Tag Archives: Anthony Trollope

The Chianti Flask

A review of The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Originally published in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, The Chianti Flask is more of a psychological novel than a piece of out and out detective fiction. There is a little bit of detective work towards the end of the book, but the book really reads like a hangover of those novels so beloved by the Victorians which explore a moral dilemma, a sort of second-class Trollope, with a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in.

The book opens with the trial of Laura Dousland who is accused of the murder of her husband, Fordish, by poisoning. The case hinges on a Chianti flask. The Dousland’s Italian servant, Angelo Terugi, claimed that he left, as usual, a flask of Chianti on his master’s tray before he went out. Laura claimed that there was no such flask on the tray which she took up to her husband on that fateful night and the flask was not found.

Laura cuts a sympathetic figure in the courtroom, while Angelo’s clumsy English provokes waves of laughter and, anyway, you can never trust a foreigner. Laura is acquitted, principally as a result of the evidence of a young doctor, Mark Scrutton, who reveals Fordish’s fascination with poison. Although at liberty, her friends are astonished that she is not delighted and prefers to hide herself away. Inevitably, though, she falls in love with the dashing doctor.

Laura’s dilemma is whether she can run the risk the promising career of the doctor by associating herself, a woman who has been accused of a heinous crime, albeit acquitted, with him. Scrutton’s family also have qualms about the impact of their son’s reputation if he married the woman, although Scrutton, lovestruck, is less concerned, but as a keen horticulturalist, is keen to restore the garden of the Dousland’s austere house in an effort to improve its market price.

A bit of gardening leads to a discovery which throws a different perspective on to Laura and Mark’s dilemma.

Lowndes, sister of Hilaire Belloc, makes a better fist of what seems a rather unpromising storyline than I had anticipated, and the book is entertaining enough. It will not immediately appeal to those who like a straightforward murder mystery, but if you like a book that explores the psychological impact of being involved in a crime, even if ultimately acquitted, and the consequences of guilt by association, then this may well appeal to you.

I saw the book also as a bit of a proto-feminist tract. Laura was of middle-class stock but had no money and was forced to earn her living as a governess. She was bullied by her then employer to marry Fordish, a man considerably older than her and considered an odd fish even by his friends. Marriage would give her the security that living by her wits would not, although it was clearly an unsuitable match, which Laura had grave concerns about right at the start. For women in her position at the time, marriage was their only viable option. Inevitably, it was an unhappy marriage, and it is easy to see why Laura, desperate for a way out, could have considered the use of poison.  

It also raises the question of the stigma that can attach to women. Her prospects were damaged by her association with the crime, her name and reputation besmirched by having to stand trial, notwithstanding her satisfying the judge and jury of her innocence. Her so-called friends saw as a source of interest and scandal and it would take a brave or reckless man, such as Scrutton, to attempt her rehabilitation into society. Again, marriage was the only way out. There had to be a better way open to a woman in Laura’s situation.

An intriguing book rather than a classic.

Arrest The Bishop?

Arrest the Bishop? – Winifred Peck

Should you ever have a direct interrogatory statement as the title of your novel? Anthony Trollope occasionally did and was roundly criticised for it, but such considerations do not seem to have worried Winifred Peck in this, her second of two, detective stories, first published in 1949 and now reissued by the wonderful Dean Street Press. The action is set in 1920 and in a bishop’s palace, a setting Peck would know well as she was a daughter of a bishop. Although the action occurs around Christmas, it is not remotely a Christmas tale, but the inevitable and obligatory heavy snowfall ensures that the speed with which investigations can proceed is severely hampered and that the culprit has little opportunity to effect their escape.

The victim is a nasty piece of work, the Reverend Ulder, who was involved in some scandal five years ago which the church hierarchy, as is their wont, hushed up, but he is now on his uppers and has the dirt on the Bishop, Dr Broome, his Chancellor, Chailly, the Canon, Wye, the bishop’s eldest daughter, Judith, and a young Irish priest about to be ordained. The Broomes are holding a weekend party to take in the ordination and the anticipated arrival of Ulder sets everybody’s nerves on edge.

Like Marley’s ghost, Ulder turns up the worse for drink and immediately collapses. The doctor who attends prescribes six morphia tablets with strict instructions as to their application and orders no strong drink. During the evening Ulder is visited by each of the main characters and the following morning is found dead – from morphia poisoning.

Helpfully, Ulder had a piece of paper close by him, naming each of his blackmail victims and how much he was trying to extort out of each to fund his emigration to a new life in America. Was one of these the murderer? His second piece of luggage has mysteriously disappeared. What did it contain and who stole it? Had it anything to do with the murder?

In charge of the investigations for the police is Chief Constable Mack who has it in for the bishopric for its cover up over past misdemeanours and he is convinced from the evidence before him that the Bishop is the murderer, a conclusion that leads him to the statement “I must arrest the Bishop”. It would cause quite a stir to arrest the bishop and he needs to pluck up courage and seek higher (mortal) authority before he can make his step.

