Wednesday 20 August 2014

Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)

Gladys Mitchell was born in Cowley, Oxford.  Her father was a market gardener of Scottish descent.  In 1909 her family moved to Middlesex, North London and she attended the Rothschild School, Brentford, and the Green School.  She continued her education at Goldsmiths' College, from which she gained a teaching qualification and, a few years later, University College, London, where she earned an extra-mural diploma in European history.
From her graduation in 1921 until 1950, Mitchell continued to work as a teacher of English, history and games in a variety of schools.  In 1950 she retired.  However, three years later, the officials of the Matthew Arnold School invited Mitchell to judge a school gymnastics competition and give a speech.  Immediately after this, the headmistress asked Mitchell to leave retirement and join her staff.  Mitchell agreed and returned to teaching until her second retirement in 1961. 
When asked in an interview why she had agreed to return to teaching, Mitchell admitted that she had missed the stimulus and discipline of 'the day job' but also indicated that she found the money acceptable, as her writing was not very lucrative.
While working as a teacher, Mitchell lived in Brentford and Ealing but, in 1961, she retired to Corfe Mullen in Dorset.  Here she pursued her interest in studying medieval architecture and pre-historic sites and continued to explore her fascination with Freudian psychology and with witchcraft.  Mitchell said that her interest in witchcraft was encouraged by her friend Helen Simpson, an Australian born detective writer who died of cancer during the Second World War. Along with her literary commendations, Mitchell also received membership in the British Olympic Association, a tribute to her lifelong interest in athletics.
Throughout her adult life, even while teaching full-time, Mitchell was a prolific writer.  She published 77 adult novels; 66 featuring Mrs Bradley; 5 under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby and 6 under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie and 9 children's novels published under her own name.  Mitchell's interests appear in many of her novels: the detective she created under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie is Timothy Herring, an architect concerned with the restoration of historic buildings; the supernatural, witchcraft and Freudian psychology are all central to the Mrs Bradley books.  Mitchell continued writing until her death in 1983, aged eighty-two.  Her first published novel was Speedy Death (1929), which introduced Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, who featured in another 65 of Mitchell's novels.
Mrs Bradley is a remarkable creation.  She is a remarkably ugly woman: 'a black-eyed, beaky-mouthed, yellow-skinned, reptilian old lady,' (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)  She has a remarkably beautiful speaking voice but is prone to uttering blood-chilling cackles and screeches.  'She cackled harshly when William was introduced and chucked him under the chin, and then squealed like a macaw that's having its tail pulled.'  And her dress sense is appalling: '… her evening dress was of bright blue velvet and she was wearing over it a little coatee... of sulphur and orange.'  (The Saltmarsh Murders 1932.)  In ironical contrast to Christie's Miss Marple and Wentworth's Miss Silver, when she knits it is not delicate fluffy baby clothes but luridly coloured garments for herself.  Mrs Bradley is a well-known author and psychoanalyst, who bases her work on Freud.  She is a woman of unconventional lifestyle and original views and when asked how she 'rates' murder amongst the more heinous crimes, replies that she places it below rape and above grand larceny.  She is interested in witchcraft but she is cynical and analytical in every fibre of her being.  '”Mrs Harries is, of course, a survival,” he said.  “On the contrary, she is a charlatan,” said Mrs Bradley firmly.'  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
For a character who featured in 66 books, Mrs Bradley is remarkably elusive.  It is impossible to know what she really thinks; she is ruthless but at other times kind, and her description of her personal history alters radically.  It is never totally clear how many children Mrs Bradley has or how many times she has been married.  Unlike other writers of long series, one doesn't get the impression Mitchell has made a mistake, rather that she is sharing Mrs Bradley's outrageous sense of mischief and the pleasure of never being totally known: 
'”Oh, you have sons in the plural?  I understood you had only one. The famous K.C.,” said Miss Loveday.
“Ferdinand?  He is my son by my first husband, who was of French and Spanish descent.  I have other sons, but I much prefer my nephews.  Ferdinand and I are unlike, and get on well.  He reminds me, in many ways, of his father, and that is welcome, since otherwise I might have forgotten what his father was like.  It is some time since we were married,” said Mrs Bradley alarmingly.'
  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
Earlier in The Saltmarsh Murders, Mrs Bradley gives us more information about her son and her first husband:
'”By the way I have briefed Ferdinand Lestrange for the defence.”
“What, Sir Ferdinand?” I gasped, thinking, of course, of the fees.
“Yes, my son by my first husband,” said this remarkable woman.  “A clever boy.  Nearly as clever as his mother, and quite as unscrupulous as his father, who cornered wheat on Wall Street and then slipped up and all the wheat fell on him!”
She screamed with Satanic mirth and poked me in the ribs.'

Despite this apparent indifference to family ties, Mrs Bradley is depicted as an attentive grandmother, whose grandson Derek is eager to spend time with her, as is shown in When Last I Died (1941.)  Although it does seem odd to hear the redoubtable Mrs Bradley called 'Gran.'   
Cynical humour is the essence of Mrs Bradley's character and the reason she lights up the books as soon as she appears.  But there is something alarming about Mrs Bradley too.  There is an omniscient, untouchable air about her, as if she were some mythical creature from Greek legend.  This impression is increased by the fact that she is untouched by Time.  She is an old woman at the start of the series and suffers no diminution of her considerable powers over fifty years later in the final book to be published, The Crozier Pharaohs, published a year after Mitchell's death in 1984.)
Mrs Bradley does have regular companions, most notably her unshakeable chauffeur, George, and her secretary, Laura Menzies.  Laura became so prominent in the books that Philip Larkin, a great fan of Mitchell, expressed the fear that Laura was going to take over from Mrs Bradley.  However, when interviewed about this, Mitchell insisted that Laura was merely there in the role of Mrs Bradley's 'Watson'.
 Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club and, in company with Christie and Sayers, was regarded as one of the 'Big Three' women detective writers.  The poet Philip Larkin was one of her fans and referred to her as ‘The Great Gladys'.
It is hard to know why someone whose star had burned so brightly should now be relatively little known.  It may be that her originality and unconventionality was the reason.  She frequently mocked the conventions of the mystery genre.  The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) is a very funny book but it is undeniably a spoof on such Christie novels as The Murder in the Vicarage and The Body in the Library.  Mitchell's Mrs Bradley was not an easy character to fit into the stereotypical detective mode and her books are too unique to fit easily into a pattern. 
When considering Mitchell in company with Christie or Sayers, it would be great fun to turn Mrs Bradley loose in the drawing rooms of St Mary Mead or sharing an investigation with Poirot.  The carnage she would wreak would only be equalled by the notion of her debating moral issues with the earnest dons in the SCR at Shrewsbury College.   
In the 1990s the Mrs Bradley Mysteries were televised with Diana Rigg in the title role.  However as Diana Rigg's depiction of Mrs Bradley lacked the crocodile looks, the cackling laugh and the hideous fashion sense, and both characters and plots were significantly altered, little of Mitchell's Mrs Bradbury remained.
By the 1990s only The Rising of the Moon (1945) remained in print in a regular edition (although some were available in Large Print editions.)  In the last few years many have been brought back in print and e-book form.  Perhaps the only way to end an article about this, the most currently neglected of the great Golden Age mystery writers is to quote Philip Larkin, writing in the Observer: 'Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime-club confrères in total originality.’

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