Saturday, April 6, 2019

Women on the Verge--Or Even Past It....The Fallen Curtain (1976), by Ruth Rendell

Part I
Ruth Rendell's first volume of short fiction, The Fallen Curtain, was published in 1976, 41 years before her posthumous and presumably final collection, A Spot of Folly, was published in 2017 (review here).  The 1974 title story had recently won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, the first of many prizes which the distinguished crime writer, whose first mystery novel appeared 55 years ago in 1964, would win over the course of her career in crime (fiction). 

My copy of The Fallen Curtain, given me by my kind and considerate friend Michael Moon, is an American reprint by Bantam which dates from 1978, when Ruth Rendell was still relatively little known in the US.  There's two pages of bio and blurbs in the back, all about "England's New Mistress of Mystery" (who had been publishing mystery fiction for 14 years). 

Bantam at the time was also reprinting their small stock of highly lucrative Agatha Christie novels, including Death in the Nile, which premiered as a film starring Peter Ustinov that same year.  Christie, who had died just two years earlier, had two #1 bestselling novels after her death, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the latter to which Bantam also had the rights. 

So perhaps not surprisingly the front cover of Bantam's edition of The Fallen Curtain heralds the books as being "In the great Agatha Christie tradition."  Perhaps not surprisingly, but to Ruth Rendell distastefully.  When she inscribed this copy I have to Albert Newgarden, she felt compelled to demur from what she deemed the fulsome Christie blurbage:

Not a compliment,
surely, to be
compared to
Dame Agatha!

Oh, Ruth, for shame!  Yet it's true that both she and PD James, England's other modern-day Crime Queen, all through the Sixties and Seventies chafed under the shadow of Agatha Christie, feeling relief only in the Eighties when they were finally able to step fully into their own light.

She was not amused.
Yet there are similarities between Rendell and Christie, whatever the author herself thought.  Rendell's then most recent Inspector Wexford novels, Shake Hands Forever (1975) and A Sleeping Life (1978), are clever little puzzles indeed; and even some of the stories in The Fallen Curtain resemble Christie's more sinister manifestations of short fiction.

Christie stories like "Philomel Cottage," "The Red Signal" and "Wireless" certainly remind me of Rendell at her eerie and malevolent best--though in some of her stories Rendell seems to be striving to leave the mystery genre behind her.  Maybe the obligatory parlor tricks began to seem too artificial to an author yearning to psychoanalyze her characters.  But she was good at parlor tricks too.

Part II
Some cynics might say that the title story of The Fallen Curtain seems like a natural to have won an Edgar Award for crime fiction, because it's well-written fiction that doesn't have much to do with actual crime.  It does involve a man who as a six-year-old boy was said to have been briefly kidnapped by a strange Man, but he doesn't remember much at all about the incident. 

What happens, then, when the curtain falls, and his memory clears?  It's an interesting story but also one which "transcends the genre" so much that in my view it maintains only a tenuous connection with it.

There are 10 other stories in the collection.  (Odd--why not 12?  Interestingly the title story of the posthumous Rendell collection A Spot of Folly was originally published in 1974, in EQMM like most of these tales, yet is was left out of the collection, even though it would have rounded it off with an even dozen.)  Some of them to me have a similarly tenuous connection with real crime fiction, but a half dozen are superb crime pieces.

"People Don't Do Such Things" (quoting Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler) is a classic domestic triangle tale, with a wicked twist.

"You Can't Be Too Careful" is fine piece of irony about a compulsively safety-conscious, "control freak" young woman.  Today we would call her behavior evidence of extreme OCD.

"Venus' Fly-trap" is about the "friendship" of two older women, one a brash, never-married career woman and the other a reticent, twice divorced mother of three.  The ending seems a bit forced by the structure of the story but it's nevertheless a well-poisoned little pill.

"The Vinegar Mother" has a similarly ill-assorted pair, young schoolgirls Mop and Margery, spending a break at the country cottage of Mop's parents.  Chilling events ensue, symbolized by the titular piece of gobbldygook ("a horrible a bit of liver in a bottle"), which transforms wine into vinegar.  I think this, with all due respect to "The Fallen Curtain," is the best devised short story in the collection, objectively speaking.

red wine vinegar mother
"The Fall of a Coin" is Rendell's take on England's classic gas meter murder stories.  Honestly, how many people were killed by gas maters in the UK, accidentally or otherwise?  You wouldn't get me near one of those things!

