade.

I know little about the origins of Harlequin and of the Commedia dell’arte, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that the name (from the Old French Hellequin or Herlequin) may derive from either the Middle English Herle king, which is one of the names for Woden, or the German Erlenkönig (literally, “king of the alders,” often represented, as it is on the Wikipedia page for “Harlequin,” linked below, as “Elf king”), either of which could have informed the term “Arlecchino.” Both Brewer’s and Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopaedia emphasise that the character is invisible (except to Columbine) and frequently mischievous.

Wikipedia also has, on its “Harlequin” page, a fifteenth-century image, though the content of the image is not referenced in the article, subtitled “Arlecchino and other demons handling souls from the pitch for Dante and Virgil.” On that note, however, Henry Cary (who translated The Inferno in 1805 and the rest of the Divine Comedy in 1814) presents the name as “Alichino” (canto 21, line 116), as does Mark Musa (canto 21, line 118.)

(Dorothy L. Sayers presents it as either “Hacklespur” or “Hellkin.” It’s impossible for me, monolinguist that I am, to tell which, since she reverses the order of some of the other names in this list, in comparison to Cary and Musa: “raving Rubicant and Farfarel” (canto 21, line 123), for example, where Musa has “Farfarello and our crazy Rubicante” (canto 21, line 123). I’m tempted by “Hellkin,” given its strong phonetic connection to the Old French Hellequin, noted above.)

Either way, “Arlichino” and “Arlecchino” may not be the same name—or, alternatively, the former may not have influenced the more modern version of the latter character.

Either way, I now desperately want to know more about the origins of the Harlequin character, and might need to make that a small research project—if you take “research” to mean “buying a book on the subject.”

But, as I say, this puzzle isn’t about The Mysterious Mr Quin, despite the fact that I’m fascinated by the character, by the odd positioning of the Harlequin as an emissary for the dead, and by way in which Mr Quin’s foil (his Columbine?), Mr Satterthwaite, reappears in the entirely non-supernatural Three-Act Tragedy (1935)—how does the little, bird-like Satterthwaite, epicure and acknowledged art critic, reconcile his two divergent lives, his crossing in and out of supernatural events? No, having devoted an enormous amount of space to something I’m ostensibly not talking about, I’m not talking about it any further.

Nor is this about stories such as “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” (from 1924’s Poirot Investigates), in which a killer deliberately exploits superstition to hide the motives for their crimes, in which superstition and the supernatural are pure misdirection.

No, this is about where the supernatural impinges on otherwise realistic narratives, in Sparkling Cyanide and The Mystery of the Blue Train.

The supernatural is a small element of Sparkling Cyanide, merely the strange sense that Iris has that her dead sister Rosemary is watching and protecting her in the year after Rosemary’s tragic death, her apparent suicide. Iris is uneasy and uncertain about this throughout the novel, but it is only really addressed explicitly at the end:

Then his face changed, grew suddenly serious. He touched a little vase by Iris’s side in which was a single sprig of grey-green with a mauve flower.
“What’s that doing in flower at this time of year?”
“It does sometimes—just an odd sprig—if it’s a mild autumn.”
Anthony took it out of the glass and held it for a moment against his cheek. He half-closed his eyes and saw rich chestnut hair, laughing blue eyes and a red passionate mouth.
He said in a quiet, conversational tone:
“She’s not around now any longer, is she?”
“Who do you mean?”
“You know who I mean. Rosemary. . . . I think she knew, Iris, that you were in danger.”
He touched the sprig of fragrant green with his lips and threw it lightly out of the window.
“Good-bye, Rosemary, thank you. . . .” (188-89)

It’s a small scene, and could be fanciful: Iris is highly strung and, as a very young girl, was horribly traumatised by her sister’s horrific death. This could simply be a symbolic way of laying a ghost. It is not, after all, much like the analogous scene in The Mystery of the Blue Train, where a ghost actually helps solve the crime.

In The Mystery of the Blue Train, Katherine Grey, who has traveled to the Riviera with the murdered woman, Ruth Kettering, sits in a garden in Monte Carlo with Ruth’s father’s secretary, Richard Knighton. When he leaves:

Then suddenly Katherine had a very curious sensation. She felt that she was no longer sitting alone on the seat in the Casino gardens, but that someone was standing beside her, and that that someone was the dead woman, Ruth Kettering. She had a further impression that Ruth wanted—badly—to tell her something. The impression was so curious, so vivid, that it could not be driven away. She felt absolutely certain that the spirit of Ruth Kettering was trying to convey something of vital importance to her. The impression faded. Katherine got up, trembling a little. (160)

So far, so good. The evocation of the murdered woman’s spirit could still be symbolic, though Katherine’s physiological response to the experience suggests otherwise. And it seemed symbolic to me, until Poirot references it during his summation of the case:

Miss Grey is not a fanciful woman by any means, yet she firmly believes that she felt your daughter’s presence beside her one day in the Casino Gardens at Monte Carlo, just after she had been having a long talk with Knighton. She was convinced, she says, that the dead woman was urgently trying to tell her something, and it suddenly came to her that what the dead woman was trying to tell her was that Knighton was her murderer! The idea seemed so fantastic at the time that Miss Grey spoke of it to no one. But she was so convinced of its truth that she acted on it. (216).

