‘a delightful amateur sleuth novel with a well balanced mix of domestic and academic life and a strong sense of place.’ [Stage Fright]


Ten novels set in the theatre

UnknownAlong with my good blogfriend Moira at I am posting my list of ten novels with theatrical settings. Theatres are closed communities of people engaged in a very stressful profession and so make wonderful settings – for crime novels in particular. Actors are good at lying. Deceiving people is what they do for living. And theatres can be sinister places, especially when the performance is over. Here is my choice:

Simon Brett, Murder Unprompted (1982) I could have chosen almost any one of the Charles Paris mysteries. This is one I happened to have on the shelf. They are all acutely observed and very funny. What an old reprobate Charles is, with his fondness for Bell’s whisky and his roving eye, yet his heart is the right place and he never quite loses the reader’s sympathy. In Murder Unprompted it seems he might at last hit the big time when he is the second lead in a play that transfers to the West End. Then the star is shot on stage . . .

Helen McCloy, Cue for Murder(1942). At the end of Act I of a revival of Fedora, a rare hoary old melodrama, it transpires that the corpse on stage really is a corpse and only the one of the three actors on stage could have been the killer. It’s up to McCloy’s psychiatrist sleuth Basil Willing to unravel the mystery. The theatrical setting is brilliantly evoked.

imagesGwendoline Butler, A Dark Coffin (1995). I suspect that Butler, who died in 2013, is not much read now and if so that’s a pity. She combined crime and the macabre in a quite original way. The series featuring John Coffin began in the late 1950s. By the time she reached A Dark Coffin he is a very senior policeman happily married at last to Stella Pinero, an actress in whose theatre two people are found stabbed to death in a box at the end of the performance. Butler wrote shortish novels, not a word wasted and all the better for that: very suspenseful, very good.

Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil (2009). Charles Unknown-1Carter is a stage magician who is given his stage name “Carter the Great” by Houdini.The novel begins in 1923 with the most daring performance of Carter’s life. Two hours later US President Harding is dead and Carter flees the country, pursued by the Secret Service. This is one of those long densely written novels that you don’t want to end. Lots of fascinating stuff about the art of the stage magician. A great read.

Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (1992). The first in her Venetian series, which have given me a lot of pleasure over the years. The audience are waiting for the third act of La Traviata to begin, when the artistic director appears between the curtains to ask ‘Is there a doctor in the audience?’ But Maestra Wellauer, poisoned by cyanide in his coffee, is beyond medical help. When Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates he finds that the man had plenty of enemies. Combines one of my favourite cities with one of my favourite settings.

Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s (1982). Freddie’s is a stage school for children and Freddie herself is an institution and something of a monster: ‘she knew she was one of those few people in every walk of life, whom society has mysteriously decided to support at all costs.’ It’s set against a production of Shakespeare’s King John. Fitzgerald herself described her subject as ‘The courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it.’ It is both funny and profound.

Unknown-3Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003). I am a fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series. This was the first and it begins with an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes Unit. John May mourns the death of his old friend Arthur Bryant. It seems to have something to do with their very first case in 1940 during the Blitz. It began when a dancer is found dead – and minus her feet – in the Palace Theatre, which turns out to be a very sinister place indeed.

Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song (2009) is set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside and is another crime novel that moves between the past and present. I love all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the on-the-edge-of your-seat suspense.

Ngaio Marsh, Opening Night (1951). Marsh is the doyenne of the theatrical mystery. She was made a dame for her contribution to the theatre in New Zealand. This is an usual crime novel in that the murder and the arrival of Alleyn don’t take place until well over half-way through. It’s a decent mystery, but the main appeal is the superbly realised theatrical setting.

Unknown-2Margery Allingham, Dancers in Mourning (1937). Reading this, I realised all over again what an excellent writer she is, so good at the way people think and behave. Chloe Pye, a dancer almost over the hill, has died. Her sister-in-law says: ‘ “. . . she was a good girl, I’m sure – at least her family always thought so, and now that time to be charitable if ever, when the poor soul’s lying dead.” This perfunctory dismissal . . . had the ruthlessness of a pronouncement of Time itself, and the more sensitive of them shivered a little. Arch, inviting Chloe Pye was dead indeed. It was like the drawer closing on a last year’s hat.’ Quite brilliant. The setting is a production of a musical comedy and Campion falls in love with the wife of the chief suspect.

