|Doran Fairweather and The Rev Rodney Chelmarsh
(creator: Mollie Hardwick)
|Doran (really Dora Ann) Fairweather owns a small antique shop in Eastgate, an (imaginary) English coastal resort in Kent, but lives a few miles away at Bell House in Abbotsbourne, "a quiet village nestled in the folds of a valley in southeast Kent". When we first meet her, she is 26. She is "willow-sllm and long legged" with "soft brown hair and eyes that were neither green nor grey or brown, but jewels compounded of all three".
Brought up in North Oxford, the daughter of a Don, she had failed her Finals at university because of an unfortunate love affair, an experience which "had devastated her life for a time". After several unsuccessful starts, she found that she really enjoyed working with antiques, and so, when her parents died, she had bought her own shop, but it had only begun to make money when she taken on the canny if unscrupulous Welshman, Howell Evans, as her working partner.
It is not long before she falls in love with the local clergyman, Rodney Chelmarsh (see below). She was "intuitive about people and too readily sorry for them", and is a brave, and shrewd, if impetuous, character.
The Rev Rodney Chelmarsh is, for the first two books, the vicar of St Crispin's, Abbotsbourne, Kent. He is a widower with a young daughter called Helena (aged 12 at the time of the first book) who is "crippled by a progressive disease" (not identified) and who at first is looked after by a live-in nurse-companion - an unfortunate choice, as is explained in the first book. It was Helena's jealousy of Doran that led Rodney to suppose that he could never re-marry so "their mutual love remained unratified, even unconsummated".He is 38 when we first meet him. He has "a thin clever face .... a spare slender figure, elegant height, and attractive features to which the dark-rimmed spectacles lent an intellectual air .... His voice is "baritone, clear and firm and musical, with a smile in it". He plays tennis and cricket and keeps himself healthy. He is quite prepared to hit out at an aggressor, knocking one of his opponents out with a heavy paperweight. He is a resourceful character, ready to say what he thinks, as when he addresses the less-than-honest Howell Evans, as "You little sod". He's not so far off the mark either, as at the time Howell was living with a young male companion.
Rodney is a very literate character who delights in producing quotations to suit any situation in which he finds himself. So when the police start digging up the ground where the missing Doran's body may lie buried, and he sees they are "carrying spades and something hammer-shaped which Rodney supposed was a mattock", he couldn't help thinking, "Give me that mattock and the wrenching-iron ... and why I descend into this bed of death Is partly to behold my lady's face". He just cannot help himself - but after a time, it starts to get distinctly tedious. One of the other characters "thought Rodney affected, arrogant, and offensively given to putting people down by esoteric quotations".
He explains that, "I don't have the slightest difficulty in believing in a Personal Devil. His spies are everywhere .... I can sense one when I meet it." But by the end of the second book he has decided that perhaps the Church is not the place for him: "I feel I've had enough of it, the in-fighting and the way I look at certain things ... They'll win, you know, these Alternative Service people, I can see it coming ... In a year or two there will be no ritual, no robes, no solemnity and awe left."
Mollie Greenhalgh Hardwick (1915-2003) is probably best known as the English author of the novels based on the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, but she wrote numerous other books including the seven Dorian Fairweather novels reviewed below, and the Juliet Bravo series. She had joined the BBC as a radio announcer in 1940, then worked in the drama department from 1946 to 1962. She met and married the writer Michael Hardwick in 1961 and they wrote eight books about Dickens and plays based on his stories, as well as others with a Sherlock Holmes connection. They lived in a medieval house in Kent in a village not unlike Abbotsbourne. She died at the age of 88, after a fire at her London flat.
Malice Domestic (1986)
When the first victim, Major Miles, dies, the coroner's verdict is Death from Natural Causes. But, as Doran tells Rodney, "I still think there was something fishy about it. Everyone dies of cardiac arrest. But why did he? Why don't you go and see Mumbray? You might get some sort of clue from him".