So how seriously are we supposed to take this? Katherine believes it—and in acting on it helps bring Knighton to justice, though Poirot is also working in that direction without, as he says here, knowing of Katherine’s supernatural experience. But are we, the readers, supposed to take this as fact?

Christie mentions in her autobiography that The Mystery of the Blue Train was one of her least favourites among her own novels: she wrote it in a period of desperation, after her mother’s death, her own breakdown, and her husband’s infidelity, and has never cared to re-read it.

It’s tempting to assume that this odd supernatural streak comes from that place of pressure and pain: to complete a novel, to fulfill contractual obligations, to support herself and her daughter, she pushed the credulity of the reader.

But then what of the shades of this in Sparkling Cyanide? What of intensely supernatural events of The Mysterious Mr Quin, to which Mr Satterthwaite refers obliquely in Three-Act Tragedy?

It seems to me that we are supposed to take this seriously: that, sometimes, Christie’s characters exist in a world in which the supernatural clashes with the polite ladies and gentlemen of between-the-wars England.

(All quotes from Sparkling Cyanide from the 1983 Fontana edition. All quotes from The Mystery of the Blue Train from the 1979 Fontana edition.)

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Three

Posted 21 November 2008 in by Catriona

And yet more puzzles from Agatha Christie novels:

4. Whose son is Colin Lamb? (The Clocks, 1963)

Colin Lamb is the one-off investigator in The Clocks, a murder mystery tied up with espionage. He’s acquainted with Poirot through his father, whom Poirot knows and, perhaps, worked with in earlier years. This is all made clear when he arrives in London to lay the details of a curious murder case in front of Poirot.

But “Lamb” is not his real name; he works for an unspecified MI branch (presumably MI5 or MI6), and Lamb is his current pseudonym. His real name is never mentioned.

So who is his father? Is he someone we’ve already met in an earlier book?

Colin’s father is a police officer: Poirot makes sly comments about Colin following his father’s profession, but Colin points out that he’s following it in a rather tangential fashion. But which police officer?

He may, of course, be someone we’ve never met. But if he’s a character from earlier books, who could it be? The logical choices would be Chief Inspector Japp, Superintendant Spence, or Superintendant Battle, but none of them seem plausible options.

Japp’s personal life we know nothing about, as far as I can recall from my reading. But he’s primarily a character in the earlier books, and seems, perhaps, too senior a man to have a thirty-something son in the mid-1960s. For the same reason, I’m excluding another possible: Colonel Race. I don’t recall Race’s age being specified but he is not, I believe, a young man when he makes Poirot’s acquaintance.

(It’s also less likely that Colin would describe his career as tangentially like his father’s if his father were Race, since Race was involved in espionage work.)

But, then, what we know of the other men doesn’t make them more likely characters, either. Superintendant Battle we know has a daughter, whom we meet briefly and tangentially in Towards Zero (1944), while Superintendant Spence’s home life, as revealed in Hallowe’en Party (1969), centres on a house shared with an elderly sister: there’s no mention of a wife or children. That wouldn’t stop either man from having a son, but it does mean that neither man is explicitly described as having a son.

I can’t isolate who Colin Lamb’s father is and, given the ambiguous treatment of the character in The Clocks, I’m not sure we’re supposed to.

But it annoys me, nonetheless, in a mild fashion.

5. Does Poirot have any family?

Now this is a tricky one, because Poirot clearly lies all the time about his family: in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he talks of a cousin with developmental delays to induce confidences from a witness, and he does likewise with a relative suffering from jaundice in Dumb Witness (which I addressed in my last set of puzzles).

Similarly, the mysterious Achilles Poirot, the putative brother in The Big Four (1927), is—according to the standard reading, which I think is correct—Poirot himself in disguise. But is it possible that Poirot himself is entirely without family?

Poirot is Catholic: he mentions this on more than one occasion, most notably in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), when he recognises that the so-called Father Lavigny is like no priest with whom he, as good Catholic, is familiar. And for a Catholic man born in the nineteenth century to have no extended family whatsoever seems unlikely to me. In fact, in Three-Act Tragedy (1935), he mentions to Mr Satterthwaite that “as a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world” (47).

Against that, however, we have to consider the fact that Poirot is also Belgian, and Belgium suffered terribly in both World Wars. It is possible, if not likely, that his entire family may have been killed in one or the other of those conflicts.

