How do you make an irritating young woman into a likeable character?
It’s the problem that faced the crime writer Anthony Berkeley, the nom de plume of A. B. Cox (1893-1971), in relation to the dark-haired 19-year-old flapper Sheila Purefoy in his second detective novel, The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926).
She’s introduced as a specimen of ‘the modern girl’ at a family dinner: self-consciously sophisticated and prone to talk back to her parents, as witnessed by the amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham and his friend Alec Grierson, who happens to be a Purefoy in-law. She is, quite simply, an insufferable young bore. Even her mother opines, ‘I simply ache at times to turn Sheila across my knee and give her a good old-fashioned spanking! And most of her silly precocious friends as well.’
But the novel needs Sheila to be something different. Roger and Alec have come to the country town of Wychford to look into a seemingly open-and-shut case of matrimonial poisoning, and she is going to be their feminine partner in detection. Her ‘modern’ attitudes endow her with the go-ahead disposition that will enable her to take a positive part in the investigation, but the reader also needs to be positively disposed to her.
Mrs Purefoy has the answer, as mothers often do. We’ve already heard it: ‘a good, old-fashioned spanking’.
Sheila gets two…
The first comes soon after we meet her, and is a piece of cousinly rough-and-tumble between her and Alec, in the presence of her unconcerned, amused parents. Roger arrives in the sitting room to find Alec trying to hold her down, ‘bent like a hair-pin over the end of the big couch’, while she struggles so vigorously that she tears her dress, with suggestive hints of further damage underneath. (‘Oh, hell, there’s one of my suspenders gone.’) Roger declines Alec’s invitation to lend a hand, so Alec has to use his own:
‘He whisked his hand away from Miss Purefoy’s back and applied it heavily three or four times to another portion of that young lady’s anatomy as she promptly hurled herself, with yet more rending sounds and a flourishing of green silk stockings, head over heels on to the couch.’
The second spanking comes shortly after Sheila has joined the investigation group. When she is disrespectful to Roger, he regrets declining Alec’s invitation of the day before, and asks if it’s too late to accept it now. Certainly not!
‘With some difficulty Miss Purefoy was persuaded to arrive at the end of the couch and assume a position suitable for chastisement, her agonised appeals to the deity meeting with no response. With a rolled-up magazine Roger dealt with this first breach of discipline in his force.’
All this is doing two different things with a view to making Sheila Purefoy an acceptable character, or even an attractive one. For those readers who are inclined to dislike ‘modern’ foibles in young women, it means she gets ‘punished’ for them, after which they can be usefully directed to advancing the cause of justice, and of the story. And for readers whose response to spanking scenes is perhaps a little more equivocal, it plays into a larger strand that endows Sheila with a certain sexual allure. (The book also has stuff about her in exotic pajamas, and a sequence where she irons her underwear.) And those of us with the taste know perfectly well that a girl is always more likeable when she is spanked…
The two scenes are relatively slight, and walk a careful line between raciness and decorum. I’ve already drawn attention to the raciness. The decorum lies in the way the spankings are enacted: the mother may talk of putting Sheila across her knee, but such intimacy is not attempted by the two men, who bend her over the couch instead; and whereas Alec, who is related to her, gets to smack her bottom by hand, Roger, lacking the privilege of consanguinity, has to use a rolled-up magazine.
In some ways the most interesting, albeit infuriating, thing about this novel is its recent reputation. Unlike the rest of Berkeley’s work, The Wychford Poisoning Case was never reprinted in his lifetime, and remained relatively unknown and inaccessible until 2017, when it was added to a range of crime classics published by the Detective Story Club, with an introduction by Tony Medawar.
Medawar took it upon himself to speculate why the book was kept in obscurity:
‘It may have been because Berkeley felt acute embarrassment at a brief, irrelevant but bizarre scene in which an annoying young woman is subjected to corporal punishment.’
This was then included in the publisher’s jacket blurb as a statement of fact: it is said that the introduction ‘examines how Berkeley’s game-changing second crime novel was overshadowed by controversy about inappropriate sexism and scenes of spanking that led to its disappearance from bookshelves for more than 80 years’.
In fact, the introduction offers no evidence to support the claim that there ever was any such controversy, and the supposition that Berkeley was embarrassed by the spankings simply doesn’t hold water. The ‘reasoning’, such as it is, seems to be a straightforward and obvious case of psychological projection: the modern reader thinks Berkeley should have been embarrassed, therefore he was embarrassed. But when you look at it from the standards of his own time, and bear in mind that spanking often featured in many different mainstream media at the time the book was published and for decades afterwards, what did Berkeley have to be ashamed of?
