Meeting Miss Silver

A couple of weeks ago I was at a very fine local pub. As well as keeping an excellent selection of ales, this admirable establishment also holds a pile of used books which you can browse over a beer and take home with you if you put 50p in their book-fund teapot. Thus it was that after a couple of tasty pints and perusing the used book pile, that I chanced upon a most handsome volume. It was a slightly battered hardback book, featuring a fabulously melodramatic cover illustration, and designed with the simple lines, scriptive typefaces, and saturated colour-schemes of the 1950s. Everything about the book as an object was pleasing to me, and the pages had a fantastic aroma of ink and time.

Flicking the book open, I read the synopsis, and was intrigued to explore the volume further:

Miss Silver is in Ledshire again for her twenty-seventh case. Shrewd as ever, armed with her quotations from Lord Tennyson and her knitting, she patiently probes into a muddled business of anonymous letters, village feuds made worse by elderly gossips, suicide and murder.

It is my habit to flick through a couple of pages before deciding whether or not I will “get on” with an author, and in this process, my eyes fell happily upon the following phrase, which sold the book to me entirely. Wentworth’s 1950s detective novel would come home with me because of the knitting, and because of the scones.

He reached for one of Hannah’s scones, feather light and sinfully enriched with both butter and honey.

The book has been one of the most pleasurable reads I can remember; Wentworth’s prose is descriptive and precise, and her heroine – the admirable Miss Silver – reminds me somehow of my wonderful late Godmother, Aunty Hilary who would definitely have approved of the fictitious character’s sensible fashions, fine scones and self-discipline. There is something extremely comforting to me about the competence of Patricia Wentworth’s heroine. I love the structure which Miss Silver imposes on her business;

Of the two newspapers subscribed to by Miss Silver it was her habit to peruse the lighter and more pictorial at breakfast, reserving the solid fare provided by The Times for a later and more leisured hour.

However perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is the manner in which Miss Silver’s knitting is portrayed. I am sure that Patricia Wentworth must herself have been a knitter, otherwise I doubt that she might so accurately have portrayed the details and timings of the projects Miss Silver works on during the case of the Poison in the Pen. The pace at which a child’s twin-set is worked on throughout the novel is completely believable, and the documentation of Miss Silver’s knitting works as an excellent means for conveying the passage of time.

I also enjoy how Wentworth explores the relationship between listening and knitting. As you know this is a relationship which I enjoy exploring from many angles. However, until I encountered Wentworth’s writing I had not considered the many contexts for knitting and listening which might occur in crime fiction narratives. Silver’s knitting projects generally make their most conspicuous appearances during moments of problem-solving, conjecture or in key discussions with the Chief Constable, Randal.

For example in a section where Miss Silver is talking to Randal, her attentive qualities are highlighted through references to her knitting. In the third reference, drawing on a ball of yarn seems somehow to be a euphemism for reaching inwards to consider the topic of discussion more seriously, and to weigh up whether or not she wants to take the case:

She knitted thoughtfully. – p.15

The blue frill which depended from the needles was lenthening. Miss Silver said,
He spoke with a return to his usual manner. – p.16

She drew upon her ball of wool. – p.17

In another example where knitting-related activities and listening take place, the constant disarranging of a skein of yarn which Miss Silver is trying to wind serves as a sort of metaphor for the emotional disorder of one of the characters in the book. Too, the competence of Miss Silver in her needlework in this section underscores that she somehow has the upper-hand in this exchange with Miss Renie:

Miss Silver was winding the red wool which she had bought at Ashley’s. It always kept so much better in balls and Miss Renie having offered to hold the skeins for her, the two ladies were brought into very close proximity. Nothing could have exceeded the sympathetic warmth of Miss Silver’s attention…
…”How well you put it. Oh dear, I’m afraid I have tangled the skein! How stupid of me!”
Miss Silver adjusted the skein with the dexterity of long practice.
“Now if you will just keep it quite taut. I do not really think that you should reproach yourself for being concerned about Connie Brooke. It is a very sad accident, and must be felt by all her friends.”
Miss Renie sniffed.
“I did think she looked as if she had been crying at the rehearsal, but one couldn’t have dreamed – ”
Miss Silver said “Yes?” in a manner that made a question of it. The skein dropped again, Miss Renie burst into tears. – p. 94

