The discussion of The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) was one of the most lively which has occurred on the AlbertCampion list. This is not surprising as it is a book which has provoked sharply divided reactions among mystery readers since its publication: from adulation to condemnation. Quite often those reactions are expressions of the critic’s own view as to what a mystery story should comprise.

The following is a very egocentric account of the discussion, which can be followed in full by going to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/albertcampion/messages and typing 1131 in the Message# box.

I admit that I find Fashion a difficult book to assess and discuss. It is one of those books (like Gaudy Night) which divides mystery fans. There are those who really dislike the direction in which it takes the mystery – and such critics would include figures of considerable repute like Robert Barnard and possibly Julian Symons. Of course such comments do not merely apply to Fashion which is merely the culmination of the trend we have seen developing from Ghost, through Flowers and Dancers. But my question is – is it a culmination too far?

Because like Roger I have some problems with Fashion. For all its many qualities I am left with a lurking unease.

To start by stating the obvious. Allingham’s concern in this book is to portray a particular part of the social world she saw about her (The Fashion) and also to convey her thoughts about the position of women and the relationships between men and women in contemporary society. Stated in this bald way the enormity of the task and the boldness of conception becomes immediately apparent. Vast chunks of the book are devoted to reflections on this issue.

Now a major problem about this is that the issue is not really very closely related to the mystery. Compare this with Gaudy Night. There the problems of the relation of men and women and the position of women in society and academia are closely intertwined with the mystery and the perpetrator. In Fashion the murderer is just another self-centred egoist – he is very similar in some ways to the murderers in Ghost, Flowers and Dancers (this has only just struck me but it appears true – anyone have any thoughts?).The book therefore lacks the kind of intertwining of plot and theme which Gaudy Night achieves.

On the other side of the equation we have Campion. Campion has achieved a totality of personality, an identity, enigmatic, problematic aspects over the past few books, especially Dancers, which are continued in Fashion and are light-years in advance of anything Sayers managed with Wimsey.

We should note how, in a brilliant imaginative coup, Allingham ties Fashion to Dancers with the delightful episode of the yellow button (AC tosses Linda’s yellow button out of his window where it falls into Amanda’s face – the button or baton is passed on – sorry!!). I like Roger’s account of Allingham’s response to Frank Swinnerton. Fashion is very much an immediate sequel to Dancers.

But for all this it is the women – Amanda, Gloria, Val – who dominate Fashion. Men are mainly seen in relation to their relationships with women. And time and again Allingham returns to the question of those relationships. In this process Campion himself plays some part but his voice and view are not decisive. How could they  be? Precisely because his own character and his own relationships with women have been so complicated and messy we know that his opinions are compromised. It is Allingham herself who one feels wrestling with the problem.

And my ultimate problem is I suppose, not that this gives in the words of Barry Pike which Roger cited ‘an obsessively feminine quality’ (thus summarising in three words what I have taken hundreds to try to grope towards!), but that the answers which Allingham provides are not ones with which I have great sympathy. The interest is I am not sure Allingham herself does either.

But further consideration of these matters demands a separate post [Below].

Here I am more concerned to establish my concern that Fashion in a way goes too far. That is to say the concern with social and psychological issues almost drowns out the mystery altogether.I find it hard to make this allegation because as a whole I view the developments which Sayers in the Vane novels and Allingham in this quartet (Ghost, Flowers, Dancers and Fashion) made to the British mystery as not only revolutionary, but as laying the grounds for the great development of the British mystery in later years, and in themselves brilliant. But it seems to me that the logical conclusion of the direction in which Allingham is going is towards the total elimination of the mystery element, and hence out of the genre. Perhaps as she never proceeded further in this direction it may be argued that she too felt this?

Whatever the truth of this I am sure that it is this which makes Fashion such a controversial novel. The famous Torquemada comment is in itself a commentary on this from the other side (“To Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to figure in a story which is also by any standard a distinguished novel,” said Torquemada of the Observer in a review of Fashion)

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As remarked in my previous post I wanted to write separately about the question of Allingham’s treatment of and portrayal of women in Fashion. As this is the book’s central theme and is constantly discussed this is no small task.And although my overall reaction may be negative, once again I enter the caveat that I applaud Allingham for attempting this and, whatever else may be said, she deserves to be taken seriously.

