Wednesday, September 1, 2021

"A confirmed lunatic": Life and Art and The First Mrs. Street--and Miles Burton's A Will in the Way (1947)

"Confirmed lunatic" John Botesdale stalks the
grounds of a Kentish private asylum in style in
A Will in the Way (Collins Crime Club).
The novel evidently draws on aspects of Major
John Street's troubled relationship with his first wife.

As John Rhode and Miles Burton (and very occasionally Cecil Waye), Major Cecil John Charles Street published over 140 crime novels, mostly pure tales of detection.  Like any writer, Major John Street, despite his extreme fecundity, drew inspiration from real life personal experience for his books.  How much so, in the case of a 1947 Miles Burton novel, A Will in the Way, I was not able to confirm until recently, despite the fact that ten years ago at this time I was near completion of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, my 2012 book on John Street. Freeman Wills Crofts and JJ Connington.

John Street, the son of a British army general and his much younger gentlelady wife, married twice: first in 1906 at the age of 21 to 23-year-old Hyacinth Maud Kirwan, a daughter of a major in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, in which Street, a graduate of Wellington College and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, had served for three years; and second to Eileen Annette Waller, a daughter of a prominent civil engineer, soon after the death of his first wife in 1949.  

The circumstances of how Street came to part ways from his first wife Maud are not quite clear.  Along with four servants--cook, parlor maid, house maid and gardener--John and Maud five years after their marriage in 1911 were residing at the Regency country mansion Summerhill outside Lyme Regis, where Street, who had left the army five years earlier, served as the chief engineer of the city's power company (though in the census that year Street is listed simply as having "private means").  

Not living with John and Maud at Summerhill is their daughter Verena Hyacinth Iris Street, the couple's only child, who was born to them in 1906, about ten months after their marriage.  Rather Verena is residing with her Grandmother Caroline Street and a nursemaid and general servant at Caroline's flat in swanky Hyde Park Mansions, Marylebone, London. Verena was still living with Caroline, now an octogenarian, two decades later, when she died at the age of 25 in 1932.

1939 ad for Summerhill, long after the Streets had
departed and the house had become a private hotel

After he returned to England in 1921 from his service in the First World War and postwar intelligence world work in Ireland, Street by 1926 began cohabiting with Eileen Waller, a woman eleven years younger than he who by all accounts proved an uncommonly congenial companion. 

All this I knew when I was finishing Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery a decade ago; but there were things I didn't know, like why Street could not obtain a divorce from his first wife Maud and why Verena Street seemed to have so little to do with her parents.  I had my suspicions, based partly on my reading of John Street's crime fiction, but I didn't know--until recently.

It's obvious from his writing that Major Street had a broadminded attitude, let us say, toward the sacred  institution of marriage.  He did not necessarily believe in ties that irrevocably bind, at least when the affections between man and woman had irretrievably broken down. 

In his John Rhode detective novel The Claverton Affair (1933), we learn that series character Dr. Mortimer Oldland, who debuts therein, had an adulterous affair and later left his coldly indifferent wife to move in with a mistress, indiscretions which are sympathetically treated by the author.

By 1926, five years after he returned to England,
John Street was living with his companion Eileen Waller
in Flat 92a in Kensington Gardens Square, London. 
Eileen was listed in the address directory that year 
as "Eleanor Street."

In another Rhode, Death Invades the Meeting (1944), a lawyer informs Superintendent Hanslet, concerning publican Mr. Tarrant and Tarrant's spouse, that the woman living with him as Mrs. Tarrant "isn't really his wife.  They aren't married and he's got a wife alive who for reasons of her own won't divorce him."  The lawyer adds regretfully: "There are women like that."   What was also suggestive to me, however, although I didn't talk about it in Masters at the time, was another Street detective novel, the 1947 Miles Burton novel A Will in the Way.