The author's sense of humour makes it an easy book to read, although all the jokey quotations which Rodney can seldom resist producing, get over-done. Doran can be just as bad. When, having had too much to drink and about to be seduced by a young opportunist called Rupert, she watches him pushing back the rear seat of his car to make room for them, and murmurs " 'A bed, a bed,' cries Clerk Saunders, 'a bed for you and me.' " Rupert, unfamiliar with the balladry of the Scottish Border, pushed her in briskly and followed." Later on, she feels very sorry about it and tells her business partner Howell: "The back of the car, I ask you! How low can one sink?"
The treatment of Rodney's daughter Helena, on the other hand, is surprisingly harsh. We are told that "She seemed even smaller than she was, a twelve-year-old who had not grown much for the past four years. Her dead mother's vivid prettiness had not come down to Helena, the child so hopefully named for a saint-empress. A creeping muscular disease had stunted her growth, deformed her joints, cut her off from the normal life of childhood, and spoiled her temper. She scowled as her father entered the room."
Rodney, infurated by Mumford's misdeeds, goes on to hold a Service of Commination against him. As he explains, it "is a recital of divine threats against evil-doers. It's the strongest weapon the church has - a denunciation of sinners and the expression of God's anger. Supposed to be said on Ash Wednesday, but may be used at other times, on occasion. This is an occasion." No wonder it gets him into trouble with his bishop.
Meanwhile his relationship with Doran develops: "I always wondered," she said, "What it would be like kissing you. Whether your glasses would get in the way. They don't, do they?"
In the end everything gets sorted out, and murderer's identity proves quite a surprise. It makes a lightweight but entertaining story.
Parson's Pleasure (1987)
They book in at a Cotswold hotel, calling themselves Mr and Mrs Barham, borrowing the name from "that excellent clergymen who had enriched literature by his Ingoldsby Legends". After they had made love (it was the first time), Rodney inevitably quotes, "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow."
The trail takes them to Honeyford House, the home of eccentric and forgetful old Lady Timberlake, the possible original owner of the clock, and a fine comic character, and it is not long before they have tracked down something else that was removed from her house. "Darling love," suggests Rodney, "don't you think you read too much detective fiction?"
We are not, of course, meant to take this story too seriously, even though murder occurs and Doran is almost raped and her life threatened. Even when she is imprisoned in a vault, surrounded by long dead bodies. she thinks, "People imprisoned or marooned were supposed to sing, to keep their spirits up. That was feasible, and would provide a sort of exercise. The first song to occur to her was unfortunate. 'John Brown's body lies a a-mouldering in the grave,' she began and hastily stopped."
Even the villains sound a bit jokey: "There's a trick to break the neck in one twist, but I haven't learnt it, nor, alas, have you. How I wish I had a hypodermic syringe and the right stuff to put in it. You and I, we must study le moyen juste, if we are to go in with this sort of thing on a grand scale."
The one part that the author does take absolutely seriously is the behaviour of the chronically ill teenager Helena, full of hatred and despair, who is "a right little problem .... She has listened to some of the talk last year about evil things that had gone on in the village, and learnt that if you wished hard enough you could make accidents, trouble and suffering happen to a person far away. Helena shut her eyes tight and wished."
It is another lightweight but well-written and entertaining book.
Uneaseful Death (1968)
Set in a potentially interesting Antiques Roadshow location (in which the TV element is described in an oddly unconvincing way), there is a lot of bickering between the various experts, including Doran Fairweather ( who keeps her maiden name for professional purposes) and who has been asked to take part as the expert on fans, early porcelain and pictures. She has been married for just over four months, but her husband, Rodney Chelmarsh, has not yet been able to give up his job in the church and, for most of the book, is at home looking after his handicapped daughter Helena. Unfortunately Doran and he had quarrelled about her just before she had to leave, and she keeps hoping to hear from him - but he won't answer the phone, and then when a snowstorm raged, Caxton Manor (where she is staying) gets cut off from the outside world.
It is not long before Doran, who has come across an old boyfriend amongst the experts and even offers to spend the night with him, has stumbled (quite literally) on a dead body,and then she discovers another of the experts lying dead on the snow on the roof. She eventually identifies the guilty party, but it seems to take her a long time to do so and the plot lacks much sense of excitement. Meanwhile Rodney had arrived by helicopter with the police (including the particularly objectionable Inspector Ogle) but unfortunately there does not seem much detecting for him to do.
