Saturday, 9 February 2013

Margery Allingham: After the Afterword by Julia Jones

"Did she think I'd keep a corpse under my sofa?"

The e – edition of The Adventures of Margery Allingham, published February 1st 2013, is my third version of a book first published in 1991 as Margery Allingham: a Biography by Julia Thorogood. I'll apologise at once for the confusion of surnames. I married in my early 20s and did the conventional thing of changing my surname to my husband's.
 Why? Heaven knows! I can still remember the shocked rush of emotion as I set off for the church all dolled up in my wedding dress and my brother said “Well, goodbye then, Julia Jones.” It was a bit late then to say hey! Whoa! Stop! What am I doing, messing about with my identity?

The marriage didn't last but I had three extraordinarily lovable children and it felt like solidarity for us all to keep the same family name. I persisted in this even when I had a new partner and two more children, with different surnames. It wasn't until the little ones were about to go to school and the big ones had virtually left home (AND Peter Duck, symbol of my childhood, was back in my life) that I changed back to my birth name. I didn't think it would be any big deal. Julia Jones hadn't ever done anything – beyond go to school, go to university and get married. Julia Thorogood had run a bookshop, edited and published books, been a school governor, OFSTED inspector, WEA tutor-organiser – she was an Author, dammit! By then (2000) I'd been JT for longer than I'd been JJ. Yet when I did the swap-back, there she was, Julia Jones, the person that I'd casually discarded when I went tripping off down the aisle all those aeons ago. I think she must have been curled up in Peter Duck's quarterberth, her nose in a book, keeping out of the way of trouble.

I'd wanted to call the biography The Adventures of Margery Allingham all along. Yes, it was obvious that Margery didn't have any adventures – no scaling of mountains, plumbing of depths, salacious affaires, dramatic transgenderings – well, not in FACT. In fact she stayed quietly in her Essex village, putting on weight, denying her illnesses and remaining faithful to her errant husband. But that didn't mean she wasn't having Adventures. They happened in her head.

Blissfully for the biographer Margery was perfectly well aware of this and pointed out that her fiction was made entirely by the process of her imagination working on the events of her daily life. Her “adventures”, she said, were “mental and moral”. She apologised to an intimate friend for using, and transforming, an actual incident with a button in the her 1938 novel The Fashion in Shrouds. “I’m sorry about the button … but my dear sweet ape! Fiction is my art my profession. For me it is a highly technical business comparable with dispensing. Personal adventures are always distilled into the drugs to be used but I would no more dream of putting in something whole or undigested than I’d think of throwing a whole belladonna root into the family soup.” What better justification for a literary biography could there be? Following Margery Allingham though her ostensibly quiet life has the potential to bring us closer to an understanding of the transmuting imagination -- how fiction works.

Back in 1991 Julia Thorogood's editor at Heinemann didn't get that point so the book's first title was stodgy: Margery Allingham: a Biography. It got plenty of praise but never made it into paperback. When Julia Jones took the plunge and decided to self-publish her own paperback edition in 2009, she gave her book the title that she'd always wanted. She also had a new cover, new introduction, a foreword, a couple of new photos and an Afterword. This Afterword was, arguably, the single reason that might have persuaded a reader keen on shock-horror biography to purchase the second edition. It tells of the unacknowledged child born to Margery's husband Pip Youngman Carter and lesbian icon Nancy Spain. 
 
This child was Tom Carter – though he wasn't Tom Carter then – he was Thomas Laurie Seyler, given the completely untrue parental identities of Joan Werner Laurie (Nancy Spain's partner) and her former husband Carlos Seyler (who lived conveniently beyond all contact in Argentina). This had the advantage of providing Tom with a 'brother', Nick Laurie, and an 'uncle', Dick Laurie. It was only when both Nancy and Joan were killed together in a plane crash in 1964 that young Tom, then aged 11, was told that genetically none of these people were his relations. At least it explained to the poor lad why he'd always instinctively preferred Nancy (his birth mother) to his official mother Joan. 
 
Margery, Pip, Nancy and Joan had been friends – in the slightly self-conscious way of professional literary friendships. Nancy's letters to Margery are especially gushing. (She usually wanted something.) She and Joan attended Margery nd Pip's annual semi-celeb parties in Essex but didn't bring the children – though Margery is remembered by others as being especially welcoming to youngsters. Margery noted the two deaths with shock in her diary: Pip attended Nancy's memorial service. Tom was eventually fostered by his prep-school head master and wife. There is no suggestion anywhere in Pip or Margery's diaries, correspondence or Wills that they knew of this motherless child's existence. Or Pip's responsibility.