And my favorite in the collection, the clever "Divided We Stand," which deals with the problem of providing health care for elderly parents unable to manage anymore for themselves.  Hey, I'm living this one.  I liked it very much at the time when I read it two decades ago, but now I appreciate even more its grim pathos.

Part III
Esteemed horror writer T.E.D. Klein, who markedly contrasts with Rendell in having a decidedly tiny output of long and short fiction, in 1988 penned an unenthusiastic review of Rendell's Collected Short Fiction (which gathered 38 short works from her first four collections).  In it he declared that "one of the most striking features of these tales is their misogyny."

It's true that there are some remarkably "nasty women" (as the American president might put it) in these collections, something which really jumped out at me on rereading.  Rendell may have considered herself a political leftist, but it's hard for me to see these stories being written quite this way today by someone of a similar political persuasion.  Certainly there are a lot of unpleasant people in general in these tales, but the women are to me especially striking.

The mother in "The Fallen Curtain" is, as Klein says, "nagging" and "suffocating"--and it gets worse from there.  Besides figuratively smothering and castrating sons and lovers, women in these stories frequently "get hysterical" and end up either provoking murder or planning it themselves. I suppose it's a testament to the durability of these tropes in fiction that they were still so omnipresent in Rendell's Seventies short stories.  Or is there something about them which pertained particularly to the author herself?  Did these tropes speak personally to her?

Of course in the Seventies sexual mores were being pervasively challenged and Rendell reflects this changing state of affairs in her writing. 

There are lots of unsatisfied wives looking for happiness in the sack with another man and conversely wives who are suffering, much to their husband's chagrin, from that great Seventies bete noire, frigidity.  (Frigidity also pops up in "The Irony of Hate," another story from this period collected in A Spot of Folly.) 

At the age of 45 Ruth Rendell herself divorced her husband of a quarter-century's standing in 1975 (she had married him in 1950 at barely twenty years of age); however, they remarried two years later.  Rendell's only child, a son, had just graduated from college.  Mid-life crisis?   Rendell herself thought so.  It does suggest that at the time the author felt she was missing out on something in life, like so many of the women in her stories. 

After Rendell's death in 2015, Chrissy Iley in the Daily Mail claimed that in an interview with Rendell, the author admitted to her that she had separated from her husband "for some years" before their 1975 divorce and that she had in fact gone "off with somebody else for a bit. And then that fell apart."  Rendell declined to name the other person in her romantic life at this time.

Feed me!
Certainly you see restive married women in The Fallen Curtain, yet they generally aren't portrayed by the author with much sympathy.  Women such as Gwendolyn in "People Don't Do Such Things," who comes to feel she likes handsome, womanizing novelist Reeve Baker rather better than her devoted husband.  Or frigid Nina Armadale in "The Fall of the Coin," who has loathed the very notion of having sex with her husband since her honeymoon and refuses to do the dirty deed more than six time a year, but capriciously is venomously spiteful when after years of marriage he tells he has finally fallen for another woman.  Or Mrs. Felton in "The Vinegar Mother," so unutterably bored in her marriage with a wealthy older husband and so cruelly neglectful of her unhappy young daughter.

Even the happily married Marjorie Crossley in "Divided We Stand" is a mostly unsympathetic figure, as she doesn't want to be saddled with any responsibility for caring for her eighty-year-old stroke victim mother and thoughtlessly palms everything off on her younger sister, Pauline, who has had to give up her job and any hopes of a relationship and has even had a nervous breakdown in the process.  In her bland way Marjorie is one of the most unlikable people in the Rendell canon, even if you can understand her impetus toward selfishness in this instance.

Pauline is a single career woman for whom Rendell allows us to have some sympathy, but other such women in the tales come off as grotesques and monsters, like Della Galway in "You Can't Be Too Careful" and, worst of all, Merle in "Venus' Fly Trap," one of the most repellent embodiments in Rendell's oeuvre of her lifelong disdain in her fiction for loud, overbearing and overweight women.

Ruth Rendell grew up in an unhappy home with ill-assorted parents, like her sister Crime Queen PD James, and, like James, she identified much more with her father than with her afflicted mother.  Rendell's father was Arthur Grasemann and her mother Ebba Elise Kruse.  Born in Sweden of Danish descent, Ebba was the daughter of a machinist, Max Kruse, and his wife Anna Larsen, who moved to London with their family in 1905. 

