Sunday, December 16, 2007


I recently finished rereading Aunt Beardie, a suspense novel written by Joseph Shearing, which I had earlier read as an adolescent many years ago.

Joseph Shearing is actually a pseudonym used by the woman born as Gabrielle Margaret Vere Campbell (she married twice, and is sometimes referred to by her second husband's surname as Gabrielle Margaret Long), who used several other pseudonyms, the most common and best known of which was Marjorie Bowen. Once popular but now almost forgotten, Bowen (as we'll call her) was a very prolific writer, who, according to one source, wrote at least 170 books, mainly historical novels, but also nonfiction works, collections of short stories, contemporary novels, and plays. Obviously, they couldn't all be good, but a surprising amount of them were, and she deserves to be better known. Insofar as she is remembered today it's primarily as an author of supernatural fiction, but this was actually only a small part of her output. There is a biographical essay on Bowen here.

She used the Joseph Shearing pseudonym for historical suspense novels which were based loosely on historical crimes or mysteries. These novels, unlike many of her others, tended to be heavy on mood and fairly light on plot. Aunt Beardie is no exception: the title character doesn't even make an appearance until the 65th page (out of 220). It's set in England and France in 1829, though political events enter only insofar as the chaos of the French Revolution and its associated wars has affected the characters' lives. (There was to be another revolution in France the following year, but there's no hint of it here.) The plot is about Jenny, an eighteen-year-old girl devoted to her aristocratic mother, who discovers that her mother is secretly meeting a strange man and becomes convinced that he is somehow a threat to her (the mother). The Aunt Beardie of the title is a childhood friend of her mother's, thought dead, who turns up unexpectedly around the time the strange man appears. When I first read it, as an adolescent (thanks to my mother, who had collected hundreds of paperback mysteries, including most of the Shearing books), I thought I knew the "solution" way before the end. And I was partly right; indeed, part of the solution is pretty obvious. But I had been partly led astray by Shearing's misdirection, and the whole truth came as a shock to me. But maybe, if you read the book, you'll be smarter than I was back then.

But the heart of the book is the intense relationship between Jenny and her mother. The mother feels closer to Jenny than to her husband or her other children, but urges her to marry quickly, so that she will escape the disaster she (the mother) obscurely feels looming over her (the mother). And Jenny is completely devoted to her mother. Though having led a sheltered life, she strikes out on her own to learn the nature of the threat to her mother, and when she does discover what it is she takes decisive action to dispel it. By the end, Jenny and her mother have almost become a single person.

The book has its faults. It takes a while to really get going. The prose is generally stolid and undistinguished, though the last line is remarkable. And the efforts to create a mood of foreboding can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed: there's a bit too much "the familiar scenery now seemed somehow ominous"-type prose for my liking. Nevertheless, it stands up well as a novel and repays rereading. It's worth tracking down.

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