|Anna, Where Are You? / Patricia Wentworth|
NY: HarperPerennial, 1991, c1951.
Now this is a book with a tenuous connection to sewing; in fact, it's really more connected to embroidery - perfect for the last weekend of National Embroidery Month! But I just read it and really enjoyed it, and thought that other sewists may enjoy the mystery as well as the textile arts content.
This is a title in Wentworth's Miss Silver series. Although Wentworth is a little less well known than other Golden Age mystery writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, or Margery Allingham, I think she's just as good. And she was very prolific, so I have a lot more of her writing ahead of me. Her amateur detective Miss Silver is an elderly, dowdy ex-governess who spends a lot of time knitting, but always figures out the crime. Her skill of observing while being ignored as an old lady is her secret superpower -- and if she seems similar to Miss Marple, just remember that Miss Silver came first ;)
In this book, governess Anna Ball has gone missing. She was seen leaving her latest job at Deepe House, but disappeared after that. She hasn't written to her oldest (and only) friend, Thomasina Elliot, which is very strange behaviour. In her worry, Thomasina hires Miss Silver to find Anna.
Miss Silver's old friend Detective Inspector Frank Abbott is also interested in this case, because there have been other strange happenings at Deep End, where Anna was working. The old manor house has been turned into an artist colony of sorts, with a handful of eccentrics living there; Miss Silver determines that the best way to find out what is going on is to revert to her original occupation as a governess, and takes on the care of the three wild children of Deepe House.
The colony is where the embroidery comes in. While Miss Silver is continually knitting, at Deepe House we find an astrologer/herbalist, a psychic, two sisters who weave, a reclusive bird-watcher, and the art embroiderer that particularly interested me. All of these characters are a bit larger than life, and Wentworth pokes holes in pretension quite sharply. The head of the colony, Mr. Craddock, believes in freedom and not constraining children's behaviour -- unless of course it annoys him in which case it must stop immediately. So his three stepchildren run wild, and their poor mother is worn out by doing all the work of the colony, since of course her freedom isn't important.
Miss Silver comes into this strange setting and must figure out what has happened to Anna; but the story is much more than that. It's dark, complicated, a little more dangerous than earlier stories. There is psychological and emotional neglect and abuse, secrets everywhere, a crumbling manor house with locked wings, and characters who are not what they seem. As usual with these stories, there is also a romantic theme, but it's not overly romantic in this one; in fact, I don't give the two 'lovers' much chance of happiness, myself. Their attraction is shown by their continuous arguing over everything. Tiring indeed!
The descriptions of the embroidery shops that both Augustus Remington, the embroider, and Miss Silver frequent in the little nearby town are interesting. As Miss Silver says, "fancy work shops are often run in quite an easy-going way. It is considered a refined occupation by those who have had no business training."
Augustus brings a piece of his work to a tea gathering at one point, and it shows the kind of embroidery he does, which seems of a slightly earlier period.
He waved the tambour frame at Miss Gwyneth and dropped his voice to a low and confidential tone. "My latest composition."
"What is it, Augustus?"
Both the Miss Tremletts peered at the fine stretched canvas upon which there was depicted a dark grey cloud tinged with pink, a human eye surrounded by three sunflower heads, and a twining plant with scarlet berries. The eye had been completed, but only one of the sunflowers and part of the trailing plant. The cloud was in a fairly advanced state. As an example of the embroiderer's art it stood high, a fact immediately pointed out by Miranda...
"But what does it mean?" repeated the Miss Tremletts, both speaking together.
Mr. Remington appeared to wave the question away.
"That is surely for you to say. I conceive the idea -- I endeavour to give it form and substance. It is not for me to supply the perceptive intelligence as well. Beauty is given to the world -- it is for the world to receive it." He flung himself into a chair as he spoke, put a couple of stitches into one of the sunflowers, and murmured in a languid voice, "The inspiration fails..."
If you enjoy a good retro English mystery like I do, I recommend this one -- it's clever, wry, and also quite non-cozy. Miss Silver knits and cares for the three children of the house, but don't be lulled into thinking that this story is simply a twee cozy tale. It isn't. There is real violence in it, and some thought-provoking themes, and it's full of questions. Why does Mrs. Craddock put up with this life? Who are all these people, really, behind their personas? Why do so many women adore angry men? And of course, where is Anna?