A short discussion of The China Governess (1962), and then some debate on the nature/nurture questions it provokes, from May/June 2006. First this is a very good mystery. I would not personally rate it quite as high as the best Allinghams, but it is still very good and full of interest, and has new themes and concerns. I think this is worth saying because it does mark her out from her peers. It is true of course that Allingham was younger – by some 14 years – than for instance Christie.Nor are all Christie’s late books negligible – Nemesis for instance did not appear until 1971. Marsh too could still produce a good mystery. But I do not feel with even good late Christies and Marshes the sense of engagement both with the changing times and their own writing which I feel with Allingham. These remarks hold even more true of The Mind Readers even if I think it a deeply flawed book. We should keep this chronology in context – Allingham is still developing as a mystery writer at this time (the early to mid sixties). I cannot think of any other Golden Age giant for whom this holds true : however delightful their productions might continue to be (Innes is perhaps the best case in point).One certainly gets no sense of Allingham resting on her laurels.  

Jennifer has already pointed out that………..

 The book also raises some interesting thoughts about adoption, genetics and environment etc, as well as other sorts of ‘social engineering’, in the post-war era!  

The book is engaged and contemporary, while still developing perennial themes and subjects. The Kinnit household itself reminds us of so many other strange houses and households, usually of a very non-nuclear variety, which have appeared in the books from Police at the Funeral onwards. Again we have patriarchal and matriarchal figures; again we have an immensely strong use of location and atmosphere.    

But as Jennifer says the book’s central concern and theme is with the ancient question of nature v nurture ; the mystery of Timothy’s parentage forms the subject of both the book’s plot and its theme. ”It never pays to take a youngster out of his normal environment and bring him up in something plushy” the unpleasant Joe Stalkey claims.    

The subject is so deeply and finely enmeshed into the book’s plot and substance that it is almost impossible to extract any specific details. We should perhaps note though that it would seem that Allingham tends to come down on the nature side of the argument. She does so in a characteristically quirky and individual way. Timothy’s real father – Councillor Cornish, the book’s outstanding creation – is, in fact, in every way, but especially morally, superior to the man he thought was his father (Eustace Kinnit). In this book there are no spotless heroes but the Kinnits are exposed as fraudulent shams. So, if Timothy starts out questioning whether his character is a mere veneer of nurture, he ends up understanding that the essential goodness of his nature (genes) has not been affected by nurture in a very odd household (Mrs Broome notwithstanding). The book’s ending, with Councillor Cornish speaking of his first wife (Timothy’s mother), is decisive on this point.   

Cornish’s own (Socialist or Labour – old Labour – at least) belief in nurture and his guilt about his supposed, abandoned son are therefore held to be false. Luke, speaking here I think for Allingham, is clear and wishes to disabuse him of this. I should say that I am on the opposite side of the fence to Allingham on the fundamentals of this question, but that does not prevent me from appreciating how skilfully she weaves her subject matter into the book and its central mystery.    

I am merely skimming the surface and one could probe and analyse the book at length which is, in itself, proof of its value and weight.   
One light note though. Allingham refers to Campion here (p71 of the Penguin) as ‘a natural goon’. This is the first such reference I have noted ; the Goons were by 1963 long past their hey-day but would certainly have been household figures. I am sure Roger will help here. One wonders which she had in mind? Certainly not Secombe. This leaves us with Sellars and Milligan. My own preference would certainly be for Milligan and that anarchic element but perhaps later identification of Sellars with Clouseau prevents one taking him seriously in this connection.  

On the final point Roger replied……  

I wish I’d asked Joyce Allingham about this, because it’s puzzled me as well. My feeling – gut feeling, if you like – is that Marge didn’t specifically mean the Goons of The Goon Show. I’m sure I remember that in her introduction to the first (British) Allingham Omnibus, ‘The Mysterious Mr Campion’, she says that Albert represented the favourite joke-figure of the nineteen-twenties, ‘the zany or goon’. The word was in use then, and was popularised originally, as my wife Jean reminds me, by the character of Alice the Goon in the Popeye comic strips (and later cartoon films). During the Second World War the word was used by British POWs in referring to the German prison guards, so Margery Allingham and people of her generation had been familiar with the word ‘goon’ since well before Milligan and co. created The Goon Show.   

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On the nature/nurture debate Jennifer wrote…..  

Councillor Cornish is horrified when ‘evil’ rears its ugly head the brave new model high-rise flats, because, like the Victorians, he believed (wanted to believe?) that a fine environment would eradicate the ‘evil’ he had ‘seen’ (or rather interpreted what he had seen as being) in the pre-war district as a young man.    

On the other side of this nature versus nurture debate, I can recall my parents talking in the early 1960s about an elderly traditionalist clergyman – otherwise a delightful and very humane man – advising a young man whose antecedents were unknown, and who had been brought up from babyhood in a children’s home, not to marry, because he could not know what ‘hereditary taint’ there might be in his ancestry. He had obviously been influenced by the ‘eugenics’ movement rather than by the great Victorian social pioneers (I grew up near Saltaire, Sir Titus Salt’s model village for his mill workers, and near the edge of one of Bradford’s huge, brave new post-war housing estates, built to bring new life to the transposed ‘slum’ dwellers, a stark contrast to the clergyman’s views).   

I think most of Allingham’s writings actually suggest a strong belief in the power of the genes. As a very blessed adoptive parent of four, I’d say it was about 60% genes and 40% environment, but that’s a very crude and obviously a personal estimate.   

I will have to think this over but am sure you are right based on the evidence of The China Governess. One case where it does not seem to apply however
is that of our Albert himself – unless one believes in recessive genes ie; his grandmother’s. But I think that in general Allingham suggests that Campion shares few of his parent’s characteristics – comments Roger? :).  

Jennifer added…..   

Of course, there’s the illuminating moment in ‘Fashion in Shrouds’ when Albert and Val stand next to each other and regard themselves in the mirror… Presumably Albert and Val have one ‘strain’ of genes (the grandmother’s, one assumes) and dissolute ninny of the elder brother the other ‘strain’! And ‘Police at the Funeral’ is interesting too in this light – as, I suppose, are the wonderful Palinodes in ‘More work…’ not to mention the Fittons (‘Sweet Danger’). A whole dissertation here, perhaps!   

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