I’ve had this book on my wish list for some time, so I was pleased when Bridport’s library sent it over to ours. Before reading it I had two fixed ideas in my head about Margery Allingham: that she lived in East Anglia and that she worked terribly hard in order to support a spendthrift husband. True but not, of course, that simple. Margery Allingham was born in 1904 into a large and literary family. All her life, from her childhood to the married years at D’Arcy House in Essex, she seems to have lived in grand houses which the family couldn’t afford to keep up. As a successful novelist, she had terrible problems with income tax until at one point she saw the only ways out of her difficulties as ‘1. Go bankrupt 2. Leave Pip 3. Die’. In those days, as a married woman she couldn’t be taxed separately from husband. The problem was that Pip (P. Youngman Carter) spent all the money and she paid all the tax. This makes the reader mad.
It makes her life sound miserable, which it wasn’t on the whole, in spite of health problems and occasional agonies over her marriage. I had no idea that she was self-consciously unhappy about being so fat, nor that that this was due to a thyroid problem. There were mental health issues, too; due partly to the thyroid deficiency and partly, she feared, inherited from her volatile mother. Modern opinion is that she was bipolar. Yet most people remembered her as ‘fun’. The Adventures of Margery Allingham is a strange title. She spent most of her time writing or entertaining or looking after people, stayed married to the same man, seldom travelled or left home. She began writing as a child (she never learned to spell, apparently) and was doing hack work for magazines from a very young age. I was fascinated to learn that her Aunt Maud founded Woman’s Weekly as a ‘feminist’ magazine with an emphasis on recipes and knitting. Her father, Herbert, made money from writing whatever was saleable and Margery later called herself his ‘apprentice’.
Albert Campion first appeared in 1929 in The Crime at Black Dudley. Although Miss Allingham wrote in other genres, mostly in order to make money quickly, detective fiction was what her public wanted and Campion continued his career until her last novel, Cargo of Eagles, which remained unfinished at his creator’s death. Julia Jones suggests that as time went on, author and character increasingly resembled each other. This is not a literary biography, though, so you must look elsewhere for analysis of the novels. I read it very quickly and easily, following ‘Marge’ through what was virtually a Victorian upbringing; the First World War telegrams that she never forgot; ‘bohemian’ life training as an actress (and writing to make money); the light-hearted party times of the twenties; the Second World War when she was constantly busy with evacuees and warden duties. After Pip returned from the war he lived most of the time in London, networking and leaving Margery isolated in the country. But, as she wrote once, ‘We could part, but we like each other’.
This edition of Julia Jones’ book includes new information which adds to the ‘sad’ side of Margery’s life. The 1950s were difficult for her and hard to read about and it was then she wrote her best books: More Work for the Undertaker and The Tiger in the Smoke. I’m currently re-reading The Beckoning Lady because the characters Minnie and Tonker are said to be the closest in her fiction to Margery herself and Pip. Knowing this is slightly uncomfortable but I’m enjoying it very much and am very grateful for all the pleasure her books have given me.