But the incident that always strikes me as suggestive is the one in Cards on the Table (1936), where he sets a trap for a young girl he suspects of being an opportunistic thief by leaving her alone with small, luxurious items that he claims are Christmas presents for his nieces and nephews.

Among them are an enormous quantity of gossamer-thin silk stockings, the type of luxurious present that a doting uncle would plausibly buy for nieces, especially if those nieces were in straitened circumstances: the vast expense of the stockings has already given the shop assistant an entirely false impression of Poirot’s morals.

The quantity is ostensibly part of the trap: he believes, quite rightly, that the girl will be more tempted to take a few items from a large pile than from a small one, where their loss is more likely to be noticed.

What, then, is the purpose of these stockings? Are they purely to trap the thief? In which case, what does he do with them afterwards? Return them to the shop? Store expensive stockings against a rainy day?

Or does Poirot actually have nieces? Is he the doting uncle who feels that, with not only Christmas close but also, simultaneously, a man murdered almost under his nose, that this is an opportunity to undertake a small experiment and finish some of his Christmas shopping?

That does not seem an impossible solution to me. Poirot, with his occasional habit of calling himself “Papa Poirot” and his perpetual interest in the happiness of younger people—in Death on the Nile, for example, this interest induces him to allow a murderer to choose their own death—seems to me eminently suited to be the doting uncle who showers a bevy of pretty nieces with small luxuries each Christmas.

(Quote from Three-Act Tragedy from the 1972 Fontana edition.)

Does Anyone Else Think That DOCS Needs To Know About The Woolcots?

Posted 20 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve never read Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians before, but I picked it off the shelf yesterday (where it had been reposing undisturbed since June 2005—obviously another Lifeline BookFest buy).

And it’s frankly rather disturbing.

If anything, I think Captain Woolcot and his new young wife Esther might benefit from the assistance of the Department of Child Services.

And this is only my opinion after reading the first fifty pages. Goodness knows what horrors lies in the remaining pages.

It’s not the fact that Turner starts the book by saying, “If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily-inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately” (9).

There’s nothing particularly unusual about that: there was a spate of books in the later nineteenth century that positioned themselves against the sickeningly angelic protagonists of mainstream children’s literature, whether it is via the “all real children are a little naughty” approach that Turner adopts here (and Susan Coolidge, likewise, in What Katy Did (1872), some twenty years earlier than Turner’s work), or the slightly more complex ideological shifts behind such brave, straightforward, intelligent, and logical child protagonists as Carroll’s Alice or Baum’s Dorothy.

No, I can cope with naughty children. But the young Woolcots seem less “naughty” and more “borderline psychotic.”

Take young “Baby,” for instance.

Despite her name, Baby is not the baby; she is the youngest child of Captain Woolcot’s first wife. His second wife, twenty-year-old Esther, has a young child of her own, called “the General.” But Baby is always called “Baby,” and I have a sneaking suspicion that she resents the usurpation of her position by the General:

She had a weakness, however, for making the General cry, or she would have been almost a model child. Innumerable times he [sic] had been found pressing its poor little chest to make it “squeak,” and even pinching its tiny arms, or pulling its innocent nose, just for the strange pleasure of hearing the yells of despair it instantly set up. (13)

Yep, that’s not disturbing at all. Perhaps Baby is annoyed by her family’s apparent lack of interest in which gender she is.

(Mind, poor General is something of a whipping boy for the entire family: when the children are later punished for something I’ll address in detail below, the General, who has no idea what’s happening, “gave a series of delighted squeaks; and Judy in her wretchedness smacked him for his pains” (31). That’ll teach him to be delighted!)

Baby is also later found in the stable, apparently “washing” some pets:

There were two favourite kittens of his [her father’s], shivering, miserable, up to their necks in a lather of soapy water; and Flibberty-Gibbet, the beautiful little fox-terrier he had just bought for his wife, chained to a post, also wet, miserable, and woebegone, also undergoing the cleansing process, and being scrubbed and swilled till her very reason was tottering. (40)

Now, this is positioned as a baby’s attempt to “help,” but I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I’m a little suspicious. The frequent physical attacks on the actual baby, and the targeting of her father’s favourite cats and the stepmother’s new dog? Oh, yes: I think someone is a little jealous of anything that usurps her position in the house.

If I were you, other Woolcot children, I’d be keeping a close eye on Baby.

But, then, your father’s not going to do that, is he? Captain Woolcot is “very particular and rather irritable” (11), which is why he never socialises with his children at meal times.

He also enforces a sharp distinction in the type of food served to the children and to him and his wife: when the children feed on bread and butter and the adult Woolcots on roast chicken, the former rebel and troop down to the dining room to ask for chicken. While their father can’t refuse, since he has a guest present, he does later punish them by refusing to allow them to attend the pantomime.

No matter how often I read this passage, I can’t isolate why this behaviour warrants such a severe punishment.

