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The Devil at Saxon Wall

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Mitchell, Gladys - The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935)

 

 

Review by Nick Fuller

5/5

The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), the result of hearing a lecture on witchcraft by Helen Simpson (to whom the book is dedicated), is unquestionably Gladys Mitchell’s triumph, both as a tale of mystery and as a tale of imagination. The book, as with many Mitchell novels, is multi-layered, for the book is a Mystery Play in the form of a detective story, an epic and elemental battle between God and the Devil; the plot is complex (some may feel that it is excessively so), the events and characters of the story are vivid and original, and the writing spirited, at once humorous and terrifying.

 

The setting, as the book’s title suggests, is the Hampshire village of Saxon Wall. This is perhaps the best example of Mitchell’s uncanny ability to create a world by piling small detail on small detail, until the reader is forced into the belief that the (often improbable) place she describes could indeed exist in a remote corner of the world (other examples include the Greek sites of Come Away, Death and the stylised Canary Island of The Twenty-Third Man). The village is named after the vicar’s well, which used to belong to a Saxon monastery built on the site of the current vicarage, and which was “popularly supposed to possess healing properties”; in the twentieth century it is known never to have failed since parish records were kept. For that reason, the vicar, who, at the time of the story, is one Merlin Hallam, believes that the village should be called, not Saxon Wall, but Saxon Well.

 

The roots of history are visible wherever one looks in Saxon Wall. The church boasts one of the earliest surviving rose windows in Britain. The populace (who have “thick, dirty hair, unkempt and more like frayed rope than anything else…, narrow, shifty eyes under curiously straight brows, low foreheads, big splayed feet, as though they were unaccustomed to the wearing of hard leather boots, and large, coarse hands on the ends of abnormally long arms” and are both “stupid and ferocious”) are descended from the heathen Jutes and Welsh Saxons, an ancestry reflected in the curious mixture of beliefs and pagan survivals: Biblical quotations have become part of everyday speech, while oaths are sworn by Woden and Thoden. The fascinating speech of the villagers is sometimes (and deliberately) hard to understand, not only in the misinterpretation of Biblical passages, but also the curious evasiveness: Mrs. Bradley believes that “the inhabitants of Saxon Wall were incapable of making straight-forward statements and in her unprejudiced opinion, even their lies were elliptical”, and the vicar feels that “the only time the conversations in this village ever make sense, they are so unthinkably lewd that one is grateful … for some obscurity in their meaning”. The popular pastimes of the villagers include cock-fighting, “an unbroken survival from the fourteenth century or earlier”, and adder-hunting, both of which Hallam attempts to ban, to some degree successfully.

 

The most noticeable feature of this horribly rustic village, however, is the presence of witchcraft and the supernatural, the superb use of which puts all other attempts (including Mitchell’s own later ones in such later stories as The Worsted Viper and Merlin’s Furlong) to shame. “Witchcraft, which, in London, had seemed a matter of intellectual interest, fascinating geographically, historically and philosophically, seemed a force to be feared and loathed in Saxon Wall.” The local witch, Mrs. Fluke, who “had a name for being able to make the slow-worms and adders on the common dance on their tails by moonlight, and spell the names of the angels of darkness by their contortions at witches’ sabbaths” and who is supposed to have made a pact with the devil (popularly supposed to manifest himself from time to time in the village) at her cottage, wields considerable power in the village, showing the superstitious and fearful lot (including their squire) how to commit murders by witchcraft and how to bring the dead back to life. In several passages straight from Frazer’s Golden Bough (a book constantly referred to by Mrs. Bradley), witchcraft (fertility rituals) is practised by the denizens of the village; and, in Gythrum Down (known to the villagers as Godrun Down), the barrow outside the village, the “long thin man”, a Neolithic spirit, is supposed to sleep. In the light of such beliefs, the vicar’s statement that there is “something terribly wrong about the village itself, but murder isn’t part of it. Nothing as clean as murder. Nothing as definite” seems to hold water.