As the task is very complicated I am glad to say that help is at hand in the shape of an excellent essay in the Centenary Celebration by Marianne van Hoeven
entitled “Classifying Amanda: Female and Femininity in the Pre-War Writing of Margery Allingham“. While I lean heavily on this in the following the actual points made and expressions are all mine (unless attributed.).

Hoeven starts by defining the difference between female (biological gender) and feminine (social construct). It is with contemporary defintions of the latter that Allingham is concerned.We are presented with three main women in Fashion – Gloria, Val and Amanda. There is never any question of where Allingham’s
sympathies lie. Gloria is a very negative character, Amanda very positive. The reader is of course meant to dislike Georgia and admire Amanda (and it would seem from discussion here that this aim is very successfully achieved! :)). We are presented with two particular aspects of these women’s lives – their professional/working lives, and their relationships to men. In each case the attitudes and positions of the women are compared and contrasted. Gloria is, for me, much the least interesting of these women. She is of course a ‘femme fatale’. Allingham is fiercely critical of her. She is a selfish and a destructive force. She takes Alan away from Val romantically and away from Amanda professionally. She seems to me to be something of a cardboard character. Allingham’s lack of sympathy with such a woman is very apparent. Having said which what I like is that Allingham does not kill her off – instead as we leave her …. “She looked beautiful, sweetly feminine and virginal, as she went off on a new adventure, tears still on her cheeks” (p261 Penguin edition). The reader is well aware that the use of the term ‘virginal’ is somewhat ironic! But beyond this we have the use of ‘feminine’ – this has become a term of disparagement and criticism. I like however the fact that Allingham allows her enemy to escape unscathed.

It is really in Val and Amanda that Allingham develops her thoughts. And especially Val. The crucial and much debated passage appears to me to be that in Chapter 12 where Val and Albert talk and Albert says…”What you need, my girl, is a good cry or a nice rape”.It is not surprising that this remark has drawn widespread condemnation and disapproval even from some Allingham fans. And taken at face value it is wholly objectionable. I want to make some points about this.

First, to re-iterate something I know I keep going on about, Allingham does not intend us to take Albert as a reliable guide to women. Indeed he is highly unreliable. Anyone who has read Dancers will be aware of the depth of that unreliability.In Fashion his own weaknesses and lack of perception is repeatedly stressed. There is absolutely no suggestion whatever that Albert speaks for Allingham here. It is precisely his existence as a flawed character, separate from his author, which makes him the greatest of the Golden Age detectives. Any contrast with Poirot, Alleyn, even Wimsey makes this immediately apparent. It is an insensitive, boorish, stupid remark. And Albert can be all of those things. As most men can! When Val calls him in the speech preceding this remark ‘my dear good ape’ she is totally accurate. It is she who speaks for the author.So I suggest that to accuse Allingham herself of taking the position that Val needs a good rape is to misunderstand the way her fiction works.

Second I think (and this is a wholly personal perception) that rape here means sex. I am searching for a euphemism and the odd thing is that I suspect Allingham was too. Now it seems to us absurd that rape should be a euphemism for sex but might this not have been the case in 1938? This does not make Albert’s observation any less crass but it does absolve it of some of the modern implications of the word. In this context Hoeven notes (not in connection with this) that Havelock Ellis, the sexologist, had argued in the 1920’s that ‘women’s sexuality needed to be recognised and fulfilled through heterosexual relationships’ – spinsters in Hoeven’s words were made to appear ‘social deviants’. Albert is therefore expressing a contemporary position which we have no reason to suggest Allingham herself accepted (this information about Ellis of which I was unaware throws an interesting light on other GA authors treatment of spinsters – notably Marsh).

None of the above detracts from the fact that it is an uncomfortable moment.

