It was pure chance that made me pick The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham off the shelf so soon after reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. But that chance led me to read Allingham’s 1938 novel as in some way a response to Sayers’s 1935 novel.
Let’s start with the obvious: Gaudy Night was where Sayers’s own love affair with her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey, reached fruition, with crime writer Harriet Vane finally acceding to his repeated proposals.
The Fashion in Shrouds is the novel that, five years on, reintroduces Amanda Fitton from Sweet Danger. In that earlier novel, Amanda was a precocious and resourceful teenager who proves invaluable in helping Albert Campion solve his case. In the process, she develops a crush on Albert, though he’s not far short of twice her age, but though she is an attractive character I’m not sure we were intended to imagine any more serious relationship developing. But now she is in her twenties, an engineer in an aircraft factory (a far more radical career for a woman than Harriet’s crime writer, and one that quite obviously helps to distance her from her creator), and still besotted with Albert.
In the case of the Wimsey-Vane relationship, Harriet is entirely passive. He is the one who immediately falls in love with her, he is the one who repeatedly bombards her with marriage proposals. She does nothing but push these proposals away for reasons that are increasingly vague and hard to justify (even to herself). When, at the end of Gaudy Night, she finally accepts him, it seems more as if she is giving in to the inevitable than being a partner in a grand passion.
Amanda, on the other hand, is active from the start. Practically the first thing she does in this novel is announce that she is engaged to Albert. It is a deceit that becomes vital to their investigation, but it is also a recognition of the relationship that she has instigated. Albert starts by regarding her with amused tolerance, he is the one who is conscious of the difference in their ages (and there is also more than a suggestion that he regards women with disdain, something I will come to shortly). But over the course of the novel we see him coming to recognise her as his equal, a worthy partner in the investigation (as opposed to Harriet who, in terms of the investigation, has to defer completely to Lord Peter), until finally when they have both played an active part in unmasking the villain he can propose to her seriously. This, we are led to believe, is very much a marriage of intellectual and spiritual equals.
But it is not just in the central relationship that the two novels stand as echoes or, more accurately, contrasts to each other. There are minor echoes: Gaudy Night is the longest of the Wimsey novels, The Fashion in Shrouds is certainly one of the longer Campion novels; the crime in Gaudy Night is petty (some vandalism, poison pen letters) that gets more serious as the novel goes on but for the most part feels like a very flimsy excuse for a crime novel; for something like two-thirds of The Fashion in Shrouds we are not even sure that a crime has been committed. These are not crime novels in any conventional sense; they are character-driven novels in which all of our attention is directed towards the central figures and the crime aspect just forms a convenient backdrop against which we have become used to seeing these characters. Allingham is the more rigorous crime writer (Sayers was always as much of a social writer as a crime writer), so the crime in her novel is more is more definitive, more urgent, but it is still pushed unusually far into the background for her.
There are, of course, trivial points upon which the novels coincide. Dorothy L. Sayers, born 1893, began her career as a crime novelist with Whose Body (1923), and Gaudy Night was her tenth Peter Wimsey novel. Margery Allingham, born 1904, began her career with Blackkerchief Dick (1923), and The Fashion in Shrouds was her tenth Albert Campion novel. Lord Peter Wimsey was a member of the aristocracy whose high birth and status is emphasised in every one of the novels. Albert Campion is a pseudonym for someone who is clearly of high birth, but his exact status is never made clear. It is pretty easy to argue that Sayers fell in love with her creation; Allingham, I suspect, felt affection for her creation but was never in love with him.
Other echoes between the novels are less trivial. Gaudy Night is set, almost entirely, in an all-female environment, a women’s college at Oxford that is clearly an echo of the one Sayers herself attended. It is an environment that she loves almost as much as she loves Wimsey; common popular arguments against the idea of an all-women college, about the fevered atmosphere and unnatural behaviour that it might encourage, are consistently raised throughout the novel, but rather defensively and uneasily dismissed. The women’s college is an entirely positive environment.
