Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Love Everlasting: Eternity Ring (1948), by Patricia Wentworth

The general view of the Miss Silver mysteries of Patricia Wentworth (1878-1961) is that they have a similar ambiance to those by Agatha Christie, with, however, more love and less mystery. This is certainly true in the case of Eternity Ring (1948), the fourth Patricia Wentworth detective novel I have read, and the poorest as a mystery (the others are The Chinese Shawl, Miss Silver Intervenes and Latter End).

Although Patricia Wentworth's memorably Miss Marple-like detective, Miss Maud Silver, first appeared in a Wentworth novel in 1928, most of the books in the Miss Silver series date from the 1940s and 1950s (before 1943, only four Miss Silver mysteries had been published; most of Wentworth's genre output up to that time is to be found in her over thirty Silver-free thrillers) .

This being the same time that Agatha Christie's Miss Marple began appearing much more frequently in novels (Miss Marple only actually appeared in one Christie novel and a short story collection before World War Two), it would seem to me that the 1940s and 1950s are the decades when the idea of the British village "cozy" really began gelling in the minds of readers.

It is this cozy atmosphere that I found most interesting about Eternity Ring.  The first three chapters, which deal with life in the village of Deeping, were really rather charming.

Chapter Three, which details a small tea party at the cottage of Alvina Grey, the spinster daughter of the former Rector, I found the best part of the book.  I would have loved for Miss Vinny to have played a bigger part in the tale (there's another great chapter with her later).

Although the story in Eternity Ring takes place after World War Two (events in the late war play a major role in the book), one might well be excused for thinking it occurs twenty years earlier.  I not infrequently found myself thinking of Downton Abbey!

Deeping is a village dominated by a few old landed families, and most servants know their place and like it (housekeeper Mrs. Barton still thinks darkly of the French and their "nasty revolutions").  The two commoners who get above themselves, farmer's niece Mary Stokes and chauffeur Albert Caddle, are heartily disapproved of by Miss Silver and the author.

Mary Stokes served with the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) and came back discontented with life on the farm.  A local lady of the gentry complains of Stokes:

"She isn't a village girl at all--she's something much smarter and more sophisticated.  She comes down to the farm once in a way when she's out of a job or wants a change....I think it's a relief when she goes off again."

Stokes, we learn, is a fast type who enjoys leading men on and laughing at them. Not altogether surprisingly, she comes to a very bad end indeed when her neck is broken by an unknown assailant.

Albert Caddle, who married a much older retired housemaid for her money and plays around with other women, is described by the author as "very well built and beyond all question a handsome young man."  However, when he is "bold" and "defiant" when being questioned by Inspector Lamb, the policeman, knowing he "has a thousand years of solid English law behind him," squelches the chauffeur fast, much to the approval of the author (Lamb, I noted, declined to address Caddle as "Mister").

Caddle's current girlfriend, shop girl Maisie Traill, doesn't come off very well either.  When she expresses indifference to the fact that she is going about with a married man, Inspector Lamb reflects: "Real bad upbringing she must have had.  Wanted smacking."

When Mary Stokes is found murdered, people reflect that it was probably a local male whom Stokes got "all worked up."  "A young man'll stand just so much and no more," pronounces the cook at the great house Abbottsleigh.  Or as Inspector Lamb puts it, "you never can tell what a man'll do if he's pushed too far."  Surprisingly, given such expressed sentiments, no one ever thinks to ask whether Mary Stokes might have been raped.  I suppose this was too blunt.

someone is deep sixing
 women in Deeping
I found these "bad" characters more interesting than Wentworth's gentry heroine, Cicely (Abbott) Hathaway.  She's a cousin of another of Wentworth's series policemen, the "slim and elegant" Detective-Sergeant Frank Abbott, and the estranged wife of Grant Hathaway, a gentry neighbor of the Abbotts. Another neighbor, modernist show tune composer Mark Harlow, is interested in Cicely, and a good chunk of the novel is devoted to Cicely's romantic travails.

The most interesting quality I found about Cicely was that everyone in the village kept referring to her as "a little brown thing," apparently because she has brown hair and a dun complexion.  I thought it funny that about everyone in the villager referred to her this way--did they get together and hold a meeting about it? No matter, though: Grant and Mark adore her anyway!

Disappointingly, about a third of the way through the novel, Wentworth reduces the list of suspects for Mary Stokes' murder (and that of another woman) to three men: Grant Hathaway (gentry farmer, husband of Cicley), Mark Harlow (show tune composer, hitting on Cicely) and Albert Caddle (uppish chauffeur, no doubt would happily hit on Cicely, but she's out of his league socially, not to mention he's married too, the bounder!).

I was certain I knew who the killer would be, and I was right.  Agatha Christie was never so predictable!

Still, I must admit to a certain fascination with the Miss Silver mysteries, with their strongly-conveyed cozy village settings that seem ever more remote as the years pass.  I will keep reading Wentworth novels. Perhaps the next one will have a better mystery!

