Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Dandy Gilver and a Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson

 
published 2016

 
 
Dandy Gilver Habit


[Separate descriptions taken from throughout the book]

…I had long suspected that women who go in for nunnery had some melodrama about them. The early rising, the lying prostrate on stone floors, not to mention the glamorous costume – for who would not look dashing swathed in snowy white and with her neck hidden?

…‘Everyone looked exactly the same,’ she said. ‘Well, we always do apart from height and shape, especially from the back. And even from the front at a distance…’

…Again it struck me that I was most unobservant when it came to the clothes of the sisters. I should have noticed that ordinarily their belts were hidden by an over-tunic… It was a testament to the success of their habits, I supposed. One simply saw a mound of black with flashes of white and all one really noticed were their faces.

….Through yet another door we came upon the children themselves. About fifty of them, from toddlers with bars across the front of their chairs to girls and boys of fourteen or so. There were two nuns, each with a capacious white apron, tied over her black habit

….As he spoke, I caught sight of Sister Anne, with a rough apron covering her habit and her veil pinned back between her shoulders. She was still winter-pruning…


 
Dandy Gilver Habit 2

commentary: A friend, discussing literature with a nun, complained about a book that had too many characters in it, hard to distinguish among them. The nun replied that she would have no problem with such a book: nuns living in communities learned to handle large groups of characters in real life, she said, so books held no fears.

I thought of that while reading this book – there is a large number of nuns in it, but McPherson does a good job of keeping them clear. Names are very important in the book.

I love Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver , and I love books about nuns, so this was a guaranteed success – click on the labels below for many many previous entries on both.
 
This one has Dandy and Alec visiting a most exciting spot: a small village containing both a convent that caught fire, and a lunatic asylum facing a mass breakout, all on Christmas Eve. (As ever, the book is set in 1920s Scotland.) The Mother Superior dies with an intriguing last message on her lips – always a favourite device in crime stories, and one that makes the reader perk up. Alec wants to prove that his sad wartime fellow-officer is not to blame. The two institutions, and the village in between, are all shown in all their absurdity. When the full story emerges at the end you think that no-one could ever have guessed it (and indeed I’m not entirely sure of every detail even after all the explanations) but it has been highly entertaining, and there were plenty of clues along the way – one of the joys of reading a Dandy book is seeing how neatly you were offered information all the time, and failed to see it.

As ever it is both sharp and funny. One of the troubled asylum inmates is described thus:
‘He would be quite incapable of following instructions. He gets himself up in the morning, looks around, decides what needs doing – usually in the grounds – and gets on with it. If he smells food he searches it out and eats and when he’s tired he bathes, undresses and goes to bed again.’
Dandy’s reaction is ‘He sounded just like Hugh’ – her very posh husband, part of the land-owning gentry.

A pity there wasn’t more of Grant, Dandy’s lady’s maid, in this one, but when she showed up she was as good as ever. Author and sleuth have a brave and mostly happy go at dealing with the Catholicism of the nuns, though ‘We have the Angelus and Consecration, then Lauds at half-past five, private prayer until seven, Terce until halfpast seven prayers’ is hard to parse as the nuns’ timetable, and if a boy is sent to be educated by ‘the Jesuits at Ampleforth’, the first thing he will learn there is that they are actually Benedictines. 

In fairness, you always feels McPherson does know her stuff, and has done the research, and you do get a feel for the time and the place amid the surprising events. One thing I very much admire her for is that while Dandy discusses and considers the attitudes of the time, she does not (unlike so many historical heroines in books written now) hold views that would have been very very unlikely. You can see what so many authors are trying to do with their left-liberal ladies, all very keen on women’s rights, full of compassion for mental health problems, terribly terribly tolerant of every kind of minority – but you do get tired of them, and they do lack conviction.

Dandy Gilver is a really splendid, well-rounded person.

Nun by a lily pond is from the National Library of Ireland, taken in 1926.
Nuns, children and a grave is from the National Library of Scotland, around 1918.























