Friday 17 July 2015

Snobbery, Racism and Josephine Tey

Snobbery and racism in Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles
Not one of Tey’s best (try The Franchise Affair or Miss Pym Disposes), this is an episodic melodrama which races around the country, taking in some unusual characters on the way. Some of them disappear from the story just as we’ve got to like them. It is enjoyable for many of the wrong reasons, and the usual disclaimers apply: it was published in 1936, it is of its time, the attitudes belong to the characters, not the writer. Women come off best: most of the female characters have careers or at least jobs, and the romantic interest is such a tomboy she’s oblivious of her role.

A film star is found murdered on a beach. The police open the front door of her rented cottage and see “the gleam of a brass warming-pan on the wall. The cottage had been ‘discovered’.” (Once utilitarian items like warming pans had ceased to have a function, lovers of all things rustic hung them on the wall as decoration. This was an error of taste – a bit like hanging up carpet beaters as we did in the 70s.)

They meet the murdered woman’s servant, a small woman with “scanty hair drawn to a knob at the back of her head, and a round bird’s nest affair of black satin set insecurely at the very top”. This elderly lady is still wearing the fashions of 1880 - she’s only about 50 years out of date. (There’s a caricatured landlady later in the story who seems shoved in for a cheap laugh.)

Sergeant Williams “flung sugar violently into his black tea”. Black tea was Indian tea (which the upper classes didn’t drink), rather than tea without milk.

Inspector Grant generalises about a sympathetic and likeable Jewish character, Jason Harmer: “Just a rather ordinary American Jew from some poor corner of Europe; ill-educated, emotional, and ruthless, like so many of his race... He apparently had the subject races’ ability to be all things to all men... He spent his life, that is to say, ‘putting on an act’." (Even though Harmer is a suspect, he and Grant become quite friendly.)

Later, Harmer explodes: “Oh yes, you don’t have to say it all again. I know it by heart. England’s a country of complete tolerance. She makes no difference between races. It doesn’t matter to an Englishman what creed you believe in or what the shade of your skin is... Did it ever occur to you, Inspector, that you’re the only people who’ve really kept us out? Kept us in our place. That’s your pet expression, and that describes it... Infra dig to marry a Jew if he has less than a hundred thousand. And not so hot then.” (“Infra dig” is short for Infra dignitatem curae, beneath the dignity of the court. Middle-class people used it to mean “not the done thing”.)

Inspector Grant goes to the murdered woman’s funeral, at Golders Green crematorium, and wonders why it distresses him. “The suburbanity of it, he supposed. Sensible, and all that.” Many fans turn up too, and her husband remarks: “Those women. I think the end of our greatness as a race must be very near... That sub-human mass of hysteria... made me ashamed of being human, of belonging to the same species.” News photographs show: “Medusa-like heads... dishevelled Furies with streaming locks and open mouths clawing each other in an abandon of hate...” So the “Dianification of society” is hardly a new phenomenon?

Sgt Williams announces a visitor who wishes to confess to the crime. Grant is furious: “How dare some sensation-mad female waste his time in order to satisfy her perverted and depraved appetite.” The would-be confessor is an actress and colleague of the dead woman: “Grant thought how Borstal she was in spite of her soignée exterior.” (That’s “elegant”, and Borstal was an institution for delinquent teenagers. She turns out to be accusing herself for the best of motives.)

The tomboy complains that high heels are hard to walk in, and Inspector Grant tells her:

One must conform to the taboos of the tribe.”
“Why must one?”
“Because an unquiet life is a greater misery than wearing the badge of conformity.”

The story darts from the country cottage to a dubious community of Brothers to a grand hotel on the South Coast to a London lecture hall where a crowd has gathered to hear a talk on astrology. Sprinkled around the audience are “duchesses up for a day” and a good many cranks. “There was no mistaking them: their pale eyes rested on the middle distance, their clothes looked like a bargain basement after a stay-in strike, and it seemed that they all wore the same string of sixpenny beads round their thin necks.” The speaker makes a surprising announcement and the audience tries to make a hasty exit: “With most of them it began as a desire to escape from a tense situation; they belonged as a class to people who hate ‘awkwardness’.

Grant penetrates the strange Brotherhood and finds more of the breed: “Some were cranks (one saw the same faces at ‘anti’ meetings and folk-dance revivals)...” The Brothers lead him to a dubious lady, and he surmises that she is “not all white. Something in her movements, in the texture of her hair, was – what? Negro? Indian?”

Then it’s back to the seaside: “Whitecliffe is a continuation of Westover: a collection of plutocratic villas set on the cliff beyond the cries of trippers and the desecration of blown newspaper pages.”

A strange tale, but not as strange as To Love and Be Wise.
More mysteries here.


  1. Ooh yes, great review, what a strange mishmash this was. But entertaining, kept me reading as it jumped all over the place. I got hold of a DVD of the Hitchcock film based (very loosely) on it - I don't intend to keep it, if you would like to watch it for comparison purposes I would happily send it to you....?

  2. I have seen it, thanks! It's also worth it for the phrase "the screaming, raving thing that had been xxxxxx".

    1. Yes, that was a weird trope of the time, wasn't it? Turns up in Christie and Allingham as well.

  3. A friend swears he read a book the contained the line: "That which had been Davidson tottered and fell."