However what it should not detract from is the importance of Val’s speeches which surround it. Here she is on women…”Our feeling is twice as strong as our heads and we haven’t been trained for thousands of years. We’re feminine you fool!”. Hoeven also cites this speech and the essence of her argument is the importance of the word ‘feminine’ as opposed to ‘female’. Femininity is a social construct – which ‘training’ could alter. It is because Val is a ‘feminine’ woman that she accepts what Hoeven rightly describes as Alan Dell’s ‘appalling proposal’ – that she should give up her career and independence to become his doormat. It is profoundly distasteful.

But we are of course presented with a very different model of woman in Amanda. Hoeven cites the phrase (which I have not found yet) ‘traces of femininity in Amanda were rare’.Hoeven traces this back to Sweet Danger where Amanda is placed in opposition to her ‘feminine’ sister Mary. Hoeven sums up “In The Fashion in Shrouds, Margery Allingham appears to present Amanda as the ideal balanced young woman of her generation – female certainly but not feminine”. Of course there is a danger of over-schematizing this contrast.Allingham is too fine and complicated a writer to make things simple. In particular Amanda’s own distinction between ‘cake’ love and ‘bread and butter’ is reductionist and ultimately absurd – Hoeven comments that it is a product of ‘youth and emotional
inexperience’. Love after all , however one defines or considers the word/concept, comes in all shapes and sizes. But leaving such philosophical considerations aside we may remark that in Fashion it would appear that for Amanda what she calls ‘cake love’ is destructive of both one’s professional life/career and for women their independence. This is illustrated by Val’s progress.

I have deliberately omitted here any personal applications or contexts (ie: Allingham’s own situation and thoughts). This is for a couple of reasons…
1.) Ignorance – I don’t know enough about her life.
2.) Distrust of biographical explanations. While I see their utility there is always a danger of belittling the writer’s achievement by reducing it to a question of their personal circumstances – it seems to me that this is particularly the case with women writers.

Having said which I am sure it is an avenue which could be explored. Hoeven suggests that Allingham was ambivalent about her own position as career-woman and quotes Richard Martin…”The awareness of her own femininity, and the attempt to live up to an ideal of womanhood that had little to do with the demands being made upon her, led to much frustration in Marge’s life”.Whatever the truth of this, the treatment of the problems of femininity in Fashion is of great interest and complexity. My own view that it drowns out the mystery (or at least fails to interact with the mystery) should not detract from regarding Allingham’s attempt with respect, even if I view her conclusion that whole-hearted love entails the surrender of a woman’s independence profoundly unpleasant not to mention wrong. I accept that she gets around this in a way with Amanda but Val’s fate is poignant one which the modern readers’ happiness for Albert and Amanda cannot wholly obliterate. Their own ‘happy ending’ throws Val’s fate into starker relief.

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Judy G. wrote…
 

I find the relationship between Albert and Val very puzzling. ……………Does Albert actually tell his sister what is going on as regards Amanda at any point, or does he just leave her to worry about him?!

Thanks for a most interesting and illuminating post Judy. I must admit I hadn’t considered this aspect at all. As far as the specific point is concerned I don’t think he had told Val what was really going on. In Chapter 22 Ferdie says to AC “I was talking on the phone just now. She said Val seemed very worried about you.” – of
course Val could have been acting but it is my belief that Albert would not have trusted her to do this – her genuine worry is more part of his scene-setting? If this is so it does indicate a willingness to ‘use’ her which is, as you suggest, a little unsettling.

I remember when I first read this novel as a teenager, finding all the love plot near the end so intensely written that I couldn’t quite believe Campion’s despair was all fake. Reading it again now, I still think Allingham writes with a lot of power in this section – that line “He looked like a skeleton in a dinner jacket” is one which sticks in my mind. I suppose maybe Campion is doing a bit of method acting here, getting himself into a genuine state so that he can convince everyone his heart is really broken – and of course there is all the strain and worry of the case to draw on, plus the lingering aftermath of the Linda Sutane business.

Yes, excellent point. I recall now that I was completely fooled when I first read the book. This is one of the things one misses or forgets on re-reads – they do enable one to get a lot more insight but you do miss the brilliance of some of the narrative tricks. Do others remember if they were ‘fooled’ the first time they read the book?