That’s it. It is always such a treat getting together with Moira in this way – and I have had a lovely time rereading some old favourites. Do over to Moira’s blog at and see what she has chosen.


Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald

Posted on Sep 4, 2015 in Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald | 2 Comments

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_LifeThis is the first biography I have read of someone that I’ve actually known. Penelope Fitzgerald was an active member of the William Morris Society of which I was curator, and later vice-chair and then chair in the late 1980s and the 1990s. My memories of her include standing with her on a bitterly cold day at the site of Burne-Jones’s house, the Grange, in Kensington to watch a blue plaque being unveiled. In 1982 she edited Morris’s only novel, the unfinished Novel on Blue Paper, and her greatest and most lasting contribution to Morris studies is her biography of Burne-Jones, published in 1975. Though she is best known now for her fiction, Penelope was a fine biographer, and books on the Knox brothers and the poet, Charlotte Mew, were to follow.

What then would she have made of her own biography? Hermione Lee writes that ‘perhaps self-deceivingly, I have felt while writing this book that she might not have disapproved of me as her biographer – if there must be a Life – because she had liked my book about Virginia Woolf, and had been kind to me when we met’(p. 433.) I’ll return to that proviso, but let me begin by saying that, like Penelope’s own biographies, this is an absorbing read: thoroughly researched, judicious, sympathetic, yet pulling no punches. It is also a visually attractive book with Penelope’s own charmingly idiosyncratic drawings scattered throughout the text.

Above all, Lee sets out with great skill the ways in which the work grew out of the life. Penelope said that in her writing she aimed to be true to ‘the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it’(xvii). She had plenty of this in her own life: the courage as well as the weaknesses, the tragedies, and the missed opportunities.

Penelope was the daughter of Evoe Knox, the editor of Punch, who was one of four extraordinary brothers: the others were Dyllwyn, a brilliant mathematician and Bletchley Park code-breaker, Ronald Knox, a Monsignor, writer of detective stories and the most famous Roman Catholic convert in England, and Wilfred, ascetic Anglo-Catholic priest and welfare worker. Lee succeeds in creating a more nuanced picture of the Knoxes than was possible for Penelope in her biography of the brothers. Highly talented, the family was also highly competitive and unforgiving of failure. This heritage was a mixed blessing, as Lee points out, and part of the pain of Penelope’s difficult middle age must have come from knowing how far she had fallen short.

Yet it had begun so well for her. At Oxford, she seemed effortlessly brilliant, a golden girl of whom much was expected. A fellow student at Somerville commented that ‘Everyone else wrote [essays] at length, but Penelope Knox wrote one paragraph and that was enough’ and, as Lee comments, ‘It would always be enough.’ (pp. 56-57). She got a First. Soon after she graduated the war began. After a spell with the Ministry of Food, she joined the BBC and after the war ended reviewed books and did some script-writing for the BBC. Penelope herself expected that she would write fiction. ‘Women, if they possibly can, must write novels,’ she said in a review of a novel by Elizabeth Taylor in 1947 (p. 88). But her literary career petered out and her first novel, The Golden Child, didn’t appear until 1977, when she was sixty-one. What went wrong?

