- By R. Austin Freeman
- First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922. Not published in the US.
Helen Vardon’s Confession is straight fiction rather than a detective story: “a regular novel with a Thorndyke episode or climax”, as the Times Literary Supplement wrote. It describes the predicament of a woman tied by marriage to a man she does not love – and a Jewish moneylender, at that. This is the sort of ‘problem’ piece with a social conscience that Wilkie Collins or George Bernard Shaw wrote.
It is the first of Freeman’s 1920s quasi-feminist novels: The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924) and As a Thief in the Night (1928) also deal with unfortunate / abusive marriages, while the more comic Flighty Phyllis (1927) deals with the startling escapades of a transvestite.
At first glance, however, Helen Vardon (as I posted on Facebook) seems (“Oh! Dreadful thought!”) to be Freeman’s worst book.
Helen Vardon was Freeman’s first Dr. Thorndyke novel since A Silent Witness (1914), eight years before. In the intervening time, his main work had been the eugenicist tract Social Decay and Regeneration (1921), described by Oliver Mayo (R. Austin Freeman: The Anthropologist at Large, 1980) as “a lament by a craftsman for his vision of the past”.
Western civilization had declined since the Industrial Revolution, Freeman argued. The book concerns the dangers of mechanism and automation, and the exploitation of artisans; “the menace of the sub-man”, the biologically ‘unfit’ one-fifth of the community; and the pollution of the British racial stock by “the sweepings of Eastern Europe”, particularly Jews.
(Freeman stated, however, that these immigrants were “far from being the elect of their respective races”. On the other hand, “thousands of years” of racial segregation had benefited the Jewish race.)
Book I: “Tragedy” is mid-Victorian in style, dreadfully long-winded, littered with sententious abstractions, melodramatic exclamations, and mawkish father-daughter badinage, and full of nasty Jewish moneylenders with designs on Gentile maidens. (In fact, all the disagreeable characters are Jews.)
To save her father from prosecution, Helen marries the odious Otway (né Levy), but on the morning of the wedding, her father dies of a heart attack in an altercation with Otway. Or did Otway brain him with his stick?
What appalled me utterly was the feeling, now brought home to me with overwhelming force, that I was no more my own; that I had surrendered myself to the possession of another person, a strange man, towards whom I felt a growing repugnance. This was not my room: it was our room. No longer had I any rights of privacy or of personal reticence. I was his, “to have and to hold from this day forward,” with no power of escape or protest against the most repulsive familiarities. I had voluntarily surrendered not only my liberty, but even the appearance of security from the most outrageous intrusions.Ch. VI
I was reminded of Irene Forsyte in John Galsworthy’s Man of Property (1906), whose husband treats her as a possession, and insists upon his ‘rights’. The marriage, Dr. Thorndyke, a family friend, tells her, ought to be cancelled, but in point of law, it is not voidable. Helen separates from Otway (thus sparing her any conjugal relations), and finds refuge in an women artists’ collective, headed by Miss Polton, sister of Thorndyke’s crinkle-faced factotum.
Book II: “Romance” is pleasantly written and charming, but detectival interest is nil. Instead, we have Helen’s friendship and burgeoning love with the architect Jasper Davenant, who argues (Ch. XVIII) for a de facto relationship in 1908, and damn the social conventions. Marriage, he insists, is a permanent, life-long partnership, and not its legal endorsement. Will Helen see reason, or will she deny herself happiness?
There is also some fraudulent spiritualism, and discussions of craft versus commercial mass production, and fair pay for artists. Unfortunately, Freeman’s theme is wrapped up with his prejudice to the Jews. A sub-plot concerns the apotheosis of the Titmouse, a woman potter exploited by a Jewish dealer, described as a “Shylock” who “hides him away and just feeds on him like the beastly parasite that he is” (Ch. XIV). Earlier, Helen passes through a Jewish neighbourhood on her way to her new lodgings, and considers it “a change for the worse”:
Long streets of characterless houses, all of a dingy, grey colour – the colour of all-pervading dirt – and growing greyer and dingier as we proceeded; populated by men and women, and especially children, of the same cobwebby tint, with something foreign and unfamiliar in their aspect and manners – a deficiency of artificial head-covering with a remarkable profusion of the natural, and a tendency to sit about on doorsteps; these, with a general outbreak on the shop signs of Wowskys, Minskys, Steins and Popoffs, were the features of the neighbourhood that chiefly attracted my attention as the cab rattled eastward.Ch. XI
The only criminal element is a couple of threatening letters sent to Otway; there is no death until the end of the Book (p. 250). In an extraordinary scene, ROT13 Uryra fvgf ol ure “uhfonaq’f” orq naq jvyyf uvf qrngu (Chapter XXI). Jura ur unatf uvzfrys gung avtug, fur oryvrirf fur unf qevira uvz gb fhvpvqr. STOP
Book III: “Crime” most resembles conventional detective fiction: the suicide (possible murder, whether by suggestion or foul play), the investigation, and the inquest. The coroner sums up against Helen, and Dr. Thorndyke appears at the last moment with clinching evidence. Freeman doesn’t play quite so fair as usual, since Helen is not privy to Thorndyke’s actions; the HOW and the experiments with the peg are not described until the end. You should, however, suspect the fiend several hundred pages earlier; I had my suspicions from Ch. VI.
1922 Hodder & Stoughton
A wrist-bag hanging on a chair-back a silent witness to the climax of a story pulsating with love, mystery and tragedy; and over all the famous Dr. Thorndyke patiently and scientifically probing clue by clue.
Times Literary Supplement (11th May 1922): It will be enough for many readers to know that Dr. Thorndyke figures in this book, for that brilliant creation of Mr. Austin Freeman’s brain has made innumerable friends. He does not play as large a part as in some previous stories of the author, but when he does come in it is to some purpose with his own calm, masterful and irrefutable demonstration of the truth out of a mass of fallacies.
The book is considerably longer than Mr. Freeman’s other Thorndyke stories and is, in fact, a regular novel with a Thorndyke episode or climax. But it is not a page too long and the somewhat abrupt termination leaves the reader wishing there were more of it, which is the best possible termination for any book. Some interesting and novel sides of life in London are introduced and depicted with characteristic skill. The author seems to know as much about art-craftsmanship as he does about those technical manipulations which Dr. Thorndyke and the admirable Polson—who not only reappears but brings in a sister—carry out so deftly somewhere in the Temple.
Edinburgh Evening News (15th May 1922): To discriminate folks there is commendation enough for Helen Vardon’s Confession, by Austin Freeman in the explanation that it is another of the famous John Thorndyke detective stories. It is a worthy addition to the series. Mr Freeman is that genius doubly blessed – the man who has a good story to tell, and can tell it well. Helen Vardon’s experience is indeed a strange one. She contracts a sudden marriage to stave off disaster to her father but her sacrifice turns out to be tragically useless. Release ultimately comes to her, but only after she has suffered much, her fortunes going from exciting crisis to crisis. The crowning point in the story is a crime, which, in its unusual features, is intensely gripping. Mr Freeman builds up his story with consummate skill and with a pleasing choice of language. There are few modern novels with the passionate hold that Helen Vardon’s Confession has on the reader.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Despite what appears to have been popularity in England, this nearest approach to a “straight” novel by Freeman was never published in the U.S. Yet it is full of interesting things and held these readers’ attention, despite its length and the relatively minor part played by Thorndyke. Jervis does not appear. H.V. herself is quite a girl; she tells her own tale. The big scene comes at the end when Thorndyke, appearing late in court, saves her from suspicion of murder. What is more surprising, T.’s evidence contains a minor mistake or two.