This one concerns the murder of the wife of a wealthy "confirmed lunatic," John Botesdale, who has been confined to a private home for mental cases at the village of West Leigh, near Maidenhead, Kent. Series policeman Inspector Arnold is called in to investigate the death, via a fall down the basement stairs, of John Botesdale's "flighty" second wife, Dilys, at their home in London, but he ends up relying for inspiration, as is his wont, on constant visits to his gentry friend Desmond Merrion's London rooms, the imaginative amateur sleuth Merrion having come up to the City from his country fastness High Eldersham Hall with his man Newport for one of his periodic urban jaunts (no word on what Merrion's wife Mavis is doing).  

Major John Street, c. 1920s, when he launched his
incredibly prolific career as a crime writer

While not as sprightly or complex as Miles Burton's 1949 fine detective novel Look Alive, reviewed by me here, A Will in the Way is full of detective interest, with a nice twist with the second murder, one which goes over poor Arnold's head, as these things so often do.  What struck me most at the time of my reading of the novel, however, was the its prominent and quite pertinent use of a private asylum setting in its plot.  

Could this, I wondered, be what happened to Street's first wife Maud--could she have been institutionalized, leaving Street unable to divorce her? 

Was it literally, in other words, that grotesque situation, beloved by Golden Age mystery novelists, of a man unable to obtain a divorce and remarry because he was chained by obsolescent English law to a "mad" wife?  

It turns out that I was right, it was.  

Or, if it goes too far at this time to state definitively that Maud Street was "mad," I did find that in 1939 she in fact was residing as a patient in a private asylum, Riverhead House, in Sevenoaks, Kent. 

In a 1905 Report to Parliament from the Commissioners on Lunacy, Riverhead House and its denizens, all of them women, are mentioned:

We have to-day seen the names of the eight ladies whose names are on the books of this house....The patients were in good bodily health, and gave every indication of being well-cared for, and were free from complaint....

Two patients go for drives frequently, and the others have walking exercise, and two ladies are able to attend local entertainments.  

There had been no mechanical restraint or seclusion.  We have found the house in excellent order throughout.  

Until Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937, divorce in the UK could only be granted on grounds of adultery (which was why so many couples in those righteous days "cooked up" amicable divorces on this ground).  Even after the liberalizing 1937 act, however, divorce could only be granted, on grounds of the spouse's insanity, if this condition was deemed "incurable."  So if there was a chance the spouse might get better someday, it was ixnay with the ivorceday, as the wise judge no doubt said.

Riverhead House, Sevenoaks, Kent
Here Maud Street resided in 1939 with around a score of other genteel women patients.

My guess is that Maud Street's condition was not deemed incurable, so Street was forced to "live in sin," as they said, with Eileen, the true love of his maturity.  And when Maud died in a cottage hospital in the Isle of Wight town of Shanklin in 1949 she had most recently been residing at a house in 5 Hyde Park Road at the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, apparently no longer a confined mental patient.  

In A Will in the Way, there is much talk about John Botesdale's being a "certified lunatic" who may imminently be decertified and allowed to live at home, his insanity having been deemed cured.  My guess is that Maud Street was released from confinement shortly before this time, giving rise to the subject of the book.  I believe it's as close as John Street ever got the dealing directly with matters arising out of his wife's presumably long bout of insanity.  

Maud Street's house in Ryde, Isle of Wight--her last domicile before her death at 67 in 1949

As Maud's husband, Street would have been her heir, had she died intestate.  However, at some point Maud made a will leaving her estate of some 160,000 pounds or 220,000 dollars (both of these sums are their modern value) to her sister's sons Colonel Richard John Dickinson of the British Army and Patric Thomas Dickinson, the latter of whom was a prominent poet and playwright. 

In A Will in the Way, we find that the character John Botesdale, on the other hand, decidedly does not hold a high opinion of his own relatives (headed by his two sisters), and does not consider them remotely "will-worthy."  It seems that these pious ladies made emphatically clear to him that they disapproved of his second marriage, a stance on their part which he in turn resented.

