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A murder in the House of Commons! @BL_Publishing #BLCC #EllenWilkinson

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Well, I guess that’s the first time in a while that I’ve read the complete fiction works of an author in such a short period… As far as I can tell, Wilkinson only wrote the two fiction books I’ve now covered on the Ramblings, and that’s a real shame. “Clash” was a stirring tale of love, politics and ideology; “The Division Bell Mystery” is a perhaps more conventional story, focusing on a murder which takes place in the House of Commons. However, Wilkinson the author shines through here too, in what is a very satisfying read.

The book is set in the House of Commons, and our main protagonist is Robert West, a good-looking young (Conservative) parliamentary private secretary, attached to the Home Secretary. It’s worth noting that the book was published in 1932, a time of financial instability in the UK (and indeed the world); and this instability is reflected in the book, as negotiations are taking place for the Government to get a loan of foreign money. Reclusive American financier Georges Oissel, an old friend of the Home Secretary, has agreed to have dinner with the latter in the House – an unusual occurrence in itself, and one that goes horribly wrong when Oissel is found dead just after the Division Bell* is rung for a vote.

Through the double clamour of Big Ben and the shrill sound of the bell rang a revolver shot.

At first, it seems like suicide; but why would such a rich man with no need to die do such a thing? Oissel’s beautiful granddaughter, Annette, is convinced that it’s murder, and soon the police, led by Inspector Blackitt, are of the same opinion. West is encouraged to investigate, assisted by his old friend Dan Shaw, a friendly reporter Sancroft, fiery Labour politician Gracie Richards, Lord Dalbeattie, and a whole host of other characters. What appears to be a locked-room mystery is complicated by a burglary on Oissel’s flat taking place at the same time as the murder, and the fact that the Government must fight off questions and challenges from the opposition whilst trying to deal with what is a very delicate situation. Will Robert solve the crime (or will, indeed, somebody else?) Will Robert stop swooning over Annette? Does Kinnaird, a close friend of Annette’s who could be in financial difficulties, know more than he’s letting on? Is the Home Secretary without guilt? And how will the Prime Minister handle the hostility from the opposing party?

“The Division Bell Mystery” is a twisty and entertaining book with an engrossing puzzle, likeable characters and plenty of red herrings. On their own, these elements alone would make it worth reading. However, where it actually excels is in the picture it gives of what it was like to be in Parliament in the 1930s. We’re so much more familiar with the whole procedure nowadays thanks to the televising of Parliament, but one character comments rather presciently:

“We ought to film this place,” chuckled West. “Would any of us ever make a speech again if we could see how funny we looked when we are doing it?”

And I can’t help thinking that the televising of the bear garden that passes for politics might actually have had a more damaging effect than anything else in our faith in politicians…

Ellen Wilkinson by National Photo Company Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I digress. Wilkinson writes beautifully, bringing alive her setting with all its atmosphere. And as in “Clash” she’s not afraid to deal with issues, albeit in perhaps a more subtle way than her earlier book. Gracie Richards is surely a self-portrait, and I warmed to her; and although she gets to voice her opinions, there is also discussion of a world that was changing dramatically, with the young people having a very different attitude to life than the old Colonels who still believed in the Empire and the old ways. In many ways, West is stuck between the two extremes, which makes for a nuanced portrayal and a thoughtful look at the state of the UK in the early 1930s.

The House with its lighted windows seemed the quiet centre of the whirlpool that was London. A harassed Cabinet Minister negotiated with an American financier inside, and outside the raw material of their transactions, the people who elected the Minister and would have to pay interest on the loan, surged and demonstrated. They wanted bread. It wasn’t like England – Stuart-Orford was right about that. But it was the new England, and what was to be done about it?

But I need to get back to the puzzle! To be honest, as a murder mystery the book has small flaws: it *is* a little unlikely that the police wouldn’t have found the truth out sooner; there are perhaps a few too many characters in the story, meaning that Wilkinson isn’t able to give them the attention they deserve; and the doe-eyed devotion of West to Annette is as irritating to me as it obviously was to Gracie Fisher… And although the ending was quietly dramatic, I would have liked a little more of the aftermath, and to find out what happened later to the various participants. It’s a shame Wilkinson didn’t write any more mysteries, as I did love many of her characters and would have liked to follow their future adventures; although I suppose there are only so many murders you can set in the House of Commons without getting into Midsomer-Murders-silliness territory…

Nevertheless, “The Division Bell Mystery” is a worthy and important addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. It’s always entertaining, surprisingly thought-provoking and like “Clash” quite ahead of its time in places. Wilkinson obviously relished being part of the Parliamentary system and believed that it was a system that worked; although she’s refreshingly cynical at time, indicating that it’s the Civil Servants who run the country and not the actually politicians. I wonder if that still holds true? The book comes with a preface by Rachel Reeves, a Labour MP, and is introduced as always by Martin Edwards, who considers politics in Golden Age crime novels. Reading about Parliament from the point of view of one of the earliest women M.P.s is very special, and she can’t resist the occasional nice little barb:

Women M.P.s might try to abolish this absurdity, but the House, which in the past years has swallowed whole strings of new camels, would die in the last ditch in defence of some antiquated gnat of a custom.