The most realistic part of the book is the initial arguing between Helena, her father and her bitterly resented and deeply unwanted stepmother, Doran. Helena is almost 14 now, although "smaller than she should have been because of the disease that had wasted her body", and although Doran goes to great pains to take to her new school every day, Helena is still making life as difficult as she can for her.
Doran finds herself wishing "in spite of her love for Rodney, that she had not now married him: that she was still living alone and free, with no alien presence in the house, no sense that she was being resented and silently cursed." Yet, by the time the story ends, Helena's attitude seems to have changed completely. It does not sound all that likely.
Although amusing in places, the book comes as something of a disappointment.
The Bandersnatch (1989)
It all gets off to a good start, and the mystery of the wooden cherub (which Doran fancies in her young son's room, as it reminds her of him) and the determination of other people to buy it from her make a strong storyline. Rodney is rather oddly offered a 20 minute weekly space on a local radio station "to talk about churches in the diocese, speaking as a layman with special knowledge, and with a brief that the emphasis should be on entertainment". But it seems that even this invitation may have some connection with that troublesome cherub. And there is the sinister old silver- haired gentlemen who had invited himself to Doran's and Rodney's garden party and keeps insisting that he too must have the cherub. There's also a glamorous woman who claims to be an antiques dealer and takes Doran out to lunch. Doran realises there's something not quite right about her. And so the suspense effectively builds up.
The book is full of reference to and quotes from Lewis Carroll which at first are quite amusing, even appropriate, as when Rodney tells his howling son, "Stop that, or I or pepper you. I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes, that he can thoroughly enjoy the pepper when he pleases. Yow, yow, yow."
But, as so often in these books, the quotations are overdone and can seem quite out of place. as when Doran has just discovered a little button torn off her missing son's crawler-suit, and slips into the church in an effort to stop crying. She tells her husband, "I just thought of the right bit of Alice. The White Queen and Alice in the wood, and the Queen saying, 'Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you've come today. Consider what o'clock it is. Consider anything, only don't cry!' And it worked. Good old Lewis Carroll."
However, the second half of the book is much less satisfying and grows less and less convincing towards the end, as Doran tells the master criminal's henchwoman, "Bitch. Great ugly ignorant cruel bitch. You look exactly what you are, which is saying something. You haven't got the qualities of even the lowest sort of woman, or you would tell me about my baby, out of mere humanity." And after her rant ends, the other woman "said nothing. She appeared to be thinking, if that was the word. Then she said, pensively for her, 'I quite fancy you, you know. Anything doing?' " It passes belief.
And when Doran finds herself imprisoned in the crook's magnificent villa, set up like a fortress, she comments, "A bit Kafka-esque, isn't it?" And it was "like a sequence from the old Cocteau film. Only the mystical arms springing out from the walls, each bearing a lighted candelabrum, was missing." And the little grinning maid, who had been looking after her, "must, Doran felt, be a relative of the Cheshire Cat, sharing that creature's talent the disappearing in parts". These sort of comments suggest we are not meant to take the plot seriously, and Doran's final rescue seems equally absurd.
The story had started with Rodney who had been "unsuited in many ways to the calling he had chosen in youth" rejoicing that he has handed over his old church to a new incumbent and is free and "happier then he ever thought he would be". But right at the end of the book he tells Doran, "I want to go back to being a parson". His reasons are far from clear. Yet all in all it is an improvement on the previous book and makes an entertaining read.
Perish in July (1989)
Neither Rodney nor Doran seem very upset by the sudden death of young Helena, Rodney's crippled daughter by his first wife. Her death is just dismissed in a few lines when we're told, right at the start, that "A sudden late spring chill had struck her down and killed her within two days. No more driving her to school and collecting her in her folding invalid chair. No more fear of what it would be like if her progressive disease took over altogether. No more Helena." And that was that. It seems an incredibly casual way of dismissing a character who had played a large part in the previous stories - but perhaps the author had tired of her and was relieved to get her out of the way.
