Sunday, March 10, 2013

Brunswick Gardens, by Anne Perry


A friend and I were sitting at an outdoor table in Kuala Lumpur, sharing a pizza and some wine, and I mentioned Peter Jackson's film, Heavenly Creatures.  It's a remarkable film, based upon a true story about two New Zealand girls who formed one of those fierce, exclusive, almost mythical friendships that seem to be part of the turbulent terrain of female adolescence.  In what was probably one of her first film roles, Kate Winslet played one of the girls. When faced with separation, they concluded that murdering the single mother who would separate them was well justified.  They invited the mother out for a picnic and beat her to death with a brick.

"Mmm, she writes mystery novels now," my friend said.
"Who does?"
"The girl who helped her friend murder her mother.  She got out of prison, moved to the UK and writes mystery novels under the pen name of Anne Perry."
"I suppose she's especially qualified, but it's still hard to believe. Are you sure?"  I tried to imagine a middle-aged ex-convict penning murder mysteries, occasionally pausing to ask herself, does that ring true? I had to find one of her books. Just had to.

New Zealanders, psychiatrists, criminologists and the simply curious (including me) are still puzzling over this crime, and articles about it are still coming out over fifty years after the murder. This begs the question: If I had no idea of Anne Perry's history, would this book have had the same impact?

I try to step back and look at Brunswick Gardens on its own terms. It's set in Victorian London; Inspector Thomas Pitt is called to Brunswick Gardens to investigate the death of a young woman in the house of a clergyman. The household, rather than the staid establishment one might expect, is instead a roiling mess.

Reverend Ramsey Parmenter, the head of household, is losing his faith. The young woman who lies dead at the foot of his stairs is Unity Bellwood, a beautiful and intelligent scholar of ancient languages (the skill for which Ramsey had hired her) but also a proponent of that new and most vexing science, Darwinism. Rev. Parmenter's young and repressed son is hell-bent (so to speak) to get to Rome to pursue his own career in the Catholic faith. His high-strung daughter Tryphena was as enamoured of Unity Bellwood as Anne Perry once was of her youthful friend, and she wastes no time in speaking out against everyone in the household who might have taken Unity from her. The other daughter, Clarice, is steadfastly devoted to her father; although she speaks her mind (often to the horror of her mother), she is by and large very practical. Finally, there is Dominic, a young and very handsome cleric with a dodgy past but with profound and genuine gratitude to Ramsey Parmenter for redeeming him. Vita Parmenter, the Reverend's wife, is petite, refined and politic, the perfect Victorian lady of the house.

