Saturday, 19 July 2014

Class and Joanna Cannan

Whodunnit? Must have been a rank outsider!

Joanna Cannan (1898–1961) was the author of the influential children's story A Pony for Jean. It spawned a whole genre - largely written by Cannan and her daughters, Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson. The family were intensely horsey and ran their own stables. (A Pony for Jean was unusual in its time for being convincingly narrated by the girl heroine. The series is also funny: the usual plot about a girl who teaches herself to ride on an unpromising mount and then wins all the prizes is surrounded by some sly social observation. The ODNB says Cannan’s writing was “witty, satirical, even cynical”. I think they’re trying to say “critical”.)

Cannan also wrote detective stories. I was encouraged to read Murder Included by Clothes in Books who hinted that it was a guide to the English class system in the early 50s. And so it is.

The aristocratic d’Estray family have turned their country house into a hunting stables and private hotel (for “paying guests”) – on the urging of the latest Lady d’Estray, who is rather Bohemian and has been living in the South of France. (She has breakfast in her bedroom – imagine!) The police are called in when one of the guests (a horsey old lady who is also a d’Estray cousin) is found poisoned. The local fuzz request help from Scotland Yard, claiming that they can't be impartial as they are all either friends of Sir Charles d’Estray, or closely related to the staff.

They are sent Inspector Ronald Price, a solidly lower middle-class socialist who has the gall to live in Finchley and eat in a dining recess with folkweave curtains. His bathroom contains a mirror-fronted cupboard full of laxatives, and a cork-seated linen basket. His idea of a good meal is tinned soup, potato pie and trifle (stale cake and instant custard). He is also pompous, calling sleep “recuperative slumber”.

The whole book seethes with snobbery (and racism), mainly expressed by the cast – the contempt for Price and another character called Marvin seems to be entirely Cannan’s own.

Among the guests is a couple called Rose. Here’s the Chief Constable’s view: “Well, Mr Rose is a type that I daresay you’re familiar with, though it’s not common, thank the Lord, down here. A few years back his name was Rosengarten or Rosenberg.” (His wife, Sybella, calls the drawing room the “lounge” and her coat and skirt a “costume”. We’d now call it a suit. Sidney Rose’s hunting clothes are too new and too brightly coloured: chestnut tweed coat and socks; yellow tie, waistcoat and handkerchief. What’s more, his tie has a pattern of foxes’ masks and hunting whips, and his socks are cable-stitched.)

Inspector Price flinches when local cop Treadwell refers to the housemaid (who is also his aunt) as a “servant”. “Don’t they realise we’ve done away with masters and servants?” thinks Price. He winces again when the Chief Constable complains that he has to dine early to let the cook go home. “How well they were taking it, these doomed and done-for ladies and gentlemen – but dine early!”
Treadwell complains that the village was “pretty enough once, but spoiled by bungalows run up by retired Harborough tradesmen”. Price writes to his wife, Valerie, that he may have to remind everybody that “a few years have passed since we did away with the feudal system”.

Price ticks off the boot boy for saying “What?” rather than “Pardon?” but is put in his place – “Sir Charles won’t ’ave pardon in the ’ouse.” It’s “I beg your pardon” to the gentry and “What?” to equals.
Bunny (Lady d’Estray) is advised not to wear espadrilles in the presence of the police. Her conservative stepdaughter Patricia is wearing “trim Coolies”. (What can these be? Basketweave shoes?) “The more you wear sloppy shoes,” says Pat, “The more you have to.” (Espadrilles were a foreign import, and rather shocking.) Pat admits later that “ ‘what corners I had were duly knocked off at St Olaf’s'. She smiled, evidently recalling humorous incidents connected with the loss of her individuality.” She is a perpetual prefect, and has yet to discard the “snubbing manner” acquired at school.

One of the guests, Flight-Lieutenant Marvin, is described as a “temporary gentleman” by other characters. He has been taken up by Miss Hudson (the first corpse), and is probably after her money. Lisa, Bunny’s daughter, says that he’s “of the people”, and uses words like “perspiration and serviette and excuse me”. Cannan introduces his mother, apparently just so that she can sneer at her. She wears more than one ring, a tight corset and a frilly white blouse. She enjoys walking round shops, also “bridge, matinees, an occasional dress show”.

Beatrice, the housemaid, explains how servants’ halls have become more democratic: “Of course, in the old days the under-servants weren’t allowed to speak at table until the upper servants ’ad withdrawn, but me and Mr Benson and Mrs Capes decided that, within reason, we in the ’all should adapt ourselves to the spirit of the times.” Yes, I’m afraid the servants all drop their aitches, which makes their dialogue quite difficult to read.

I guessed who the murderer was, and the solution is quite shocking. I want to read more Cannans now...




1 comment:

  1. Loved this - definitely need more class-based book reviews! I am the natural audience for this.

    ReplyDelete