RogerBW's Blog

The Fashion in Shrouds, Margery Allingham 25 October 2016

1938 classic English detective fiction; tenth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Georgia Wells, actress and femme fatale, attracts men like moths. But somehow, just as they start to get troublesome, they seem to die. Is Georgia less silly, and more dangerous, than she appears?

This is a book that reeks of overheated rooms and dying hothouse flowers. Decay and collapse and desperate fun are everywhere (note the year). And I'm not even sure Allingham was aware of it as such; she may simply have been a very good observer.

But everyone is off form here. Campion is very slow to work out what's going on, and I think that's deliberate, because everyone is afflicted by this strange malaise: I had my chosen culprit picked out by the end of the scene set in The Tulip, about a third of the way through the book, and I think perhaps I was meant to.

So without having to work at the murder mystery I was free to consider the characters, and this is largely a tale of three women: Georgia Wells herself, Campion's sister Val who works as a fashion designer and whose boyfriend has been pinched by Georgia (even though Georgia's married to someone else), and… Amanda Fitton, previously seen in Sweet Danger, now a few years older and working as an aero engineer in the firm run by said boyfriend. As well as being themselves, they point up three different ways for the modern woman to live: Georgia as the shameless but popular "bad girl", Val as the "good girl" too often done down by her less scrupulous rivals, or Amanda as the woman who gets on with doing something rather than spending her life and soul on the mating-dance.

"Yes," said Val slowly. She shivered and stretched herself with a graceful, furtive movement like a little cat. "I envy those women who just love normally and nobly with their bodies," she observed unexpectedly. "Then they're only engulfed by a sort of lovely high tragedy. The hero persists. That's at least decent. Once you cultivate your mind you lay yourself open to low tragedy, the mingy, dirty little tragedy of making an ass of yourself over an ordinary poor little bloke. Female women love so abjectly that a reasonable hard-working mind becomes a responsibility. It's a cruelty that shouldn't have to be endured. I tell you I'd rather die than have to face it that he was neither better nor even more intelligent than I am!"

To me the book is not so much misogynistic, as some critics have found, as explicitly opposed to the particular style of performative femininity which was clearly common in the era – remembering that Gaudy Night had come out three years earlier, and in some ways this feels like Allingham's response and complement to that book. What about the women who can't go to Oxford and become writers? When one of the men proposes:

"I love you, Val. Will you marry me and give up to me your independence, the enthusiasm which you give your career, your time and your thought? That's my proposition. It's not a very good one, is it? [...] In return—and you probably won't like this either—in return, mind you (I consider it an obligation), I should assume full responsibility for you. I would pay your bills to any amount which my income might afford. I would make all decisions which were not directly in your province, although on the other hand I would like to feel that I might discuss everything with you if I wanted to; but only because I wanted to, mind you; not as your right. And until I died you would be the only woman. You would be my care, my mate as in plumber, my possession if you like. If you wanted your own way in everything you'd have to cheat it out of me, not demand it. Our immediate trouble is serious, but not so serious as this. It means the other half of my life to me, but the whole of yours to you. Will you do it?"

I read this as Allingham saying, not "this is how marriage should be", but "this is the best we can manage, damn it, and we ought to be able to do better".

(Oh, and there's a man behaving like a gay stereotype who has a reason for being that way.)

A strange and heady book, and I can see how one might hate it, but this is a strong and recommended brew. Followed by Mr. Campion and Others (short stories) and Traitors' Purse.

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See also:
Sweet Danger, Margery Allingham

Previous in series: The Case of the Late Pig | Series: Albert Campion | Next in series: Mr Campion and Others

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