First published: UK, Chatto & Windus, 1962
The title derives from a Staffordshire figure which, according to the author, was made in 1850 as part of the celebrated and now highly praised series of portrait groups of notorious scenes and characters of the period. These include the Murder Cottages, Maria Marten’s Red Barn, James Rush and Potash Farm and many other examples of the grisly taste of the time.
The china governess was Thyrza Caleb, a young woman employed by the wealthy Kinnit family as a governess to two young cousins. She was tried in 1849 for the murder of their music master who was alleged to be her lover, and although she was acquitted she committed suicide shortly after her release. The crime attracted considerable attention because of its peculiar nature, the victim having been stabbed from behind through the back of a chair. The Staffordshire figure showing the governess, the chair, and her two young charges was produced in the following year but was suppressed by the family to avoid perpetuating the scandal.
The present story is an unusual and peculiarly modern mystery, as contemporary as tomorrow’s newspaper, but it concerns the latter day Kinnits. Thyrza Caleb is one of the many factors in this puzzle for adults which provides Mr. Campion, Superintendent Luke and two young lovers with an absorbing problem. Most of the action takes place in the London of today, which proves to be as colourful, as mysterious as, and even more cosily sinister than its Victorian counterpart.
Although very late Allingham, the story is as well-written as ever, with its Dickensian atmosphere, plot and characters. The plot is complex and rather disjointed, for the two halves of the plot are only tenuously linked, but the vice and poverty of the Turk Street Mile, Timothy Kinnit’s search for his father (and, by extension, himself), a juvenile delinquent (and atheist?) desperate for an identity yet proud of his independence, and a long-buried Victorian scandal are all well-handled. The book features several of those sharply drawn portraits at which Allingham excels, notably the Kinnits, the childishly innocent (and irritating) Nanny Broome, the guilt-racked idealist Cornish and the spiteful Basil Toberman. Despite the presence of both Campion (an onlooker so sober and subdued as to be almost colourless) and Superintendent Luke, there is much less detection than unfolding of the plot. The solution is clever, although Miss Saxon’s behaviour never convinces, and an alert reader will suspect the culprit but not the motive.
Times Literary Supplement (Marghanita Laski, 19th April 1963):
Regrettably Miss Allingham’s new book, The China Governess, is not good. Since she reached her apogee in 1949 with More Work for the Undertaker, she has tended to use its most impressive features – the eccentrics and their strange, often sinister London – with decreasing force and integration. All the old ingredients are here again but hardly any of the characters pay for their keep (certainly Campion and Luke do not) and the possessive Nanny, whom Miss Allingham apparently delights in, is horrible. Moreover, the mysteries of the wrecked rooms, the unknown parentage and the insincere relations could have been easily solved had people only looked in the obvious places and finished whatever they were saying. Saddest of all, the Victorian governess who titles the book could have been omitted for all the useful relevance she has to the story.