Patricia Wentworth - an Appreciation

We all have our preferences and guilty pleasures. I once categorized my fondness for the detective novels of British author Patricia Wentworth as the latter, but I'm past that. I am tickled by her thought, charmed by her syntax, and am an unmixed fan of her observations on life. Her adequately crafted plots are well toward the bottom of my list of reasons for reading and rereading her novels annually.

Wentworth, LilaWhat makes us love an author? Do we see something of ourselves in them?
My friend Linda actually reads the Victorian novels of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth. A professor friend wrote his thesis on Jack London, and annotated London's semi-autobiographical Martin Eden. Weightier minds than mine return to Shakespeare. Dickens repays a reread. I come back to Patricia Wentworth mysteries for the pleasure of the author's company. She had me at hello when I stumbled across her in a used bookstore, and paid five whole dollars for a hardback compendium of three of her novels. I saw bits of my own style of decision-making on the first page: "Tea, or coffee? It was always a moot point whether refreshment-room tea was nastier than refreshment-room coffee... Miss Treherne decided she would have coffee. She liked it less than tea, and would therefore not mind so much whether it was good or bad. It would at any rate be scalding hot."

This is a minor observation, but of course, that's the stuff of good writing. A minor observation that encapsulates a character, if the reader's antenna is sensitive. In this case, Miss Treherne has a disposition not to complain, and to make sensible adjustments in the face of adversity, which is why (spoiler alert) she is able to thwart, with help, a nefarious plot against her.

Help comes in the dowdy form of Wentworth's "elderly" detective, Miss Maud Silver, who springs from the same culture, the same soil (literally), as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. It looks like she even predates Miss Marple by a few months, which would be a cherry to top the sundae of my appreciation for Wentworth. Miss Silver has a laundry list of characteristics that appear faithfully in almost every novel in which she herself appears: her furniture - Victorian, her dresses - invariably ugly, her hats - black, of felt or straw, with trimmings described with care in every, blessed, book. Her omnipresent knitting. I surely haven't said anything yet that makes you love her, and Wentworth goes out of her way to trot out the off-putting aspects of her detective, including her propensity to quote Alfred Lord Tennyson at the drop of any unprincipled hat.

Wentworth, Miss
        SilverMaybe that's what I love. Wentworth has a kindly view of human nature that allows for bad sartorial taste and outdated reading habits and yet... through the screen of questionable decisions on style emerges a consistent pattern of right thought and right behavior. Miss Silver is invariably unselfish and invariably wise, and, when the plot requires it, she has a connection with "Providence" that enables her to be exactly where she needs to be to prevent murder and mayhem.

Modern readers may find this boring. What, is there no nuance to her character? No chink in her Victorian armor? No human weakness? No, I'm afraid not. Perhaps this is not realistic. It doesn't bother me; I like the safe mooring of an infallible character in a very fallible world. Call me childish.

My appreciation is very little dampened by the flaws in her work. I find the weak and fainting female character from Central Casting that Wentworth occasionally employs annoying. Always given a soft name like Lila or Ina, this character cannot be expected to answer a question, lift a finger, or move her pretty self out of harm's way. She is seldom the hero, but her total inability to solve any sort of problem is often the source of the plot. Wherever she appears, I grind my teeth. In every instance, though, Wentworth writes in a foil - a plucky get-it-done sort of girl with a robust name like Marian or Ray - upon whom the solution depends, even as the plot depended on her weak-kneed sister. (See The Ivory Dagger or The Case is Closed).

Another critique is the formulaic pattern of a Wentworth novel. She was, after all, writing when every mystery writer worth his ink was trying out the limits of the form. They all had their tricks. But Wentworth, while using a spice rack full of tricks, seems to me to be more about the details that reveal the character that saves the day. Plotting within the confines of the detective novel provided her some fun, and then more opportunity to reveal what she believed about life in a paragraph here, a paragraph there, on page after page of sixty some-odd novels.

If my fondness for Patricia Wentworth were all about plotting or characterization, these shortcomings would be deal-breakers. But it isn't. I’ll cheerfully buy a ticket for whatever ride she takes me on, for the pleasure of the author's company. It's not just Miss Silver, much as she delights me, or her plucky Girl Fridays or her beefy male heroes who always, always, end up married happily to Friday; no, it's Wentworth's observations, quips and descriptions that speed them along their eventful journeys through life in greater Great Britain.
(Allow me to digress. This is a pet topic, and I'm rather letting myself go. Another justifiable critique is the homogenous nature of Wentworth's body of work. Everything I can think of is set in Merrie England, with a cast containing no character of any sort of color. The time is invariably the first half of the tumultuous twentieth century. (Oh! Except some early works. Her first novel is set in the French Revolution. Entitled A Marriage Under the Terror, this prize-winning potboiler launched her career in 1887. Before 1923, actually, a few of her books are set in far-away places with strange-sounding names, and are usually not part of my annual reread.) But here's my point - the very homogenous-ness of time, place, and people make the observations on human character especially pointed. We aren’t distracted by colorful native dress, whether Scandinavian or African, to occupy our mind's eye; we won't be entertained by descriptions of tropical beaches or Swiss Alps. No, we will be served a platter of commentary on the ways of daily life in mid-century England, and we will be entertained by the detail of the ordinary as it reveals tiny insights into human character. The common culture of the characters makes the make-up of their mind the focus, not their quirky mannerisms. There will be a lot of rain and a great deal of tea. But how the tea is made, served, and sipped tells us things about the characters, the same things we would learn if they were interacting with rice in China or beans in Mexico. [Excuse the trite examples - I'm out of my area of expertise when it comes to international foods.] It's not the tea, it's the detail, and Wentworth follows that excellent authorial maxim of writing about what she knows.)