The Fashion in Shrouds opens in another all-female establishment, a women’s fashion house. There is one male at the firm, who is pretty blatantly though never explicitly homosexual, and who turns out to be one of the principle investors in the company; but everyone else, from the boss, to the creative staff, to the salesforce, is female. And this is certainly not a healthy atmosphere, there’s a sense of poison and gossip and bitchiness that underlies the place. Where Sayers exalts women, Allingham is the opposite. Murder is a man’s job, but away from that the majority of the women in this novel (with the obvious exception of Amanda) are malign, selfish, unthinking. One of the best of them, Marthe Papendeik, is described by one of her supporters as sitting “in the midst of her web … looking like a spider, seeing itself a queen bee.” Elsewhere, Campion remarks of his own sister: “How startlingly vulgar you women are”, while she goes on to say (in what is perhaps a direct response to Sayers’s exaltation of women’s education) that it is better for women not to cultivate the mind because “I’d rather die than have to face it that he was neither better nor even more intelligent than I am!”
There are some rather unpleasant attitudes (at least by our modern standards) evident throughout the novel. One character is about to fly a new aeroplane as a gift to the leader of the African kingdom of Ulangi, and has insisted that it be painted gold because “You can’t convince a Gold Coast nigger that silver isn’t an inferior metal.” Later, in what is perhaps to us the most shocking exchange, Campion says to his own sister, who is stressed, upset, and has just lost her love interest to another predatory woman, “What you need, my girl, is a good cry or a nice rape – either, I should think.” A nice rape!?! But I think this is most revealing about the attitudes of the time. What I think he is telling her is go and get laid, but at the time I suspect the mention of casual sex would be even less acceptable in a popular novel than the suggestion of non-consensual sex. A woman cannot initiate sex for her own pleasure, she must be taken by a man. Or is that just Allingham’s attitude, because this dismissive almost antagonistic attitude towards women is there throughout the novel.
The central figure in the novel is Georgia Wells, a brilliant and alluring actress who has made a career of stealing other women’s men. She convinces herself that each new man is the one true love of her life, gets him to dance to her tune for a while, then meets the next one true love; all the while unable to imagine that the women she has usurped might not wish to continue to be friends with her. She is predatory, rather stupid, and an air of violence hangs around her: three years before (in the same year that Gaudy Night was published) her first husband disappeared and was later found to have committed suicide. Now her second husband dies in unusual circumstances, and though at first he appears to have died of natural causes, there is enough doubt to point suspicion at Georgia. Then there’s the model, Caroline Adamson, though she is nearly always referred to as Miss Adamson, who first appears having stolen a new dress design, later turns out to be an incompetent blackmailer, and ends up the first definitive murder victim. And there’s Campion’s sister, Val, who behaves suspiciously, constantly seems to be avoiding giving the whole truth, and has good reason to hate Georgia. Nor should we forget Mrs Fitch, plain looking, quiet spoken, loyal to her common law husband, who turns out to be one of the pivotal figures in the plot. None of these women come out well in the novel; Allingham’s word choice always leads us to think there is something rotten about them. Amanda alone attracts consistently positive adjectives. It is hard to say how much of this attitude is Campion’s and how much is Allingham’s, but she does often put disdainful observations into her hero’s mouth.
It’s odd, I don’t remember women coming out so badly in Allingham’s other novels. Though, of course, a woman was the villain of the piece in Look to the Lady, and there were the petty and childish women in Police at the Funeral; but these have to be offset by the strong and positive women in, say, More Work for the Undertaker. So I wonder if this negativity is just a feature of this particular novel. In which case, is it connected to the all-female milieu of the fashion house (with its one gay man), or the country estate, Caesar’s Court, presided over by another gay man, Gaiogi? If so, this makes a startling contrast with the overwhelmingly positive portrait of an all-female (and, of course, all-straight) environment in Gaudy Night.