Tuesday, September 3, 2019

No Woman is an Island: Sanctuary Island (1936), by Robert G. Curtis

Although today mystery fiction reading (indeed, fiction reading in general) is more associated with women than with men, just the opposite was true in the Golden Age of detective fiction, where mysteries were concerned.  Then the mystery fiction readership was believed to be more comprised of men than women, at least before the rise of the manners mystery of the British Crime Queens, where murder and its detection was combined with suave, genteel sleuths and a bit of romance.

Before manners mystery, men were believed to be much more the audience for true (i.e., puzzle-focused) detective fiction.  "Men's books," was how Christianna Brand referred to the mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode and other so-called "Humdrums," all about train timetables and tides and the like  But the same was believed to be true as well of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and many others.  When women did read crime fiction, it was believed, it was more likely to be thrillers.  It was jokingly said that the the king of crime shockers, Edgar Wallace, kept more women awake at night than any other man in England.  (See this telling Getty Image here.)

Yet today, when so many women are reading mysteries, there aren't so many women, or men either I suppose, reading Edgar Wallace.  He is still read by some, to be sure, but his audience is nothing like that of Agatha Christie or even Dorothy L. Sayers, both of whom up to his untimely death in 1932 he dwarfed in book sales around the world.

Perhaps one reason for this is that Christie and Sayers wrote women characters better than Wallace?  Did Edgar Wallace ever have a female character halfway as memorable as Christie's Prudence "Tuppence" Beresford?  Wallace's own longtime secretary, Robert George Curtis, the subject of my last post, once opined at length that Wallace could not write women well at all.  I quote him below:

Man and secretary: Edgar Wallace with Bob Curtis

In dealing with his own sex there is no doubt that [Edgar] Wallace's judgment was rarely at fault.  In real life he could appraise a man's character, analyse his motives and foretell his actions in a given set of circumstances with an accuracy which was at times almost uncanny; and in all the stories which he wrote it would be difficult to find among the hundreds of male characters born of his imagination one whose words or actions are not psychologically correct.  But if there was a weakness in his equipment as a writer of fiction, it was the conception he formed of woman and her ways.

We had many an amusing argument on the subject; while Dictaphone and typewriter stood idle and the telephone was burdened with the beseeching voices of editors hungry for overdue copy.  I used to tell him that he did not understand women because he made the initial mistake of believing that they are difficult to understand.

Actually, I insisted, they are far less complex beings than men, definitely lower in the scale of evolution, and capable of being classified into, at the most, four different categories.  Once it is known to which category a woman belongs, it is simplicity itself to foretell exactly how she will react to any known set of circumstances. 

There is no mystery about woman.  That she is a complex creature veiled in mystery is only a popular belief which she is at pains to foster, because she knows that a man-huntress deprived of her veil of mystery is deprived of the weapon most useful in the chase.  With beauty and mystery in her quiver her prey has little chance of escape; deprive her of one or the other, and the average male will become so fleet of foot that she will be lucky if she ever gets into shooting distance of her quarry.

Wallace would have none of it....
Here as I recollect there are two types of
women, the beautiful imperiled
English rose type good girl and the wicked,
foreign-born adventuress (the title character).
Oh, those sly continentals and their
sneaking continental ways! 
Except Poirot, he's a good egg.
But if proof be needed that Wallace knew little about women, it can be found in  abundance in his books.  In all his stories I do not think there is one woman whom he managed to present as a clear-cut convincing character.  The firm, definite lines with which he drew his male characters became vague and hesitating when he tried to depict a woman; and, despite the infinite variety of complex feelings and motives which he always attributed to them, the picture of women in his stories are always drawn to one of two or three standardised models.

It is the same with the women in his plays.  Not one of them creates the impression of being alive.  I always used to tell Wallace that there is no one with any humane feelings could not fail but to pity the hero who was forced by the conventional necessity of a happy ending to marry one of his heroines.

....I am sure that both in his plays and in his novels he introduced women simply because a play or a serial without a love interest would make managers and editors shudder. and that it would have been an enormous relief to him if he could have cut heroines clean out of his stories.

Loves scenes he simply could not write convincingly.  I remember in particular a serial story which he was writing for a popular periodical.  He spent a very long times on one installment, in which was a love scene between the hero and the heroine, and when it was finished and the manuscript dispatched to the editor, he told me that it was the most convincingly passionate love scene he had ever written.