It is tempting to say that she married the wrong man. There was an unrequited love – Penelope never divulged his identity – and a hurried war-time wedding to a dashing young Irish officer and barrister, Desmond Fitzgerald. The early years of her marriage were occupied by attempts to get and stay pregnant. Her first baby died soon after birth and she suffered numerous miscarriages before the birth of her first son, Valpy, in 1947. Two girls, Tina and Maria, followed. No doubt these were busy years, but the real problem lay with Desmond, who had come back from the war with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and began drinking heavily. Their marriage was dogged by money problems and finally in 1962 Desmond was caught forging signatures on cheques. He escaped prison, but was disbarred and forced to leave his Chambers. He spent the rest of his working life as a clerk in a travel agent’s. Penelope worked at several jobs as a teacher to make ends meet. In her Burne-Jones biography she writes: ‘The fact that Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti could live through those days and months and maintain such a convincing everyday life will only seem strange to those whose marriage has experience no crisis’(p.223). Yet her marriage endured and when Desmond died aged 59 in 1976, she wrote to an old friend that it was a ‘dreadful blow . . . the truth is that I was spoilt, as with all our ups and downs Desmond always thought that everything I did was right’ (p. 237).

But for a writer no experience is wasted and of no-one is that truer than Penelope Fitzgerald. Sensibly Lee breaks with chronological order and discusses the novels, Human Voices, The Bookshop, Offshore, and At Freddie’s in the context of the events that inspired them, though the books were not published until many years later. Penelope had always been a novelist in the making. Working in the war-time BBC, leaving London with her children to run a failing bookshop in Suffolk, living on the Thames on a dilapidated barge, teaching at a stage school: these experiences provided rich material for her first four novels.

Even the teaching jobs that she found demanding and exhausting were part of her long apprenticeship. Lee examines her annotated copies of her teaching texts and concludes that ‘the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show her thinking deeply and intently about art and writing. They show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing to burst out’(p. 202). The same was true of her biographies: ‘the questions she asked herself about how to enter into another person’s life, the melancholy and the mess of the lives she was drawn to, all fuelled her novel writing, the more so as fictions of history replaced autobiographical fictions’ (263). Of those last novels, Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels, and The Blue Flower, Penelope said ‘the moment comes when you have to step outside your own experience because you have used everything you want to write about and maybe many things that are too painful for you to mention (p. 464). Reviewers commented on the ease with which she appeared to evoke the past, but Lee shows what extraordinary pains she took with her research whether the setting was Italy in the 1950s and earlier or Moscow in 1913. And what an extraordinary late flowering these four short novels represent. Her last novel, The Blue Flower, published when she was seventy-eight, gained her an international reputation.

Lee admits that ‘there are many things [Penelope] did not want anyone to know about her, and which no-one will ever know’ (p.434). Many family documents, including letters from her mother, who had died when Penelope was eighteen, were lost when their barge sank in the Thames. Her war-time letters to Desmond have not survived. But it was also Penelope’s nature to be reticent and to guard her privacy. Some of those things too painful to mention included Desmond’s disgrace and her relationship with her daughter-in-law. Deeply attached to Valpy, she was horrified when he got engaged at eighteen to a Spanish girl and married her as soon as he left Oxford. Lee doesn’t gloss over Penelope’s sometimes unwelcoming and unkind behaviour and she wouldn’t have been doing her job properly if she had. And Lee shows her too as an admirable person: stoical, unassuming, devoted to her children, loyal to her husband. Still, I found myself wincing from time to time and I closed the book thinking how much Penelope would have disliked her private life being laid bare. Yet she was a biographer, too, and someone to whom the truth was important. She would have understood the need for honesty.

So, yes, returning to that earlier proviso – if there had to be a Life – and perhaps for a writer of Penelope’s stature there did have to be one – it is hard to imagine a better one than this.

This review was first published in The Journal of the William Morris Society.

Ten books set on the Home Front

319386Time for another list! We had such fun last time that Moira at and I have got together again, this time to share our ten favourite books set on the Home Front. Mine are all set in WWII. Here goes . . .

First up is Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War (1983 – but written during the war). This is also on my list of books that make me laugh. I love it – and the second one, Henrietta Sees It Through, is just as good. Dennys was a GP’s wife in Budleigh Salterton, and these are purportedly letters written to her cousin. They are fiction, but I am sure they drew heavily on her own experience. They are charming, witty, and illustrated with her own delightful drawings – and along the way you get a very good idea of what the home front was like on the Devon coast.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices (1980). Set in the BBC where Fitzgerald worked herself during the war. Funny, touching, perfectly observed: vintage Fitzgerald. I must reread it – again.

Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means (1963). Very short, a novella really, and not a word wasted. It’s 1945 and the girls of slender means live in a London hostel, the May of Teck, with an unexploded bomb in the garden. What happens offers them a glimpse into the heart of darkness that will influence the course of their future lives. I’d love you to review this, Moira. Clothes are very important here.

Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day is her best known work set in WWII, but I would go for The Collected Stories (1980). My copy is falling apart. The section, ‘The War Years’ contains some wonderful stories, including ‘Pink May,’ ‘The Demon Lover,’ and ‘The Happy Autumn Fields.’ No-one is better at describing the sheer strangeness and dislocation of war-time London.

Anthony Powell, The Soldier’s Art (1966), the eighth volume in A Dance to the Music of Time. Nick Jenkins joins up, but is too old to see active service, so it is all set in the UK. I have included it really for the part set in the Blitz, one of the saddest and most memorable sections in the whole series.

Lissa Evans, Their Finest Hour and a Half (2010), set in a documentary film unit just after Dunkirk. I’ve already blogged about this lovely novel.

And now some crime. Laura Wilson’s An Empty Death (2009) is set in London in the Blitz and features DI Ted Stratton. The period detail is spot on. A good, gripping, meaty read. Her earlier novel, Stratton’s War, is also excellent.

Margery Allingham, Coroner’s Pidgin (1945). Albert Campion, after a secret mission abroad, stops off in his London flat and immediately gets embroiled in a murder investigation. His efforts to get home to his wife, Amanda, are constantly thwarted and when he does, well, the novel has one of  my favourite endings.

Rennie Airth’s The Dead of Winter (2009), the third and last of his novels featuring (by now former police inspector) John Madden. A Polish land girl is murdered during the blackout and Madden gets involved because she was working on his farm. I don’t think Airth is as well known as he ought to be. He is a terrific writer.

And finally, a true classic: Christiana Brand’s Green for Danger (1945). In August 1944, during the V-1 Doodlebug offensive on London, a patient dies on the operating table after being injured by a flying bomb. A nurse is suspicious, but before she can say why, she dies too. Enter Inspector Cockrill. Pure Golden Age pleasure.

That’s it. I can’t wait to see what Moira’s chosen. I’ll add a link when her post is up.

Here it is: List- Books About the WW2 Homefront. Fascinating . . .



Penelope Fitzgerald

I am well into Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and I am riveted. I’ll be blogging about it when I have finished it. It is particularly fascinating to read a biography when the subject is someone you’ve known.I first met Penelope when I was curator at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith at the end of the 1980s. When I’d moved on from my job as curator to lecture at Homerton College, I stayed on the committee, and in due course became vice-chair and then chair. It was in that capacity that I spoke on behalf of the Society at Penelope Fitzgerald’s memorial service. This is some of what I said.

‘Penelope joined in [The William Morris Society] in 1973 and over the years she was a loyal friend of the Society – and of Morris and Burne-Jones. She reviewed books for our Journal, gave lectures, chaired meetings. My own memories of her include standing with her on a bitterly cold day near the site of Burne-Jones’s house, the Grange, in Kensington on the day that it was given a blue plaque. In 1982 she edited – most appropriately – Morris’s only novel, the unfinished Novel on Blue Paper.

Of course the greatest and most lasting contribution in this area is her biography of Burne-Jones. This marvellous book is frank, yet tactful, non-judgmental, but very shrewd. Above all it is a wonderful read, as compulsively readable as one of her novels. No-one has got closer to the psychological roots of Burne-Jones’s art. Penelope combined a scholarly concern for exactitude with a novelist’s sensibility to produce what is as much the portrait of a marriage and of a remarkable woman, Georgiana Burne-Jones, as a biography of an artist. I think Penelope felt a special sympathy for Georgiana, who had been her husband’s first biographer. The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones is one of the really great Victorian biographies and Penelope’s book was a worthy successor.

