Sometimes you read a sentence which is so shocking that you just have to put the book down for a minute, take a deep breath and gather your thoughts before you can return to it and carry on. I had one such moment recently as I read Margery Allingham’s The Fashion In Shrouds. Published in 1938, it contained a sentence in which her hero, Albert Campion, who is neither a bounder nor a cad, expresses views about women which, quite simply, could not be expressed in writing today except by some desperately foul misogynist in certain vile corners of the internet. Yet the appearance of these views in what is quite definitely a work of mainstream popular fiction must, by the fact that they did appear without any significant public backlash, have been held without apology by a substantial part of the readership.
To compound the shock factor, the sentence is spoken by Campion to his sister Val:
“‘Oh,’ said Mr Campion furiously, ‘this is damned silly introspective rot. What you need, my girl, is a good cry or a nice rape – either I should think.’”
This is an acceptable perspective for a decent man to hold in 1930s Britain.
His sister does not express outrage at this suggestion but rebuffs it with a laugh, described as “Spiteful” saying:
“‘There’s a section of your generation who talks about rape as a cure for all ills, like old Aunt Beth used to talk about flannel next to the skin,’ she said witheringly. ‘This mania for sex-to-do-you-good is idiotic.”
She thinks his idea is old fashioned and stupidly wrong-headed but not fundamentally appalling as we would today. Indeed, both she and he regard rape as a sexual act whereas the prevailing view today is that rape is an act of violence and male dominance over females who are treated as subservient and objects to be possessed.
It may be worth noting that this exchange takes place in the context of a discussion on how Val responds on an emotional level to being dumped by the man she loves in which she says of her sex:
“We can’t…take the intelligent path except by a superhuman effort. Our feeling is twice as strong as our heads…We’re feminine, you fool!”
This is a leading woman author putting these words into the voice of a sympathetic female character who is a successful businesswoman.
The past is a very different place. Attitudes and ideas which would raise the hackles of any self-respecting 21st century feminist are accepted as gospel and go unchallenged in the 1930s. So that even if men thinking “a nice rape” (an oxymoron if ever there were one!!!) could be good for a woman are viewed as being somewhat behind the times they are not seen as outrageous and in need of a serious re-education about the reality of what rape is.
I happened to follow this book with Carter Dickson’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, published in 1944 and set in 1940 at the very beginning of the London blitz. In this popular and successful novel, the (male) author’s detective is a middle aged and rather pompous middle class male – Sir Henry Merrivale – who tells a younger man after he has an argument with a young woman that:
“‘If she starts raggin’ you, son, just wallop her one. That’s the way to treat wenches when they get out of hand.’”
Now, while it must be conceded that the younger man does not take up his mentor’s advice, which was given in front of the young woman in question, there is no response from either of the younger pair to indicate that they see anything fundamentally wrong with this suggestion. Clearly male violence towards women, and in particular what might now be termed domestic violence occurring within a supposedly loving relationship, is not viewed in the wholly unacceptable terms in which it is considered seventy years later.
However, it is evident from the texts that there are nuances and shades of meaning in the 1930s way of thinking which are now lost on the modern reader.
In The Fashion in Shrouds, Allingham has her character Amanda Fitton, who plays an intelligent female sidekick for her detective Campion in this novel, say of a male character:
“I thought the chap was close to being a bounder and he was certainly a dreadful old cad”.
Which made me pause to wonder what was the difference between a “bounder” and a “cad” such that one could certainly be the latter while only approaching being the former?
Modern dictionaries are no help. Indeed, they frequently define the one in terms of being the other.
“Bounder: a man who behaves badly or in a way that is not moral, especially in his relationships with women” (Cambridge)
“Bounder: a man whose behaviour is ungentlemanly; cad” (Collins)
“Bounder: a man of objectionable social behaviour; cad” (Merriam-Webster)
“Bounder n. British colloquial or jocular. An ill-bred or dishonourable person.” (Oxford Compact 1996)
“Bounder: a reprehensible person. Synonym – cad” (Thesaurus.com)
“Cad: a man who acts with deliberate disregard for another’s feelings or rights” (Merriam-Webster)
“Cad n a man who behaves dishonourably (abbreviation of caddie in an earlier sense ‘odd-job man’)” (Oxford Compact 1996)
“Cad: sly, dastardly person. Synonym – bounder” (Thesaurus.com)
“Cad: a rogue or bounder.” (Urban-dictionary)
Interestingly Roget’s Thesaurus lists the terms together under the theme of “Vulgarity”.
