At Hallowe’en of this year, my blogfriend Jamie Bernthal-Hooker wrote a piece on The Devil at Saxon Wall (in his excellent blog, Sign of the Crimes, which I recommend to your continued attention) and did me the honour of quoting me extensively in the process. Unfortunately this was, as my regular readers are both aware 😉 in the context of me not enjoying Gladys Mitchell’s writing very much at all and making the decision to put approximately 80 of her e-books into cold storage. Jamie’s opinion of Gladys Mitchell’s writing is much more favourable than mine.
In fact, it seems as though everyone with any literary taste and scholarship enjoys Gladys Mitchell more than I do, and in particular The Devil at Saxon Wall. Nick Fuller calls it “Gladys Mitchell’s triumph” in a superb in-depth analysis found here; another esteemed blogger and podcaster, Les Blatt, calls it “marvellous” here. Even the comments on Amazon and Goodreads are generally favourable. Critically speaking, I’m a lonely little onion in the petunia patch.
At the end of his analysis, Jamie wonders what my “thoughts were on this one”. And this left me in a kind of ethical bind. I had a copy at hand, it was certainly no trouble to pick it up and read it. But I had already said that I was prepared to set aside Gladys Mitchell and not continue to flog a horse that my readers had already seen me butcher in front of them. I know you get it — as I said, and as Jamie quoted, “There’s something about Gladys Mitchell, or me, and the two of us are immiscible. I have decided to do you all the favour of not beating the topic to death in a vain attempt to keep my promise …”. That’s simply it. I admit it’s fun to be rude and acerbic about novels I don’t enjoy, and I am told my readers enjoy this process, but (a) I have no wish to pursue Gladys Mitchell like the Avenging Furies, and (b) I greatly suspect that, given the number of intelligent analysts and eminent critics who DO enjoy her work more than I do, I’d be making a fool of myself in the process.
So I read the damn book, and I didn’t enjoy it at all, and that’s more or less all you’re going to hear on the topic from me. But I did give it a reasonable amount of thought as to why I didn’t enjoy it, and I actually had an insight or two that I thought was worth sharing. And I will try to keep the acerbity to a minimum. I still think if you want better analysis of Mitchell’s strengths you should go elsewhere, and I’ve given you some links, but I thought I had something original to offer below that has little to do with my personal feelings.
The Devil at Saxon Wall is set in a tiny village in Hampshire which is, as Nick Fuller puts it, “horribly rustic”. It’s a story about how the villagers and the vicar are coming into conflict against the background of a few different issues; one is the death of a young woman after childbirth, possibly at the hands of her insane husband; another is what has happened to the child of that marriage; and there’s quite a bit about witchcraft and local superstition and widespread drought. All the villagers are unpleasant (verging on downright evil), speak a local dialect that is quite difficult to understand, are constantly doing unusual things for incomprehensible reasons, and lying. Lying, lying, lying, lying. They lie about everything that happens around them, constantly and consistently, and it is up to series detective Mrs. Bradley to untangle the lies and figure out what has happened, which she does and solves a lot of problems. At the end, the heavens pour with rain and end the drought.
The word that kept coming into my head as I read this book was “squalid”. To quote a dictionary, “(of a place) extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty and neglect; showing or involving a contemptible lack of moral standards”. The squalid village of Saxon Wall is filled with squalid people doing squalid things. Now, I did say I wouldn’t comment much about the actual book. But in view of my previous remarks about the laudable sexual forthrightness of Mitchell at a time when her peers wouldn’t countenance sexuality in a mystery, I have to note that at one point one of the female villagers comes to the narrator’s bedroom dressed only in a raincoat and boots and offers herself to him; hell, she attacks him and he has to fight her off. And this is not the merely sexual act that it seems, but connected with an alibi and yet another tangle of lies. The encounter is unpleasant to contemplate and mercifully not consummated, but I have to say, Mitchell Went There. Nevertheless, it is squalid in the extreme.
The small insight that I had, though, came after I closed the book and tried to ruminate on why I hadn’t enjoyed this book very much at all. Where was this book coming from in the context of 1935? Why did Mitchell want to write about these squalid villagers; what need did she feel she was meeting by doing so? Nick Fuller remarks that this book was written as “the result of hearing a lecture on witchcraft by Helen Simpson (to whom the book is dedicated)”, and I’ll buy that. But why was Helen Simpson, a detective novelist in her own right, lecturing about witchcraft? And why did Gladys Mitchell think that the public would be entertained by a mystery set against a background of rural witchcraft with strong overtones of sexuality and low intelligence?
I was aware that many novelists at the time had been influenced by a very popular book called The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, by archaeologist Margaret Murray, published in 1921, whose Wikipedia biography is found here. Essentially and briefly, this volume talked about the idea that European witches had been persecuted for their religious beliefs in a pagan religious tradition that is not 100% modern Wicca, but fairly close. Murray also published a follow-up volume in 1933, The God of the Witches, in which
she tried to describe “the Old Religion” in more positive and everyday terms. Significantly, Murray wrote the entry on witchcraft for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and “used the opportunity to propagate her own witch-cult theory”. Apparently academic reviewers believed that she had “distorted and misinterpreted the contemporary records that she was using” but the book had a great deal of influence and I believe Mitchell would have been very familiar with it. Other mystery writers were influenced by it too, notably Ngaio Marsh in Off With His Head.
