Dorothy L Sayers
I've been distracted (from various things I'd been planning to do) over the last couple of days by the arrival of several fiction purchases. I don't read much fiction these days - I find it just doesn't grab me the way facts do - but I have been building my Dorothy L Sayers collection, adding this time Busman's Honeymoon.
Sayers writes beautifully, intelligently, yet in no way pretentiously, sketching out her characters in a few deft strokes. You do have to feel that she was wasted on detective fiction, even though her efforts go far beyond the usual run of the genre. (I still have to read her Dante, as I suspect I promised to do about three months ago - one of these days.)
My favourite is Gaudy Night, a wonderful exploration of the difficulties the women of the Twenties faced in trying to carve out a place for themselves in the male world of academia, and the professions more generally, particularly in fighting their own conditioning.
But Busman's Honeymoon comes a close second in the favourites' list; its start, with a selection of "diary" items from different people about the same event, the wedding of Sir Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, is laugh-out-loud funny.
As with all of the books it is a wonderful portrait of the time, as was confirmed by a matchup of fiction and non-fiction today.
I spent most of the day at the London Archive Users Forum/Women's Library conference, which had a real mix of papers, including one on the "child development experts", a profession that developed in the first half of this century. At least I think that was what the paper was about; I only got to hear half of it due to the massive traffic jams caused by the Lord Mayor's Show - an annual irritating attempt to create total chaos across the City.
Anyway, whinge over: in Busman's Honeymoon, the Duchess, Peter's mother, an apparently scatterbrained woman who uses a fluttery manner as cover for a penetrating brain, reports on this trend. She writes: "Wonder whether Mussolini's mother spanked him too much or too little - you can never know, these psychological days. Can distinctly remember spanking Peter, but it doesn't seem to have warped him much, so psychologists very likely all wrong."
How right she was: the talk today started on the later Victoria, early Edwardian approach, in which mothers were supposed to ensure that their children, particularly the boys of course, were fearless to the point of stupidity, so they could serve the empire. Any sign of fear in the children, nightmares etc, all the things we'd now regard as a normal part of development, were seen as a failure of mothers.
The paper then discussed the approach in the late 1940s and 1950s to "schoolphobia", invented in 1924 and much discussed post-War. It was a middle-class disease; working-class kids were just truants - not much has changed there then.
It was not, however, perceived to be a disease of children; no of course the mothers were to blame - they were around too much and too close their children. To deal with the problem, so the experts said, it wasn't even necessary to see the children, you just had to treat the mothers.
(Busman's Honeymoon quote, p. 33, 1941, Ninth Impression, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London.)