Interestingly, Street himself had two surviving siblings: two much older half-sisters, offspring of his father's first marriage, Louisa May and Sophia Catherine, Baroness Gifford, who died in their eighties in 1944 and 1947 respectively.  Had they known about, and vocally disapproved of, Street's relationship with Eileen Waller?

Sophia Catherine, Baroness Gifford (1862-1947).
John Street's elder half-sister by 22 years, in 1898.
Childless Baroness Gifford, who died at age 85,
 led a busy public life.  She converted to
Catholicism, served as a nurse in the Boer War
 and kept  a pack of harrier hounds at her home,
Old Park, Bosham, Sussex, located about 90 miles
southwest of The Orchard in Laddingford, Kent
All this reminds that I paid insufficient attention to the cost of caring for his first wife while maintaining a separate household with another woman must have imposed on Street.  No wonder he wrote so many books!  Even with his private means.  Did Maud want to get back together with John after she became a "free woman," as it were? Did that provoke Street to make his snarky comment about "women like that" in Death Invades the Meeting?

In A Will in the Way John Botesdale is said to have forgotten the existence of his current wife for much of the time, and he certainly doesn't miss her when he finds out that she is dead. For his part John Street resided with Eileen at a large old house called "The Orchard" in Laddingford, Kent near Maidstone, about eighteen miles from Sevenoaks, where Maude was institutionalized. Perhaps John visited his lawful wife at Sevenoaks, though I would guess Eileen didn't accompany him on any such visits. 

Incidentally, The Orchard was located right next to Chequers, a Laddingford pub, the landlord of which was coincidentally named Burton!  See Google maps. This must have been a happy arrangement indeed for Street, who liked to spend an hour every day lubricating at the local pub. 

John Dickson Carr
 admiringly avowed that his good friend and drinking buddy John Street could put away more beer without showing any effect of it than anyone he ever knew--a great tribute from Carr, who tended to be, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of those comically animated, "silly" drunks.  Street and Carr together wrote the detective novel Fatal Descent/Drop to His Death (1939) at The Orchard, by the by, and surely it goes without saying that they must have both have regularly visited The Chequers together during this time.

The Orchard, Laddingford, Kent
where John Street and his companion
Eileen Waller were living in 1939
The Chequers Inn neighbors it on the left

Another thought I have is that Maud's infirmity explains why Verena did not live with her parents. By the time Street returned from strife abroad in 1921, Verena was 15 years old (she was 8 when he left) and probably like a stranger to her father (and he to her).  It makes Verena's untimely 1932 death at age 25 all the more intriguing.  Just what exactly happened to Verena Street?  Perhaps not coincidentally The Claverton Affair, which must have been written not long after Verena's death, offers poignant reflection on relations between fathers and daughters.

How did Street really feel about Maud Kirwan, his state-sanctioned wife of 43 years? I can't say definitively, but....

Street's 1939 detective novel Death Pays a Dividend, which Street wrote while he was living just a few miles away from Maud's private care home, sees series cop Jimmy Waghorn's lovely and charming future wife, Diana, state witheringly of the murder victim's pious, drippy sister: 

Rupert Bayle's sister is called Maud.  She would be, you know.

Was the Major letting off a bit of steam about his marital situation here?  

"Maud," I might mention, was a popular woman's name during the Victorian era (along with Gertrude, Agnes, Ethel, Bertha, Ida, and Edna), when Street's wife was born--due, it is said, to the popularity of Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem by that name.  (Come into the garden, Maud/For the black bat, night, has flown/Come into the garden, Maud/I am here at the gate alone.)  In 1882 it was the twentieth most common girl's name in the US, but it had dropped out of the top 1000 by the 1930s.  Only 17 girls were given the name Maude in the US in 2016; possibly none at all were named "Maud."

Over the years John Street may have done his legal duty by his first wife, but he doesn't seem to have been happy about it, judging from his crime writing.  He and Eileen finally married in October 1949 after more than two decades of cohabitation, just four months after Maud's death at the age of 67.  John and Eileen remained together until John's death at age 80 in 1964.