It seems that the insertion of a cigarette paper between the two terms is scarcely possible and seems to rely on the bounder’s ungentlemanly and dishonourable conduct being principally, though not exclusively, in relation to women whereas a cad appears to make no such gender distinction in the unfortunate victims of his selfish and dishonourable actions.
So perhaps Amanda was saying that the man in question was badly behaved towards everyone and that his behaviour towards women was not focussed but was part of a broader failure to conform to expected standards of conduct.
I’m glad we got that sorted out.
Because that means we can now turn to distinguishing a “cough drop” from a “bitch”. This stems from an exchange between Campion’s sister Val and Georgia, the woman who has “stolen” her boyfriend:
“‘There’s a word for you, Georgia my pet. You’re a proper cough drop, aren’t you?’
‘Darling, how vulgar! I thought you were going to say “bitch”.’”
The latter epithet is, of course, still in regular use and its meaning is familiar but the former is more obscure. In the late nineteenth century it was a slang term for a disagreeable person – which would seem to fit the circumstances but not quite the character or social class of Campion’s sister or the tone of the conversation and the reaction of Georgia to the name applied to her. It was also, however, used to mean a type of person for whom the term a “character” or a “card” might also be used. This suggests a degree of indulgence and a wry, humorous view of the shortcomings of the character in question. This second sense seems closer to the tone of Val’s exasperated comment to her rival. It is interesting to note the only other use of this term I have found in a similar, upper-class setting (Jeeves and the Tie That Binds by G. K. Chesterton). Wooster in an exchange with a chum says of Jeeves:
“And he has the added advantage that Bingley seems fond of him. He thinks he’s a cough drop.’
‘What an earth’s a cough drop?’
‘I don’t know, but it’s something Bingley admires.”
This suggests that there was evidently some confusion even within the circles that used the term as to the precise meaning. But if it is a term that can be applied to Jeeves then it most certainly has a positive sense. As is often the case in English, a word can have diametrically opposed meanings – positive or negative connotations – which the listener has to interpret according to the context of the conversation. Think Michael Jackson’s song Bad in which the street-use of the word means its precise opposite – extremely good.
Which brings us to another term used in The Fashion in Shrouds: “daisy”. The term is used by a policeman to describe two brothers who are suspected of involvement in criminal activities but whose response to questioning by the police skillfully frustrates the enquiry.
One dictionary records the use of the word to indicate a person who “is deemed excellent or notable”. It is possible that the policeman may be expressing grudging admiration of the brothers’ interview technique but it seems unlikely under the circumstances. He would be more likely to express his frustration with a term of disparagement.
I am therefore inclined to note that shortly before this remark is made by the policeman, one of the brothers in response to questions about whether he has seen a particular woman observes that, “There were so many girls in the world, he said. One was very much like another. He himself had no use for women.” Taking this remark in conjunction with a slang term for a group homosexual act – “a daisy chain”, I am drawn to conclude that the term in this context is a vulgar reference to the brothers being gay – at a time when practicing homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK.
I am sometimes inclined to wish for a glossary of the terms used which would aid my understanding of the nuances and shades of meaning in conversations reported in texts from the Golden Age. The Fashion in Shrouds is liberally scattered with such terms which have now passed from common parlance – if indeed they ever were in regular use outside a limited circle of privileged upper classes.
One word that does appear in casual conversation throughout the book and which betrays a wholesale difference in values and norms than we apply today is the word “nigger”. This has now a capacity to shock when used that is almost on a par with the “nice rape”. But, as with its frequent appearance in texts such as To Kill A Mocking Bird or the works of Mark Twain, the modern reader must accept that it was used frequently without embarrassment in everyday language. That this usage in itself reveals an institutionalized racism in the society using the term is, of course, true, but it cannot be allowed to distract the reader from the storyline. That would be a mistake since it would be a wholly unintended and unanticipated line of thought on the part of the reader so far as the author was concerned. It certainly cannot be used as any sort of indicator of a character’s moral compass – that would require closer inspection of the language and attitudes within which the word is used.
I therefore conclude that the modern reader, when venturing into Golden Age society, must tune in to the tone of conversations reported to understand the many unfamiliar terms bandied about so casually and equally must avoid applying modern cultural mores to a different time and place which might distract them from the main event. My advice in this regard might well take the form of “Hold your nose and jump in.”