Friday, November 25, 2011

The Fashion in Shrouds

Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds was first published in the UK in 1938. I bought it because I had never read it and because I like reading old detective novels as the equivalent of literary fast food. I'm familiar with other Allingham's books, and though she shares the usual class-snobbery of most of the British detective writers of that era I didn't recall her as especially racist or sexist.

This book is sexist, however. It is also racist and classist, but sexism takes by far the starring role here.

The book begins when Allingham's private detective, Albert Campion, visits his sister, Val, who is a famous women's fashion designer, at her place of work. During their initial conversation he states:
"If one resents one's sister or even loathes the sight of her," he remarked presently, "it's for familiar faults or virtues which one either has or hasn't got oneself and one likes the little beast for the same rather personal reasons. I think you're better than I am in one or two ways, but I'm always glad to note that you have sufficient feminine weaknesses to make you thoroughly inferior on the whole. This is a serious, valuable thought, by the way. See what I mean?"

"Yes," she said with an irritating lack of appreciation, "but I don't think it's very new. What feminine weaknesses have I got?"

He beamed at her. In spite of her astonishing success she could always be relied upon to make him feel comfortably superior.
That's the first hint that this book is what idiots call a discourse on gender roles. Remember that the man speaking above is the detective in the book, the one we are going to follow all through it. And, nope, he is not going to get his comeuppance later on.

Instead, it gets worse. Campion is much irritated by the sound of many women speaking simultaneously. A horrible noise. Later in the book he tells his sister:
"Oh." said Mr Campion furiously, "This is damned silly introspective rot. What you need, my girl, is a good cry or a nice rape -- either, I should think."
It could be that we are not supposed to agree with Mr Campion's opinions. But there's also all that stuff about the unfulfilled career women. It culminates with the marriage proposal Val receives from the man she loves, Alan Dell:
"It's not so easy," he said. "Wives are out of fashion. I love you, Val. Will you marry me and give up to me your independence, the enthusiasm which you give your career, your time and your thought? That's my proposition. It's not a very good one, is it?
However, that is the offer. In return--and you probably won't like this either--in return, mind you (I consider it an obligation), I should assume full responsibility for you. I would pay your bills to any amount which my income might afford. I would make all decisions which were not directly in your province, although on the other hand I would like to feel that I might discuss everything with you if I wanted to; but only because I wanted to, mind you; not as your right. And until I died you would be the only woman. You would be my care, my mate as in plumber, my possession if you like. If you wanted your own way in everything, you'd have to cheat it out of me, not demand it. Our immediate trouble is serious, but not so serious as this. It means the other half of my life to me, but the whole of yours to you. Will you do it?"

"Yes," said Val so quickly that she startled herself. The word sounded odd in her ears, it carried such ingenuous relief. Authority. The simple nature of her desire for him took her breath away with its very obviousness and in the back of her mind she caught a glimpse of its root. She was a clever woman who would not or could not relinquish her femininity, and femininity unpossessed is femininity unprotected from itself, a weakness and not a charm.
That's $14.75 I will never get back, and the only reason I read the whole book was that I could not believe in the absence of a comeuppance for Mr Campion.

Though I must admit that it's funny how similar this sounds to one of the trolls who sends me crap about how horrible American women are, not wanting to cook and clean for him 24/7 in exchange for a wedding ring.

I'm not going to do a literary analysis of a silly old book like this, though I think it's worth pointing out how very often sexist or misogynist rants are covered under the euphemism of "discussing gender" even when it's only women who are bashed as a class. Even today.

So why am I writing about this at all? Perhaps to point out that finding innocent amusement can be damn hard.