Wednesday 16 September 2020

Snobbery in Josephine Bell's The Seeing Eye

I'd never heard of mystery writer Josephine Bell, who published in the 50s and 60s, but was told this was not one of her best, her output was variable and she was "snobbish". The Seeing Eye came out in 1958, and reveals quite a lot about the era. The book is quite short, as paperbacks were back then, and the prose is spare and almost bald. No "fine writing", no "this is a novel that happens to be a mystery".

Her series detectives are a couple, David and Jill Wintringham - he's a doctor, their children have left home, and their Nanny has stayed on as housekeeper. The story is fast-moving and fairly melodramatic, starting at an exhibition in what is clearly now the Tate Britain. Jill and David are there, the first victim – a severe art critic, a young artist (Tom), his rather flakey friend Chris and Chris' therapist, a dubious fellow called Hugh Lampton. Chris Felton is very close to his mother, who is not out of the top drawer.

The characters' gullibility about psychoanalysis is of the period. "Chris went to Lampton to find out if there was anything the matter with his subconscious to stop him painting abstracts." Later, Tom is torn between painting "lifeless" portraits that sell, and expressionist canvases that he really "feels". This a common Golden Age Detective trope – his girlfriend even tries to persuade him to follow the money.

Another character is dismissed glibly as a "nymphomaniac", a dead diagnosis that persisted into the 70s. Symptoms include becoming serially infatuated with men other than her husband. (There's a hint that she suffers what we'd call Munchausen's Syndrome and is poisoning her son.)

Snobbery? "Jill was lucky enough to have one retainer left from the days of pre-war domestic comfort." Jill notices Mrs Felton's sparkly turquoise hat, and house filled with tasteless nicknacks and mahogany furniture. She also meets the dead man's wife, Mrs Burke, who gives nothing away. "Well-bred women of her generation kept their emotions to themselves in public." Mrs Burke herself later remarks perceptively: "I suppose some men like to have a woman infatuated with them, though most just find it a bore, don't they?"

Jill is not too keen on Tom's girlfriend, Pauline, who turns up in a ponytail, narrow tartan slacks and a loose black jacket – but her first impressions turn out to be wrong more than once. Pauline dismisses Tom's mother, who is married to a self-made man, himself the son of a bricklayer: "She spends the earth on her clothes. The flashy cheap kind, but lots of them. And costume jewellery, you wouldn't credit!" There is a slight hint that someone of "peasant stock" is more likely to lose their temper and kill somebody, but this is just one of many red herrings.

An old lag is picked up for the crime, and Mitchell, the Scotland Yard man, visits his wife. She drops her aitches, and lives in a prefab, but she provides for her children with several cleaning jobs and is allowed a rock-like dignity.

David at one point explains "I haven't got television", like someone saying they "don't get Twitter".

More about snobbery here, and links to the rest.


  1. YOu really succeeded in intriguing me about this one, but it seems veyr hard to get hold of?

  2. I'm afraid my copy fell apart as I read it! Desperate for more Josephine Bells now - there are some reprints, but they are "out of stock".

  3. I haven't tried Abebooks, but there are lots on ebay - and I've just ordered one with a witchcraft background!