There are a number of points to recommend the writing of the late Gladys Mitchell, not the least of which is her literary styling and aplomb. Her best-remembered character, Mrs. (Later Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, is a wonderful blend of the eldritch, the omniscient, and the surreal, and the reader comes to feel, after a while, that they have encountered one of those rare immortals, an almost super-human figure which rightly and properly defies conventions like ageing and narrative vulnerabilities. In a sense, the Mrs. Bradley novels are a fantasy-land, a baroque played on the theme of the broader reality, and we are just along for the ride.
That being said, 1944’s My Father Sleeps is notably grounded in that reality which it seeks in some ways to subvert. But even hard-staked to the geographic bedrock, the spirit of place (as Lawrence Durrell might have said), of a novel like My Father Sleeps still feels a bit like a fable. It’s also a book which — moreso than usual in the case of Mitchell — demands the reader’s attention. Put another way, it’s a bit of a slog.
Set in the Highlands of Scotland at some point before the Second World War, My Father Sleeps is a tale of murder, yes, but also one of several threads of the extended Bradley ménage coming together. The return of Laura Menzies and the introduction of her brother Ian (and his new wife), is woven into a tale of a visit to the land of their birth. While visiting the Highland village of Ballachulish, Mrs. Bradley is to read a paper at a conference at Inverness, not far distant as the crow flies. She has brought Laura, in the latter’s new role as secretary to the psychologist, along on the outing. Accompanying them is Mrs. Bradley’s thirteen year-old nephew, Brian Lestrange, and Jonathan Bradley and his wife, the former Deborah Cloud (first met, along with Laura, in Laurels Are Poison, several years before). This is quite a cast to keep track of, and there is more to come for all of them.
As happens in Mrs. Bradley’s world, the group becomes entangled not only in a murder, but in a historical mystery and a curse. There will be unexpected villains, mysterious clues, and the familiar cackle of Mrs. Bradley, dressed as usual in some hideous combination of colours which cause offence to the eyes. At this point in both Mitchell and Mrs. Bradley’s careers, there seems to be quite a bit of time spent in boats, and obviously, this is a case of transference from author to creation, which Mrs. Croc would certainly have recognised.
My Father Sleeps reads, it must be said, in part like it was written from an atlas, or even from an Ordinance Survey map. Mitchell, however, wrote from personal knowledge of Scotland, where her family had holidayed (her father was Scottish). The painstaking, almost exhausting, attention to geographic detail and the loving way in which the scene is set has been the source of a few complaints in other reviews of My Father Sleeps that I have encountered. Knowing this, however, and vowing once more not to be a lazy reader if I could help it, I sought and located my Michelin map of Scotland, which helped to bring the geography issues under control (although if the reader happens to be a native, for example, of the Isle of Skye, geography obviously will not present a difficulty). Map in hand, the tangle of lochs, glens, and moors resolved itself into an orderly, and fairly familiar pattern. Other readers are encouraged to do the same. Geography dominates this story, and without understanding the geography, you might just as well be reading a bus timetable. As with several of the Mrs. Bradley novels, in the end, the “mystery”, such as it is, seems almost secondary to the characterisation and the place.
There is a deeper mystery, of course, in My Father Sleeps, as well as a meta-textual mystery surrounding the book. Of all of Mitchell’s books, this is the only one of the Mrs. Bradley novels that I have never been able to find in an English language edition (oddly enough, I have a copy of it in French, titled La malédiction du clan Stewart; this is despite the fact that Mitchell’s works translated into that language number fewer than ten of which I am aware). There is literally no recourse in this case except to the Kindle edition. I cannot fully explain why this is, only that in five or more years of looking, I have never seen a copy for sale. The Kindle version is essentially the only game in town, and then, only in America. Why?
