Sunday, 19 February 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Book of 1943, & a Larkin Connection


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


The Worsted Viper by Gladys Mitchell


published 1943


 
Worsted Viper


[Three young students are on a holiday on a motor cruiser in the Norfolk Broads]

Laura, looking bored, was reclining on the cabin top in a two-piece bathing suit, which, whilst aesthetically passable, for she had a splendid body and a good skin, was ‘apt to render the embonpoint’ as Kitty euphemistically expressed it.

‘I do wish you’d put some slacks or shorts on, or something,’ said Alice. ‘You’re attracting attention.’

‘Not in this noodist colony, I ain’t, duck,’ retorted Laura, but she spoke dispiritedly.


worsted viper 4
[The young women decide to make an expedition to Yarmouth, and are deciding how best to travel]

[Alice and Kitty] stipulated that the journey was to be made by water, as they were not going to walk eight or nine miles out and the same distance back in the evening.

‘Slackers,’ said Laura, appearing with her magnificent posterior draped, this time, in a pair of linen shorts.
 
Worsted Viper 3


commentary: Philip Larkin must have loved this book.

He was a big fan of The Great Gladys, and in a piece on her says:
Before her marriage to Detective Inspector Gavin and eventual retreat into matronhood, Laura was equally prepared to strip off and dive for evidence or to test tides; some unregenerate readers came to value these episodes for themselves.
Well, this book is chockfull of Laura taking her clothes off and swimming around in little or nothing. There is also a naked virgin in danger of being offered up to Satan, and I think you can say without undue libel that Larkin would have loved that too - ‘it’s only educated people go in for that muck’, as the policeman says. The unlucky virgin is captured by the baddies twice, which defies belief.

Laura also swings ‘her cosh with the true aim and unthinking blood-thirstiness of her position as centre-half in the College hockey eleven. The man fell flat.’

The plot, as so often with Gladys Mitchell, is beyond description. There is Satanism, revenge and the eponymous stuffed toy snakes – about as sinister as they can be, doll-like creatures left on dead bodies. (What a great title ‘The Worsted Viper’ is!) There are dead bodies all over the place, and some strange ideas about ‘clearing people away’ from certain areas by means of planting dead bodies – which seems to make no sense at all.

I have just read the book, I read crime books by the hundred, generally have a quick understanding to them – but I could not explain to you what was going on in this book. Mitchell (and in this respect she is very unlike Agatha Christie) poses questions which are never going to be answered. There are several prostitutes in the book and some very lurid lowlife – again, you don’t get that in Christie.

But still – it was marvellous, I really enjoyed it.

The background is boating on the Norfolk Broads, which reminded me of Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club and Big Six – similar era, and some of these people in the Viper were undoubtedly the Hullabaloos of those books. And reminding me also of Chrissie Poulson’s much more modern Deep Water. And Walsingham is featured, as in Elly Griffith’s The Woman in Blue.

This is my book of 1943 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at Past Offences. However, as a book of 1943 – absolutely nothing, the war doesn’t seem to be going on at all. Mrs Bradley mentions a rannygazoo, a splendid word apparently meaning ‘deceptive story or scheme, pranks, tricks or other irritating or foolish carryings-on’. Someone is eating ‘cokernut chips’ which is an early alternative spelling for coconut. 

There is a character with the excellent first name of ‘Romance’, though she is a sad unromantic figure.

The discussion of the girls’ clothes IS very much of its time – Laura is daring and likes wearing slacks and shorts as well as her two-piece bathing suit.

Top picture is an advert.

Two women: filmstars on cigarette cards from the NYPL.

Third picture is Jane Wyman in a two-piece in 1935 – a discussion of the history of bathing wear comes in this blogpost on Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
























23 comments:

  1. You put that very well about Mitchell's writing, Moira. She didn't always explain everything, and certainly her plots could be very convoluted. But if you go along for the ride, it can be, as you say, great fun. Hmm....snakes, virgins and dolls...yes, very...interesting.

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    1. A bit of a hoot, I think it's fair to say. It used to annoy me that Mitchell's plots left so many loose ends, but I am more tolerant as I get older!

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  2. Although this book does seem to have some very interesting aspects, I think I will put it lower on my list of books to read by Mitchell. I don't think I would get along well with the weirdness and unexplained questions.

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    1. Fair comment - I think you have a feel for which books you will enjoy.

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  3. Poor Ed Viper, to be so maligned by Mitchell!

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    1. OK it took me a few moments, but I got there! Very funny (and tragic for Ed).

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  4. This sounds, er, interesting.

    But...cokernut! I came acrosss that in Elizabeth Sanxay Holding book written in the 1940s. It was in a list of different kinds of pies, and I had to google it. If I'd only said it out loud I might have figured it out.

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    1. Interesting is about right. Yes, I wondered if it was going to be that easy and when I checked - it was.