Also involved in the investigations, sometimes in tandem with Mack and sometimes independently, is one of the priests to be ordained, Dick Marling, formerly a member of Military Intelligence. Because of his position in the church he is trusted and is able to find out more than the antagonistic Mack.

There are suspects galore, red herrings, close shaves with death. an invalid servant, a shifty butler with previous, a ditsy motor mouth of a fast-living girl in the form of Judith Broome, the Bishop’s wayward eldest daughter, and the obligatory love interest provided by Marlin’s inamorata, Sue Broome. Even Irish terrorism rears its ugly head. There are twists and turns galore in this fast-moving and compelling story and, rather like a game Cluedo, the careful investigation and elimination of the key suspects leads to a surprising and inevitable conclusion. Things are not always what they seem and even the most unlikely and seemingly innocent character can be the guilty party.

I enjoyed this book. It is a shame that Peck did not continue with her detective writing. It is our loss.       

The Lost Game Of Snap-Dragon

Those who bemoan the influence of ‘Elf and Safety on the way we conduct ourselves may lament the disappearance of the wacky game of Snap-dragon which was particularly popular around Christmas. It is fascinating to speculate how many hosts sent their guests to bed on Christmas Eve nursing blistered hands and scorched tongues. The game, which one contemporary noted “provided a considerable amount of laughter and merriment at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors”, was simple enough and even merited a definition in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.

All you needed was a bowl, some brandy, and raisins. First you placed the raisins in the bowl and then poured the brandy in. Your guests, trembling in anticipation of the excitement and perils ahead of them, would be commanded to stand around the bowl, which was strategically positioned in the centre of the table to protect the players from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. The brandy would then be set alight and the object of the game was to plunge your hand into the fiery liquid, extract a raisin and eat it.

Johnson defined it more eloquently; “a play in which they catch raisins out of branding brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. Richard Steele game some colour in his piece for Tatler, commenting “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit”. To jolly things along and heighten the tension even more, you could chant a rhyme at the start of the proceedings; “with the blue and lapping tongue/ many of you will be stung/ Snip! Snap! Dragon!/ For he snaps at all that comes/ snatching at his feast of plums/ Snip!, Snap! Dragon!

The game’s origins date back to at least the sixteenth century, gaining name checks in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) and Henry IV Part II (1598). The 18th and 19th centuries saw it at its height of popularity. Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Austen Knight, wrote in 1806 “different amusements every night? We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon and…we danced or played cards”. The game of Snap-Dragon is mentioned in such disparate literary sources as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. Indeed, the game was part of the Yuletide tradition until its popularity was extinguished early in the 20th century when people became a little more attuned to thinking that singeing guests was not playing cricket.

So popular was the game that the distinguished scientist, Michael Faraday, was moved to give a chemical explanation of the Snap-Dragon phenomenon in his The Chemical History of the Candle, published in 1860. His thesis was that the raisins acted like miniature wicks, and rather like when you pour brandy on a Christmas pudding, it is hot but not hot enough to incinerate the fruit. Even so, for the unwary there was a nasty treat in store.

If you did not have any raisins to hand, almonds would do and any flammable drink could replace brandy. A variant of the game involved the placing of a lighted candle in a cup of ale or cider and the player was invited to drink without singeing their face. A beard or moustache would be a distinct handicap. In the United States the game was associated with Halloween as much as Christmas.

To add extra spice to the proceedings, one of the raisins had a gold button attached to it or, failing that, was designated as the lucky fruit. Whoever succeeded in extracting the special raisin was given a favour or treat of their choosing. In another variant, whoever extracted the most raisins was predicted to meet the love of their life within the next twelve months. I wonder if they did.

Book Corner – October 2019 (5)

The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

The nights are drawing in and it is time to curl up with another Trollope. The Claverings, written in 1864 but not serialised in the Cornhill Magazine until 1866 and published in book form until a year later, could rightly be described as one of Trollope’s unappreciated gems. The author was rather pleased with it, noting in his Autobiography that it was well-written, with both humour and pathos. The problem, though, as he noted, was “I am not aware that the public has ever corroborated that verdict. I doubt now whether anyone reads The Claverings”, he sniffed.     

Well, if very few read it then, matey, these days it has pretty much fallen off the radar screen. If anyone reads Trollope nowadays it is probably going to be the Barchester series or the Pallisters or The Way We Live Now, which is a shame. The Claverings is classic Trollope and a perfect introduction to his world and style.

Yes, it is a tad long-winded – what Victorian novel, especially one written for serialisation, isn’t? – but has a pace about it and an engaging enough story to keep the reader interested. It is almost as perfect a novel as you can imagine, not a thread left undone, every loose end tied up. Trollope playfully cross-references the Barsetshire series, Bishop Proudie forbidding Henry Clavering, the rector, from fox hunting. So, why did it never find much favour with the reading public?