But, then, Captain Woolcot, apparently, hates his children: “He did not understand children at all, and was always grumbling at the noise they made, and the money they cost” (17). He’s “rather proud” of his eldest son and sometimes takes his prettiest daughter out for a drive when she’s “prettily dressed” (17).

It’s not entirely surprising that he doesn’t care for his children: Captain Woolcot wants to live in the barracks in Sydney, but “every one in the officer’s quarters rose in revolt at the pranks of these graceless children,” so “in considerable bitterness of spirit” he moves to a real house (17).

Even then, he manages some form of revenge: he spends such enormous quantities of money on “three beautiful horses, one at the barracks and a hunter and a good hack at Misrule [his home]” (17-18) that his children “went about in shabby, out-at-elbow clothes, and much-worn boots” and, barring the eldest boy, were taught “by a very third-class daily governess” (18).

This isn’t the charming, genteel poverty of, say, the Marches or the Peppers. This is something else entirely: poverty enforced from a position of authority against only some of the household, punative poverty in response to perceived misdeeds and, in essence, to punish the children for even existing, for taking from Captain Woolcot his sporting, carefree, bachelor existence in the barracks.

I don’t think it’s only the children who are problematic in the Woolcot household.

And what of young Esther, the stepmother? She doesn’t suffer from the caprices of her husband: she eats roast chicken, rather than bread and butter, and, rather than rags and patches, wears “yellow silk” (26) or “a trailing morning wrapper of white muslin with cherry ribbons” (27). But although, in this sharply divided household, she is aligned with the powerful faction, she too needs some assistance:

It’s not simply that she treats the General “more as if it were a very entertaining kitten than a real live baby” (12). (That poor damn child!)

It’s not even that she can casually say of her infant son, “Nell, take the scissors from the General, he’ll poke his eyes out, bless him” or fail to notice that “the General, mulcted of the scissors, was licking his own muddy shoe all over with his dear little red tongue” (46).

Not, it’s that she’s not coping, at all:

The young stepmother leaned back in her chair and looked round her tragically. . . .

A sob rose in her throat, two tears welled up in her eyes and fell down her smooth, lovely cheeks.

“Seven of you, and I’m only twenty!” she said pitifully. “Oh! it’s too bad—oh dear! it is too bad.” (46)

Seriously, someone call DOCS, before Baby sets fire to the house, Captain Woolcot finally snaps, or Esther does something she’ll regret.

(All quotes from Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians. 1894. London: Ward, Lock, 1949.)

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Two

Posted 19 November 2008 in by Catriona

Continuing yesterday’s theme of issues that have puzzled me in Agatha Christie novels:

3. Did Mrs Varley poison her first husband? (Dumb Witness, 1937)

The redoubtable Emily Arundell dominates Dumb Witness, in part because of a narrative structure that, as far as I recall, Christie does not use in any other novel: though Miss Arundell’s death is the subject of the first sentence, the novel then flashes back to a fortnight before her death, and the victim is allowed to live again for the first four chapters.

We learn a little about Emily’s life in the novel: one of five children, four of them girls; the daughter of an irascible general who played his part in suppressing the Indian Mutiny and never ceased to talk about it, who drank brandy secretly, so that his daughters had to sneak the bottles out of the house in the dead of night and bury them, who was the archetypal domestic tyrant of late Victorian melodrama; the last surviving member of her family, despite being the “delicate one.” When she dies in 1936 (according to the epitaph in the novel), she is well over seventy: born, then, in the mid-Victorian era, she had a mid-Victorian life.

But Emily Arundell is not really the subject of this puzzle: that is about her only brother, Thomas.

We learn less about Thomas than we do about Emily, but what we do learn is intriguing. Thomas stays at home, being coddled and rather bullied by his sisters and certainly bullied by his father. He is meek and quiet, not an adventurous type.

And then he falls in love with Mrs Varley, on trial for murdering her first husband, cuts all the available clippings and photographs from the newspapers, and, when she is acquitted, tracks her down in London, proposes successfully, moves to the Channel Islands after a breach with his father, fathers two children, and outlives his wife by three years.

It’s tempting to say that this is not such a mid-Victorian life, but it’s certainly the stuff of which melodrama is made and perhaps nothing is quite so Victorian as a poisoning cause célèbre.

But did Mrs Varley murder her first husband? Some of the novel’s characters don’t care: they point out that she certainly didn’t poison her second husband, and that that’s the main thing.

But the plot does turn, in part, on a certain moral weakness in her offspring: son Charles is thoroughly without a conscience, and his sister Theresa is nearly as selfish and cold-blooded.

Theresa’s fiancé, Dr Donaldson, certainly seems to believe her mother was a murderess: he refers to Theresa as having not only an unfortunate upbringing, but also a bad heredity. Surely having a mother who was the unfortunate victim of circumstance (which is one way of reading her experience if she were innocent) does not make for bad heredity?

