ISBN 0 140 26484 1
It is not often that literary affairs are featured on TV1’s Holmes Show but Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s novel Blue Blood was the focus of a lively if rather inconclusive discussion recently. Whether the scandal was of the producer’s making or really represented a general consternation on the streets of Christchurch is uncertain. But the cause of the dispute — that Dame Ngaio Marsh was “a scheming manipulative person and a cross-dresser to boot” and “a nasty cross-dressing lesbian” — was claimed to constitute, in the always elegant phrasing of Paul Holmes, “a blight on a literary icon”.
Eldred-Grigg’s novel is a classic detective story, set in Christchurch in 1929. Two young women from different backgrounds, one an artist, one, in Eldred-Grigg’s rather dated parlance, a “shop girl”, have been brutally murdered. The detective in charge of the case follows a lead — a young man has been sighted near the murder scene and seen talking to the shop girl previously. These leads point to the involvement of a young woman, friend of both the dead, who lives in rather strained circumstances with her parents on the Cashmere hills. Uncertain as to where her talents and her future lie, the woman exists in a state of genteel poverty on the edge of the artistic scene, with occasional tenuous forays into Canterbury society.
The outcome of the plot and the solution of the mystery will be small beer to those experienced in the genre of detective fiction. There is, for those well read in Sayers, Christie and Allingham, too obvious a solution offered as red herring, a flat denouement and far too much of the inner life of the chief suspect for the normal suspense-revelation mechanism to work properly. There are some amusing minor characters and a certain amount of local colour. All in all, a quick read on a wet afternoon.
The reason why this totally unexceptional little book has caused a fuss is that the name of the main character, the young woman suspect, is Ngaio Marsh and certain details of the setting correspond to historical veracity. The nature of the fuss is somewhat harder to ascertain. Holmes’s programme initially centred on a discussion of the proposition, expressed by Eldred-Grigg, that once somebody’s dead you can say what you like about them. This was countered by Dr Bruce Harding, playing the role of keeper of the flame, who asked whether the dead have rights. It is legally true that they don’t and Marsh herself is no longer in a position to care what is said about her. Considerations of family honour do not seem to be a factor in the dispute either, unlike the case of the 1990 novel, Farewell Speech, where Rachel McAlpine depicted Kate Shepherd and her circle in a way which descendants found offensive — or at least intrusive.
Accuracy, rather than the rights of the dead, seemed the central consideration in the ensuing discussion. Friends appeared on camera denying that Marsh was a snob, a lesbian, a cross-dresser, silly or nasty to her parents. Holmes — a credit to his Victoria University BA in English — weakly interjected at certain points, “But it’s only a novel”, to little avail. Dr Eldred-Grigg cheerfully agreed controversy aided sales and several times made the point that a portrayal of a nice, appropriately dressed, heterosexual Marsh would not be very interesting.
This seems to me a dangerous position for the author to argue, virtually giving up all pretence that his work has literary merit. His point that it was the sexual aspects of his depiction of Marsh that were causing the upset, despite what his opponents were claiming, seemed as unsupported by what they were actually saying as it was hard to counter. In fact, one got the feeling that Eldred-Grigg was fanning the flames of contention as hard as he could, while Marsh’s friends were disappointingly reasonable and temperate. Elric Hooper, a protege of Marsh in her latter years, suggested she may have been a lesbian who never had a sexual relat-ionship, while an-other friend’s claim that she never had a relationship with a woman is certainly supported by bio-graphical evidence. In fact it seems that in the strictly limited sense of the term she never had a relat-ionship with anyone, though this did not prevent her from loving and being loved by a wide range of men, women, children and cats.
Why is it that we become so ridiculous when we talk about sex? Dr Harding’s description of Marsh as “one of the four reigning crime queens” seemed unfortunate, given the context. Eldred-Grigg twinkled in roughish manner as he stated that he had heard people who claim to have been in bed with Ngaio Marsh but that he did not necessarily believe them — which is having it both ways with a vengeance. His comment on Marsh’s secretary’s knowledge of her employer’s sex life seemed to me actionable and safer not to repeat here.
Holmes’s presenter said portentously that during Marsh’s life “rumours were rife about her sexuality” due to the fact that she never married, wore men’s clothes and drove a “masculine car”. Pardon? What kind of car? (It was a Jaguar XK150.) Much was made of her clothes. Judging by the photographs in Margaret Lewis’s biography (Hogarth Press, 1992) they ranged from the severely practical — in her art school and theatre days — to the height of Parisian couture chic. One photo shows her in a Chanel suit bought with her winnings from Monte Carlo looking elegant in an entirely “feminine” way. Another shows her in a trilby hat and tweed jacket looking rather odd (or queer?) — but what would it have meant in the 1950s when it was taken. How would it have been “read” at the time?
There are important issues here. Is there such a thing as a postmortem reputation and what are our responsibilities to it? Is there such a thing as biographical truth? And what is the interaction between history and fiction? Eldred-Grigg’s book is overtly fiction and thus I would think he can write what he likes. If he were purporting to write biography, that would be a different matter. But the palpable hurt of Marsh’s friends and followers also needs to be heard and considered. Fiction is very powerful. In choosing Marsh and Christchurch, Eldred-Grigg has deliberately gone after a sacred cow and, whatever the literary merits of his novel, forced an interrogation of certain areas of unease.