 

It is in such an evil village, a world so admirably imagined and so convincingly described, that Mitchell’s psychiatrist sleuth Mrs. Bradley solves what is perhaps her most interesting case. The novel opens with the genuinely frightening and chilling depiction of the murder of the foolish Constance Palliner at the hands of her insane husband, Hanley Middleton; to the psychiatrist “a melancholiac of pronouncedly licentious habits with a strong bias towards actual mania” and “the kind of madman for whom mental homes were designed and intended”, to the villagers and the Palliners demoniacally possessed, and believed to have “put a spell on” his wife. Following the death of his wife following child-birth, Middleton conveniently dies, at the same time that Seaman Pike, mysteriously suffering from the same symptoms, vanishes from the village.

 

The story takes up again eight or nine years later, during which time “the village peaceably returned to its dirt and its lies and its ugly clod-hopping sins and its Saturday pint and a half, the last no longer paid for out of Hanley Middleton’s patrimony, but none the less enjoyed, since, apart from any other consideration, it happened to be rather better beer, and even the inhabitants of Saxon Wall, dead to all other decent feeling, could distinguish and comment upon the disappearance”. The “nerve-ridden, extraordinarily lanky and cadaverous” Hannibal Jones, writer of popular novels suffering a nervous breakdown (hastened by the appearance of his secretary “five nights in succession at his employer’s bedside, sleep-walking, and babbling disconnected lines from the poems of William Blake”), is sent by Mrs. Bradley to “get out your third-best car and travel until you find a sufficiently interesting and secluded village. Make yourself part of it. Study the people, but resolve never to write about them in a novel. Love them. Quarrel with them. Begin a lawsuit. Play village cricket.” The village he finds is Saxon Wall, where he becomes “again at last a nonentity, but one in a state of grace” (more religion), and where he is viewed as the reincarnation of the long thin man of local legend (a belief he will exploit in a classic Mitchell set-piece). It is in recent local history, not local legend, that Jones interests himself; in particular, the strange tragedy of the Middletons, and the tangled story of three children, one the legal fruit of the Middleton marriage, one Middleton’s child by Mrs. Fluke’s daughter Martha Passion, and one the child of the half-witted midwife Mrs. Pike. He becomes gradually convinced that Hanley Middleton is still alive — the hypothesis of the “daring and appallingly stupid disappearance” proved by Mrs. Bradley.

 

Before this part of the story is solved, however, a third murder is committed: a body supposed to be that of Middleton’s twin, Carswell Middleton (a disguise adopted by Middleton on his return to the village), is found by his housekeeper Mrs. Tebbutt at the squire’s residence of Neot House, bludgeoned to death with a poker. Jones, alarmed by the fact that Hallam went mad on the night of the murder, calls in Mrs. Bradley, who is at the very top of her powers (in both senses of the word). Mrs. Bradley, that “small but terrifying woman with the grin of a hungry crocodile and sharp black eyes”, is here at her most witch-like: she places Mrs. Passion under a spell (in modern parlance, hypnotises her), which may account for Mrs. Passion’s belief that she is the devil and possesses the evil eye, later adding that the “devil’s hag … sees first and she sees fur. Ay, further nor most she sees, and deeper”; to Hallam’s Japanese servant Nao, she is “the small wise woman”; and Mrs. Fluke talks to her “confidentially, as one of a sisterhood to another”. She dominates the story on her first appearance, as she terrifies suspects into giving away more than they mean to, as she dodges hammers thrown at her by would-be assailants (a feat she would repeat in [St. Peter’s Finger] and Faintley Speaking), and as she breaks the vicar’s wrist.

 

As detective she shines: she disentangles the particularly complicated changeling sub-plot by applying Mendelevian tests for colour blindness, a mode of detection similar to the scientific methods of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke; and she admirably applies logic and ratiocination to the murder of “Carswell” Middleton (which she believes to have been committed by Hanley Middleton), in particular Chapter XIV. It is one of Mitchell’s greatest gifts that she was able to combine the fair-play detective story of alibis, timetables and clues, heavily seasoned with essence of red herring, with the novel of imagination. Her detective fails to be fazed by the intriguing and bizarre events surrounding the crime: the midnight visit by Mrs. Passion to Jones’s cottage; the curious alibis (all on the late side) of the amusingly eccentric suspects; and the presence of hoofprints on the lawn of Neot House, with the disturbing possibilities it conjures up. The clues she uses to solve the mystery are gloriously Mitchellian: church architecture (the religious symbolism of a rose window), the supernatural (a surprisingly inconsistent knowledge of witchcraft), and applied Freudian psychology. The surprising yet logical solution is one of Mitchell’s most complex, but, due to the wonderful End Papers, easily understandable; the principal flaw is in the failure of Hannibal Jones to recognise Hanley Middleton and to not recognise another character; Mitchell makes an explanation, but the reader may still wonder at the blindness of an author and an enthusiastic student of Freud!

