Sunday, February 9, 2020

Women's Worlds: Fear for Miss Betony (1941), by Dorothy Bowers

When in 2005 Rue Morgue Press reprinted the five detective novels of Englishwoman Dorothy Violet Bowers (1902-1948), it presaged the wave of vintage mystery reprinting which really began in earnest about a decade later.  Consequently, Bowers may have been somewhat superseded in readers' minds by the more recent stuff of the last five years (though her books have also now been issued in attractive new editions by a rival press, Moonstone).

Speaking for myself, I first read Bowers' books about twenty years ago, and was especially impressed with The Bells at Old Bailey (1947), the last novel she published before her premature death at age forty-six from tuberculosis (a few years before the disease also claimed George Orwell).  Another I like is Fear for Miss Betony, published in 1941. However, I found on rereading the two novels recently that I had forgotten a lot about them, including whodunit!

autograph in my copy of Fear for Miss Betony
On rereading both Fear for Miss Betony and The Bells at Old Bailey struck me in the overwhelming dominance of the books, masculine legal apparatus aside, by women's characters in women's worlds.  In Fear for Miss Betony, there is really only one significant male character, a fortuneteller known as the "Great Ambrosio," and though he is much mentioned, he actually only speaks in one chapter. 

Bowers' series Scotland Yard detectives, Inspector Dan Pardoe and Sergeant Salt, appear, rather perfunctorily and without much personality, only four-fifths of the way into the book, with Pardoe only doing clean up duty.  Aside from these men and an arrogant male doctor named Bolt who occasionally strikes a pose in the tale, the characters in Fear are almost exclusively women, headed by the title character, Miss Emma Betony, a sixty-one year old retired governess of limited means facing a crossroads in her life when the novel opens. 

Residing on the attic floor of a drab boarding house in the provincial town of Churchway, Miss Betony rejects an invitation to reside at the "Toplady Endowed Homes for Decayed Gentlewomen," even though this means, with her declining resources, that she will have to go on parish relief.  The impetus for her decision was one of the snobbish shabby genteel "Topladies" warning her that her application might be rejected, as her "dear father was in trade, after all."

Yes, it seems that Miss Betony's father was a greengrocer.  Heavens!  This catty comment from her supposed friend mortifies Miss Betony, but also sets her resolve to turn thumbs down to Toplady and the people it represents: "the most vulnerable order on earth, the little people with small incomes, smaller brains, and smallest talents...."

Providentially, Miss Betony gets an invitation to visit from one of her former charges, the only one with whom she ever kept up correspondence, Grace Aram.  For a woman who had charge of children so long, Miss Betony has surprisingly negative views of them (or perhaps this is not surprising):

Privately, she thought them odious, and wondered increasingly why the thought should have to be private. Why was it taboo to confess antipathy to the human young?  The lip service universally paid to love of them was, she felt, defensible only on the grounds that we had got to make the best of a bad bargain....It was a colossal game of let's pretend...Like smothering a pill with jam.

These books are supposed to be cozies, recall!

Anyway, Grace, all grown up now (and then some), is now running a small girls' school, Makeways, in the town of Bugle in Dorset; and she needs help from Miss Betony, or "Bet," as she calls her.  First, she wants her to teach a few girls in senior German and French.  Second, and more importantly, she wants help with some mysterious problem afflicting the school which she can't mention in the letter.

So off Bet goes to Makeways--where the fear begins.  Bet learns from Grace that Makeways formerly was a private nursing home "charging unheard-of fees for coddling the rich who wanted to be coddled."  Grace had to take over two of these residents who wouldn't leave--a Miss Thurloe and a Miss Wand.  It's fussy Miss Thurloe who is the problem to which Grace referred in the letter, because it appears that someone has been poisoning the noisome old dame with arsenic.  Grace tells clever Bet that she wants her to help discern just what devilry is going on at Makeways.

the devil made him do it
Once on the case, Bet finds a very strange affair indeed, somehow involving a magnetic (at least to many of the women of Makeways) fortuneteller who goes by the name of the "Great Ambrosio."  Not for nothing, readers will find, does his name recall the title character of Matthew Lewis' landmark Gothic horror novel The Monk (1796).

