Shroud for a Nightingale

By P.D. James

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

When I look at my most-used tags on this blog, one in particular stands out: ‘England’. I’ve tagged a dozen posts ‘England’ – the only other tags that common are all genre tags: ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Mystery’, stuff like that. ‘England’ is the most common tag which is not a major literary genre.

Which makes sense, when you think about it: ‘England’ is almost a literary genre in its own right. For several hundred years, English writers have been producing literature whose Englishness was central to the point and purpose of the work. Literature where the tone, culture, and context all are so deeply English that it is almost impossible to imagine the work in another context.

There are many novels whose essential Englishness is vital to the work: anything by Trollope, Waugh, Dickens, or Austen, for example. It’s not all dead authors, either: even some modern English novels are grounded, inescapably, in this sense of place: try bleaching the Englishness out of, say, Harry Potter, and see where it leaves you.

This tends to inculcate in lovers of English literature a sort of nostalgia for a literary England that (probably?) doesn’t exist. A highly local sort of England: quaint but complex, peaceful but also roiling with social and class tensions. A nation of country-sides and towns (none of which are more than an hour’s drive to London) full of vicars and hedgerows, where 50% of the populous are landed gentry and where there are a lot of murders.

As you may know, I have been reading a lot of P.D. James lately. Her spare prose and beautifully-plotted murders make for perfect fall reading, and I’ve been working my way through her Adam Dalgliesh series. I haven’t written about every single one, because they are formulaic (but in the best way), but her fourth, ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’, got me thinking about the Englishness of novels.

That’s probably because ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’ is saturated with English-feeling. To an American, James’ novels play right into our ignorant, Miss Marple-y ideas of what England was. ‘Shroud For A Nightingale’, for example, is set in a nursing school. All the students are (of course) women. They wear uniforms and have elaborate hot-beverage routines before their bedtimes (all the easier to murder them!), they fall in love with doctors and they have private and stoically-unacknowledged griefs.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, let me share a few representative passages with you:

“The quickest way to the private wing was through the out-patients’ hall. The department was already buzzing with activity. The circles of comfortable chairs, carefully disposed to give an illusion of informality and relaxed comfort, were filling quickly. Volunteers from the ladies’ committee of the League of Friends were already presiding at the steaming urn, serving tea to those regular patients who preferred to attend an hour before their appointments for the pleasure of sitting in the warmth, reading the magazines and chatting to their fellow habitués.” (p. 90)

Or:

P.D. James

“Fifteen minutes later, Masterson’s car passed the flat where Miss Beale and Miss Burrows, cosily dressing-gowned, were sipping their late night cocoa before the dying fire. They heard it as one brief crescendo in the intermittent flow of traffic, and broke off their chatter to speculate with desultory interest on what brought people out in the small hours of the morning. It was certainly unusual for them to be still up at this hour, but tomorrow was Saturday and they could indulge their fondness for late-night conversation in the comforting knowledge that they could lie in next morning.” (p. 304)

The atmosphere of this novel (of almost all of these novels) is imbued with a sense of profound orderliness. A sense that society has been arranged in a stable fashion, with predictable rules and predictable consequences for breaking those rules. I have a sort of pet theory that it is exactly this impression of English orderliness that has allowed the murder mystery sub-genre to thrive so well within it. Attention can be lavished on each individual murder because, otherwise, things hum along so smoothly. And the murders themselves are always coherent, always intimate and motivated. Murder within order is interesting; murder amid chaos is scary.

I suppose that this fondness might read as patronizing to actual English people – I can understand that, although I do not see that it is all that different than the fondness of Europeans for stories of the Wild West. And I would point out that all of the authors that I have named here are British. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that the smallness, the old-fashioned twee-ness of the setting, isn’t part of what audiences are responding to. To romantic notions of aristocracy, to a longing for a more orderly society. And, of course, for the intimate dramas and creative local murders that might plague such an imagined society. It’s not accurate, of course, but it is lovely.

Why am I even talking about this? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, I don’t have a great reason. But, as I chew my way happily through the James canon, I am struck over and over again how grounded these novels are in a sense of place. And, also, how familiar that place (which is fictional) feels to me, an American born in the 1980s.

English literature, writ large, has conveyed so coherent a vision of itself that I recognize it from book to book, author to author. I feel at home in it, despite its imaginary quality and my own lack of Englishness. That really is a triumph for a national literature: to make your shared vision of a country (and time) so consistent, so vivid, that it becomes an imaginative home for people all over the world. To build a world so persuasive that it comes to define whole genres. To build a world so enduring that it is recognizable from Dickens to J.K. Rowling.

The tags of this blog accurately reflect my own reader’s mind: I love English literature. Whole eras of my reading life have been defined by English literature; English authors would dominate any list of my favorite writers. This is not a supremacist point of view, but a sentimental one: I am not and would not argue that English literature is better than other national literatures. But it is very dear to me.

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