St Leonard's Church is in desperate need of repair, and so, to raise money, its little parish council make the highly surprising decision to stage a production of The Yeomen of the Guard in the Old Primary School, even though they know they will have to bring in some singers from outside. It all sounds distinctly implausible, but it gives the author the excuse to introduce innumerable Gilbert and Sullivan quotations. Rodney is very happy to have been given the role of Point, so, for once, it seems almost reasonable for him to have the words so much in his mind. And the author is very good at describing the tantrums and rivalries involved in amateur dramatics.
Characters in these books sometimes make abrupt personality changes. This happened to Helena in a previous book. Now it is the turn of Howell Evans, Doran's partner in her antique shop. Doran had, we are suddenly told, "watched him mature from a somewhat shifty, lazy, corrupt person into a man aware of the dangers of the world and the worst dangers of his own nature. He had given up, since she and Rodney had been married, heavy smoking, soft drugs, and, so far and she knew, the pretty boys who had fed on his strengths and weaknesses. His reformation was not entirely due, though it would be nice to think so, to the beautiful and ennobling influence of Gordon and Rodney, but to the self-protective instincts which had belatedly wakened in the wary Welshman." So he suddenly emerges as an entirely different sort of person.
Rodney himself continues to make an unlikely clergyman with, apparently, nothing to do in the field of pastoral care, except when it comes to the "faultlessly educated" and aristocratic Twiggy, a very up-market young nanny who keeps using the word "acksherley" instead of "actually". One night he makes love to her. Afterwards she tells him, "In my sort of work one has to be prepared for anything. And acksherly I liked it, I'm so glad it was you. I'll always remember. But the person that matters is Doran. Rod, I know exactly how you feel, you think you ought to go to the Archbishop or somebody and ask him to excommunicate you, and then you'd go and tell Dorian and beg her to forgive you .... Well, you mustn't. It would be the cruellest thing you could do, and I mean that. I think she guesses we've had a bit of a thing going but we must never let her know this happened .... If you feel you must talk about it, get hold of a parson friend .... and tell him. That way you'll get it out of your system and feel a lot better. Okay?"
Meanwhile the role of Elsie in the opera had been given to Mrs Paula French, Doran's new neighbour, and "one of the most unpleasant women in Abbotsbourne". She makes quite an entertaining character and it is a pity she has to end up with her head chopped off. Until then, the auditions and rehearsals had led to lively scenes and emotional outbursts, but after the body is found, there are lengthy and rather boring police interrogations, which Doran is allowed to attend as she had known Detective Inspector Sam Eastry when he had been the local constable. "Your advice would be welcome," he tells her. But then he is replaced by the dreaded Inspector Ogle, described by Rodney, still in Gilbert and Sullivan mood, "as Assistant Tormentor".
Eventually Doran is caught by the murderer: "Horrible how people's familiar faces changed when they were white-hot with stored rage and madness. He was nearer now. There was foam, or something, at the corners of his lips". He had turned into a "coarse shouting lunatic". Then he tells her, "Sit down, you've gone green. It doesn't suit you." It's quite beyond belief.
But when she suddenly found an old Pre-Raphaelite painting, suddenly everything looked better. If it really was a Rossetti, all her problems would be solved. But the painting began a sequence of sinister events, the worst of which was her discovery of a corpse, looking like a drowned Ophelia, apparently a copy of the painting by Millais, except that death was not caused by drowning - and it was to be followed by another even more eerie corpse. it seems that she was being targeted by somebody who knew all about her love for the Pre-Raphaelites, and had his/her own reasons for wanting to make use of her expertise. It makes an interesting story.
This is a real improvement on the previous books as it gets off to an intriguing start, plenty happens to hold the interest, and Rodney (now forty-five plus) and Doran and have at last learnt to produce fewer quotations, so that when they find the girl's body in the river, "Rodney knelt beside her. 'God have mercy on her,' he said, thinking God in his mercy lend her grace; but that was the Lady of Shalott, another dead girl floating on a river: he despised himself being reminded of that, or any other quotation, at such a moment."
Rodney is now coming alive as a real fallible person "who knew his own weakness only too well: pedantry, depending too much on the spoken and written word." When he has lost his job at a local radio station, he tells Doran that he has "been considering chucking in my hands" at his local church and "offering myself for a real administrative parish. Anywhere. With the vicarage thrown in". But, of course, nothing comes of it.
