The Second-Last Woman in England by Maggie Joel
The Second-Last Woman in England by Maggie Joel (Felony & Mayhem, 2012) starts with an event I remember all too well. Although my parents were not as wealthy as the family described in this book, they bought a television to watch the Coronation in 1953. As a result, we instantly became the most popular family in the neighbourhood. On the 2nd June, our living room was filled to overflowing with patriotic fervour and neighbours who had all thoughtfully supplied contributions to a celebratory buffet set out in the garden. Fortunately, my mother resisted the natural temptation to shoot my father dead. Even at the best of times, he was not the most sociable of men, but he never did anything intentionally to justify his execution. The same restraint was not exercised by Harriet Wallis who, at a party not dissimilar in spirit to ours, took her husband’s gun and shot him dead in front of all their guests.
At this point, allowing for the threat of Alzheimer’s hanging over me, I frankly confess to having no memory of this killing. A brief survey of Google confirms the probability all the events described in this book are fictional. The last three women hung for murder in Britain appear to be Louisa Merrifield on 18th September 1953, Styllou Christofi on 13th December 1954, and Ruth Ellis on 13th July 1955. On this assumption, the book becomes an unhappy compromise between an inverted crime and an allegedly true crime novel. It’s not an inverted crime novel because we have the shooting described in the Prologue and then the nine months leading up to this unhappy event covered in the following chapters. There’s no detective like Columbo gently teasing at the facts to catch the murderer. Equally, it’s not a description of real events although the context is historically accurate. This denies the readers some of the relevant insights into the history of past murders as in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House (Bloomsbury, 2008). Hence, it lacks the usual dynamic of a murder mystery. There’s no pressure on a detective to pull a rabbit out of a hat and say whodunnit, nor do we have to watch through the killer’s eyes as the detective circles and closes in for the arrest. I suppose it means we have to label it as “historical” in the fictional sense of the word and watch the author recreate the class-ridden and social hypocrisy of the time.
In this, I recognise the people involved. Although the first time I visited London was for the Festival of Britain in 1953 and so cannot claim to have any direct understanding of the gulf between the East End and high society, I was unlucky enough to grow up on the fringes of our county’s elite — using the word to refer to that small group of people who consider themselves better than everyone else in the room, no matter where the room may be located. The family on my mother’s side had grown up with servants, but my grandparents fell on hard times in the inter-war years. This left us making our own way immediately after the war. But the wealthy parts of my family relied on servants for everyday chores and tasks, and many of the families we knew socially, continued to depend on living-in staff until the 1960s when it became too difficult to find enough people prepared to do the work.
The real story of this book begins with the arrival of a new nanny for the two children in a wealthy, well-connected London household. This young woman’s family was eliminated by the arrival of a VII which levelled one side of the street where they lived in Stepney. The only reason she survived was because of an argument over whether they were going to attend Chapel. She left on her own in anger. Such is the arbitrary nature of warfare when ordinary decisions turn out to have life or death consequences. Still suffering the emotional damage, she moves into the Wallis household. Mr Wallis held a low-level government post during the war and continues as a director in a shipping company. Mrs Wallis comes from a family that went through the Raj. As her mother was dying, she and her younger brother were sent to join their older brother at English boarding schools. In the 1950s, the older brother now works in the Palace with his wife making a career on children’s television, she married a reasonable amount of money, and the younger brother went off to Canada.
The Wallis family matches the stereotype of public school and Oxbridge education (which doesn’t make any of them very intelligent or wise), a network of business and social connections that can get most things done, and a life that, to outsiders, looks serene. Except all is not well. To people such as this, appearances are everything and, as they are about to discover, there’s nothing so fragile as a reputation based on sand. Where the book succeeds is in its description of the fear and anger when their lives become less socially comfortable. The husband finds himself caught up in a commercial scandal when a trusted employee embezzles quite a large sum of money and disappears, probably to South Africa. The wife comes under pressure when her younger brother returns from Canada and asks for help. This collision of circumstances, allied to the arrival of the new nanny, produces a fast track to the wife shooting the husband. The reason? Well, let’s just say the husband’s self-righteous lack of empathy puts him in the sights of his own gun. We could debate whether the wife’s decision to pull the trigger until there were no more bullets was objectively justified, but that would get us nowhere. Let’s just assume she felt better for having killed him.
So The Second-Last Woman in England is a book that calmly dismantles the social situation that led to this murder. Once certain key facts are revealed, it’s clear why this man has to die. Although he does have enough sense to feel guilty about some things, his whole value system has been distorted by his membership of, and experiences in, the upper class of society immediately after the war. He deserves to die but is probably unaware of the anger and resentment he has caused. It’s not that he’s stupid. It’s that his entire social conditioning has made him into this self-centred walking disaster area. And with that happy thought, I will leave you with just one final suggestion. This is an interesting book that’s worth reading for its insights into 1950′s society. If you accept this recommendation, remember this is a society recovering from a major war. Some acts will therefore be seen as far more devastating than comparable acts today. The particular act at the core of this book was socially devastating and potentially contagious, i.e. people seen to be involved would be considered morally deficient and that would never do for men like Wallis.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.