Note: Miss Silver coughs twenty-seven times in Eternity Ring.  She should get that cough checked out, I think it's getting worse!


  1. Yes, Wentworth is rather a lightweight. But a comfort read for many. Nice review!

  2. Peggy,

    I thought this novel might televise well, with a few nips and tucks (why on earth do they not do Wentworth books?). But, yeah, as a written mystery it was something of a disappointment. I've actually started another one, Out of the Past, though--so I suppose there's just something about PW!

  3. What a good idea, to televise these!! A great role for an elderly actress. From your lips to a producer's ear, I trust.

    I think a "comfort read" is a very good way of describing these novels. My sense of how Wentworth's novels were positioned in the marketplace is that they were meant to go directly into libraries and to be circulated almost exclusively among middle-aged and elderly women. So any kind of social realism is out of the question because they were meant to be reassuring to the audience that things still worked the way they used to -- even though that was absolutely not the case. The lower classes knew their places and tugged their forelocks, and you could still find "daily help" ... noblesse still obliged ... and the sun never set on the British empire, etc. If you look at these novels through the lens of class, they make a lot more sense, I have found. The characters themselves know exactly to which class they belong and where everyone else fits into the system. Miss Silver restores social order by solving the mystery, but she also makes sure that everyone who has transgressed socially is reproved and occasionally punished. She herself is firmly placed in the artisan class as an ex-governess who employs a single faithful servant, the "excellent Hannah", and enjoys the favour of the aristocracy.

    In one of the novels, Wentworth has a little fun and adds an afterword that reassures everyone who has written to her that Miss Silver's cough is not a symptom of anything more serious.

    1. Noah,

      it's interesting that her books became so popular in the Unites States, isn't it? I get the impression Miss Silver was more poplar in the States than in the UK. Of course we do get awfully Anglophiliac here! Here's Michael Dirda on such:

      It's also interesting that Miss Silver has held on so long in print, although I believe only on Kindle now in the U.S. There's something in a lot of of us that still enjoys reading about the traditional English village of fiction (if not real life), even though many of us probably don't share a lot of the social sentiments expressed therein.

  4. Curt, let me recommend "The Key," a 1944 Miss Silver novel that I think is really well done. Wentworth certainly wrote to a formula, and did so quite successfully, but some of her books had additional elements that really made them worth reading, IMHO. In "The Key," there's this paragraph, very early on in the book, that certainly hooked me. We are shown a man waiting to cross the street, the light having just changed. Wentworth writes, "Because green changed to orange at just that time three people were to die, and the lives of four others were to be deeply and radically altered. Yet there was nothing in his mind to warn him of this. And perhaps – who knows? – a warning would have made no difference."

    I like that, and she delivers very nicely on the promise. Wentworth is no Christie, but Miss Silver is nobody's fool.

  5. Les, I do have that one, will give unlock it at some point I'm sure!

  6. A very fair review Curt - it's the only Wentworth book I've read, so I am wondering if I was a bit unlucky with my choice from what some fo the others are saying here ...

    1. That's quite a coincidence, Sergio, that that's the one you read! Certainly not her best mystery, I think.

  7. The Miss Silver book I really like is set in a batty artists' colony deep in the countryside. There's a man who does lovely artistic embroidery, and not everyone is who they seem. (Christie always noted social change - the "development", stately homes bought by new money or Hollywood actresses, or turned into institutions for wayward youths.)

    1. Is that Anna, Where Are You?, Richmonde? I agree, Christie does seem to have kept up with social change more. Wentworths seem more the stereotypical cozies to me.

    2. I'm torn -- yes, they're stereotypical cozies, in many respects. But there seems to me to be a lot in Wentworth about class change, which may be the same thing. One plot that sticks in my mind is about a poor but well-born young woman who takes a job as governess to a recently-wealthy family who is attempting to rise from "trade" to "leisure". The airs and pretensions of the wealthy counter-jumpers are depicted in great detail for the amusement of the reader, and the poor but well-born young woman's cousin finally decides, angrily, to marry her to protect her from having to deal with such people in the future. (It's the one that has to do with luminous paint, but the name escapes me.) And in comparison to Christie ... what's the difference between "She Came Back" by Wentworth and "Taken at the Flood" by Christie? They're both based in someone from one class impersonating someone from another (I will say no more for fear of spoiling someone's enjoyment).

  8. "... similar ambiance to those by Agatha Christie, with, however, more love and less mystery (a poor exchange, in my view). ... I was certain I knew who the killer would be, and I was right. Agatha Christie was never so predictable!" That easily applies to "The Case is Closed", from 1937, which I just completed as my first Miss Silver outing. I can put up with the "mushy stuff" so long as the working out of the puzzle or the atmospherics are engaging. Alas, not so much. I much prefer Gladys Mitchell.