There are interesting parallels. Eldred-Grigg’s novel contains a scene where Marsh is taken by her friend D’Arcy Cresswell to visit the poet Ursula Bethell. There she meets Bethell’s friend Effie Pollen and Eldred-Grigg has Cresswell saying something mysterious about “sapphics”. Bethell, Marsh’s senior by some 11 years (born in 1874, she died in 1945), was similarly an unmarried Christchurch woman of genteel upbringing. For a long period of her adult life she lived with Pollen in a house on the Cashmere hills. Contrary to what Eldred-Grigg suggests, this kind of arrangement was perfectly common, accepted and not subject to prurient references. That Bethell wrote a group of poems of love and loss after Pollen’s death testifies to her affection but says little about her sexuality.
Were they lovers? Are we naive, as Eldred-Grigg seems to suggest, not to assume so? Does it matter? To the gay community, seeking their history in a past where secrecy and suppression were the norm, possibly yes. To a historian of private life, yes also, although such a historian would realise how difficult it is to judge such privacies from a historical distance and how the language of affection can be confused with the language of desire when read ahistorically. Does it matter to the literary critic? Not at all, I would think.
Another case which impinges on this issue of posthumous reputation and privacy is that of Charles Brasch. Peter Wells, the editor of an anthology of gay writing, recently sought permission to use some of Brasch’s poems. Brasch’s literary executor refused. This was not a denial of Brasch’s sexual orientation, although he was never overt about it, as one would expect, given his age — he was born in 1909 and died in 1973. It was more that the executor felt it inappropriate to allow Brasch’s poems to appear in a context that he may not have been comfortable with.
This seems to me a reasonable position, given the formally defined responsibilities of the literary executor, who is charged with protecting the “good name” of the dead. One thinks of the efforts of Mrs Orwell and Mrs Eliot in this regard. Changes in the way such things are viewed are not really the issue here. Each case must be judged on the basis of what that person would have wanted, given their particular values. Sex and scandal is not the only motive for the postmortem censor. Jane Austen’s sister censored her letters after her death. It is unlikely that the offending content was sexual in nature — the context suggests that the offending passages were where she was being rude about her friends and relations. References to sexual scandal — albeit about other people — seem to have been much enjoyed by both Austen sisters. Each age has its own taboos, and its own level of privacy. It is a consciousness of that which, perhaps, has distressed Marsh’s friends in Blue Blood.
Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 and thus is one of that generation of women whose chances of marriage were severely curtailed by the gender imbalance caused by the losses of World War I. She is also the first generation to be born after the extension of the franchise to women. She was well educated in a conventional academic sense and in keeping with her talent for art, though it was perhaps still too early for women to make an easy and natural entry into the professions. She painted and was involved with The Group along with her friends Evelyn Page and Olivia Spenser Bower and she acted professionally.
Although there is evidence of early more mainstream writing, she did not write her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead, until 1934, when she was 39. Success came very quickly, and for the next 30 years she enjoyed an international reputation in a somewhat disreputable field. A kind of double life evolved the fruits of success in long visits to England and writing and presiding over Christchurch society here. Her early involvement in acting developed into a late career as a theatre director at a time when professional productions in New Zealand were rare. However dated her productions of Shakespeare may seem now, however pernicious the cultural cringe she built into them, they are a significant milestone in the history of theatre here, even if such things are writ on water and the only record we have of them is Mervyn Thompson’s send-up in his play Passing Through.
Her literary reputation is an interesting exercise in the hegemony of high culture. Lewis quotes one of her Christchurch acquaintances suggesting that local society tended tactfully to ignore her detective writing. The only serious account of her work is in Terry Sturm’s excellent chapter on popular fiction in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature (1991, new edition forthcoming). Other critical treatments are weak and lapse into covert biographical reminiscence verging on the hagiographical.
Yet she occupies an interesting position in New Zealand literature, living here while enjoying a massive reputation in Britain and the United States at a time when it was not just easy but virtually required that the successful leave. She uses New Zealand and New Zealand references in her writing and yet is entirely absent from the standard account of our literary canon. Is it that she is an embarrassment, with her patrician dislike of the New Zealand accent, her deference to anything sourced from “Home” and her use of a highly formalised genre not considered to be “literature”? But she is part of our literary history as much as Glover or Curnow and undoubtedly enjoyed a bigger readership. She reflects the ambiguity and uncertainty of the post-colonial, one eye on the centre, eager to defend our ability to do things not differently, but the same and better. Even her Christian name is significant, suggesting the “Maoriland” patriotism of Edwardian period.
So how, finally, should we view Eldred-Grigg’s novel and the reactions to it? An interesting idea not really worked through, it straddles pastiche and revelatory biography in a manner that, in literary terms, is finally unsatisfactory. The hurt that it has caused among some of Marsh’s friends seems unwarranted and over-defensive — Elric Hooper was sure that she would have enjoyed Blue Blood immensely and one feels that Eldred-Grigg rather overestimates the prissiness of the past to shore up his image of himself as the only one daring enough to state the truth.
And what is his truth? That like a number of unmarried women from that period, Marsh devised for herself an image and a lifestyle that gave her dignity, independence and pleasure at a time when many of the social freedoms that women presently enjoy were not easily obtainable. If that lifestyle was also a code for sexual orientation of a particular kind, she was very discreet about it, as one would expect, given the time. And so what?
Jane Stafford lectures in English at Victoria University.