The next day the manuscript was returned to him with a note from the editor which ran somewhat as follows:

Dear Edgar,

This bloke is supposed to be burning with love and longing for the girl, and you've made him carry on as if he were visiting his aunt.  Ginger him up a bit, will you?  Kisses on lips and throat, and strong encircling arms that tremble as he clasps her--you know that sort of thing.  And the girl's rather a cold pancake, isn't she?

But did it play in Wallace World?
Edgar Wallace contemporary DH Lawrence
most definitely gingered his characters up a bit.
I'll have to remember that taunt in future--"You're one cold pancake, sister!

This may be a little hard on Wallace, though there is truth to it too, I believe.  The Wallace women characters, in a vast sea of men, whom I can recall--with a few exceptions, like wicked adventuresses (Thank heavens for wicked adventuresses!)--are beautiful, often slightly priggish, girls whose main purpose in any given book is to get captured by the villain, and then usually bound and gagged and deposited  in rapidly flooding cellars or rooms with collapsing ceilings and the like, before her inevitable rescue by the hero.  They only serve to make Agatha Christie's Tuppence stand out all the more. But then I don't believe Christie stood in awe of Woman, like Edgar.

Edgar himself could come off as rather a prig too, when it came to sex, despite the fact that during his first marriage he kept a mistress and had an affair with one of his (female) secretaries, subsequently making her his second wife, after divorcing his first wife when she had her own affair (and apparently giving her little or no settlement, since she was the party officially held at fault, leading to her living in rather straitened circumstances). 

A virtuous man: Edgar Wallace
Robert Curtis, or Bob as he was known, recalled that Edgar "hated the sex novel, which, he used to say, was the easiest thing in the world to write provided one's mind were dirty enough." 

When passing through Paris in 1929 Edgar bought a copy of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which had just been published in France.  (An unexpurgated version was not made available in the not so merrie olde England until 1960, and that after a famous obscenity trial; see photo above.) 

When he saw Bob in London the next day, Edgar righteously declared of his copy of Lawrence's book that he had "nearly chucked this into the Channel; it's the most obscene thing I ever read.  But you're a bit of a highbrow--have a go at it and learn the meaning of the word nausea."

"I did," commented Bob ambiguously.  Did he mean simply that he had a go at Lawrence or that from Lawrence he had learned the meaning of nausea?

remarkable resemblance
Polly Richards, Edgar Wallace's mother
(not a cold pancake)
It's interesting to me that Bob was so critical of his Master about his handling of women in fiction, because when after Edgar's death he himself put his name to his own thrillers (often based on Edgar Wallace plays or screen treatments), a lot of his stories had women protagonists. 

This certainly is the case with the novel Sanctuary Island, fleshed out by Bob, it was said, from an Edgar Wallace film scenario.  What's so surprising about it to me is that the woman main character is done so well, given that Bob believed women were farther down on the scale of human evolution from men, and that she's not the usual thing one finds in mystery heroines from the day. No, indeed.  I'll go into detail farther down, but first some more about Bob, because I can't help wondering.

How did Bob manage this novel?  Edgar Wallace's talented novelist daughter-in-law, Margaret Lane, referred to Edgar's secretary somewhat dismissively with the observation that, while Bob was "an excellent and intelligent typist," he "was not a highly educated man" and "would pass over errors of grammar or fact as blithely as Edgar himself...."

From photos Bob looks an unprepossessing fellow indeed, well-obscured in the shadow of the outsize Edgar's towering persona.  Bob himself was born of humble parentage in East Greenwich, London, just like Edgar, something which likely served as a connection between the two men. 

Bob later claimed that they had been born in adjacent houses (not concurrently, as Edgar, who was born in 1875, was 14 years older than Curtis).  I haven't been able to verify this, although I know that Bob grew up with a brother and four sisters in a small row house at Colomb Street in Greenwich, which today is about a six minutes drive from 7 Ashburnam Grove, the row house where Wallace was born.  Later the Curtis family moved into a rather nicer Victorian row house at 59 Ashburnam Road (where houses sell for over a million pounds), a three minute walk away from Edgar's birthplace.  Not quite next door, but close!