Discovering the books of Ellen Wilkinson has been a real treat; “Division Bell…” was as absorbing as “Clash”, albeit with a different focus, and I really do wish she’d gone on to write more books; but bearing in mind her Parliamentary record, literature’s loss was politics’ gain…

(Review copy kindly provided by British Library Crime Classics, for which many thanks!)

*For those who don’t know, Wikipedia informs us that a Division Bell is one used in the immediate neighbourhood of the Palace of Westminster (which houses Parliament) to signal that a division is occurring and that members of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords have eight minutes to get to their chosen Division lobby to vote for or against the resolution. The division bells are also sounded at the point when the house sits (at the start of its day); at the end of the two-minute prayers that start each day and when the house rises. There are approximately five hundred bells in and around the Palace of Westminster.

“Change will not come from above” @ViragoBooks #GeneralStrike #JarrowMarch

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Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

So…. I’ve managed quite well with #WITmonth during August I feel – three titles so far – but needless to say I am *not* sticking with my plans… I had wanted to read at least one Virago this month and had pencilled in “A Fine of Two Hundred Francs” by Elsa Triolet. Not only is it a book I’ve intended to read for ages, but it would have also fitted in with WITmonth and would have been ideal. However, the bookish serendipity I posted about the other day got in the way…

Was there another country in the world where the class barriers were so high as in England, and where it was so loudly proclaimed that none existed at all?

As I mentioned, I was so intrigued to stumble across Ellen Wilkinson’s “Clash”, particularly when I read about her fascinating background and impeccable left-wing views. She lived such an inspiring life, and it seems, from reading “Clash”, that much of the novel draws from her own experience. The books tell of the adventures of Joan Craig; like Wilkinson, she’s from a working-class background, fiercely left-wing and committed to working for the cause. Joan is a trade union organizer and the book is set in 1926, on the eve of the General Strike.

This was a strike that lasted for 9 days, when the country ground to a halt as workers from all industries came out in support of miners whose wages and working conditions were appalling. The strike in effect failed, as the Government were prepared and drafted in blacklegs from the middle classes; their organisation was better and they could hold out against the workers for longer, leaving the latter no option but to give in. However, the General Strike has gone down in to history as formidable display of working class solidarity, as well as contributing to an upsurge of support for the Labour Party.

Joan rose to put some more coal on the fire. She looked thoughtfully at the piece she held between the tongs. “Queer stuff, isn’t it?” she said. “All the hidden possibilities, the light and power and heat and scent and healing, all being squabbled over like a mangy bone some prehistoric cur has buried.”

“And wasted, as though the sole use of it was to grub it out of the ground as quick as possible and chuck it at any price to anyone who’ll have the stuff,” added Royd.

Against this background, an event and a time she lived through, Wilkinson tells her story and it’s gripping as well as perhaps more nuanced than you might think. Joan (like her author) is a fiery and committed women, experienced in rallying the troops at meetings and destined for a career in politics, perhaps even Parliament. However, her story is not straightforward; she has monied friends, like Mary Maud Meadowes, and a whole ‘Bloomsbury’ set. In these circles, she runs into author Anthony Dacre. A slightly older and more cynical character who’s still sympathetic to the workers’ cause, he falls head over heels in love with Joan; however, his cold and somewhat estranged society wife, Helen, is the one who wears the trousers in their marriage and so the prognosis is not good. Further complications arise in the form of Gerry Blain, a veteran of WW1 who has several chips on his shoulder and also suffers a lot from his wartime injuries. Like Dacre, he’s smitten with Joan; unlike Dacre, he is completely committed to the cause. But Joan loves Anthony, and so the romance is in for a rocky ride…

Excitement was rising. These men, Joan thought to herself, were in the centre of a crisis in which actually they, working men, were being consulted and had to give the final decision. In all the history of their class, wars had been decided for them. Their job was to fight and die. At the most they could but grumble under their breath. But now Cabinet Ministers were waiting to see what they would do, and whether their decision was war or peace.