The Grasemann's ancestry in England goes back to the 18th century, the family having come originally from Germany.  Rendell's gr-gr-gr grandfather, merchant and commission agent Christian Frederick Grasemann, son of Johann Gottlieb Grasemann of Frankfurt am Main, in 1810 married Mary Petley, of Lavenham, Suffolk, at St. Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, London. The couple had three sons and eight daughters, the last of whom, Bertha, was born in 1837, when her father was nearly 60, and died in 1921, less than a decade before Ruth Rendell was born.

Plymouth Co-operative Society Store

Family fortunes declined in Rendell's branch of the family over the next couple of generations, with members have descended socially, as it was perceived, from business to manual labor.  Christian's grandson, Ruth's great grandfather Frederick Charles Grasemann, labored in a brewery in Bristol, in his later years making his rounds on the premises as its nightwatchman.  His wife Emma Mary Vine, daughter of a cooper and the source of half of Rendell's "Barbara Vine" pseudonym, was a seamstress.  Their son Frederick Charles, Jr., Ruth's grandfather, who married Ada Hockaday, the daughter of a drayman, delivered milk bottles for the Plymouth Co-operative Society (perhaps a source for some of Rendell's leftist ideals).

Frederick and Ada's son Arthur Grasemann, Ruth's father, left school at 14 and was apprenticed in the dockyards.  However, according to Rendell he somehow managed with the support of his determined mother Ada to get into a university, upon graduation becoming a teacher of mathematics and science.

In early 1929 Arthur, who was nearly 29, married Ebba Kruse, an elementary schoolteacher who was was nine years older than he. The couple's only child, Ruth Barbara Grasemann, was born in London the next year.  Regrettably for their young daughter, the marriage was not a successful one. 

Ebba had come to England when she was fourteen and not then even an English speaker.  She never really adjusted to the country and the couple experienced considerable prejudice.  Rendell's Grandmother Ada refused even to attend her son's wedding with a "foreigner."  Rendell termed her parent's union "a great disaster."  In addition to the challenge of her "foreignness," Ebba, it seems, was not the domestic type and she failed to live up to her Arthur's exacting standards. 

As a result, Rendell recalled, she grew up with "highly emotional parents who were always fighting and generally expressing their feelings, bursting into tears and so on, which, though hazardous at the time, I think didn't do me any harm"--though she admitted it did imbue her "from a very early age with a sense of doom."  Elsewhere she stated, "I felt exasperated with them, because I felt people least put up a show of getting on in front of their child."

Northleach vicarage

Rendell spent some time in the Thirties with Danish relatives as a child (from whom she learned to speak Danish and Swedish).  Did her parents actually stay together?  In 1939, when Rendell was nine years old, Arthur and another male schoolmaster were living in Oxford and boarding with a married couple, William and Dorothy May Pinkney, while Ebba with another female schoolteacher was living away to the east in the Cotswolds, at the market town of Northleach in Gloucestershire.  They boarded at the Vicarage with elderly Reverend Griffith Wight  Jenkins and his organist and housekeeper, Eunice Heaven (seriously).  In 1942 Rendell herself at the age of 12 was evacuated from the London environs to Northleach.  She recalled: 1942 I was evacuated to the Cotswolds....I lived in one house in the village and my mother was in the vicarage.  The vicar had a maidservant who was pregnant and she drowned herself in a pond.  I don't think it was particularly uncommon....But I wonder that they told me--I was only twelve.

Rendell makes it sound like this was the first time both her mother and herself had been in Northleach, but records show her mother was already living at the Northleach Vicarage in 1939, so what's the story, I wonder?

Rendell herself with stark contrast characterized her father Arthur as "a very good, sweet and caring father" and Ebba as "a very vague strange woman."  Nearly forty when Ruth was born, Ebba began exhibiting symptoms of multiple sclerosis when Ruth was a child, which didn't help the trying family situation.  It was Rendell's father, a great reader who quoted extensively from his favorite authors, who taught her the value of self-discipline in life, she recalled.  Rendell's son later pointed out to her that Arthur Grasemann, who died in 1973, shared many attributes with Rendell's benevolent series detective Inspector Wexford.  Rendell had to agree.  Was her mother, no Dora Wexford she, conversely a source of some of those problematic women in Rendell's fiction?