When Georgiana Burne-Jones died in 1920, J. W. Mackail, her son-in-law and also Morris’s biographer, wrote a tribute. Much of it might equally have been written for Penelope and I want to end by reading a little of it:

“She was a personality of extraordinary distinction and charm. No one, man or woman, who made her acquaintance failed to come under the spell of a nature that radiated beauty. Her intellectual powers were great . . . She had large clear eyes for art, books and human beings. Unaffected and touching humility was combined in her with quiet dignity. Few, if any, were more alive to follies and absurdities . . . her heart did not harden or her eager receptiveness lessen with the years. She burned to end with a clear, steady flame, leaving to those who love her a memory which is a continuing presence.”‘

Closing the Bedroom Door

It occurred to me the other day that you know you’ve reached a certain age when you write a sex scene and you’re no longer worried about what your mother will think. No, now you’re worrying about what your children will think.
I’m know I’m not the only writer to find it difficult to write about sex. It’s not just the embarrassment factor – though there is that – it’s knowing how to get the tone right. Last week I watched GRACIE! on TV. I missed this the first time round. It’s the story of the singer Gracie Fields’ marriage to the Italian movie director, Monty Banks, and the dilemma she faced when he was threatened with internment in the Second World War. The extraordinary Jane Horrocks pulls off such a tour-de-force as Gracie that when I heard Gracie herself on YouTube I found her curiously unconvincing. Tom Hollander was magnificent as Monty Banks and there was real chemistry between them. When he tells her he’s in love with her and they kiss, they are at the door of his hotel room. He kisses her hand and draws her in. The door closes in the viewer’s face. In the next scene they are having breakfast in the dining room. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it works. It set me thinking about the way less sometimes really is more. In sex scenes – as in ghost stories and horror movies too – it’s usually best to leave quite a bit to the imagination. For my money one of the most erotic sentences in modern fiction comes in Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel, THE BEGINNING OF SPRING. It’s set in Russia in the 1910s. Frank has been deserted by his wife and has fallen in love with Lisa, who’s been employed to look after his children. When he declares himself they are interrupted and she slips away. Later he goes to look for her. ‘Frank went up the dark stairs to the back of the house and knocked at the door of Lisa’s room. He had not expected it to be locked, and it was not locked, but he waited until he heard her bare feet cross the wooden floor to open it.’ There’s a space and the next section begins ‘In the very early morning, they left for Shirokaya.’ That’s all, but in the context of the novel it’s electrifying.
What did Shelley write? ‘Heard melodies are sweet, those unheard are sweeter.’ I rather think he was right, and will you excuse me now while I go and look for my smelling salts . . .

So I Have Thought of You

This is a collection of Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters and I was particularly anxious to read them, because I knew her. In fact I actually have a letter from her myself, tucked inside my copy of her marvellous biography of the Knox brothers. I’d written to tell her much I had enjoyed that and her novels and her biography of Burne-Jones. That last accounts for where our lives intersected. I met her when I was curator at the William Morris Society.
But I have to admit that when I skimmed through this book, I began to wonder if it should have published. She certainly didn’t write with a eye to publication and was a reticent and private person. I certainly wouldn’t want my own letters published – not that it is ever likely to happen, thank God. And then, too, where I dipped in, some of the letters to publishers seemed a little too mundane to have been worth printing. Certainly she is not one of the great letter- writers, no Keats or Byron, but once I got into their rhythm, I began to appreciate this chronicle of small pleasures (in which the discarding of a flannel is regarded as ‘reckless’) and not so small sorrows. Even the letters to publishers contain some gems. I loved this: ‘Still doggedly going on with the Independent Foreign Fiction awards, only to find that one of the books we’ve got on the short list has been pulped by Macmillan’s already – the whole book business is getting very depressing.’ Yes, indeed. This was 1995 and things haven’t changed.
In the 1970s she complains about old and tired she is, virtually on her last legs – she had two teaching jobs, so no wonder – when actually she had well over twenty years to go and all her great success and acclaim was ahead of her. For one of the marvellous things about Penelope, in the eyes of a middle-aged writer like myself, is that she didn’t even published her first novel until she was sixty.