Wentworth, Girl
        FridayMost of Wentworth's characters, like Christie's, are imported straight from Central Casting, yes. But her observations about them and handling of them have much to say about the human condition, and are permeated with kindness. Kindness, my favorite virtue, the winning attribute of God's that draws humankind to Him, kindness. Wentworth people may be stock characters, but she mixes them up in a kindly manner that is, I think, unique to her. She has room in her writer's heart for all sorts of opinions, all sorts of styles. One leading lady eschews face powder and lipstick, the next embraces both. In one book, an old family manse is an albatross around the family's neck, in the next, it’s a heritage to be cherished. The same happens with people. She'll write a feckless youth into a book - the sort of young man who is destined to live his fictional life as a bad guy - but, for instance, in The Fingerprint, he is an unlikely hero. His love interest is an untruthful and manipulative wench of seventeen who is believably turned toward goodness by novel's end. This sort of girl is seldom allowed to heal or grow in fiction. In modern works, she's a character who is fine as she is - we'll allow some lying, some selfish behavior, who's to judge? She faces no consequences in current fiction. And in the fiction of Wentworth's day, the minx was too useful as a generator of heartbreak and mayhem to waste precious page space reforming her. But Wentworth does. She sees human weakness with a gimlet eye, and moves heaven and good solid British earth to transform and redeem it on the pages of her mysteries. The process gives me hope that I too, am redeemable, even in my least attractive moments.

Patricia Wentworth reforms that girl and many, many others. Some characters, by merely meeting dowdy Miss Silver, have their come-to-Jesus moment. I'm okay with that - Jesus had that effect on people. A character's fate hangs in the balance in the moment when they meet Miss Silver and decide whether or not to trust her. This out-of-date lady detective is a human litmus test that reveals the state of the character's heart. Wentworth lets some walk out of her Victorian chambers to their doom, but they had a choice.

I like the old-fashioned notion of excellent personal principles leading to happiness and, in the case of a Wentworth mystery, True Love. There's a lot of True Love in these books. It undoes their effectiveness as mysteries, because, once the reader is familiar with the author, they know that no True Love-er could've dunnit, and that sadly depletes the number of suspects. So be it. I'm not in it for the plotting, as I mentioned.

What then does a sedate British lady detective from eighty years ago have to say to the world we find ourselves in? Some would say, not much. The particulars are, after all, stunningly different.  What, hats and gloves and stockings are worn at all times? What, 'tea' is a meal, and seems to take place, come hell or high boiling water, at precisely four p.m.? What, all the villagers can listen in on each other's telephone calls on the party line? What, the 'estate' is 'entailed' and so the family’s second son is penniless? Many particulars have changed, certainly, but human personality has not, and underlying character is Patricia Wentworth's specialty.

I won't apologize for being a fan. Below are three favorite excerpts, beginning with one of fifty-odd descriptions of Miss Silver, all equally tongue-in-cheek, yet kind:

...a small, dowdy-looking woman… curled fringe under a close net, small neat features under a black hat with a bunch of mignonette and pansies pinned on one side and two old-fashioned hatpins keeping it in place, black cloth jacket with the shoulder line and waist of a bygone day, laced shoes very neatly blacked, thick grey stockings, and a fur tie which had probably been at its best round about the time of King George V's accession to the throne. Black gloved hands carried a small case and a tidily rolled umbrella.
from Miss Silver Deals with Death

Miss Silver has her own reading habits:

She did not care for the book they had given her at the library yesterday, and she thought she would change it. She would prefer a novel in which the characters had at least heard of the ten commandments and did not begin drinking at ten in the morning after having kept it up for most of the night. Their behaviour under this alcoholic stimulus she considered to be totally lacking in interest.
from Through the Wall

And here, my favorite from among many commentaries on village life:

The Melbury police, to whom the disappearance had been reported, had sent over a constable to make inquiries, but rumour had it that he had found it quite impossible to induce Mrs. Maple to hear his questions. It being well known in the village that she didn't hold with the police and could at any time be as deaf as she chose, nobody was surprised. It was, in fact, considered that Constable Denning had taken an unfair advantage by submitting a set of questions in writing and Mrs. Maple's defensive action in mislaying her glasses and declaring that she couldn't read a word without them was warmly approved.
from Vanishing Point

Read that out loud and note the flow. Marvel, if you will, at just how much information, opinion, and insight is worked into three sentences. Little literary feats like this endear the author to me. I trust her to take me on a journey through the labyrinth of human personality, wrap it up in excellent syntax, and leave me refreshed, amused, and even enlightened.