There is a lot of talk these days about ‘toxic masculinity.’ Making a strong case for the correlation of venom and virility, war criminal Vladimir Putin recently mocked the physique of world leaders who, by rolling their eyes at his shirtless posing, permitted themselves a moment of levity at his expense amid a crisis talk on Ukraine. Meanwhile, COVID-19-rules violating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself a noxious cocktail of mendacity and indiscretion, opined that, had Putin been born female, the invasion of Ukraine would not have happened. Seriously, would the US Supreme court have decided differently on undoing environmental protection if more earth mothers were among the judges?
I thought the claim that toxicity is masculine had been conclusively laid to rest by Lucretia Borgia – or by Margaret Thatcher, at the very latest. That the flip side of our fancies is still deemed to be “another man’s poison” makes me long for gender fluidity, itself a noisome notion to some. Apart from lamenting the bane of binaries, I have nothing further to say here about exposed torsos or the merits of any remarks made by a disreputable Prime Minister. And yet, there is no escaping the everyday – not even in the attempt to retreat into the presumably out-of-date, of pop past its sell-by date, for the sampling of which this journal was conceived.
As a belated reader of classic – that is, mid-twentieth century – British crime fiction, for instance, I am intrigued by biases encoded in and countered by products of popular culture that engage with matters of law, order and morality – and that test our assumptions about attitudes held in the past. H. C. Bailey is instructive in this respect; I just reread his short story “The Unknown Murderer,” in which the criminal is a female serial killer whom no nurturing instincts can inhibit from poisoning a child.
Speaking of serial killers: last autumn, I screened The Lodger – a silent thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and assistant-directed by his wife Alma Reville – as part of a film festival I staged for the students of my “Gothic Imagination” module at Aberystwyth University. While I was preparing for my brief introduction, I noticed that the British Library had just released The Chianti Flask (1934), a comparatively obscure novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the woman who, two decades earlier, had penned the story on which The Lodger was based.
Lowndes produced a great deal of fiction – but none that was more popular or influential than her fictional account of the real-life “Jack the Ripper” murders. I finally caught up with The Chianti Flask; and as escapist as such writings are often claimed to be, especially in retrospect, I could not get Jack the Stripper (I mean, Putin) or Jack the Cad (I mean, Johnson) out of my perennially boggled mind. As it turns out, The Chianti Flask is a Feminist statement on the right of women to rid themselves of their deadly male counterparts.
In The Chianti Flask, the young widow of an elderly man, Fordish Dousland, is on trial for doing away with the latter by administering a deadly dose of poison by way of the titular vessel. Fordish Dousland was partial to Italian cuisine; and while such predilections were not shared by his spouse, who also refuses to meet his sexual needs, Dousland had hired an Italian servant to please his own palate. The servant, Angelo Terugi, swears to the flask having been on the tray holding the meal that would be the deceased man’s last supper. Is the widow the murderer? If not, who is? And, if she is, what should happen to her once the jury acquits her of the crime?
That is the premise of Lowndes’s mystery; but anyone expecting a plate of red herrings, let alone blood spilled in the cover-up of the crime, will be disappointed by The Chianti Flask. Having read a number of 1930s murder mysteries, many of which are being republished by the British Library – among them Anthony Berkeley’s Jumping Jenny (1933) with its thoroughly modern views on marriage and divorce – I felt I was turning the pages of a novel written in Victorian times: What would have happened if Jane Eyre had burned down Thornfield Hall?
Not that The Chianti Flask is a Sensation Novel, of which 1860s precursor to the novel of crime and detection Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins are chief exponents. Anthony Trollope, author of Can You Forgive Her? (1864-65), had penned murder mysteries, this would be the result, I thought, and his Cousin Henry (1879), a tale of a guilty conscience, came to mind.
Lowndes, who had been a published author since the late 1890s, was in her sixties when she penned The Chianti Flask; her style has none of the crispness of the most memorable British interwar mysteries; nor does it have their pace. It does, however, have a mission that did not end with the achievement of women’s suffrage.
The heroine, Laura Dalberton – a plain and fragile woman in her early thirties – is described by Lowndes as an “exceptionably intelligent” of an “sensitive and scrupulous conscience,” who “had been entirely thrown on herself” since her father’s death, when “she had begun to earn her living” as a governess. When her well-meaning but conventional and insensitive employers urge her to marry a much older man of their acquaintance, she reluctantly agrees.
While it is dispensed slowly and without spillage, The Chianti Flask is not unlike The Lodger in its emphasis on feelings surrounding violent crime – fear, suspicion and guilt – and how those emotions affect character or reveal truths about human relationships. That Laura is acquitted of murder – generally the ending to a traditional crime novel – is secondary to Lowndes, whose defends of her heroine is on moral rather than legal grounds:
She had been a slave for so long! For five years slave to this kind, determined woman [who employed her as a governess], slave to a cantankerous eccentric man. Since his death she had become the slave of circumstance, having been taken up as a feather is taken up and tossed by a mighty wind this way and that. But she was now, and it was with surprise rather than pleasure she knew it was so, mistress of herself, with the right to do as she wishes, and the power of preventing others doing what she desired they should not do.
Laura Dalberton – who adopts a new name to distance herself from the memory and murder of her husband – is also an atheist; she refuses to rely on any higher power to absolve her. Not that Lowndes imagines her heroine to be independent of men. According to the logic of the novel, Laura Dalberton must find another male partner, one who – like the solicitous Dr. Scrutton, whose equally kind-hearted mother is a stand-in for Lowndes – is kinder and more receptive to her needs than her late, unloved and unloving spouse.
Lowndes – or her omniscient narrator – disapproves however of modern-day women who enjoy their sexuality and take advantage of their bodies – “the other thing,” as Lowndes delicately puts it, that men and women are after besides marriage. Dr. Scrutton’s father, Sir Joseph, who describes himself as being “sufficiently old-fashioned” to “hate anything like notoriety in connection with a woman,” would rather his son marry a “lady” accused of murder than take “to wife one of those girls who have neither manners or morals.” Scrutton and his wife had to wait eighteen years for each other before they could legally marry. Providing care for her body and mind, Dr. Scrutton gets to know Dalberton for who she truly is, flask and all.
The antidote to toxic masculinity is not poison, Lowndes suggests, although murder may be permissible, even necessary, to rid ourselves of the incurably virulent. The antidote is an understanding – an intimate knowledge more profound than a grasp of the law or a familiarity with social norms – without which harmony cannot be achieved.
In other words, know your future bedfellow lest you dare risk sleeping with and waking up to the enemy you must then combat. But I was not going to talk about Putin and the gas-guzzling West …