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  5. I recently read a Mitchell book, The Echoing Strangers, that left me utterly shocked for several reasons - it was actually reasonably plotted, there was actual detecting, it made sense.... and also for me I found it remarkably offensive, even allowing for The Period Attitudes - at one point, Mrs Bradley mentions her tracts on eugenics, and rather than the usual flinch and read-on, it brought on a full-body shudder.

    The Echoing Strangers was the kind of book that if I had read it very early on in my Gladys reading, I would have never gone anywhere near her books ever again. I found it almost unforgivable.

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    1. I think the worst thing about it was that it was REALLY well written, so there were a lot of rather toxic sentiments in lovely prose, and it made it more gruesome.

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    2. Oh - now I am going to have to read it just to find out, and am going to hate it...

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    3. On a brighter note, La Bradley does get a rather spectacular sounding hat...

      I find myself incredibly conflicted by it actually because I'm forced to acknowledge there's a lot that's very good about it, but good grief, I think the closest parallel I can come up with is that it was like coming across Enid Blyton's "Three Little Golliwogs" after getting used to her derring-do adventure books or her schoolgirl stories - now I know exactly how Gladys thought about people like me, I'm not so sure I like her any more.

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    4. Oh that is very disappointing. We can make a certain amount of allowance for the times, but beyond the pale is beyond the pale.

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  6. "Rannikaboo" is a term I find a lot in pre-WWI westerns, such as Lewis' Wolfville Stories. It evidently means a lively time, a fight, or a threat.

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    1. I went off to look this all up, and the excellent World Wide Words site has a great item on the two words: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-ran2.htm

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  7. As regards the eugenics question, I've had to issue a sort of 'get-out-of-jail-free-card' to a number of writers of that vintage, just so I can continue to read them. It was just so widespread, especially amongst people whom one would consider liberal and responsible. It's flinchingly uncomfortable to think about how popular the idea was, and I do sometimes wonder which respectable modern opinions will be considered beyond the pale in the near future.

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    1. Yes you are right - and it's horrible when favourite authors make the reader wince. I think it is seen as a very right-wing view now, but that wasn't the case in earlier times. The metaphor of the get-out-of-jail-free card is ideal.

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  8. I think THE ECHOING STRANGERS is one of her best! I obviously find it a lot easier to gloss over all these kind of "toxic sentiments".

    What's the deal with making fun of the long U sound? That "noodist" slight is what I'm referring to. I see that a lot in British writing, especially in Mitchell's books. Did she have some sort of patrician accent or a hang-up on British received pronunciation? How would you pronounce nudist? To me "noodist" seems perfectly fine where "noo" is pronounced as "new". Not at all an indication of some perceived low life way of talking. Is it properly pronounced "nyou-dist"?

    This kind of thing bugs me more than any talk of eugenics or racial epithets. Making fun of speech patterns is a snobbish and supercilious way of excluding people and making them an outcast. Ridiculing speech is worse than all other prejudices because it goes beyond just skin color or religion; it implies lack of education and intelligence which seem to be the ultimate insults.

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    1. Trust me, if you are reading The Echoing Strangers as a deaf, gay person, it's really vile stuff. It's actually not so much the eugenics that annoyed me (although when it popped up as a humorous mention, it just felt like one dig too many) as the fact that every few pages there's more horrible stuff about how people who are supposed to be like me are mentally subnormal, perverted, sickening, and/or disgusting, etc. I certainly wasn't expecting any particular sensitivity from this period, but the contempt, negativity and hatred felt quite unrelenting, even as I could acknowledge its being well done as writing.

      An easy book to appreciate for its quality, but content-wise, a deeply unlikeable read.

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    2. I'm gay, too, Daniel. I get pissed off and sometimes incensed about gay bigotry in old books just like you. I'll have to go back and read those sections now to see why none of the "toxic sentiments" stuck in my mind. I guess the plot meant more to me at the time I was reading it.

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    3. Daniel and John - I can understand both your points of view. We can't always predict what will infuriate us and what we can let pass, though this sounds like a particularly bad experience for you Daniel.
      Now I'm going to have to read this book.
      John - I think there is a slight difference in UK/US pronunciation, n-you-dist would be normal here. Based on this single instance, I would say Laura is just 'putting on a funny voice' because of the context, saying something slightly risqué, as young people do all over. But I will watch out for it in my future Gladys reading! I agree with you - I hate it when authors do exaggerated comic yokels.

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  9. It's a remarkably good plot. I have to acknowledge that. I think it started out with my reading it as a deaf person and I think it just all added up due to the kind of mindframe I was in when reading. It would actually have made a very good Hitchcock film, especially given the fates all round...

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    1. I had already said I am going to have to read it... Hitchcock-ian just adds another layer. And I will be prepared for whatever else is in there.

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