Later in the story, Miss Silver attends a Work Party as a pretext for undertaking her murder investigation. The Work Party “which begun during the way, had proved itself so pleasant a social gathering that it had established itself as a permanency. There were, unfortunately, always the displaced and the distressed to work for, and no lack of piteous appeals for their relief. The party met at a different house each week, and its members vied with each other in the provision of simple refreshments.” It is most interesting to glimpse Stitch’n’Bitch Britain in the 1950s via Wentworth’s description here, and her description of the atmosphere therein is not that different from knit gatherings of today:

They came back into the room and disposed themselves on the comfortable old-fashioned chairs and sofas. Thimbles were put on, scissors laid ready, half-made garments produced, knitting-needles and wool extracted from capacious bags. Miss Silver found herself on a sofa next to a large and important looking lady in black and white tweeds. – p.117

The tweed-clad lady on the sofa beside Miss Silver turns out to be Lady Mallett, and perhaps of all the uses of knitting in the book to set the scene for excellent listening, this is my favourite. I especially like how Miss Silver draws a lot of information out of Lady Mallett under the pretext of working on her knitting project, and how her project affords her an ingenious means of infiltrating the social spheres of Ledshire. I also enjoy further references here to the capabilities of Miss Silver, where references to her excellent handicraft skills emphasise her overall brilliance as a person (and a detective).

“How very well you knit… I’m Nora Mallett – Lady Mallett. I’m a relation of the Reptons, and I’m here under completely false pretences, because I really came over to see Maggie… If I had any idea there would be this Work Party business going on I shouldn’t have come. As it is, I’m just waiting for a chance to get Maggie to myself for five minutes, so I don’t want to get involved with anyone if it will be difficult to get away from.”
Oddly enough, this bluntness did not give offence. There was so much warmth in voice and manner, so strong an impression of kindness, as to make her seem merely frank. Miss Silver found herself forming a favourable impression. She said with a smile,
“My own work, I am afraid, is of quite a private character. I am making a twin set for my niece’s little girl. The jumper is finished. This is the cardigan.”
…Nora Mallett’s tongue was notoriously indiscreet, but she would probably have not proceeded further if is had not been for that something about the quality of Miss Silver’s listening which had caused her to receive to many confidences… pp. 117-8

Later on in the novel, the near-completion of Miss Silver’s cardigan occurs almost synonymously with a pivotal discussion relating to the murder case. There is a wonderful key discussion between Randal and Silver in this section, wherein Silver’s knitting progress seems to hasten in tandem with the organisation of all of the information which will help the mystery murder to be solved. Twists and turns in the plot as Randal and Silver thrash out all the facts together are reflected in ever-increasing progress re: the knitwear on Miss Silver’s needles. It is hard not to imagine that Wentworth enjoyed closing both the murder case and the cardigan part of the twin-set with something of a flourish:

The crochet hook went in and out, drawing the blue wool into the trellised edging…

She put away her work and rose.
“Will you question her again?”

All of this has made me think that I need to explore more the context of the mature, female, private detective and depictions of knitting in literature. I wonder if intelligent and technical uses of knitting to delineate competence in a character are widespread, or if Wentworth’s wonderful Miss Silver is a lone example in a world which seems otherwise abundant with annoying, ill-researched and belittling depictions of “Knitting Nanas?” (I am thinking of the obscenely stupid Shreddies advert).

I would love your thoughts on this. Firstly, have you read any Wentworth? Secondly, am I deluded in thinking that Poison in the Pen uses knitting ingeniously well within plot to outline the capabilities, superior listening skills and subversive power of a female heroine? and thirdly, have you come across any wonderful essays which explore the iconic figure of the mature female private detective from a feminist perspective? I would love to know!

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