That description perhaps makes this work sound a little trivial, but frankly it’s anything but. The backdrop to the personal story is actually as gripping and involving as anything else in the book. We witness the excitement and tension of those organizing the strike; the difficulties of pulling together multiple trades unions, all with differing agendas; the complexities of deciding where your loyalties lie; the disappointments when things don’t go as planned; and the temptations which can draw a person away from their beliefs and commitments.

The scene at the Memorial Hall reminded Joan of a beehive. Men were pouring in, while others were pushing themselves out. Communists, single-taxers, credit-reformers, were trying to push their papers on the delegates. Unemployed sandwich-men paraded in front of the hall. Press photographers tried to lure the big-wigs to pose. The inevitable mild -middle-class lady gave out leaflets on birth-control. A little apart from the hubbub a typical group of London workers looked on with their usual air of cheerful detachment. A taxi-man, wearing his union button, surveyed the scene with immense benevolence.

Importantly, Wilkinson uses her story to embrace some very important and relevant issues for women. With remarkable foresight, she shows the personal and political as being inextricably linked; I was reminded of the slogan “The Personal is Political” which came to the fore during the second wave of feminism, and it’s clear that Wilkinson believes that you can’t behave in your personal life in a way that contradicts your political beliefs. Joan is a woman with a major dilemma: she loves Tony, but he wavers constantly, wanting her to be his mistress at one point and then when he finally commits to the idea of a divorce, insisting that she would have to give up her work. Gerry, on the other hand, would be the perfect work companion but Joan’s feelings for him don’t have the passion that she feels for Tony. Joan eventually reaches a resolution although, according to the introduction to the Virago edition by Wilkinson’s biographer Betty D. Vernon, Ellen herself never did.

London, Parliament, the folks that make laws and regulations, are afraid of the miners and the steel-workers and the other manual workers. They must be kept poor, or they mightn’t stick at their jobs, they must be kept ignorant of their bodies or they mightn’t produce enough cheap labour, they must be kept overcrowded when slums could be swept away in five years, because, oh why – because we must have some one to look down on, just as we won’t give them enough State hospitals for fear we shan’t be able to give ourselves the luxury of feeling charitable.

These are not the only relationships affected by the Strike, however. That action ends halfway through the book, but Wilkinson goes on to show the aftermath: workers being exploited as the try to go back to work, fund-raising efforts, women in small industrial towns who don’t know the first thing about birth control and struggle with multiple children, and the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots (plus ça change…) The effects of the Strike on relationships in all classes is profound, and Wilkinson’s characterisation is not black and white; Mary Maud is rich but with a heart that is in the right place and wants to help; Helen Dacre is upper class and initially nasty but becomes more human when her side of things is given; gossip columnist Palma is initially snooty but revealed to have left-wing sympathies. This nuanced approach allows Wilkinson to produce a riveting story that embraces left-wing politics, feminism and the struggle to balance work and love.

Mary Maud was a wealthy bachelor woman, an intimate of an exclusive Bloomsbury circle who bestowed fame on themselves by writing reviews of each other’s books. As each slender work appeared it was greeted as a new Tchehov, a more sensitive Dostoievsky, a respringing of the fountain of Shelley’s genius.

The book also has a strong message about the need to be vigilant; Wilkinson obviously felt that there should be no compromises and warns against the dangers of being seduced by comfort and drawn away from the struggle; Joan is tempted by the possibility of a different life that would blunt the edges of her combativeness and wish to fight for her cause, and I got very tense waiting to see what the resolution would be.

Ellen Wilkinson with Jarrow marchers, by Unidentified photographer for Fox Photo Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilkinson’s only political novel (“The Division Bell Mystery” is a crime story, and the politics are nothing like this from what I’ve read so far) is a real winner. It’s exciting, emotional and gives an eye-witness view of a time when working people came together to try and fight for a fairer world. That attempt failed, mainly it seems because the strikers had a desperate need for proper organisation and a more sweeping overview; and in some ways, with the ridiculous in-fighting plaguing the left today, that still seems worryingly relevant. Little changes, and I was vaguely depressed to see one miner character comment about the closing down of the press: “That’ll larn the “Daily Mail” – it seems that particular rag was a problem back in 1926… “Clash” never hides its politics, but those politics give the book an importance and stimulation for discussion which so many works lack. It was definitely a worthy choice for Virago to republish in 1989, sixty years on from its original publication date; and it’s definitely worth tracking down today if you want a novel that will stimulate, engender debate and make you wonder how much we’ve moved on in what is nearly a century since that great coming together of the working class. You’ll notice a lot of quotes in this post, and I could have pulled out so many more; this is a book that’s really had an effect on me and it’s one of the most important Viragos I’ve read.

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