It does seem that the men come off better than the  women in The Fallen Curtain, with a major exception being callow Peter Milton in "The Double."  Even the Man, as he's called, in the title tale...well, read it for yourself and see how it turns out, if you haven't yet done so.


  1. Nice essay, very knowledgeable and erudite as always. I agree with your assessment of the collection in general and the eponymous story in particular. I remember how underwhelmed I was when I read it years ago and how surprised I was that it had won an Edgar - but then I wasn't as familiar with the MWA's ways as I am now! (The Best Short Story has always been one of the most puzzling as the criteria are quite obscure except that detective stories need not apply, especially in recent years)
    Regarding Rendell's "misogyny" I think she inherited it from Patricia Highsmith who was probably the most important influence on her work. Also nasty mothers, oppressive mothers-in-law and hateful wives were stock characters of the "twist-in-the-tail" story genre that Rendell specialized in. You'll find a plenty of those in old Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, a lot of them written by women.

    1. Yes, a lot of these feel like they could have been "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episodes from the Sixties. Those tropes really held on and clearly influenced Rendell, but I wondered too whether some of it was personal. Of course Highsmith has been accused of misogyny as well, in fact I've seen her termed a "misogynistic lesbian."

      T. E. D. Klein hated the stories because they were so plot driven, as he saw it, with "stick figures" he felt. I don't think that's quite fair to all of them. I think The Vinegar Mother for example and Divided We Stand ave considerable pathos. And of course I like "plotty" twist stories myself, so I don't have his problem!

  2. one possible reason for the difficulties of Rendell's parents may have been that woman schoolteachers in the UK were expected - sometimes obliged - to resign from their jobs when they married. The resulting pressures on the marriage - whether or not her mother managed to conceal her marriage from her employers - may have been considerable.

    1. Maybe that had something to do with the living apart, I don't know. Unlike PD James, Rendell never published any actual memoir that I'm aware of.

  3. "Not a compliment, surely, to be compared to Dame Agatha!"

    ...maybe she meant it wasn't a compliment to Christie ... ;)

  4. I think Rendell was an old-fashioned British socialist who definitely didn't quite fit in with some strands of contemporary left-wing thought. The Wexford novel An Unkindness of Ravens was pretty scathing towards "radical" feminists, for instance. There's also the tension between Wexford's daughters--Sylvia, the humorless "women's libber" and Sheila, the more balanced anti-nuclear activist.

    She was passionate about racial equality (Simisola) and generally pro-queer (even if A Sleeping Life can certainly be read as being strongly transphobic, though I'd guess that Rendell herself would have hardly known what a transgender/transsexual person was when she was writing it), and I think she was basically progressive about gender, but she would have never let a character get off lightly just because they're a woman or black or gay, or what-have-you. If I recall correctly there's a very interesting passage in Kissing the Gunner's Daughter where Wexford muses about how gay men can be just as dangerous and violent as straight men--Genet is invoked.

    There's also Harm Done, which I've seen many online reviewers accuse of being "politically correct" because she condemns domestic violence in it.

    Basically I think she was a complicated writer and person who, no doubt, had some unconscious biases. Perhaps in some ways Rendell's was a man's woman? But there are many sympathetic women in the full oeuvre and to call her misogynistic seems short-sighted.

    1. You know the phrase “man’s woman” occurred to me when I was writing this. I think “old fashioned leftist” is a good point too. I know Rendell got obsessed for a while with “political correctness” from the Left, to the point where she was alienating some of her readers. Personally I like a writer who can’t be pigeonholed. Domestic abuse was certainly something she looked at in later books, like Harm Done as you note. And I know she definitely was accused on the Right of political correctness with her trio of Harm Done, Simisola and Road Rage.

  5. Fascinating, Curt. I have read a very large proportion of Rendell's works (there were some years back then, 70s say, where she seemed the only person to be writing anything at all interesting in crime - that I could get hold of anyway). But I have very mixed feelings about her, and have long ago thrown up my hands in despair trying to work out what her politics were, of find any kind of consistency. Very interesting to find out more of her background.

    1. Glad you enjoyed and thanks for commenting as ever, Moira. I read a lot of her stuff in the 1990s, first coming to her comparatively late in my twenties. She's still one of my favorites though I seem to have a "complex relationship" with her, like I do with PD James and Ngaio Marsh and John Dickson Carr and some others....