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Watching Downton Abbey, I was struck by how women’s roles in England changed so dramatically over a twenty year period.  Trying to relate to how that must have felt, I cast about for any similar period in my own history.  In 1960 I was 11 years old.  By the time I turned 31 twenty years later, everything had changed.

In 1960 few women worked outside of the home.  Many even wore skirts while they worked in the home raising children.  This was their function.  The birth control pill changed that.  Suddenly we could determine whether or not we would bear and raise children and when we would do so. The sexual revolution owes its origins to the birth control pill and the ready availability of safe medical abortions.  Freed from the uncertainty experienced by earlier generations, we were able to pursue occupations not dependent upon our ability to nurture others.  We began climbing the ladders that eventually led to the boardrooms and the legislatures.  (Which might have something to do with the current GOP war on women, but that is another diary.)

It was a challenging time to experience because there were no clear cut rules to guide our behavior.  Ours was a balancing act, being good enough to get the job done while remaining unthreatening to our male colleagues.  Of course we actually had to be twice as good; no one questioned that, it was just accepted.  Sexual harassment was an unnamed fact of life, and we had to learn how to maneuver our way around it.  But it was also an exciting time, as new opportunities became available, and new dreams were dared.

The challenges and the excitement must also have been shared by the women of England as the Edwardian Era gave way to the modern age.  In 1910 a woman’s very attire restricted her movements.  Not only were corsets uncomfortable, but when combined with a "dip front adjuster," they were designed so that a woman could only move carefully, with her bosom pushed forward and her pelvis slightly rotated to push her backside out.  This S shape was considered attractive, and with the addition of a bustle over a narrow long skirt, her steps, of necessity, were small, careful and timid.

During the Great War, clothing became more relaxed as the steel that was used to brace corsets was needed for war material.  Skirts became fuller, and gradually hems crept up off the ground, at first six inches and then eight, all of which was needed as women had to be able to move about more freely as they took over the work of the nation while the men went to war.  The suffragettes, who vigorously protested for the vote before the War, put aside their demands and helped in the war effort.  They were rewarded with the vote, if they were over 30, in 1918. Women became nurses, typists, farm hands, laborers, factory workers and truck drivers.  

It is hard to comprehend the impact that the war casualties had on Britain. Fifteen percent of the men who were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine in 1911 died.  The nation lost the lives of almost one million men and suffered another one and two thirds of a million wounded. There are estimates that 2,000,000 women in Britain became spinsters as a result of the War. So even though most women were replaced in the job market by returning veterans, others were forced to find a way to support themselves.  Many faced a future without the main thing they had been raised to do which was to marry and have babies.

The ten years after the War saw many young women and men alike behave with a certain abandon, almost as if they wished to blot the war years out, or to celebrate the fact that they survived.  Or perhaps in an attempt to lure one of the remaining eligible men into matrimony. Standards of behavior had changed during, and as a result, of the war and the roles women played throughout it.

If you're interested in non-fiction accounts of this period you might enjoy:

  • Lady Almina, the Real Downton Abbey; The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle written by the current Countess of Carvanon,
  • Below Stairs, which is a memoir of her time in service during the 1920s by Margaret Powell,
  • The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes and Julian Fellowes, which is a beautifully illustrated companion to the BBC series.
  • Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World War, by Virginia Nicholson.

But for tonight, we will be looking at fiction, specifically mysteries, set in this era.

All three of tonight's books are the first in a series.  Each one is the beginning and so naturally tends more toward character development and setting than actual mystery plot.  That is not to say that the plots don't exist or aren't well written, but time is spent introducing us to the world in which the plots take place.

Snobbery With Violence

Snobbery With Violence: An Edwardian Murder Mystery, by Marion Chesney, St. Martin's Minotaur Mysteries, Macmillan, July 16, 2003, 224 pages.

It is hard for me to take the mysteries of MC Beaton very seriously.  I love them, but I tend to see them as all fluff with lovely local color.  So it was no surprise that her Edwardian Mysteries, written under her real name of Marion Chesney, should feel the same.  But that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the local color includes the pretensions of an entire era.

In Snobbery With Violence we meet the intelligent, well-educated young Lady Rose Summers during her debut season, which she attends with rather less enthusiasm than she does the suffragette rallies.  A scandalous end to her "understanding" with the cad Sir Geoffrey Blandon results in her becoming damaged goods in the all important marriage market.  Before shipping her out to India to find a husband, her father, the Earl of Hadshire, sends her to a country house party designed to rescue those unfortunate young ladies who failed their first season.  While there she teams up with Captain Harry Cathcart to uncover the strange circumstances of the mysterious death of a fellow invitee.  

Captain Harry Carthcart, an injured Boer War Veteran, is the impoverished younger son of a Baron who has stumbled upon a market for confidential inquiries and is filling it with the able assistance of his butler/valet Becket.  He is the one who uncovered the cad who had designs on Lady Rose, which led to the earlier scandal.  In a complex plot to avoid a royal visit to Hadshire, Cathcart introduces Lady Rose to Daisy, a vaudevillian actress, who is assigned the role of her maid.  Being Lady Rose, she teaches Daisy to read and write as they become fast friends.