I think there is something brilliant about the way Allingham allows readers to see through Campion’s eyes for most of the book, then suddenly draws away and shows him from outside, through the eyes of others, in this last section. Must disagree with those who don’t like this book… it is probably one of my favourites, mainly because of the return of Amanda, who I must agree with Roger is a wonderfully drawn character. I love the way she is so perceptive about the other characters and always sees things as they are.

I am delighted that you champion the book Judy! And my own slightly negative comments are at the very highest standard – that is I am comparing it with Dancers and Gaudy Night and considering Allingham’s overall development – not as might be fairer with the generality of British mysteries.

Thank you for giving your take on this, Nick – very helpful! I feel you are right that Val does not know about the play-acting.I couldn’t make up my mind if she did know or not – because, if she thinks it is all real, it seems rather odd that she keeps her distance from Albert and is mainly concerned to smooth his behaviour over with others rather than giving him any support. (He might not want her support, of course, but still.) This is rather like his behaviour to her earlier, when he just doesn’t want to know about her misery over Alan Dell. Somewhere (can’t find the page now) he says: “Our family has never been hysterical” – sounds a bit like something his mother might write in a letter! I also see, looking back, that Val clearly knows nothing about Campion and Linda. (She suggests to him that he should try falling in love some time). This brother and sister might feel each other’s pain, but they don’t seem to tell each other very much. Did Allingham write any novels which are just psychological without the murder mystery element? The layers of complicated psychology in FIS make me think she would do it very well.

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Roger wrote….

 Margery Allingham’s own views on the equality of the sexes and the relative status of the partners in a marriage were ambivalent, and her marriage to Philip Youngman Carter was volatile, to say the least. It is very tempting to suppose that Val’s doubts about Alan Dell (‘I tell you I’d rather die than have to face it that he was neither better nor even more intelligent than I am!’) represent Margery’s thoughts about her own marriage: that she knew PYC to be neither better nor more intelligent than she was, and she resented the fact.

As noted I have avoided the biographical approach as a result of ignorance but I like this speculation. I recur to a point I made that Val seems the most interesting woman in the book because of her ambiguities and complexities, where Amanda seems more of an ideal (and Georgia a non-ideal – ummm what’s the word I want? nightmare?).

Moreover, Campion realises that as a stepfather Ramillies has brought a much-desired stability to young Sinclair’s life, which his less obviously volatile mother cannot provide.

I have not commented on Sinclair but this seems to me another of the book’s great successes – the sheer misery of being the ‘odd one out’ at an English boarding school is most beautifully conveyed.

 The idea of a super-luxury hotel with all the amenities is a strikingly modern one, as is the notion (essential to the plot) of having the private airfield registered as a Customs Port.

I must admit the description of Caesars Court reminded me of one of those schemes which penniless young men in Wodehouse are always trying to raise the money to invest in (usually from miserly Aunts/Uncles) so they can make a living and marry the various heroines. Of course it is in fact on a very much grander scale than this. And it is indeed strikingly modern. There is now at least one chain of hotels/resorts devoted to this kind of thing (I once stayed in one :)).

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Joanna wrote…..

I’ve always identified with Amanda’s comment on cake versus bread and butter love. I think it’s a good description of wildly exciting ‘in love’ and solid everyday loving marriage. I suppose it depends how you feel about cake 🙂

Of course there is a danger of making this contrast too schematic. Allingham is too fine and complicated a writer to make things simple. In particular Amanda’s own distinction between ‘cake’ love and ‘bread and butter’ is reductionist and ultimately absurd – Hoeven comments that it is a product of ‘youth and emotional
inexperience’. Love after all , however one defines or considers the word/concept, comes in all shapes and sizes. But leaving such philosophical considerations aside we may remark that in Fashion it would appear that for Amanda what she calls ‘cake love’ is destructive of both one’s professional life/career and for women their independence. This is illustrated by Val’s progress. [ and it is worth pointing out that in Traitors Purse Amanda has to change her position – eat her cake in fact!].

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