Then again, the fastidious Dr Donaldson may not be talking about her mother’s family. The bad heredity and the moral weakness could come from the father’s side: from roaring, drinking, boasting General Arundell.

That would be a subversive reading, since—secret brandy drinker though he was—General Arundell belongs to that class of good, upright “service people” who are so ostentatiously the backbone of the type of society with which Christie deals.

So perhaps it’s more plausible to suggest that Thomas Arundell might have had a closer shave than he realised.

(As a corollary to this puzzle, I’ve been wondering recently about the similarities between the back story of the Arundell family and the circumstances of the Bronte family: the houseful of women, the absence of a mother, the slightly odd father, the brother who breaks out in an unexpected way. I’m convinced this is entirely coincidental, but it does intrigue me, since Christie has a tendency to draw heavily on the late-Victorian lifestyle into which she was born and that her mother and—to a greater extent—grandmother perpetuated. A Bronte connection seems not outside the realms of possibility.)

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part One

Posted 18 November 2008 in by Catriona

And by puzzles, I mean unanswered questions—the sort of questions that would help fuel a Jasper Fforde novel set in the 1920s, or would provide fuel for John Sutherland if he abandoned the Victorian puzzles for Edwardian ones.

I’ve been re-reading a couple of neglected Agatha Christies while I’ve been marking, ones that I rarely re-read but which intrigue me slightly. And, for some reason, my brain’s been punctuating the reading with a series of “But whys?”

(Actually, that’s probably because, since all the courses I teach focus heavily on sentence-level writing, I spend the semester saying, “But why? Yes, you’re quite right: that does need a comma. But why?” I’m clearly not out of teaching mode quite yet.)

I meant to write this up as a single post, but the more I jotted down, the more I remembered. This, then, is the beginning of a short series of puzzles in Agatha Christie.

So here they are, in no particular order. I don’t have any answers to these, but I’m hoping someone, somewhere does, if the questions aren’t unanswerable.

Be warned: I’m not sure I can go into all these puzzles without spoilers, if anything said about an Agatha Christie novel can really be said to be a spoiler: I think even her last novels are my age.

1. Who does Lucy Eyelesbarrow marry? (4.50 From Paddington, 1957)

Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the one-off sleuth, working in conjunction with Miss Marple, in 4.50 From Paddington. With a degree in mathematics from an ancient seat of learning, she’s making her living as a “domestician,” exploiting the simultaneous shortage of domestic servants and the excess of people who grew up expecting there to be domestic servants, and she makes a fortune doing so.

Miss Marple makes her acquaintance prior to the book when Lucy is hired by Raymond West to care for his aunt as she recuperates from pneumonia: in this novel, she hires Lucy to locate a dead body.

Lucy is a fascinating character: a thoroughly modern counterpart to Miss Marple.

She’s also likely to marry one of the characters in the novel, but we never find out who she chooses. The house in which she works contains three people who either explicitly propose to her or seem likely to: the elderly Luther Crackenthorpe; his second son, the painter Cedric Crackenthorpe; and Luther’s son-in-law (husband to his dead daughter, Edith), the former fighter pilot Brian Eastley.

(Alfred Crackenthorpe, who also proposes to Lucy, is no longer in the running by the end of the book.)

Luther seems an unlikely choice but, Christie makes clear, Lucy is strongly attracted to both Cedric and Brian. The situation is not resolved in the book but, in the final section, Dermot Craddock—the Scotland Yard detective in charge of the case (as well as two others involving Miss Marple)—wonders aloud whom Lucy will marry: Miss Marple asks, “Don’t you know?” and twinkles at him.

Well, I don’t know. And I’d like to: I’m the sort of person who likes text at the end of a movie, telling me that everyone lived happily ever after.

And is Dermot himself in the running? Certainly, the recent BBC adaptation showed him as the successful suitor. There are, perhaps, hints in retrospect that he was attracted to Lucy, though I’m not certain I read their interactions in that fashion prior to seeing the adaptation. And Miss Marple’s final comment is rather pointed, though the fact that Craddock asks in the first place suggests he isn’t one of the hopeful men.

I’d be quite happy to conclude that Lucy married Dermot Craddock, though; I was always sorry not to see her again in later books and at least this way she’d be floating around invisibly in the back story.

2. How old is Lady Ravenscroft? (Elephants Can Remember, 1972)

In Elephants Can Remember, Poirot, with the assistance of Ariadne Oliver, investigates a crime some twelve or fifteen years old: the apparent double suicide of Sir Alistair and Lady Ravenscroft, the latter an old friend of Mrs Oliver’s from their schooldays.

In an early account of the crime, we’re told that Sir Alistair was approaching sixty at the time of his death and Lady Ravenscroft (Molly) was thirty-five.