Perhaps a more definitive refutation can be made with reference to an individual example, in the crime novel Before the Fact (1932), written by Francis Iles,
in which the protagonist, Lina Aysgarth, is soundly spanked by her lover. Lina was played by Joan Fontaine when the story was filmed as Suspicion by Alfred Hitchcock in 1941, and by Emilia Fox in a radio adaptation of 2013; both versions are worth an encounter, so long as your interest goes beyond the spanking. Maybe that’s true of the book, too, as the scene is brief and understated; but nevertheless it is pertinent because Francis Iles, just like Anthony Berkeley, was a pen-name for A. B. Cox. If Berkeley, or Cox, or Iles, really was embarrassed by the spanking scenes in The Wychford Poisoning Case, he would scarcely have written another one into Before the Fact six years later!
(Even so, Cox may still have suppressed the novel for personal reasons, albeit ones that had nothing to do with spanking: at one point, Roger Sheringham admits to being in love with a married woman, which was also true of Cox himself, who dedicated the book to the lady in question, the author E. M. Delafield. And that really was shocking by 1920s standards!)
After its 21st-century republication, the novel received some strongly negative online reviews, and to show that what was said wasn’t some particular quirk of an individual obsessive, I’m going to include direct quotes from seven different ones. Some readers drummed up specious reasons to dislike the book, even rebuking it for the fact that the supposed crime under investigation turns out not to be a murder at all – a charge that might also be leveled at the greatest English detective novel of them all, The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers. But what is really in play is not the quality of Berkeley’s novel as a whole, but the widespread modern prejudice against spanking scenes. ‘The author takes too much pleasure in spanking, and his world-view is thoroughly misogynistic,’ complained one reviewer, while for another, ‘The scene where he is spanking her and her dad just ignores it, feels terribly wrong even just to read through.’
There is clearly acute discomfort here, and both Medawar’s introduction and the hostile reviews suggest that its effect is to warp some readers’ perception of the book in some pretty fundamental ways. When people aren’t assuming that their own attitudes and standards are universal, they are bridling at the idea that Berkeley presents spanking Sheila as a straightforwardly right and proper action, which is what underlies the charge of misogyny that is laid against him. Further supporting evidence is adduced from various uncomplimentary remarks that Roger Sheringham makes about women in the course of the book. But a stumbling-block for that view is the overall way Roger is characterized.
Berkeley’s detective is sometimes understood to be a spoof rather than a superhuman Holmesian hero. (In a number of novels, he gets the solution wrong.) On the contrary, he is set up as an opinionated ‘silly ass’ who will talk at length and off the cuff about any and every subject, not consistently or even coherently. As an on-topic example, let’s take the moment early on when he agrees with Mrs Purefoy that flappers like Sheila should be spanked, and turns it into a daft fantasy:
‘That’s the only cure. There ought to be a new set of sumptuary laws passed and a public spanker appointed in every town, with a thumping salary out of the rates, to deal with breaches of them (no joke intended). Ration ’em down to one lipstick a month, one ounce of powder ditto, twenty cigarettes a week, and four damns a day.’
And contrary to the furious modern reviewers’ dark suspicions, he is evidently not being used as an uncomplicated mouthpiece for the outrageous opinions of his creator. There’s a different story, with a stronger sense of irony, to be read in the chapter titles. Misogyny? Well, the second spanking does occur in a chapter called ‘Shocking Treatment of a Lady’. And those arguing that these are ‘completely superfluous scenes that have nothing to do with the investigation of the crime’ might also like to glance at where the first one takes place: the chapter is headed, wryly, ‘Mostly Irrelevant’.
But why all this attention to two moments that are, in the end, relatively brief and marginal? Alec may prescribe spanking for Sheila ‘three times a day, before or after meals’, but in fact all we get are those two perfunctory scenes, plus her mother’s initial recommendation and Roger’s rodomontade on the subject. Could they have drawn notice because Medawar, and the publisher’s blurb-writer, singled them out for special mention? Maybe, but the reviews suggest that there is a more serious distortion at work: it is said that there is ‘a great deal of spanking’ in the book, while others complain of ‘constant threats’ and ‘all those idiotic spanking scenes’. According to one reviewer, ‘One quarter of the book is devoted to – are you ready? – spanking scenes.’ And that is, to say the least, a gross and palpable exaggeration!
There is something irrational going on here, which emerges clearly in the last negative review I’m going to quote:
‘When I got to a point where a character (who is supposed to be one of the good guys) takes it upon himself to spank a 20-year-old female relative, even tearing her clothes, and her parents sit there and approve of it, I had to stop reading.’
And this person didn’t just give up on the book, which is anyone’s prerogative; they then made a point of destroying it rather than pass it on to another reader!
Book-burning is not the act of someone who is very interested in free speech or other liberal values. It may well be the act of someone who is mentally ill. Other symptoms of a mild mental disorder might include the misperception of objective reality and the irrational objectification of one’s own subjective responses – both phenomena we have observed in the way some latter-day readers responded to the spankings in The Wychford Poisoning Case. But it is a can of worms with implications that go far beyond the critical fortunes of Anthony Berkeley and his novel, and which will be more comprehensively opened next time.
Picture Credit/Context: The mother/daughter line drawing by Eugene McNerney originally illustrated ‘His Unseen Audience’, a short story published in the New York Daily News in 1928.