In my last Sunday Salon post I mentioned I was reading about the 1920s in A N Wilson’s After the Victorians. This week I’ve moved on to the 1930s – today’s chapter is called “Puzzles and Pastorals” and I enjoyed it immensely.
I like word puzzles and most days do one or more Alphapuzzles, also known as Codewords. I also like doing crosswords, although I’m not very good at the cryptic puzzles. The Times Crossword became a regular feature dating from 1930. It soon became competitive with letters to the editor boasting of how quickly the writers could solve the puzzle, culminating in the account of M R James, the Provost of Eton and ghost-story writer who could complete the crossword in the time it took to boil an egg ‘and he hates a hard-boiled egg.’ The editorial crowed about the evidence that ‘the best brains in the country’ were viying with each other to complete the puzzle whilst Britain was lagging behind in solving the unemployment crisis or reviving British Industry.
From crosswords Wilson then moves on to discussing the ‘whodunnit mystery story’, another product involving solving a puzzle. Amongst others, he mentions Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Ronald Knox who wrote six detective stories between 1926 and 1937. The appeal of the mystery genre during the 1930s is not simple to explain as it falls into many different categories – the ‘locked room’ mysteries, books based on deductive reasoning, mysteries that rely more on their settings than on plots and the enclosed world of the country house. Wilson sums up the Thirties in this little paragraph:
The 1930s turn into a murder story on a grand scale. Old scores will be settled. Old injustices avenged, new resentments expressed in murder. Of the dominant figures who cross the pages in the early years – Hitler, Laval, Mussolini, Ribbentrop – very many, like characters in Cluedo were headed for violent ends.
In writers of the 1930s a sense of ‘Englishness’ developed – such as in the mysteries of John Dickson Carr, ‘Michael Innes’, Somerset Maugham and John Cowper Powys. Reading about these writers makes me want to read their books, particularly the four Wessex novels of Powys – Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle, Weymouth Sands and his Autobiography .
Wilson ends this chapter by describing the work of Stanley Spencer, whose return to his childhood village of Cookham, is emblematic of Britain’s retreat into itself after the First World War. Wilson writes:
British Elegy, and most specifically English Elegy, is the overriding note of serious art and literature for the next twenty years. So much had been lost and destroyed in the war that it is as though the creative intelligences in Britain wanted to recover Eden, not to chart new lands.
I’ve passed the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham many times but I’ve never gone in; I’ve only seen reproductions of his work. Stanley Spencer’s paintings are according to Wilson ‘stylishly executed landscapes of a highly traditional style’. There are religious pictures – the villagers of Cookham experiencing a General Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, scenes of life and death during the war, and his lowlife paintings of ‘overweight women and randy, bewildered little men like himself.’ Maybe next time I’m in Cookham I’ll stop and have a look for myself.
Wilson concludes that in all this Britain turned its back on the rest of the world and pulled up the shutters:
The troops had come back from the war. The politicians and the businessmen had conned everyone into thinking that life would be different. It wasn’t a land fit for heroes. It was still as unfair and as class-riven and silly as before, simply less rich, and less certain of itself.
There is so much in this book – more than a history of the period, encompassing literature, politics, economics and culture, ranging from ephemera to character sketches and anecdotes. It’s entertaining – popular history rather than the standard historical account of events.