When I first read that, I assumed it was simply an error, that the couple had been closer in age. Yet Molly’s age in reiterated later in the book as being thirty-five or, perhaps, closer to thirty-six.

The more it’s reiterated, though, the less plausible it sounds to me.

Certainly, there’s nothing implausible about an age difference of some twenty-five years. But it doesn’t seem to fit with the character of the relationship, which is described as mellowed, calm, sedate—an old, established marriage.

True, the Ravenscrofts have been married some years: they have a school-age son and a slightly older daughter who, since she is twenty-six when the suicide is being investigated, would have been about thirteen when it occurred. That certainly fits with Molly’s age, though the marriage is described as though it were one of some forty years’ duration, not fifteen.

But then there’s Molly herself. We’re told she’s rather vain and spends an enormous amount of her private income on clothes.

Fair enough. Vanity is not limited to relative youth.

We’re simultaneously told, however, that she wears a wig with gray streaks.

(Minor spoiler: the wig is, it is revealed, actually worn by another woman. But, since it is worn with a view to making a woman Molly’s age look much more like Molly, I think my coming point is valid.)

A wig streaked with gray does not, to me, sound like something a rather vain thirty-five-year-old woman would wear. It seems to belong to an older woman, a woman closer to her husband’s age.

From the information given, we’d have to accept Molly’s age as thirty-five. But it seems to me her marriage and her wig both belong to an older woman.

Random Weirdness from Girls' Annuals

Posted 12 November 2008 in by Catriona

As with the last set of random weirdnesses (the plural works for me, and I’m keeping it), this series comes from a girls’ annual: this one is Our Darlings, from John F. Shaw and Co. There’s no publication date, but the inscription reads 22nd January 1933, and these types of books proliferated around Christmas time, so 1932 sounds plausible.

1932 is in keeping with the illustrations, too.

These vary between simplistic but relatively realistic black-and-white line drawings:

More stylised illustrations with a blocky and limited colour palette:

And the occasional, far more elaborate full-page, full-colour illustration:

Some of the stylised colour illustrations work well, especially when they strongly evoke an Art Nouveau aesthetic, rather than the “all children like sickeningly cute illustrations, right?” vibe of the skipping illustration above (and, of course, of thousands of children’s books published in this era).

This one, for example, has a lovely angularity and stunning colour palette:

Also? I covet that lamp shade.

Some of them, though, are just weird:

And can’t you tell, just based on this illustration, that that little girl would be thoroughly annoying?

(She’s singing, by the way. I know it looks as though she’s just sustained a sharp blow to the side of the head, but apparently she’s singing for the entertainment of her mother’s friends. While dressed as a pumpkin. See my point above.)

(At least, I assume she’s dressed as a pumpkin. It could just be a remarkably puffy, bright orange dress, I suppose. But did you look at her hands? Horrifying!)

Of course, some of the black-and-white illustrations are far more terrifying:

This is from a story called “The Fairy Shoe Dance.” But, honestly—I don’t see how that could possibly be a sufficient excuse.

(Those anthropomorphised shoe brushes? With their polishing? I think they’ll be haunting my nightmares tonight.)

Is Nick Chopper Actually A Robot?

Posted 8 November 2008 in by Catriona

In a self-referential loop the likes of which you really only find on the Internet, I was inspired to start thinking about this as a result of a post on Smithology that was partly inspired by my own reading of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

It sounds complicated, but it’s not—Matt talks about a paper on cybernetics that he had been reading, which cites the Tin Woodman, otherwise known as Nick Chopper, as a precursor to the robots of 1930s’ science fiction.

And I thought, “Fair enough.”

But only briefly.

Because then I started wondering whether the piece also cites Tik-Tok, the mechanical man who makes his appearance in Ozma of Oz (1907)—Matt tells me it does—and that in turn reminded me of some exchanges between Tik-Tok and the Tin Woodman, which made me wonder whether the latter really is a robot, at all.

He could be a precursor to the robots of 1930s’ science fiction without himself being a robot, of course. But it seems to me that the situation is more complicated than that.

Tik-Tok is undoubtedly a robot: he was invented by two men in the Kingdom of Ev who were ultimately destroyed by their own artistry: one painted a river so lifelike that he fell in and drowned while trying to touch up some details on the far side, and the other built a ladder to the moon, which he found so enticing that he pulled up the ladder behind him and never returned.

He is also, he tells Dorothy, “the on-ly au-to-mati-ic me-chan-i-cal man they ev-er com-plet-ed” (Ozma of Oz, 45).

(Unfortunately, he does speak in that staccato fashion.)

