A Man Under Authority by Ethel M. Dell (1926)

Our final Dell review!

Review by Helen N:

Novels like those of Ethel M. Dell are not written any more, or at  any rate not published. In some ways they are more unfamiliar to us than the world of Jane Austen. There is an influence of writers such as Dickens and the Bronte sisters in the heightened language and the  class and social structures and the melodramatic confrontations. There is also a use of slang which really dates the dialogue, and use of such concepts as a “fine” woman.

She was a working writer without any pretensions and obviously enjoyed telling a story and in this one she slyly wrong foots her reader a couple of times. There is humour in the writing as well and an understanding of the makeup of English Village Society.

From what I have read on the Internet I think this book is not typical of the work of Ethel M. Dell. It is set entirely in an English Country village and the hero is a good man, a vicar. He is the man under Authority –the authority of God. He is a compassionate and liberal-minded priest unwilling to condemn, who follows the most positive commands of his faith, But his human side is shown too, his impatience with some children and adults in his parish.

The theme of this book is the overpowering strength of emotions  and how they can change lives for good or evil.

The story begins with two elderly village ladies, Mrs Winch and Miss Barnet, talking about the Vicar. Mrs Winch is dominant, snobby and overbearing, Miss Barnet shy and diffident.

At first they seem to be just there to inform the reader, which they do, and to set the scene, But although in many books Miss Barnet would be presented as a figure of fun, she is actually treated very sympathetically. She is a true friend to the Vicar and he listens to her because she is honest. It is also made clear that she is wonderful with children which he envies as he himself cannot always be patient with them.  In the end she is the Dea ex Machina – telling him that he must follow his hearts and the commands of his faith – to love the sinner.

Bill himself is immediately attracted to a fascinating and mysterious woman who arrives in the village. Her name is Eve Rivers, she has a son, Gaspard, who suffers from a mysterious weakness and also claims he is haunted, and who is looked after by Benedict, a secretive and hostile man-servant. Bill’s determination to be of service to Eve, leads him to befriend the boy and offer him help and comfort. The boy is obviously in the grip of fear and may also be taking drugs.

At the same time there is the story of another man of powerful emotions , General Farjeon and his interest in a family in the next village, the Mortons. Bill and the General visit there together and we find that although there have been hopes that Bill might propose to one of the daughters, Letty,  he has not done so and she has given up hope and settled for the curate. Her two sisters, Fanny and Molly express themselves with a deal of unpleasantness, Molly in particular behaving in a very “teenage” fashion, with little dignity or kindness. The General admires her very much as someone who is a rebel and plans for her to marry his nephew, Stafford. Stafford resents having his life planned for him and retreats – being the only “laid-back”  character in the book. The General proposes to Molly who accepts him in order to punish Stafford.

When  Stafford confides in Bill, he in a moment of impatience brought on by his own frustration at loving the unobtainable Eve, suggests an elopement.

When this happens the General is furious with them all and vows to change his will. He also calls the mysterious Mrs Rivers “Madame Verlines”. This refers to a woman suspected of murdering her husband but who was acquitted.

Meanwhile a crisis arrives when Gaspard is taken ill and Bill takes charge. Seeing that the symptoms are those of an overdose of Opium, he forces Gaspard to stay awake and keep moving until the Doctor can come.

Bill and Eve declare their love but she refuses to get rid of Benedict and asks Bill to let her make her own decisions.

When Stafford at last meets up with Eve he recognises her as Madame Verlaine. Bill goes to the Church in much torment to pray which is when Miss Barnet gives him both sympathy and the advice to pursue Eve – who has left for the Continent never to return.

He goes to the House to find Gaspard in desperation, having sent a message to Bill, by Benedict which has failed to arrive. Gaspard confesses that it was he who killed his father because of his violence to Eve and now he is haunted by the dead man. Bill sees the “Ghost”, follows him and fights with him. The man runs away and pursuing him, Bill discovers Benedict who quickly fill him in with the story – Verlaine did not die but recovered and has been living in hiding, looked after by Benedict who has also supplied his drug habit. Verlaine is discovered in a shed in the Garden and conveniently dies.

All ends happily with Bill and Eve united.

As you will see it is a preposterous plot – how can a woman be suspected of murder when there is no corpse? But it is told with energy and verve. The romance between Bill and Eve is a fairly lofty one, his religious beliefs rather undermining all but the purest feelings of passion. But the minor characters are interesting and the village setting is one which is repeated in detective stories right up to the end of our period.

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5 thoughts on “A Man Under Authority by Ethel M. Dell (1926)

  1. My colleague John found a lovely mention of Dell in Michael Arlen’s best-selling novel The Green Hat (1924). Iris Storm, femme fatale, is talking about her breasts on the telephone (no, really), and the person on the other end of the line protests: “Iris, you are shocking the girl at the exchange!” and Iris replies “No, no, Miss Dell has prepared her for anything!”

  2. I read a comment from Franco Moretti that our present literary canon only represents 1-2% of books published. If that’s true, it’s an incredible statistic. With energetic reviews like this, it left me breathless reading it, you’re giving some of the other 99% the chance to live again through new readers.

    • Thank you Colin. It has been a pleasure to read Dell, and hopefully the reviews will tempt a few more people to try her.

      That statistic sounds entirely plausible to me! Leaving aside literary hierarchies, there are just so many books published. In the 1930s people often worried about the ‘flood’ of fiction, and the impossibility of ever sifting through it – though there are far more novels published now!

      I think what we are doing in the Collection is trying to reassemble what might be called a ‘popular canon’ of those books that found a mass readership, rather than critical approval. It is important that they have a chance to live again.

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