Rodney knew that Doran too who was "so intelligent, so knowledgeable about her trade, so mature in many ways" had "an imbalance in her, something that wasn't mature at all. Whatever it might be, it gave her a need of father-figures: older men such as Howell and Sam Easty (the friendly policeman). Howell had gone from her now, and Sam no longer had a local bobby's paternal authority. They had left a cold space where they had been. Rodney hoped that the remarkably non-fatherly shade of Dante Gabriel Rossetti wasn't trying to fill it."
Amongst the characters that Doran meets are the very flattering and friendly Ancilla Ireland whose very name seems to be taken from a Rossetti painting, and the sinister Ralph Jannner, another Rossetti enthusiast, whom she profoundly distrusts.
There seems some reality in what is being described as when, after reporting the discovery of the girl's body to the police, Ronnie and Doran returned to the pool "where Doran was half surprised to see the body still lying. In thrillers it had always disappeared, either because someone had spirited it away or because it hadn't been dead in the first place."
As the story unfolds, it all becomes increasingly ominous, leading up to an exciting climax in which the impetuous Doran once again takes her life in her hands. Recommended, particularly for those interested in the Pre-Raphaelite background.
Her antiques shop is now closed: "The once charming seaside town where it had been was reduced by property developers to a nasty mess of new offices and flats in already shabby high-rise buildings, interspersed with deserted, boarded-up properties, estate agents, and trashy souvenir shops for such tourists as had nothing better to do than wonder about the debased streets, mainly in search of beefburgers." She and her husband no longer have to worry about money, owing to the sale of the Rossetti pictures, which she acquired in the previous book, so her husband now just does a bit of writing for a monthly magazine devoted to the subject of ancient churches. They both sound thoroughly disgruntled.
The London flat also turns out to be depressing, her maid Polly is strangely intimidating, and the flat's owner is found horribly murdered beside the Thames. Then in a pre-Tudor house with a curse upon it (!) - owned by Polly's uncle, a white-haired man in a wheelchair with whom Doran soon "gave herself over to joyful unrestrained passion .... She gave and received delight in full measure. At last her cheated body was appeased and satisfied. She was free and happy, at last." But it did not last long, of course, because she soon discovers a weird connection with the past, so compelling that an oath of revenge sworn when King Richard III ruled England, "still exerts its evil power". And even poor Kit, her son now aged 10, almost gets kidnapped for the second time in these stories!
Meanwhile her husband is getting pretty gloomy too and "wished he were a Roman Catholic and could have made confession to a priest. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I have shut myself off from the company of my wife and driven her off. O wretched and miserable sinner that I am." It seems odd, as an ex-Anglican priest, that he does not even know that confessions can be heard within some churches of his own denomination. But then he never was a very convincing clergyman.
And even the once disreputable Howell Evans has abandoned all, and gone off to join "a brotherhood, sort of a monastery only it's not called that", complete with brown robes, just outside St David's in Wales - although, even there, he still seems able to "sneak down to the pub for a quick one", and eventually he leaves the brotherhood because, as he says, " I want my mother".
It was his equally improbable mother, the very Welsh Gwenllian, still chasing after men in her 70s, who had invited Doran up to her latest boyfriend's London flat. Gwenllian's boyfriend turns out to be thoroughly unpleasant too, as when his gift of precious ear rings go missing, and he shouts at Gwenllian in public, "You've sold 'em, haven't you? Maybe to her" He pointed to Doran. "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, isn't that how it goes?" So no one is too worried when his body turns up floating in the Thames.
Doran reflects, "how totally damnable and ridiculous life was". She does not seem to worry too much about getting drunk or committing adultery, and has lengthy imaginary conversations with "her old friend Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke", a fictional detective from a long series of novels by R Austen Freeman.She seems to be growing into less and less of a likeable character.
At the end when Rodney re-establishes contact with her, he tells her , "Such a grotesque, fantastic, Gothic sequence of events couldn't have happened to anyone but you, and I believe every word of it - who could invent it, anyway?" But it makes a disappointing end to the series.
|This portrait of Mollie Hardwick by Jean Buckland was destroyed in the same fire that killed the author.|
|The American first hardback edition of the first book (above) looks very different from the American paperback edition of the last book (below).|