Greenwich house where Edgar Wallace was born
(see plaque, aquamarine door and basement window treatment and ubiquitous trash bins)

Edgar was the illegitimate son of Mary Jane "Polly" (Blair) Richards and Richard Horatio Mariott Edgar.  Ashburnam Grove is a tony address now (a house there recently sold for 1.3 million pounds), but when Edgar was born there in 1875, under the fictitious surname "Wallace" (full name Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace), it was a boarding house.  Edgar's mother was unwed and possessed of very slender means, but she had taken a room there to conceal her pregnancy and give birth to Edgar surreptitiously, with the help of a midwife, who also found foster care for Edgar, whom Polly could not keep. 

It was the foster family, the Freemans, who kept Edgar out of the workhouse by adopting the lad, as Polly within a few years had ceased all but the most sporadic contact with her son.  When after more than two decades she showed up at his doorstep again after the turn of the century, ill and destitute, Edgar coldly turned her away, leaving her to die a few months later in poverty.  She hadn't supported him, as he saw it, why should he support her?  It's not for me to judge, really, but I wonder whether that really made him feel better about the whole thing.  At least she gave him life, not to mention her looks.  (The resemblance between mother and son really is remarkable.)  Apparently he did feel some remorse after the fact.

Greenwich house where Robert Curtis lived (see teal green door)

Horse-drawn tram, c. 1890

In contrast Bob was born legitimately, to Charles Henry and Mary Jane Curtis, who came originally from the coastal resort town of Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, where Charles was a laborer and Mary Jane a house servant.   The couple moved to Greenwich, where Charles became a tram driver.  Interestingly in Weston, Charles' father, who had been born in Sri Lanka, had transported people around town in wheel chairs, so the tram job was something in the family tradition, I suppose you could say.

Bob Curtis, as I mentioned in my last post, was a typist with the Dictaphone Company, which was how he met, and came to be employed by, Edgar Wallace in 1913.  With the exception of his few years of clerical service for the British Army in the Great War, Bob lived as an integral part of the Wallace household for nearly two decades, even following Edgar out to Hollywood, where Edgar passed away, Bob at his side. 

floor plan of house in Ashburnham Grove
where Polly Richards had rented a room
in order surreptitiously to carry her baby
(the future Edgar Wallace) to term

the two-up, two-down floor plan of the houses on Colomb Street
where Robert Curtis lived

houses on Ashburnam Road, where Curtis family moved

Waverley Way, Carshalton
where Bob and Gladys Curtis lived

I had always assumed Bob was a mild, self-effacing man who never married, but in fact not long after he enlisted in the army he married Gladys Bryson Cotesworth, the daughter of a London hydraulic engineer, and the two remained husband and wife until Bob's premature death in 1936.  (Gladys survived him by half a century, having never remarried in all that time; apparently the couple had no children.)  Around 1930 Bob bought a house on Waverley Way in Carshalton, Surrey (today part of metropolitan south London), where he lived together with Gladys, at least during the brief time between Edgar's death and his own.  The faithful dog did not long survive his Master.

So maybe Bob Curtis did understand women better than Edgar Wallace.  Certainly, there is nothing that  I recall like Sanctuary Island in Edgar's ouevre, even if Edgar really did write such a film treatment--though it would never have been filmable in post-code Hollywood as Curtis fleshed it out, it savoring too much of how flesh-and-blood people actually behave.  Wallace's American publishers didn't fall for it, declining to publish the novel in the US, though Curtis found a British publisher with Hutchinson.  You'll notice how they played up the crime angle, misleadingly, and the connection to Wallace.  You might be forgiven for not noticing that Robert Curtis had anything to do with the thing. 

In short, the novel is about Elizabeth Anson, who within the last few years married Richard, a wealthy banker 27 years older than herself, strictly for security.  (Her father suddenly died, you see, leaving her and her mother "secretly living on a diet which was largely bread and marmalade.")  In the process she rather coldly threw over her impecunious beau, John Hackett, though she still loved him in her heart.  Then, six months after her marriage, she inherited L150,000 from a "forgotten relative."  Now there's a turn of events!  (Why can't this ever happen to me?)  This is a lot of money, enough today to make Elizabeth a millionaire ten times over.

Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she feels honor bound to stay in her marriage, rather than running off and leaving behind her husband, a pompous jerk if ever there were one, who, incidentally, has carried on a series of affairs, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, with bank secretaries and currently has his sights set on his latest juicy target.  Elizabeth has, however, bought her own little private island, which she meaningfully calls "Sanctuary Island."