Chesney is a master of this type of cozy and in this one she uses a sharp wit to poke repeated fun at the morals and manners of the aristocracy during the Edwardian age.  She highlights the class differences and the sexual attitudes of the day with great good humor.  Although the secondary characters might be considered stereotypical, she draws them well, though none of them have the dimensions that she gives the four main characters, Rose, Harry, Daisy and Becket.

A perfect antidote for a rainy afternoon, Snobbery With Violence should please fans who prefer their cozy mysteries with a dash of humor.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice or On The Segregation of the Queen

The Beekeeper's Apprentice: A Novel (Mary Russell Novels) by Laurie R. King, Macmillan, January 15, 1994, 368 pages
THE FIRST THING I want the reader to know is that I had nothing to do with this book you have in your hand. Yes, I write mystery novels, but even a novelist’s fevered imagination has its limits, and mine would reach those limits long before it came up with the farfetched idea of Sherlock Holmes taking on a smart-mouthed, half-American, fifteen-year-old feminist sidekick. I mean, really: If even Conan Doyle hungered to shove Holmes off a tall cliff, surely a young female of obvious intelligence would have brained the detective on first sight.
If we consider Snobbery With Violence a light frothy aperitif, The Beekeeper's Apprentice would surely be the hearty main course.  It is a well-written mystery that re-introduces us to Sherlock Holmes in 1915.

At fifteen years old, Mary Russell is a brilliant, tall, rather clumsy, young woman who is able to out-deduct Sherlock Holmes.  Not only is she tall, brilliant and clumsy, she is blonde and wears glasses.  What is not to love about this stand-in for everyone who has ever felt awkward as a teen?

Told by Mary as she approaches her ninth decade, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, first in the series, follows Mary Russell as she learns how to apply her observational skills and deductive reasoning to solving mysteries under the masterful tutelage of Sherlock Holmes. The novel is divided into four parts, The Apprenticeship, The Internship, The Partnership and The Mastery with each part including mini-mysteries that showcase her growth.  

I had put off starting this series because so many novels based on an existing character disappoint. Surprisingly, Laurie King didn't.  Sherlock Holmes remains true in spirit to Conan Doyle, even though King only uses him as a secondary character to her creation, Mary Russell. And by endowing her character with equal deductive ability, we are able to see the era, the mysteries, and Sherlock Holmes through a woman's eyes.  In many ways, I actually prefer this Sherlock Holmes, older and occasionally falible, to the the younger man that Watson described.  

Even better, the mysteries are for the most part increasingly complex with satisfying conclusions. The main characters are all painted in three dimensions; Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, Dr. "Uncle John" Watson and Brother Mycroft Holmes.  Anyone who enjoys puzzling out an answer, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans, would enjoy this novel if for no other reason than that King does not cheat.  She neither makes the mystery too simple nor hides important clues. I like that in a mystery.

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs Mysteries) Jacqueline Winspear, Random House, May 28, 2003, 294 pages.

And finally, there is Maisie Dobbs, one of the spinsters of WWI, she opens her own detective agency in London in 1929.  Although the actual mystery is set in 1929, part of the book is devoted to Maisie's transformation from a kitchen maid in pre-war England.  Her early, insatiable desire to learn captured the attention and eventually the assistance of her aristocratic employer, Lady Rowan who enables her to attend Cambridge where she is studying when WWI breaks out.  Becoming a nurse on the front lines, she returns to Cambridge after the war, serves an apprenticeship under her former tutor, Maurice Blanche, and finally opens her own agency as a "psychologist and investigator" when Blanche decides to retire.  

Her first client asks her to investigate his wife's possible infidelity.  While doing so, she discovers a larger mystery surrounding a farm known as The Retreat which was established to provide a refuge for those injured and disfigured during the War.  

A couple of things set Maisie apart from most other detectives.  She holds some pretty high ethical standards and insists that her clients comply with them before she accepts a case.  And her lower class origins allow her to connect with others of that class while her education and the mentorship of Lady Rowan means that she can easily mingle with the upper classes.  This allows us a broad picture of the changing class structure of England after the war from a single perspective.

A smart mystery with a bit of a surprise ending, I enjoyed Maisie Dobbs and look forward to reading more in the series.  I had no problem with the author devoting so much space and attention to Maisie's backstory, which was, in itself interesting, but also helpful in understanding this unusual woman.  I don't know how well the almost new age attitudes and techniques that Maisie employs will wear over time, but they seemed only slightly awkward in this first book.

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As I have done more research into this area I have been rethinking my judgement of Bess Crawford, the intrepid WWI nurse created by Charles Todd.  Although the second book in the series, Impartial Witness still annoys me for its heavy reliance on coincidence, Bess Crawford would have been likely to drive all over England looking for clues.  Towards the end of WWI, food was rationed, but I haven't found any indication that gasoline was.  There weren't that many cars at the time and the war was a pretty stationary one, fought from trenches rather than tanks and personnel carriers.  She was a busybody, but then most good detectives are.  

Since, at the time I read them, my own frame of mind was easily distracted, I plan on giving them a second look.  After I read some of the Ian Rutledge mysteries.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon May 21, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Sexism and Patriarchy, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.

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