The Chequers Inn, with John and Eileen Street's home The Orchard pictured to the right
See also: This review of A Will in the Way from four years ago at the In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel blog, where I coyly alluded in a comment to the situation with Major Street's first wife.


  1. This is fascinating - an intriguing look at Street the man. Somehow I'd always considered him the sort of writer who would draw on his profession & hobbies, but not on his personal life. And you solve (or at least provide an explanation) the mystery of his prolificity!

    1. I think there long has been this notion that Street was this bland, jolly good fellow, but underneath it all there was a lot intrigue and trouble--the personal problems, infidelity, madness, skullduggery in Ireland during the Black and Tan War, etc. One could write a book--whoops, one did!

      Street also came from the elevated social background that English mystery writers liked to write about, but his interest in science and business rather set him apart.

  2. £160,000 was worth over $600,000 - when a dollar was a dollar - in Maud's lifetime, so even the income on Maud's fortune may have paid for her upkeep in a private asylum. What was the cause of death on Verena Street's death certificate? At a time when eugenics was a superstition, if she had a hereditary condition (which might also shorten her life) the psychological effect on both parents might be considerable.
    Patric Dickinson wrote a memoir, The Good Minute. I read it years ago. I don't remember any mention of his aunt, but I wasn't looking specifically.

    1. The 160,000 pound figure I gave refers to the modern value. The actual sum was much smaller. Based on modern conditions in the US, I don't know that that amount of money would have taken you so far to provide for years in a good quality private care home. Maud came from a prominent genteel family too, though, just like Street.

      I don't know Verena's cause of death, but I share your suspicion.

  3. Even by your " detecting " standards ,I think you have reached new heights. Brilliant research and deductions. Maybe I am wrong ,but I found The Venner Crime, 1933, to be quite a lot bleaker in both the wintry setting and overall mood. Was this the first book written after Verena's death ?

    1. My recollection is it followed The Claverton Affair, but yes these would have been the first Rhode books which followed his daughter's death. They both feel like dark books with flawed key characters. On the other hand the Miles Burton novels from 1933 are much lighter!

      I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. One of my motivations in writing Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery was to disabuse people of the notion that the authors in the book did not have interesting lives and work. I'm not surprised Street was a good friend of John Dickson Carr, he had quite a lively, fascinating life and it does come out in his writing.

    2. Indeed, you might say that 1932, for whatever reason, unleashed a creative avalanche for Street over the next few years, at least in the John Rhode books. (I think the best Burtons date from the Forties.) The quality of those 1933-35 Rhodes, to me at least, is astounding.

  4. There were certainly many women confined to asylums simply because their husband wanted them out of the way. It was probably more convenient for the husband to have a 'mad' wife than to suffer the stigma of divorce as the errant husband. I smell a rat!

    1. The stuff of Gothic sensation novels, but it also happened in real life of course. I'm surprised you didn't go one step further and take it into detective novel territory by suggesting that Street finally lost patience and murdered his wife in 1949 so that he could marry Eileen. He was a mystery writer after all!

      The problem with the trumped up madness theory is that the situation greatly inconvenienced Street in that he was not able to marry for a quarter of a century because he could not divorce his wife unless she was deemed incurably insane. I would think he would have been happy to have his wife divorce him.

      Of course we only have Street's view, to the extent that we can glean intimations in books. It would be interesting to find out more about the story. The fact that Maud made a will indicates she must have been deemed compos mentis at some point. What was her side of the story, or her family's?

      Unfortunately mental disease is a real thing, afflicting both women and men. Happily there are, and there were then, dedicated medical professional committed to treating it. It wasn't all sane, unwanted relatives held against their will by scheming asylums in cahoots with wicked relations.

    2. I'm certainly open, by the way, to the view that Street was at fault in his first marriage and the whole matter around his daughter, who died when she was only 25, seems odd. What was the cause of death? Obviously there are a ton of unanswered questions here. I hope to answer some of them someday!

      At bottom Street married when he was 21 and his wife was 23. Probably an ill-advised marriage in the first place, folly of youth, etc.