16 comments:

  1. That's one thing I like about Dandy Gilver, too, Moira. She really does feel authentic. And this one sounds great, even with the slipups as far as Catholicism goes. I get the sense, too, that this one also has the light touch that McPherson does so well. It's just enough wit to lighten the story without going too far.

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    1. Yes, she is great at getting that balance right. The books can be quite scarey at times, but still always entertaining and funny at the right moments.

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  2. I've just started this one (was delighted to find it in my local library). I like the description of the orphanage being like "those watercolours of Norwegian life" and Miss Daff's "soft sage-green tweeds of the sort which hug like silk jersey". Dandy's relationship with her husband sounds properly of its time, I think - I suspect Hugh and the Provincial Lady's Robert would have much in common.

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    1. Oh yes, great descriptions, in fact I was thinking of looking for those lovely Carl Larsson pictures as the illustration.
      Great call on Provincial Robert! I love the way the author has kept Dandy's different relationships with the two men going throughout the series.

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  3. Oh heck! What a blunder about Ampleforth. I can only hope that it doesn't kick readers out of the story for too long.

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    1. But the rest was so perfect! Only very pedantic RCs like me would notice, I'm sure no-one else would. Thanks for one of the most enjoyable series around...

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  4. Moira, I don't recall reading novels about nuns but they do sound like a lot of fun, as I gather from your review. Such an unusual title, too.

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    1. Very much so Prashant - this is a great series. And I will always read any books about nuns...

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    2. I don't think I have read books about nuns, but the thought makes me shudder. A number of friends were mistreated by nuns at parochial school. A few were scarred for life. And some were told awful tales about Jewish people.

      The pop singer Cyndi Lauper has told of some of her experiences, too, which were not good.

      So, I avoid these books. It's not to say that some books wouldn't be good. And I like the Call the Midwife series with Anglican nuns who are wonderful characters.

      And today, there are many nuns here who are involved in social justice issues, so times have changed.

      One series that tempts me is Peter Tremayne's featuring Sister Fidelma. I have to look for these books.

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    3. Nuns are as varied as any other group of people - some good and some bad. Many people (including me) have had very positive experiences with them - which does not downgrade others' bad times, but not all nuns are the same. There have always been nuns who did amazing community work, from teaching and nursing to social justice campaigning.

      I haven't read the Sister Fidelma books, though I too have heard good things about them.

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  5. The thing about any religious group is that the modern perception of them is constantly batted one way and then the other. Both Catholic Priests and Nuns have had a good kicking from popular opinion in recent years, although series like CALL THE MIDWIFE has probably been more beneficial than any official response (I know that the Nuns in CALL THE MIDWIFE are Anglicans, but most people, including myself, fall into a morass when trying to work out the difference between different Christian religions!)

    Pleased that Dandy isn't one of those time-travel heroines who apparently hold all of the modern opinions despite living in the past. Recently I've been re-reading the works of Anthony Boucher, who was both Catholic and Liberal, and wrote during the '40s / '50s in the USA. He wrote mystery/detective stuff, but the opinions feel more real because they are the opinions of the time rather than now.

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    1. Yes - in fact I am much more forgiving of long-ago views which would sound bad today (people live in the times they inhabited...) than of those unconvincing lefty liberals plonked in 1910 from a 2016 perspective.

      Religious are like any other group - if you take, say army or police officers there will always be those who misbehave and abuse power, but that's no reason to condemn them all...

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  6. I have THE WINTER GROUND to try next. I do like books with nuns also, as you know, but I am not willing to jump ahead so it will be a while.

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    1. You are very noble Tracy! More and more I am thinking I can't do endless series, and must pick and choose. Of course usually if I do that I decide it was a series I really DO want to follow and have to go back and risk spoilers...

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  7. Not one for me, but I might just surprise you and read something by her!

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    1. She's the one who wrote a mystery about the Burry Man's Day, so that would fit in with your recent reading.

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