Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Margery Allingham

I've been fortunate in my selection of books the past few years, discovering new authors and topics of interest, most relating in some way to the inter-war years.  All aspects of history, fashion, politics, personalities, fiction and writers from this era appeal to me.  One exception stands out, sadly, and that is the Campion books written by Margery Allingham.

I like the Campion TV series, starring Peter Davison.  Bill thought to acquire these as we'd enjoyed the Peter Wimsey DVDs so thoroughly.  It was the DVDs that led me to  purchase a couple of Campion novels for Bill's Christmas gift one year.  Even though we've collected most of the set, they don't get any better (you'd think we'd learn).  We decided it was that Allingham somehow managed to avoid telling much about Campion's lifestyle or about him as a person at all.  It's a clever trick to both make him the solver of the crime and an almost incidental character, but I'd be the last to say she's not clever.

For this reason,  I really enjoyed reading about Allingham's life (Margery Allingham: a Biography by Julia Thorogood -  her biographer apparently revised the book and married a Jones since publishing the library book I read.)  

It's been a while since I read it, but I remember that both her parents were writers and an aunt was a publisher.  She wrote from an early age.   Though 'middle class', her family lived on the financial edge, a writers income always being uncertain.  This seemed to get continually worse the older she got and I got out of sorts with her about it.  

She seemed to have settled on the man to marry without much consideration of alternatives and the lucky man was Philip ('Pip') Youngman Carter.  His career was apparently illustrating the dust covers (most of which have not survived) of her published books; that and spending her money.  I never could warm to him, frankly.  

They lived in a grand house in small village in Essex, or rather she did.  


Carter spent a fair amount of time (and money) in London, with other women.  I gather he had rather a chip on his shoulder about her success.  Perhaps had he married someone less gifted his own, supposedly substantial, talent would have shone and he would have been a better person, less indolent.   I see from Carter's biographical sketch that he did in fact illustrate some of the Wimsey and Maigret books and wrote several of his own, largely autobiographical, ie Drinking for Pleasure (Is there any other reason?)  His section of the Margery Allingham Society website provides a fascinating sketch of the man, and draws this conclusion about his personality:
The main source for a view of Youngman Carter's personality is his autobiography, All I Did Was This, published posthumously in 1982 in a limited edition. He writes with impressive recall of his early life and admits that much of his character and outlook was determined in his boyhood. Throughout his life he appears to have divided his fellows into 'good chaps and stinkerinos', and how one regarded him must clearly depended on how one was regarded by him. He is variously described as cynical and sardonic, forthright and formidable, and 'appallingly selfish'. He had 'uninhibited prejudices' in which he delighted, 'a bee in his bonnet about trespassers' and a boyish relish for 'private games', often at the expense of others. To those who incurred 'the full and scabrous vigour of his distaste' he was an implacable and 'vitriolic' enemy.
The house was sufficiently big and she sufficiently hospitable that it was always full of visitors and this put an awful strain on her writing.  Carter was known for his parties and  seemed to think it fair to invite, send or bring the herds to 'his' country castle and drop them on Margery to entertain.  Of course she was also required to keep churning out the books to pay the bills.  I started to say 'and to give him a dustcover to illustrate' but it turns out he actually did this for many noted authors.  

Her Society's website describes more of Campion's world than hers, but does say:  

Youngman Carter's touching account of his wife in his preface to Mr Campion's Clowns (1967) gives a picture of a gay and generous woman, with kindness and courage and a rare gift for friendship. Though not an orthodox Christian, she was 'deeply religious' with her own tenets of belief. She was greatly attached to her house and garden and loved to share them with her many friends. Her publicity invariably implied that her marriage was entirely satisfactory but, in fact, it was threatened by her husband's restless philandering and extreme social ambition. Both took their toll; and continued ill-health and serious tax problems compounded her difficulties. Youngman Carter designed the wrappers for most of her books and he helped to plan some of the earlier ones. After her death he achieved in Cargo of Eagles and his own two sequels a lively pastiche of his wife's characteristic mode.

She struggled with her debts, her weight, her health and her writing.  She died relatively young at the age of 62.   If there is any justice, Carter only outlived his famous wife by 3 years (I acknowledge that I am rather hard on him).   In thinking about Allingham's interesting but less than happy life, it led me to think more about the author of the amazing Wimsey stories.  It turns out that Dorothy Sayers had a pretty interesting life as well...but that would have to be another post.

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