A number of Gladys Mitchell’s books are held to be “unaccountably scarce” (that term is actually used by a bookseller in one of his listings of one of Mitchell’s uncommon titles). These include, to my count, Say It with Flowers (1960), Adders on the Heath (1963), The Croaking Raven (1967), Skeleton Island (1968), Gory Dew (q.v., 1970), A Javelin for Jonah (1974), Wraiths and Changelings (1978), The Whispering Knights (1980), Lovers, Make Moan (1981), The Death of a Burrowing Mole (1982), and The Greenstone Griffins (1983). My Father Sleeps (1944) is the earliest of these scarce titles. What do they all have in common? Almost without exception, these titles appear to have been printed only once by Mitchell’s British publisher, the now-absorbed Michael Joseph (a sad loss resulting from the conglomerations which afflicted the publishing industry in the 1990s and 2000s, a matter that deserves its own history at some point). These uncommon titles have had, at most, one reprint beyond their original publication (here I am discounting, for the moment, the print and Kindle editions published by Amazon). Some, like Gory Dew, have had no reprints of which I could find any evidence. I obtained this data from several sources, mostly by searching for Mitchell as an author at various publishers and compiling a table of those who had printed her work, using second-hand book sites as a source, and which titles they had produced. Although not a perfect method, this approach has, I believe, provided me with a fairly comprehensive view of Mitchell’s world of publication. And the result is startling: of 66 Mrs. Bradley novels, the total number of reprints amounts to 184, or less than three printings per title. Even if the number is higher (it is possible that more of her later books were reprinted than I have data for), that is still staggering. Consider, by comparison, the number of editions for the average work by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, or Margery Allingham, to name but three.
These rarer Mitchell books, when they happen to appear (IF they happen to do so), can fetch upward of £100 (~US$125), sometimes going as high as £400 (~US$500), for an unsigned copy in Very Good or better condition, in a similar dustjacket. Volumes without dustjackets may be devalued from these prices by at least a third, but are still unaccountably expensive. But the question remains: why are they so scarce?
In most cases, I think that this is a matter of print runs. My hypothesis is that despite a single reprint published by Severn House in 1981, the 1944 first edition is scarce because of the dangers of war-time to books, and the reprint is scarce because most of the copies went to libraries, then charity shops, and ultimately vanished. A single book club may even be responsible, for all I know. (I will say this, if you are reading this blog and have a spare copy handy, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.)
Later in her career, Gladys Mitchell often produced two books in one year. As a hard-working writer, but also one who rarely saw the sorts of accolades and monetary rewards of an Agatha Christie or a Margery Allingham, or indeed, similar paperback releases, Mitchell’s sales were almost certainly a significant part of her regular income, particularly after she gave up teaching, but never enough to bring genuine financial security (again, without a biography or access to letters, I have no way to be certain of this, but it fits a pattern seen in other writers). Although not as popular as some authors in her chosen genre, Mitchell’s books attracted regular purchases, especially, I suspect, by libraries (the number of ex-library copies of these uncommon titles, and of many of the more common editions, is significant here). I have a number of ex-library copies of Mitchell’s books in my own collection, often simply because if you want to read all of the Mrs. Bradley books, an ex-library edition is better than nothing, no matter how grubby it may be. Without a doubt some of Mitchell’s later novels achieved multiple reprints and some popular success (titles like Winking at the Brim (1974) and Uncoffin’d Clay (1979) spring to mind), and of course there was a boost to interest in her work at the end of her life. But since Mitchell’s death in 1983, her books have remained largely un-reprinted, and the finite supplies of some of her less-common books have dwindled.
What does this mean to anyone who isn’t some sort of mad completist like me? In reality, very little. It is an interesting footnote to a career which most people don’t even know about. And it still doesn’t bring me any closer to my own copy of My Father Sleeps. But perhaps it will, one day, and then maybe I’ll read it properly, sitting by the fire, with a tumbler of good Scotch at one hand, and my old folded map beside it. And if you happen to have a copy of this book in your library, fair reader, perhaps you’ll do the same.
Otherwise, it’s back to the eyestrain on the iPad brigade we go.
Reviewed 1 June 2017.