But he is clearly a machine, and sentient only when fully wound (since he operates by clockwork). When imprisoned by the King of Ev, for example:

I shout-ed for help un-til my voice ran down; and then I walked back and forth in this lit-tle room un-til my ac-tion ran down; and then I stood still and thought un-til my thoughts ran down. Af-ter that I re-member noth-ing un-til you wound me up a-gain. (Ozma of Oz, 39)

For Tik-Tok, there is no clash here between science fiction and fantasy. In fact, he sees his existence as indicative of the latter, not the former, telling Dorothy, who has been speculating as to whether Ev is a fairy kingdom, “I do not sup-pose such a per-fect ma-chine as I am could be made in an-y place but a fair-y land” (Ozma of Oz, 40).

And he denies being alive. When the Scarecrow asks him point blank, he responds, “I am on-ly a ma-chine. But I can think and speak and act, when I am pro-per-ly wound up” (Ozma of Oz, 68).

And here’s the fascinating part: the Tin Woodman, who is a party to this conversation, immediately weighs in and rejects any comparison between himself and Tik-Tok:

I regret to say that you are greatly inferior to my friend the Scarecrow, and to myself. For we are both alive, and he has brains which do not need to be wound up, while I have an excellent heart that is continually beating in my bosom. (Ozma of Oz, 68-69)

The Tin Woodman does not see himself as mechanical? And his heart—the heart that we’re told in The Wizard of Oz is “a pretty heart, made entirely of silk and stuffed with sawdust” (155)—actually beats in his chest?

Of course, the idea of the heart beating might be exaggeration or imagination on the Tin Woodman’s part; he and the Scarecrow never do accept, as Dorothy does, that the Wizard is a humbug—and, indeed, they’re ultimately vindicated, when he returns to Oz to learn magic from Glinda the Good.

But I’m inclined to believe that his heart does beat, because it’s in keeping with his extraordinary origin story.

Nick Chopper, of course, starts life as a perfectly ordinary Munchkin man, whose love for a Munchkin maiden—whose name, revealed in The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918), is Nimmie Amee—attracts the ire of the witch to whom Nimmie Amee is in servitude. The witch enchants Nick’s axe, which “slips” as he works and chops off various limbs.

In each case, Nick replaces the limb with a tin prosthetic. When his head is removed, “at first I thought that was the end of me” (The Wizard of Oz, 42), but he is fortunate enough that the tinsmith who has been working on him is passing, and “he made me a new head out of tin” (The Wizard of Oz, 42).

This is where the ambiguities slip in.

There’s nothing more to the description than this: the Tin Woodman never explains whether he is aware while his head is lying separate from his body, whether there is a period of death before his metal head is reattached, or whether, in the latter case, the tinsmith has to transfer his brain from his first head to his second one.

The Tin Woodman himself has no qualm or concern about this: it is only the final stage of his alteration that concerns him, when his axe slips a final time and cuts his torso in half. Although this is replaced with a tin one, he loses his heart and, thus, his love for Nimmie Amee is also lost (until The Tin Woodman of Oz, when, as it turns out, she hasn’t been waiting for him to return, as he fondly hopes).

But he’s alive all the way through this experience; he is alive as a Munchkin wood chopper, and he is alive as a Tin Woodman—with no apparent delineation between the two states.

The Tin Woodman is not unique. Many other inhabitants of Oz are alive without being human—or, perhaps, “Munchkin” would be a better term than “human” here.

The clearest examples are the four people brought to life with the Powder of Life created by the Crooked Magician, Dr Pipt (though Dr Pipt’s involvement is ambiguous until The Patchwork Girl of Oz): Jack Pumpkinhead; the Gump; Scraps, The Patchwork Girl; and Bungle, the Glass Cat.

The Gump—as a composite creature created from sofas, palm leaves, a broomstick, and the head of a Gump, shot and mounted as a trophy on the wall—doesn’t last long before he begs to be restored to his former state. But when the head is remounted on Ozma’s palace wall, it remains alive and speaks randomly to visitors.

But Jack Pumpkinhead is an odd case; created in The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904), he spends the entire book crippled by the terror of his approaching death: with a body constructed of hardwood but a jack o’lantern head, he is devastated by his awareness that pumpkins eventually spoil. Though the Powder of Life is sprinkled evenly along his body as well as his head, it is the eventual spoilation of his head that he fears.

It is not until The Road to Oz (1909) that Jack learns he can carve himself a new face when he feels that his old one is spoiling.

Jack Pumpkinhead is alive—as are Scraps, Bungle, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman, where Tik-Tok is not.

So is the Tin Woodman—entirely made from tin, though later plated in nickel—a robot?

Many of the classic science-fiction novels and films that deal with the clash between humans and robots question whether robots are alive or not.

The Tin Woodman is certainly alive, for all that he is made from metal (barring his silk and sawdust heart)—with the ambiguity of his origin, the continuity of his memories of his early life, and his later attempts to track down the woman he loved when he was a Munchkin.

The Tin Woodman may be a progenitor of 1930s’ science fiction robots, but I’m not convinced he’s a robot himself.