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DEVIL AT SAXON WALL AS MYSTERY PLAY CANNOT BE DISCUSSED WITHOUT REVEALING THE SOLUTION TO THE STORY. IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, PLEASE STOP READING HERE. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

 

As detective story, the book is fascinating and mystifying. As novel, it is a Mystery Play, a battle between God and the Devil. The murderer, Hanley Middleton, is the Devil, the manifestation long expected by the superstitious villagers, the Anti-Christ: to his wife, his presence in a church is “sacrilegious”; and Mrs. Passion, involved in a plot to kill him, feels that “if I killed Hanley Middleton I’d be willing to hang, for I’d have killed the devil himself”. With the return of Hanley Middleton to Saxon Wall comes drought, with “menace in the brooding hill of Gythrum Down and menace in the unnatural heat and dryness of the air”. As Mrs. Bradley points out,

 

‘the lack of rain forces the villagers into the belief that evil is triumphant in the village.

 

God comes down in the rain,

 

And the crops grow tall--

 

you remember.’

 

Jones nodded. ‘I see. The vicar absolutely refuses to pray for rain, therefore he doesn’t want the rain. Therefore he is on the side of evil. Primitive, but, from their point of view, reasonable, I suppose.’

 

Viewed in the light of Middleton as Anti-Christ, the kidnapping of the vicar and usurpation of his position by Hanley Middleton is the logical application of the fact that the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose; and Middleton’s belief that “the continuance of the drought would solve all my problems. Rain would just make all my troubles begin again” is evidence of the essentially devilish nature of the drought. It is, therefore, important that the novel ends with the triumph of God in the presence of rain, bringing about purification and cleansing: as the witch Mrs. Fluke tells Jones and Mrs. Bradley, “the village’ll go to church tomorrow. Ah! And the rain’ll wash em clean!”. The last passage of the book depicts, in Mitchell’s powerful prose, the triumph of righteousness over hypocrisy and treachery, of good over evil:

 

“‘’Tis the devil abroad! He’s falling adown the wind! He’s cast out of heaven, and Michael’s master there. Michael’s the master of the fort of heaven! Praise be to God! Praise be to God, I say!’

 

Rain that hissed and pelted, rain that came straight and heavy, rain that dashed down upon the hard-baked earth and leapt away again, rain that saturated trees and the unreaped crops and tore down fruit from the overloaded branches and beat out flat the heavy summer flowers, fell as though the bowl of the sea were inverted, and floods greater than Noah’s were spilt upon the earth.

 

None of them had seen such rain. It fell like an avenging cataract of fury, relentless, unceasing, terrifyingly noisy and triumphant; they stood there listening to it, awe-stricken in the face of the terrible mercy of God.”

 

The fall of Middleton from the tower is clearly symbolic of the fall of Lucifer (it is typical of Mitchell’s sense of humour that the rôle of Michael is played by Hallam’s Japanese servant, not a Christian but Shinto). While the storm is clearly Christian, it is also interesting when considered in the light of other religions, for in both Norse and Indian mythologies, rainstorms were caused by the triumph of the gods over the giants or demons (in Indian mythology, demons which had swallowed the rain).

 

As detective story, as a tale of the supernatural, and as experimental novel (for a detective story as Mystery Play is hardly a novel form—although Mitchell does manage to fashion her best out of it!), The Devil at Saxon Wall is absolutely superb (notwithstanding Mrs. Bradley’s statement that “through writing those dreadful novels of yours, Jones has become earthbound, a mere elemental, a curse to yourself and a menace to contemporary fiction”).

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