Sunday, January 14, 2024

"Humiliatingly Victorian": AGNES ROSEMARY COOPER & MARY WELLER (as RAMSAY BELL), The Lake of Ghosts (1940)

On just such a night, thought Elizabeth, had the barge been sunk ... it was ridiculous to think like that, just because Signor Baldini had told the story with such evident enjoyment ... probably he had merely been savouring the opportunity of showing off his excellent English. … The woods on the right of the path were like a solid wall of blackness, felt rather than perceived. She wished tall Professor Cobb, instead of poor little Mr. Blacker, were between her and that eerie darkness ... anything might be happening in there ... it was a perfect setting for a murder, or the re-enacting of some ancient scene of violence. …

Here's another book that I flagged years ago and have only just got round to, from my last batch of British Library titles. At the time, I only knew that it was about a woman archaeologist encountering intrigue and danger at a dig in the Apennines. I like mysterious doings, I like archaeology, and I like a strong, career-minded heroine, so what was not to like? 

Let me tell you.

Agnes Rosemary Cooper and Mary Weller published four novels in as many years under the joint pseudonym Ramsay Bell. I've recently researched them a bit more. Dragon Under Ground (1937) is about a young woman who witnesses a crime and enlists two young men to save her from the baddies (a critic called the plot weak but noted there was no lack of excitement). To Joanna (1938) features another young woman mixed up with jewel thieves and murder, and Dangerous Promise (1939) features the surprising adventures of a young woman trying to pick up her fiancé’s passport from his flat, oblivious to the shady business with which he’s involved. Any one of those might have piqued my interest if I'd come across them first. But it was, for better or worse, The Lake of Ghosts which first caught my eye.

I did finish this novel, which is not something I always do these days if I'm not engrossed. I did consider abandoning ship a couple of times, though. Lake is reasonably well-plotted, at least in the beginning, so an element of intrigue kept me going, as well as the idea of a first century Roman pleasure boat, ordered sunk mid-orgy with all parties (or partiers, as it were) on board, by no lesser figure than Caligula (probably jealous of others having fun without him), having been rediscovered in an isolated Italian lake and in the process of being excavated. Young Elizabeth Lane has been sent to the scene as the English expert, to analyze and record the finds, and arrives to find a rather surly group of Italian workmen, bossed by a rugged Scotsman, Fergus McKinnon. Her fellow camp residents include an Italian archaeologist/playboy, Marco Dulciti, American scholar Professor Cobb, an engineer, Herbert Blacker, and his aging would-be sex kitten wife Polly, and their magnificently spoiled daughter Tam. Nearby, there's the wealthy owner of the land, one Signor Baldini, his practical middle-aged cousin Miss Fitzgerald, and a beautiful young niece Consuelo. Elizabeth also finds a growing tension in the camp—the workers have become restless and discontented. (It's so hard to get good help nowadays.)

Things escalate quickly. There are attempts on Fergus's life (about 50, it seemed, though perhaps it was not quite so many), a near rape of Elizabeth, and the murder of the would-be rapist, a workman who had been recently fired from the dig. These events initially helped keep things moving, but ultimately became rather repetitive, and the authors seemed to believe that suspense and intrigue are enhanced by constant agonizing and hand-wringing among their cast of characters (crisis, agonizing, recovery, crisis, agonizing, recovery, and so on). Oh, and there's the discovery of a temple to Diana in the woods nearby, and Elizabeth swears she has seen sacred rites going on by the overgrown altar.

And here we have the crux of my problem with the novel. Elizabeth. We are assured (repeatedly, ad nauseum even) how professional and independent she is. Why, we are told, she had spent months on previous digs without ever so much as recalling for a single instant that she's a woman, so little do men and romance matter to her. And she will have none of your superstitious nonsense, thank you very much, as she is utterly rational and practical and no nonsense. And unemotional! Gracious, how we are reassured that she is not one to let her emotions control her.

Well, the quote above, in which she's already giving herself the creeps imagining violence and rituals when nothing has even happened yet, comes from about 30 pages into the novel, so you can only imagine how it plays out from there. And the moment she lays eyes on brawny, red-headed Fergus, whatever sort of independent career woman she may have been before, she's just a tedious heap of quivering jelly now (though for a long time she irritatingly refuses to admit it to herself):

It was the blow she had received, she decided, which had made her think and act so strangely. By morning she would be her old detached, unruffled self again.

A bit later, she reassures herself again:

She seemed to be making a deplorable habit of thinking through her emotions—one normally quite foreign to her.

Sure thing, sister.

The weird disconnect between how Elizabeth sees herself and how she really is actually reminded me of the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. But alas, "Ramsay Bell" lacks James' subtlety and complexity. Here, Elizabeth just ends up seeming like a deluded doormat that one would like to shake if one felt it was worth it. One scene in particular made me nearly wonder about her sanity. When she is nearly raped by a former workman seeking revenge on Fergus, her determination to see herself as unphased by anything becomes darn near pathological:

Even as she fought against the wave of faintness which was the result of intense relief, she was conscious of an obscure anger against herself for reacting to the situation in a manner so completely and humiliatingly Victorian.

I'm pretty sure even the toughest, most practical woman is allowed to feel shaken by an attempted rape, and the fact that Elizabeth doesn't seem to give herself that permission comes to seem utterly bizarre. At any rate, let's say I found it difficult to be invested in her as a heroine.

The solution to all the intrigue at the site is rather anticlimactic too. I had a whole ending of my own worked out, involving a person or persons desperate to prevent something else from being discovered in the lake if the boat is excavated (bodies in cement, perhaps? an ill-gotten treasure trove?), and therefore trying to force the abandonment of the site. However immodest it might seem, I have to say that my ending was far better than Ramsay Bell's, which involves superstitious terror:

He has allowed his emotions to become involved until he is now convinced that when Lupus's barge is raised, the evil which once flourished upon it will be let loose again, and will sweep over and utterly destroy the good people for whom he believes himself responsible.

Said evil, of course, being people <whispers> having sex? There’s certainly something humiliatingly Victorian going on here.


  1. Isn't it frustrating when one wants to shake the heroine for her stupidity and lack of insight? Yesterday I finished just such a book. I desperately wanted to get hold of her and shout "Open your eyes you idiot!" and there is no way of doing it. Especially if the author is no longer around....

    Mine is so in theory I could do it but I am resisting the temptation.

  2. Oh dear! An entertaining review, though: thank you!


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