From Phyllida's Desk

If you enjoyed Phyllida...

November 30, 2009

There are less than two months to go until the long-awaited release (January 26!) of my second novel, Pride/Prejudice. Depending on whom you ask, I’m supposed to fill these last nervous weeks running around like a headless chicken blogging at the top of my lungs (“generating buzz”); working modestly and dutifully at my day job while pretending nothing special is happening in my life (yeah, right); or starting my third novel (um, you do realize that between now and the New Year I have to write a detailed conference paper proposal, an article or two for the Huffington Post, a Christmas piece for Bookreporter.com, an Author Spotlight for the Friskbiskit blog, prepare a couple of other guest-blog posts just in case I get lucky, think up short, snappy and insightful answers for the HarperCollins “best of 2009” questions and, oh yes, work dutifully at my day job?)

The choice seems obvious: it’s headless chicken time!

However, in the interest of retaining a few friends, I thought I’d do something less obnoxious, and praise another author’s work. Most of us have experienced those surreal recommendations from Amazon and Netflix (my favorite was Netflix’s kind thought that since I’d given Monty Python’s Life of Brian five stars, I’d naturally not want to miss Jackass 2). But these are computer generated, much like those algorithms that brought us last Easter’s “LGBT content = porn” equation on Amazon. This recommendation, by contrast, is from a human being, a woman I met at the Jane Austen Society book group, who read Phyllida and liked it, and who therefore thought I’d like Sarah Caudwell. She was right.

Probably most of you educated and intelligent readers have long since discovered Ms. Caudwell and the four brilliant, witty mysteries she had time to write before her early death from cancer. But if not, you’re in for a treat. Read them in order. The first is called Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981), followed by The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989) and The Sybil in Her Grave (2000).

Comparisons are odorous, as Shakespeare told us, and comparing my own efforts with those of a master, a conveniently dead one, no doubt reeks of hubris, or something equally putrid. But so what? Hold your nose and enjoy a good read—or four. I’m not saying I’m as good as Caudwell, only that what is good in my writing is even better in hers. Language, style and, above all, that ever so slightly skewed reality of comedy. It’s not as far removed as fantasy; it’s just not quite a photographic representation either.

Caudwell’s world is that of Oxford-educated (with one louche, slang-speaking Cantabrigian) barristers in Lincoln’s Inn, specialists in tax law, during the “present” of 1980 (Adonis) through 1999. It’s a world that has something of P.G. Wodehouse, of Rumpole of the Bailey, of Noel Coward and perhaps Oscar Wilde. The crime/mystery element, although well-constructed, is less important than the style. The stories are told primarily through letters and telexes (what Wikipedia calls “distancing devices”); the sex of the narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar, is never revealed; and the conversation is elaborate, ironic and full of literary allusions. Like all great comic writers, Caudwell creates her own signature mood and self-contained universe.

This is a world in which women share strategies for getting beautiful young men into bed:

“one should make no admission, in the early stages, of the true nature of one’s objectives, but should instead profess a deep admiration for their fine souls and splendid intellects … if I could get the lovely creature into conversation, I must make no comment on the excellence of his profile and complexion but should apply myself to showing a sympathetic interest in his hopes, dreams and aspirations.”

and announce success by quoting Lovelace, the rapist villain of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: “The deed is done—Clarissa lives.”

In Adonis, the fact that the young man in question appears to be involved in a serious same-sex relationship does not deter our heroine from her pursuit (she takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis), nor, ultimately, does it inhibit his enthusiastic capitulation.

I confess to having read only the first book so far. I’m trying to prolong my pleasure, to stretch out my enjoyment of this finite four-book series, instead of devouring it all over one long, debauched Thanksgiving weekend. But I don’t hesitate to recommend them all. Like Jane Austen’s six published novels, with the Juvenilia and fragments, each work is made all the more valuable because of its rarity. Whatever faults may lie in Caudwell’s other novels, I look forward to discovering even greater pleasures, and wish you the same.

Selected Works

Fantasy, Women's Fiction (e-books)
Book Six in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Five in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Four in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Three in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Two in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book One in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Short Story
A queered version of the Cinderella story in the 4th Gay City anthology, "At Second Glance."
Newsletter article
Describes the typical upbringing of middle- and upper-class children in Austen's time.
Romantic Comedy, M/M/F Menage
A breezy tale of love, lust and secrets set against the backdrop of Regency England.