At the beginning, the clues suggest that Rev. Parmenter pushed Unity down the stairs after a heated argument in which she used Darwin's science to demean his religious faith. Their torrid arguments are not academic in nature; Parmenter agonises over the new ideas, realising that they challenge his very foundation. The younger Unity, who quite possibly never held any religious faith, assumes the intellectually caustic role and simply ridicules him, leaving him to struggle on his own. Today we take one side or the other -- religion vs. science -- and we forget the tumult of the thinking religious man of Darwin's time who tried valiantly to integrate the two.  After Unity's death, Ramsey Parmenter describes his anguish to Dominic.
"Now science seems to be everywhere, the origin and the answers to everything. There is no mystery left, only facts we don't yet know. Above all, there is no one left to hope in beyond ourselves, nothing greater, wiser, or above all kinder." He looked for an instant like a lost child who suddenly knows the full meaning of being alone. Dominic felt it like a physical pain. "I can admire the certainty all these old bishops and saints seem to have had," Ramsay went on. "I can't share it anymore, Dominic." He sat oddly still for the emotions which must have been raging inside him. "The hurricane of Mr. Darwin's sanity has blown it away like so much paper. His reasoning haunts my mind. During the day I look at all these books." He waved his arm at them. "I read Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and every theologian and apologist since. I can even go back to the original Aramaic or Greek, and for a little while I am fine. Then at night the cold voice of Charles Darwin comes back, and the darkness engulfs all the candles I've lit during the day. I swear I would give anything I possess for him not to have been born!"
Inspector Thomas Pitt is married to Charlotte, a woman who does not hesitate to contribute her own thoughts to the cases he's investigating. Pitt resists the temptation to tell his wife to stay in her place, largely because when Charlotte starts snooping, she uncovers useful bits of information. Her instincts, although different than his own, are quite keen. One day Charlotte drives off for lunch with her Aunt Vespasia, a stately matron with a sharp mind. Largely out of boredom, Vespasia asks Charlotte for the details of Pitt's latest case. It amuses her to think about motives and details in her spare time. Although she is unlikely to have any blood on her own very white, soft hands, Aunt Vespasia has some very definite ideas about what drives one to murder. Again to his credit, Pitt does not disregard her thoughts, either.
Pitt could imagine Vespasia saying that. He could see her still-beautiful face clearly in his mind. She would probably be dressed in ivory, silver-grey or lilac, and she usually wore pearls in the daytime. She was right. People killed because they cared about something so fiercely they lost all sense of reason and proportion. For a time their own need eclipsed everyone else's, even drowned out their sense of self-preservation. Sometimes it was carefully-thought-out greed. Sometimes it was a momentary fear, even a physical one. Seldom was it revenge. That could be exacted in so many other ways. On rare occasions he had come across crimes resulting from blind, insensate rage. But as Vespasia said, it was always a passion of some sort, even if only the cold hunger of greed.
Who, however, felt enough passion to kill Unity Bellwood? No one seemed to stand out as a likely suspect. Dominic's past is checkered, but it seems that he has genuinely found his vocation now. Tensions grow in the house at Brunswick Gardens as everyone within begins to question everyone else. Dominic walks in the garden with Clarice, who has adopted a remarkably clear and pragmatic view. She envies that his ministerial duties call him out into the community to visit members of the congregation while she loiters about the house. She captures perfectly the tension of the situation.
"But nice to be out," she said perceptively. "I wish I had some reason to escape. Waiting is the worst of it, isn't it?" She turned away and stared at the lawn and the fir trees. "I sometimes think hell is not actually something awful happening, it's waiting for something and never being absolutely sure if it will happen, so you soar on hope, and then plunge into despair, and then up again, and down again. You get too exhausted to care for a while, then it all starts over. Permanent despair would almost be a relief. You could get on with it. It takes so much energy to hope."
Dominic assures her that Inspector Pitt is working on the case and will surely uncover the truth of the matter. Clarice does not share his faith in a conclusive ending. She has reached her own conclusion.
"Pitt may find the truth. He may not. We might have to live like this forever. I know that." Her mouth curved very slightly, as if mocking herself. "I have already decided what to believe, I mean what I shall live with, so I don't lie awake at night torturing myself, turning it over and over in my mind. I have to have a way to function." Half a dozen starlings flew up out of the trees at the end of the lawn and spiraled upward on the wind, black against the sky.
"Even if it isn't true?" he said incredulously.
"I think it probably is," she answered, staring ahead of her. "But either way, we have to go on. We can't simply stop everything else and go round and round the same wretched puzzle. It was one of us. That is inescapable. We can't run anymore; we are better accepting it. There is no point in thinking how dreadful it is. I have been lying awake a lot, turning it over and over. Whoever did it is someone I know and love. I can't just stop loving them because of it. Anyway, you don't! If you didn't love someone anymore because they did something you found ugly, no love would last. None of us would be loved, because we all do things that are shabby, stupid, vicious from time to time. You need to love from understanding, or even without it."
This passage struck me as remarkable, especially in contrast to Ramsey's shattered faith. Unlike her father, Clarice is willing to consider that good people may be driven to do evil things, and we must accept all facets of those we love. Ramsey cannot integrate the faith of the saints with the science of Darwin -- for him, it's either/or. Clarice seems to be the one with the grasp of agape, the profound, selfless love at the core of Christianity.

If I knew nothing of Anne Perry's history, I would never have guessed it from reading this novel. With her own past in mind, however, I can appreciate her insights into the social roles allocated to women. Their restrictions and limitations find outlets in devious behaviours or even violence. As Aunt Vespasia noted, "People killed because they cared about something so fiercely they lost all sense of reason and proportion," and it's difficult to find a sense of proportion when one is limited to a very small and regulated social sphere. Surely Aunt Vespasia's observation would have applied to the case of the young Anne Perry, as well.

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