Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Adventures of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones reviewed by Valerie Laws

This is an incredibly detailed and thorough biography - one feels its subject would have approved of the amount of hard work and painstaking research that has clearly gone into it, workaholic as Allingham was. Jones has told the whole story of the writer's life with warmth and yet with detachment, her enthusiasm for Allingham's idiosyncratic, literate 'Golden Age' crime novels balanced by her hard look at the contradictions in this woman's life and the lives of those around her.

Poor 'Marge' was indoctrinated with the work ethic as a writer, by a family of writers, her father in particular producing incredible amounts of wordage to earn his family a crust, and she kept the workaholic ethic going throughout her life, though plagued by ill health and a dead weight of hangers-on. Julia Jones is much fairer to Marge's husband Pip than I would be - I'd like to kick him in the nuts quite frankly. Allingham was trapped at a time when women were beginning to have financial success as genre authors, and she always felt obliged to work and support her family, yet she exhausted herself further trying to be the 'woman' to her oxygen thief of a husband who did nothing but live on her earnings, shag around, and ignore her sufferings.  

This was a significant time for women, after WW1 and then through WW2, and it's also fascinating from a class point of view, as the upper/upper middle classes had to learn to make do with fewer or even no servants and actually make the odd cup of tea for themselves or even meet people from other class backgrounds who weren't waiting on them. Her massive sense of responsibility was as heavy as the extra weight she carried, something she struggled to manage - let down by typical male doctors of the time, who gave her ECT (what hideous cruelty) when she clearly had thyroid problems. Oddly even after this had been diagnosed and treated it was sort of forgotten again so her suffering went on. Interestingly, Dorothy L Sayers used hypothyroidism as the subject for a Lord Peter Wimsey short story, so the symptoms were known about at that time and there's no excuse for her medical men.  

I have to admit here I've never really taken to Allingham's books before, though have resolved to have another go - I find it hard to warm to Campion, her sleuth - and of the 'Golden Age' queens of crime, I love Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, and at one time Christie, much much more. Fans of Allingham's fiction will find this book even more enthralling than I did, but anyone with an interest in women's lives at that time of major change, and that period generally, will find much to interest them. I was fascinated by all the historical detail, the attitudes, and the actually quite tragic yet triumphant life of Allingham herself and the formidable output of work she produced. Julia Jones clearly had much primary material and the trust of the family and has been true to her subject and those around her.

There is some material added on since first publication, including a sex scandal - apparently Pip found time between lazing about and sulking to have a secret love child with dashing lesbian journalist Nancy Spain - something tells me he'd never have changed any nappies. In the meantime, Margery had no children of her own, her time filled with frantic writing to support Pip, her household, and the Inland Revenue. Successful writers then could become trapped in a ludicrous and surreal Kafkaesque situation where they were basically being taxed faster than they could write, living under house arrest madly scribbling and dreading letters and visits from the tax man, while their books sold in huge numbers to loyal fans who probably imagined them living like film stars. I seem to recall the same thing happened to Georgette Heyer. Poor Margery, she deserves this biography, and Julia Jones has done her subject proud.