(All the quotes from Ozma of Oz are taken from the 1985 Puffin paperback reprint.
All quotes from The Wizard of Oz are taken from the 1977 printing of the 1956 Grosset & Dunlap hardback.)

The Strange Places To Which A John R. Neill Obsession Can Lead

Posted 6 November 2008 in by Catriona

Someone came across the blog this morning by Googling “Dorothy + Ozma + lesbians,” which I’m fairly certain is not a topic that I’ve ever covered on the blog.

I imagine there’s a fair degree of fan fiction out there along those lines.

I never read their relationship as sexual, but, then, I’m not really looking for sexual relationships between characters when I read children’s fantasy.

For the record, though, here’s John R. Neill’s depiction of their “rapturous” meeting in The Road to Oz:

The Road to Oz (1909). Rand Mcnally, n.d. 205.

Read that as you will.

Continuing My Current Obsession With John R. Neill

Posted 5 November 2008 in by Catriona

(On another note, I took all of these photos from the same book, so I have no idea how they turned out to be such radically different colours. Odd.)

Partway through The Road to Oz, Dorothy—on her third visit to Oz—arrives at the castle of her old friend Nick Chopper, the Tin Woodman, Emperor of the Winkies.

She comes face to face with tin statues of herself and her companions on her original journey to Oz.

And John R. Neill comes face to face with his predecessor, W. W. Denslow:

After all, as Baum says, the statue was “life-size and showed her in her sunbonnet with her basket on her arm, just as she had first appeared in the Land of Oz” (The Road to Oz, Rand McNally, n.d. 162), and it was Denslow who decided how Dorothy first appeared.

It’s so charming, this illustration—despite the fact that Toto appears to be a psychopathic chihuahua in this instance. But the homage to Denslow; the sharp clash between the original illustrator’s heavily stylised and blocky work and Neill’s Art Nouveau magazine style; the shift from the turn-of-the-century Dorothy, more Victorian than twentieth-century child, to the smartly dressed 1909 girl, still fin de siecle but leaving Victorian restrictions behind—all these draw the reader into the illustration, giving depth and complexity to a world that was really only starting to leave its mark on the broader culture.

And, of course, it leaves Neill free to explore his own ideas about the fluidity and excess that can be brought to Oz illustrations, as in the elaborate furniture and the swirling draperies of Polychrome, the Rainbow’s Daughter, in this illustration (167):

Or how to put his own stamp on recognisable characters, as in this illustration of Dorothy greeting the Cowardly Lion (183):

For the modern reader, I suspect that Judy Garland is a more pervasive image in the mind’s eye than Denslow’s Dorothy. But in 1909, Neill seems to have recognised that he needed the two images to co-exist in the reader’s mind—even if one was tin and one was flesh.

The Death Of Jezebel

Posted 3 November 2008 in by Catriona

1 Kings 21: 20-23 (King James Version)

20 And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee: because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the LORD.

21 Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel,

22 And will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the provocation wherewith thou hast provoked me to anger, and made Israel to sin.

23 And of Jezebel also spake the LORD, saying, The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.

2 Kings 9: 6-10 (King James Version)

6 And he arose, and went into the house; and he poured the oil on his head, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I have anointed thee king over the people of the LORD, even over Israel.

7 And thou shalt smite the house of Ahab thy master, that I may avenge the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD, at the hand of Jezebel.

8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel:

9 And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah:

10 And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the portion of Jezreel, and there shall be none to bury her. And he opened the door, and fled.

2 Kings 9: 30-37 (King James Version)

30 And when Jehu was come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window.

31 And as Jehu entered in at the gate, she said, Had Zimri peace, who slew his master?

32 And he lifted up his face to the window, and said, Who is on my side? who? And there looked out to him two or three eunuchs.

33 And he said, Throw her down. So they threw her down: and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses: and he trode her under foot.

34 And when he was come in, he did eat and drink, and said, Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her: for she is a king’s daughter.

35 And they went to bury her: but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands.

36 Wherefore they came again, and told him. And he said, This is the word of the LORD, which he spake by his servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, In the portion of Jezreel shall dogs eat the flesh of Jezebel:

37 And the carcase of Jezebel shall be as dung upon the face of the field in the portion of Jezreel; so that they shall not say, This is Jezebel.

I have this Gustave Dore illustration of the death of Jezebel hanging in my living room, among a number of other biblical prints, though am I myself not at all religious.

It haunts me a little, the death of Jezebel, partly from my own reading of the story and partly from Tom Robbins’s ruminations on it in Skinny Legs and All (1990).

It’s not so much the death: I can see where that fits into the brutal social structure of an earlier time.

But that her name is a byword for, in’s words, “a wicked, shameless woman”? Where does that come from?

Surely a king’s daughter can greet her country’s conquerers with her hair arranged and her eyelids painted without being considered shameless?

Else what hope is there for the rest of us?



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