But does Margery's FICTION tell a different story? That's a tricky one. Margery's instincts were extraordinarily alert as far as Pip was concerned. She certainly knew he was sexually unfaithful and a lier in other respects. Early in 1951, the year before Tom's birth, they came close to divorce. But that was months before Tom could have been conceived. When he was unobtrusively born, in August 1952, they were reconciled and about to celebrate their silver wedding. Hide My Eyes, however, Margery's 1958 novel – and her blackest portrayal of aspects of their relationship – gives the villain (an acknowledged version of Pip) a girlfriend who looks remarkably like Nancy. 

The really challenging novel however is The China Governess (1963). Pip was home and re-reconciled with Margery and was unusually involved in the construction of this story. It features the confused identities of two unacknowledged sons and a father who hadn't known which one was his. There is a nasty portrayal of the accepted child, a violent, petty criminal whose learning difficulties are treated with a visceral distaste that makes repellent reading. Then there is a final and very beautiful moment when the true father and son recognise each other but decide to ignore the relationship and go their separate ways. 

Pip approved this picture of himself. It stopped being funny when I discovered how much Tom loved trains.

When I met Tom Carter I was immediately struck by his physical relationship to the photographs I had seen of Pip. I also knew he had suffered from mental illness for most of his life, connected perhaps with the difficulties of living with high-functioning autism -- perhaps destabilised also by the lies of his mothers. I think that Margery, of all people, could have understood and sympathised with the pain Tom suffered from not knowing who he was. The troubled adolescent boy hauled from step-father to step-father in The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) is one of the finest minor characters in her fiction. "I only want to be something definite .. It's my life, you see." His predicament is not dissimilar to the boys in The China Governess. In this later novel public recognition of paternity is finally rejected by the real son but is essential to the repulsive misfit. His false identity papers are “all he has.” That flash of understanding is a chilling, redeeming touch.
 
Could Margery, Pip, or both of them have know the truth about Tom's existence and chosen to ignore it, confessing only via The China Governess? Rather like the villain in Hide My Eyes who leaves evidence so blatant that he must subconsciouly want to be caught? Am I hiding my eyes, as biographer, if I say that I still don't think so? Tom Carter became my friend and I would never have de-stabilised his understanding of himself by speculating that his father could have known of his existence all along, and chose never to recognise him and to leave him to be fostered by a school teacher when his mothers were killed. I would also de-stabilise my own understanding of Margery if I accepted she had been a conscious accomplice in such behaviour. 

In the introduction to the second edition, however,  I took as my remit Margery's demand that a journalist (or biographer)  should “be very honnest” - even when she had found Margery in the midst of a mental breakdown. I'm giving it my best shot.

Tom died last year. His brother and uncle -- the non-related family who stuck with him throughout his life -- put the names of both sets of 'parents' on his coffin. For this e-edition I have altered the Afterword to recognise the fact of Tom's death but my questioning of the fiction which may have been spun around his life in The China Governess creeps in only as far as a footnote. I don't think I have sufficient evidence for any jury to convict either Pip or Margery of deliberate child-denial. Unacknowledged children and confusion of birth identities are the stuff of story after all. Margery's father Herbert spent his working life repeating such archetypal tales.  

What I do think, finally, is that fiction can know things that fact won't recognise and there's a huge amount of truth and meaning in coincidence. And I know that's what Margery Allingham believed.  

Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case.

Tom Carter's coffin



5 comments:

Reb MacRath said...

Beautifully one. As a boy I was hooked on Lord Byron and the notion that an adventuresome life was the bedrock of creative excellence. This led to much grief and much nonsense. But over time I began to think that the life of the spirit contained equal, or greater, adventures. Greater mountains to climb, greater oceans to sail. I was glad to read your post.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Fascinating. Thank you.

Susan Price said...

A fascinating essay on identity, Julia - thank you.

CallyPhillips said...

Yes Julia, remarkable and intensely interesting. And just makes me even more determined that more and more of the Allinghams work will feature in my reading REALLY SOON!!! I fear once I get going on the biog I'll get sucked into all the novels.
And as for the 'personal identity' that is also so interesting. As one whose surname has changed 6 times (not through my own volition every time) and goes PHILLIPS, ALVES, PHILLIPS, LOADES, PHILLIPS, WIGHT you can see I've done a lot of trying to revert to the original which is why I write as Phillips and would NEVER have changed it to Wight on marriage except that having wanted to marry the man for 380 years I felt it was a good fit - as long as I could keep Phillips for ME as well. But surname identity and accent identity are both very interesting parts of how we define and redefine who we are - and proof that fact can be stranger than fiction!

Dennis Hamley said...

Absorbing post, Julia. 'Fiction can know things fact can't recognise' - a great truth which I've always followed - and you put it beautifully too. And, yes, coincidence properly understood and respectfully used in fiction brings so many new layers to it. 'Things aren't untrue just because they never happened.' Who said that, I wonder?