Part of the trouble, I think, lies in the fact that the lead characters are a tad ordinary with all the human failings of the common man. As the narrator of the story says, “men as I see them are not often heroic”. The plot revolves around a love triangle. The story opens with Julia Brabazon rejects the marriage proposal of Harry Clavering, a man she loves but who has very modest prospects, in favour of hooking up with the loathsome, dissolute but rich, Lord Ongar. In answer to the obvious Mrs Merton question, Julia “had no reliance on her own power of living on a potato, with one new dress every year”.       

The marriage was an ordeal but Lord Ongar quickly succumbed to the strains imposed on his body by his dissolute lifestyle. Meanwhile Harry has plighted his troth to Florence Burton, the daughter of his boss. When Julia reappears on the scene, what should Harry do, return to his first love or remain faithful to his vow of marriage? Cue much soul-searching and wringing of hands as all three protagonists try and work their way through this moral Gaudian knot.      

It takes an intervention of Neptune as an improbable and extremely convenient deus ex machina to resolve the dilemma. The accident, telegraphed well before it occurs, suggests that Trollope was grappling for a way out for his story and many might see it as a structural weakness which detracts from the reader’s enjoyment of the book. I find with many a Victorian novel you need to suspend credulity when considering the plot. Whether you consider the device to be a cop out or not, it does free the main characters from their torment.

I thought Trollope treated the moral anguish of the characters with sympathy and gave the reader an insight into their psychologies. On a more superficial level, the book is full of humour, social insight and pathos. Along the way we meet some wonderful characters including a supposed Russian spy, the sporting and devious Captain Boodle, who I’m sure gets a namecheck in Phineas Redux, a belligerent cleric, Dr Saul, the brothers Clavering, Sir Hugh of the hard heart and Archie, the feckless one, a sleazy foreign Count and many more.

I enjoyed the book and as a book that stands alone as opposed to being one of a series and being of moderate length (by the standards of the day) it is a good introduction to the author.

What Is The Origin Of (235)?

Darby and Joan

There are some benefits to growing old. Admittedly, the limbs are not as supple as they once were, there are more aches and pains and the faculties are not as sharp, but it is a pleasure to be able to do what I want at a pace of my choosing. My wife and I are in danger of becoming that archetypal elderly couple, Darby and Joan, spending our final years, decades I trust, in contentment. Where does the phrase come from and who were Darby and Joan, if anyone?

There is a tendency, as we have seen, in etymological researches to seek to identify a phrase with real people, often erroneously. That may be the case here. The starting point is a reference that the eccentric lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, in the Literary Magazine in 1756 to a ballad about Darby and Joan. Johnson may have had in mind an anonymous poem, printed in the weekly journal, the Gentleman’s Magazine, in March 1735, entitled The Joys of Love never forgot. It contains these lines; “Old Darby, with Joan by his side,/ You’ve often regarded with wonder:/ He’s dropsical, she is sore-eyed,/ Yet they’re never happy asunder.

The devoted couple are thought to have been John Darby and his wife, Joan, a printer who lived and worked in Bartholomew Close in London. The poem is ascribed to Henry Woodfall who worked for him. However, in The Literary Janus, edited by J Wilson and published in the early part of the nineteenth century, there is a similar poem by the title of The Happy Couple. The only difference in the text is you’ve is replaced by I’ve in the second line and in the fourth line reads “and yet they are never asunder.” The couple are supposed to be long-standing residents of a Yorkshire village, three miles from Tadcaster, called Healaugh, and the poem is attributed to Lord Wharton, who was Lord of the Manor of the village.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. A reason to doubt the Woodfall story is that Darby the printer is thought to have died in 1704. Is it likely that he would have waited thirty years to laud his master and his devoted wife? The Yorkshire Darby and Joan seemed to have lived an idyllic life, Darby smoking his pipe and quaffing his ale while Joan “in all the garrulity of age, relating tales of days long passed away” and going to church on Sundays. Are these the prototypical happy, contented couple? I’m not sure it matters.

What is clear is that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the phrase was well established. The Times noted in its edition of May 26, 1801 that a new dance by the title of Darby and Joan was being “received with loud and general plaudits” and in June there was a ballet of the same name doing the rounds. On February 1, 1802 the Thunderer announced that what it termed as a “comic divertissement” was being performed at London’s Royalty Theatre by the name of Darby and Joan; or The Dwarf.

By the middle of the century Darby and Joan was being used to describe a seemingly devoted couple. In He Knew He Was Right, published in 1869, Anthony Trollope wrote, “when we travel together, we must go Darby and Joan fashion.” The verbose Henry James, writing in The Golden Bowl, published in 1904, described a couple thus; “their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and contentedly, like some old Darby and Joan…” Darby and Joan were the names given to the devoted couple who provide hospitality in Herman Melville’s Omoo from 1847.

There was a popular song in the 1890s, written by Frederic Weatherly, entitled Darby in Joan in which Joan serenades her hubby with these words; “Darby dear we are old and grey,/ Fifty years since our wedding day./ Shadow and sun for every one,/ as the years roll by.” The couple also made an appearance in Hammerstein and Kern’s 1937 classic song, The Folks Who Live on the Hill.

Whoever they were, they have been an enduring symbol of a long and happy marriage and long may it continue.