In Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the death of General Fentiman, one of the members of his club. At the same time, he’s investigating the death of Lady Dormer, Fentiman’s sister. The timing of the death is significant, as a large fortune hinges on whether Fentiman or Lady Dormer died first. At one point, Wimsey has a conversation with Fentiman’s grandson, who has this to say about the then-modern age (the book was published in 1928):
‘In the old days, heaps of unmarried women were companions, and… they had a much better time than they had now, with all this jazzing and short skirts…the modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her.’
It’s an interesting perspective, and it highlights one of the major changes of that era: women’s roles. There certainly had been independent women for a very long time. But at this time, it became more socially acceptable for a woman to, for instance, travel alone, have a non-domestic job, and her own opinions.
On the one hand, many women still married, cooked, cleaned, minded the children, and so on. But more middle-class women had paid employment, and many felt less need to conform to societal ‘rules’ for women. Smoking, drinking, and shorter skirts were more common, and women began to be more independent. Some even lived in their own homes, or perhaps with roommates, rather than moving directly from parents’ home to husband’s home.
It’s interesting to see how these ‘modern women’ are portrayed in crime fiction. On the one hand, they’re in some ways quite independent, with their own opinions and choices. On the other, there are still plenty of social and other constraints on what they can do.
Agatha Christie created several such women. In the characters of Anne Bedingfield (The Man in the Brown Suit), Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore (Three Act Tragedy), Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley (Peril at End House), and Theresa Arundell (Dumb Witness), among others, we see young women who don’t want to be confined to the stereotyped life of marriage, children, keeping house, and so on. They set their own goals, and are portrayed as capable (if vulnerable at times) and intelligent. At the same time, they have love interests, and want to be married. It’s a dichotomy that plays out in different ways in these books.
Dorothy L. Sayer’s Harriet Vane is similar. She is an Oxford alumna with a career as a detective novelist. She is smart, resourceful, and capable – no shrinking violet, as the saying goes. In Gaudy Night and in Have His Carcase, she shows bravery and intelligence. At the same time, she is terribly upset and even ashamed when scandal attaches itself to her (Strong Poison tells that story). She’s hesitant to return to her alma mater (Gaudy Night) or get married (Busman’s Honeymoon) because she’s been ‘notorious.’ And she does want to be, so to speak, properly married. Her character shows the competing goals that women of that era often had.
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher is very much her own person. She lives independently and takes charge of her own love life with no apologies. She thinks for herself, and doesn’t rely on a man or on parents to make choices for her. In important ways, privilege gives her the luxury of living the way she wants to live. But she’s aware of that, and she uses her privilege to help others, including other women who want some control over their lives. She’s smart and quick-thinking, and ahead of her time when it comes to her views about a lot of things. Still, Greenwood keeps her from being too anachronistic – a difficult balance.
In Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear introduces her series protagonist. Maisie began as a maid, but her employer saw that she was bright, and supported her education. Then, her tutor prepared her for a life beyond cleaning fire grates and bringing tea. After a stint as a WW I nurse, Maisie became a private investigator with a special gift for psychology. The world of detecting is still very much a man’s world, but Maisie proves herself more than up to the task. She doesn’t stretch the limits of dress, drinking, dating, and so on that some women did at that time, but Maisie is definitely her own person. She takes advice at times, but she thinks for herself, and she becomes more independent as the series goes on. In a way, this mirrors what was happening in a lot of places during the 1920s.
Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests takes place in 1922, as the world is bridging the gap between war and peace. Frances Wray and her mother, Emily, have had to take in paying guests in order to make ends meet. Their first lodgers are a young couple, Len and Lilian Barber, who seem nice enough, and they do pay their rent. Slowly, though, things spin out of control as the Wrays and Barbors get to know each other. The end result is tragedy. Throughout the novel we watch as Frances tries to negotiate this new world of the ‘20s. In some ways, she’s a little old-fashioned. But in other ways, she’s quite modern. Her best friend, Christina, is even more so. Christina smokes, drinks, goes in and out as she pleases, and has an independent job as a freelance typist. Both young women are intelligent, and neither wants to be bound by convention. Christina doesn’t play a major role in what happens, but her strong character reflects the ‘new woman’ of that era.
The 1920s were a time of major change for women, and crime fiction reflects that. Want to know more? You want to visit Sarah Zama’s website, The Old Shelter. It’s a treasure trove of information about life, love, and everything else in the 1920s.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Higgins and W. Benton Overstreet’s There’ll be Some Changes Made.