Indeed, Fear has the trappings of a Gothic horror novel, with its setting of a dilapidated country house (it's even dark a lot of the time because of the wartime blackout) and its devilishly charming male up to...well, what is he up to, precisely?  And at the novel's center we have a woman detective figure, Miss Betony, though she's far off in age from the imperiled ingenues of Gothic mystery.* 

*(Indeed, we keep hearing about she old she is, which gets a little tiresome as she's only sixty-one!)

It is Miss Betony who solves much of the mystery herself (eventually there is a murder, and another attempted one), leaving the professionals, as I mentioned, to do clean-up.  Dorothy Bowers is to be commended for "going long," so to speak, with her plot resolution.  The payoff is immense if you don't see it coming ahead of time.  I did, but then some of the reviews of this novel over the years have been a little free with their plot descriptions, in my opinion.  (I hope I haven't been!)  To be sure, there are some improbabilities, but the whole thing is nicely clued and the puzzle, if unlikely, flows naturally from character as it is given to us.  In other words, it rings psychologically true.

Altogether it's an impressive affair, a sort of transition between the Golden Age detective novel and mid-century domestic suspense, one part Agatha Christie and one part Ethel Lina White.  And aside from the purely entertainment aspect, the novel offers an interesting portrait of unmarried women in an age which still spoke dismissively of "spinsters."  Both Miss Betony herself and her former charge, Grace Aram, as well as other women in the novel, are all of them unattached, from the young to the elderly.

I was compelled to wonder how much of this novel drew on the life of the author.  Dorothy Bowers was herself was the daughter of a man in "trade," confectioner Albert Edward Bowers.  Her mother, Annie Dean, was the daughter of a shoemaker.  Dorothy never married and lived most of her life in the small city of Monmouth, Wales.  Her father was committed to the education of his three daughters (besides Dorothy, these were Gwendoline Lillian and Evelyn May); and he managed to send Dorothy and Evelyn to Oxford.  Both graduated from the Society of Oxford Home-Students (now St. Anne's College), which allowed students to lodge in houses around Oxford rather than in the expensive women's halls.

Dorothy had been educated at the Monmouth High School for Girls and received a scholarship to Oxford.  She sat three times before successfully completing the Latin entrance exam.  She graduated with a third class honours degree in Modern History and worked a series of unsatisfactory temporary jobs as a teacher of history and English.  She composed crossword puzzles, under the pseudonym "Daedalus," for John O'London Weekly.  A 1929 advertisement in T. P.'s Weekly shows "Oxford Honours Graduate" D. V. Bowers offering tutorials in history at moderate terms.  (Did she use initials to cloak the fact that she was a woman?)

Dorothy was afraid of getting trapped in Monmouth, but that seems to have been precisely what happened to her for many years.  In 1939 she was living with her parents at the family home, Westbury House, at the age of thirty-seven, having just published her first and second detective novels, Postscript to Poison (1938) and Shadows Before (1939).  (Her sister Gwendoline had passed away three years early at the age of 39, unmarried, at the family home.)  But her novels, though successfully published in both the US and UK, did not provide her an avenue of escape.

With the commencement of the Second World War, Dorothy did some work in London for the BBC's European News Service.  Her familiarity with early wartime London found its way into her third detective novel, Deed without a Name (1940).  Yet Dorothy was still living at Westbury House the next year, when a pair of young girls from London were evacuated to there.  One of these girls, Rita Doughty, recalled that they stayed there for thirteen months and dubbed their kindly benefactor "Auntie Dorothy."  They had to leave when Dorothy's father became terminally ill, but young Rita was later able to impress some of her friends by getting Auntie Dorothy to sign a copy of one of her detective novels.