Oddly Signet didn't use Edgar Wallace's
"Learn the meaning of the word nausea"
as a tag line for DH Lawrence's novel
Well, over the course of the novel, John Hackett shows up again (you knew that was coming) and it transpires that there is financial trouble at Richard's bank.  (Could Richard be a pious crook?)  This has all the makings of a crime novel, bit it never gets there.  Is this a mystery at all, really?  When I read it, I wanted to see how things would transpire, but by "things" I mean the relationships.  I thought the author handled people and relationships quite well and was commendably grown up, for the period, about sex (though fear not, it's certainly no Lady Chatterley's Lover).  Really it feels more like a human problem novel than a true mystery, although there are some nice twists along the way.

Aside from it's handling of sex, there are other unorthodox sentiments. 

Curtis is quite critical indeed of England's smug provincialism and parochial attitudes (How timely!), even going so far as to mock English Christian missionaries parading around foreign parts, armed with the assumption that their ways are better than the locals.  At a ceremonial unveiling of a statue in honor of Richard half-sister, a martyred Christian missionary in China, we are made privy to Elizabeth's iconoclastic thoughts:

She had never quite been able to understand what there was so terribly meritable in going to a foreign country and patronizingly trying to wean the inhabitants from the practice of their own religion, intrinsically as potent for good as that in which one had by accident of birth been nurtured.  It had always seemed to Elizabeth a piece of gross impertinence on the part of these self-satisfied evangelists to force their own dogmas upon the adherents of perhaps an equally laudable and efficient code of moral teaching.  It was all so short-sighted, she thought....A smile momentarily lightened her face as the idea came into her mind: why were all the missionaries she ever met myopic?

This devoutly beneficent looking couple was (probably myopic)
Stella Veenschoten and her husband Nelson
American missionaries who went to China after seminary training in 1917 and
stayed until the Communists expelled all Christian missionaries from China in 1951

Ironically, when Elizabeth once again meets her handsome old flame John Hackett, with whom she is decidedly still smitten, she finds he is soon to travel to China to serve as a Christian missionary!  Now, there's a sticky wicket.  Will she throw caution to the winds and use her feminine wiles to persaude John to take on another sort of missionary position?

All this is not exactly what you expect from a Golden Age English thriller writer, when normally such writers are committed to the notion, so highly satisfactory to English people, that all things English are necessarily superior.  At one point Elizabeth, who does volunteer prison work (that's unusual too), meets with a woman, Mrs. Burns, who has been jailed after slaying her drunken husband with an axe (don't know how many whacks there were). 

Here are murderess Mrs. Burns' thoughts on her deed:

"I killed him, Mrs. Anson...and I'm not sorry.  It was no worse than killing a hog.  Thirty-five years  I was married to him.  I was teaching in a school in those days.  You wouldn't think it to see me now, would you?  But I was.  I never did like it, though--always wanted to get out of it and do something a bit more exciting, and when Alf came along and asked me to marry him, I didn't want asking twice....Thirty-five years I had of it, Mrs. Anson, living in the same room, in the same house; never doing anything I wanted to do; always having to be something I wasn't.  Just the same thing year after year--having children and washing and cleaning and cooking, and all the time seeing myself getting older and older....

I suppose I'd have gone on doing it if I hadn't happened to see that axe.  Something happened to me then, Mrs. Anson.  I just couldn't help myself.  I had to kill him.  I hit him with all my strength, and as soon as I saw I'd killed him I was really happy for the first time in thirty-five years....

Again not the usual thing you'd expect from a thriller writer.  I'd say Robert Curtis was getting bored with conventional thrillers, in fact.  It would have been interesting to see what Bob might have published in the future, but he died later that year, at the age of 47, nearly a quarter-century after his fateful meeting with Edgar Wallace.  He had survived his master, who died in Hollywood on February 10, 1932, by less than five years, two months before his own untimely death on August 26, 1936 publishing Sanctuary Island--a novel seemingly nothing like Edgar Wallace, even though Edgar Wallace's lucrative name was plastered all over it.  It is impossible not to make money off Edgar Wallace....

Had Bob Curtis done what he really wanted to do in life, or had he mostly lived vicariously through his world famous employer?  Based on my reading of Sanctuary Island, I think Curtis definitely had hidden depths that he hadn't had much time to plumb.

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