The general zeitgeist of the times was interested in witchcraft as the Old Religion and it seems to me to contribute to the background of The Devil at Saxon Wall. But that doesn’t explain the entirety of the novel to me, merely a portion of it. Where was all this squalor coming from?
It did seem likely that Mitchell’s interest in eugenics, another component of the cultural zeitgeist that was more prominent in 1935 than today, had something to do with it. There are elliptical mentions of the inbreeding that takes place in small villages such as Saxon Wall; to be fair, though, the exact parentage of a particular individual is a major question of the novel and so it’s not unrealistic that the topic should be mentioned. I do think there’s an undercurrent of Mitchell suggesting that inbreeding contributes to the village being full of mendacious and sexually liberated scoundrels with no moral fibre, but even my dislike for the adherents of eugenics wouldn’t allow me to find direct references in the text where none seem to exist. (Readers, feel free to prove me wrong, please. Eugenics needs to be exposed to the light of day as being a horrible idea and I’m not sure I did a really effective search.)
What finally struck me was the thought that The Devil at Saxon Wall was like a peculiar British take on a kind of American genre that has now passed entirely out of fashion; the “hillbilly novel”. And this started to interest me. The concept of “hillbillies” as part of American culture is a long and complex one; it started as a way of describing the impoverished inhabitants of rural areas like Appalachia and the Ozarks and transmogrified into a media stereotype that changed its meaning as time went by. In the late 1920s, “hillbilly music” was what we would now call “country music”; a fusion of folk songs with other genres like gospel and bluegrass. But the image of lazy, tobacco smoking, overall-wearing farmers clutching a jug of moonshine liquor labeled “XXX” concatenated through American media. Cartoons like “Li’l Abner” and radio and movie depictions of characters like “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick” and the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys contributed to a simplistic cliche that audiences recognize to this day. You may not be surprised to know that Elvis Presley got his start as a “hillbilly singer”.
I first encountered the hillbilly novel because one of its exemplars was in the well-known collectible paperback series known as Dell mapbacks; Their Ancient Grudge (which the casual reader could be excused for thinking is here titled “Hillbilly Feuding and Loving”, but read carefully, the blurb is disguised as the title) is mapback #435 from 1950. There was a tiny sub-genre of such novels as first-edition (and only edition) paperbacks in the 1950s. These had names like Swamp Hoyden, Backwoods Tramp
and Desire in the Ozarks and usually had as their subject matter a young woman of easy virtue who wanted desperately to get to the big city and would have sex with any man likely to get her there. I think hillbilly novels were primarily meant as inexpensive erotica for the prurient male that, as a sub-genre, did not survive beyond about 1960. But there were an awful lot of them in the meantime, as paperback collectors can tell you; they can command huge prices as collectibles in today’s market.
There’s a mediaological excursion probably worth taking in tracing the history of the hillbilly through American culture, from early radio through to The Beverly Hillbillies and beyond, but it’s beyond the scope of these comments. I did want to go back to the origins of the hillbilly novel because I think I can see what might have been a direct connection to The Devil at Saxon Wall — the novels of Erskine Caldwell.
Tobacco Road (1932) is perhaps Caldwell’s most famous novel but God’s Little Acre (1933) is a close second, mostly because it was banned in Boston. Both volumes are filled with profanity, violence, and frank sexuality that makes them extremely unusual for their time; both volumes were runaway best-sellers, and God’s Little Acre sold more than 10 million copies. You can get plot summaries at the links in this paragraph. I think it’s fair to say that Caldwell pretty much invented the hillbilly novel; I remember remarking in my youth that it seemed as though the entire output of Signet as a paperback publisher seemed to consist of Caldwell’s hillbilly novels.
Now, let me say right off the bat, I have zero evidence and zero chance of getting any to back up this theory. I just want to set it out there, like a temptingly planted pawn in the initial stages of a chess game, that Gladys Mitchell was influenced by these two novels that had such a great success in the years immediately before The Devil at Saxon Wall. I think these two novels had a lot to do with the rise of the hillbilly stereotype in American media. And I think it’s extremely likely that Gladys Mitchell would have been moving in literary and intellectual circles such that she would have had access to these novels to read (I understand they were hard to get in Britain, because of the explicit sexual content).
When I thought about this, it seemed to make sense. Gladys Mitchell wanted to write novels with fairly frank sexual content, as I’ve seen in the reasonably large sample of Mitchell titles I’ve managed to make it through. It’s clear that she was influenced by Helen Simpson’s lecture and I’ll venture to say it’s clear she was aware of and influenced by The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and its sequel; she wanted to write about rural witchcraft. I think it’s not out of the question to suggest that Mitchell wanted to write commercially successful novels and that by emulating certain aspects of Erskine Caldwell she could sell a lot of books. It was more difficult to get books with clearly sexual scenes published but there are many reasons for her to think that, once published, they would sell. Who knows what a researcher more competent (and interested) than myself might find by investigating Mitchell’s papers?
All I’m willing to assert is that the relationship between Mitchell’s work and Caldwell’s work is possible and not wildly unlikely. Your mileage may, of course, vary. I still didn’t enjoy the experience of reading The Devil at Saxon Wall but I hope to have contributed in a small way to the understanding of readers who like her work more than I do. I now intend to return to my intended silence on Mitchell’s work in general, unless provoked, and I leave her to your better judgment.