Dorothy's father died in 1943, leaving Dorothy his substantial estate of, in modern value, about 358,000 pounds (461,000 dollars).  After the war she settled at Tupsley in Herefordshire, on the Welsh border, but she died a few years later, in 1948, shortly after completing a final detective novel and finally being admitted to the Detection Club.  Her sister Evelyn passed away thirty years later, also unmarried.  In her will Dorothy left her money (in modern value about 133,000 pounds or 171,000 dollars) to a pair of individuals: her sister Evelyn and, most mysteriously, one John Pigott, omnibus conductor.

In Fear and Miss Betony, Bet finds herself thinking affectionately of her self-sacrificing and generous greengrocer father, "who struggled hard to give me a good education--he was never properly alive to the inferiority of women...."  The parallel between Miss Betony and Dorothy is obvious, though Bet would have been born a generation before Dorothy, around 1880.  (Dorothy would have been around the age of Grace Aram.)

Miss Betony's precarious and lonely life in boarding houses is sharply conveyed (with some exquisite turns of phrase), suggesting a personal familiarity on the author's part:

She had lived there four years, in the tall, self effacing house in a back street where the pavements marched sheer with the front doors and coffee colored net screened from the infrequent passer-by the occupations of the grounds floors.  Her sojourn there had been marked by a significant ascent.  Beginning at the first floor with windows commanding the complacent features of the Toplady Museum over the way, she had moved eighteen months later to a small but pleasanter room up the next flight, whence she looked down on five strips of walled garden, a budgerigar house, and the backs of homes that early each week flaunted their laundry like festive bunting.

Climbing had indeed its compensations, for the next move which nine months ago had brought her to the attic floor, with two buckets of sand in grim attendance at the top of the uncarpeted stairs and the homely world of Monday washing and apple trees and cage birds dropping away beneath her, had given her too what none of the other boarders shared, a view of sky and distant hills, and bright gleams of the river slipping smoothly away to the sea that lay somewhere behind them.  Sometimes she fancied she could taste its breath on her lips.  It was a salutary reminder that life had not been spent wholly in Churchway.

Up in her attic room Miss Betony on one occasion reflects that

years ago, in the last war, when emotions ran high and loneliness and doubt and feelings of insecurity could be appeased in all kinds of strange ways, when she had been thirty-six and pretty enough not to hesitate about sending a photograph to someone she had not seen, there had been a club--well, a matrimonial bureau really--and a secretary, and a man....

Had there ever been a man in Dorothy's life?  Just who was John Pigott, omnibus conductor?  One of the things I find most interesting in Fear and in The Bells at Old Bailey, which I will post about next, is the profound sense of isolation.

Ironically, given Miss Betony's sentiments about children, Westbury House, the stately quoined, gabled and bayed Bowers family home in Monmouth, is now a daycare center, Little Einsteins (see above), complete with a discordantly festive magenta door and picket fence.


  1. I read three of the Rue Morgue Press reprints in the late 2000s, but only liked Postscript to Poison. A poisoning mystery on par with Christie! Bowers tried too hard to emulate Sayers in Shadows Before (still descent) and disliked Fear and Miss Betony. I don't remember exactly why I disliked it, but was an insufferable purist at the time. So it being a transitional novel probably had something to do with it.

  2. I think it actually has a nice (and clued) mystery plot, but there's a lot of what Van Dine would have called "literary dallying." Bells sticks more to traditional detection, and the first three are chock full of it--perhaps overfull, imo.

  3. I,m so proud of my copy of Bells Old Bayley , in Duobleday dustjackjet...Great blog, from J.A.,from Almeria,Spain

    1. Thank you so much J. A. from Almeria, Spain. It's much appreciated. More coming on Bailey!

  4. Another great post. I love your bio sketches, especially if they are linked to the author's work.

  5. I read all of Bowers's books back when Rue Morgue published them, a decade or so ago. I enjoyed her very much, especially "Fear and Miss Bettony" - I admit I didn't see the ending coming. I'm glad to see that she's being brought back again!
    Les Blatt

    1. I might not have, but I read one overly informative, let us say, review. Hate those reviews!