The House of Stairs (Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine)

  • By Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine
  • First published: UK: Viking, 1988; US: Crown, 1989

[Cosette’s] life to come and her fate were what no one could have expected, they seemed a contradiction and a defiance of the rules that say, such a woman will never find passionate disinterested love, tragedy, violent death and final irony, but only exploitation and disillusionment.

From her taxi window, Lizzie Vetch sees a woman she knows: Bell Sanger, just released from prison. Bell was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for murder – but who she killed on a slow, stiflingly hot afternoon remains a secret until almost the end.

Like A Dark-Adapted Eye (and A Fatal Inversion), Rendell adopts a first-person female POV and overlapping past and present narratives. We are shown both the events leading up to the crime (1960s / early 1970s) and the events 15 years later (1980s), through a sympathetic, sensitive, but not altogether reliable narrator, trying to make sense of both what happened and her own role in the tragedy.

If I were a Henry James enthusiast, I would be able to say something clever and pertinent. The House of Stairs is inspired by The Wings of the Dove (1902), a novel I haven’t read. (I read Portrait of a Lady and “Turn of the Screw” in Year 12; for me, that Archer went astray, while I preferred M.R. James’s ghost stories.) But Rendell says that James “somehow makes … the melodramatic central spring of the novel … not sensational but subtle, tenuous, like life”. That is the effect Rendell aims at, and achieves. Although there is death by Russian roulette, lesbian love-making, sex, drugs, and murder yet to come, there is nothing melodramatic or strained; everything is low-key, naturalistic, almost casual.

In a detective story, people’s actions and identities are the secret; their relationships often only matter insofar as they provide motive. Here, they are the revelation. The surprise is how people feel about each other (ROT13: Oryy qbrfa’g yvxr Pbfrggr, ure nssnve jvgu Ryvmnorgu vf haybivat, “n fbeg bs creirefr vaqhytrapr”). The character of Cosette, generous and imposed upon, wanting love with younger men, fearing betrayal; Lizzie’s relationship with Cosette, her ‘chosen’ mother; her infatuation with beautiful, amoral Bell are given more attention than murder. The sickening crunch, the shattered body, also shatters those relationships.

Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (15 May 1989): Like the two earlier Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine novels (A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion), this seriously flawed yet mesmerizing tale is a retrospective account of the events leading up to a crime, less a whodunit than a what-will-happen? Noting that the plot of Henry James’ peerless psychological novel The Wings of the Dove is the stuff of melodrama, Rendell releases the melodrama by rewriting the novel as a mystery. Elizabeth Vetch – a trashy novelist marking her fifth decade by waiting to see whether she has inherited Huntington’s chorea from her doomed mother – glimpses her old friend Christabel Sanger, released from prison after serving 14 years for a mysterious crime, on a London street. The sight of Bell Sanger stirs a torrent of long-suppressed memories about the House of Stairs, the five-story house in Notting Hill where Elizabeth’s Aunt Cosette, gentle, charming, generous, prematurely widowed, assembles a household reminiscent of the ill-assorted cooperative of misfits in A Fatal Inversion – a group including Elizabeth, Bell, a large and changing group of young hangers-on, and the succession of young men with whom Cosette takes up, and by whom she is successively victimized, until she finally and fatally falls in love with Bell’s brother Mark. Rendell labours throughout under a load of problems that would sink a lesser novelist. The constant alternation between Elizabeth’s narration of the past (Elizabeth, loving Cosette but in love with Bell, gradually realizes the betrayal her lover has planned for her benefactor) and the story’s present (Bell calls on Elizabeth, who repeats the cycle by fatalistically taking her in to live) is irritatingly contrived. Henry James casts too portentous a shadow, and readers of The Wings of the Dove will see the climax coming long before Elizabeth, after reams of Had-I-But-Known foreshadowing, sees fit to divulge it. No real mystery here, then; but Rendell’s obsessed principals are as compelling as ever, and the air of fatality, of impotent prescience, so dominant in her recent work, is harrowing.

One thought on “The House of Stairs (Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine)

  1. I’m glad to see you enjoyed this one more than A Dark-Adapted Eye (I’m more inclined to agree with Julian Symons about that one) – but surely one of the important points is that Vine deliberately misleads the reader about a major issue: gur vqragvgl bs gur ivpgvz.

    (PS One minor correction: A Fatal Inversion is written in the third person.)

    Liked by 1 person

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