In my previous post….
….I demonstrated Julian Fellowes’s multilayered veiled Shakespeare-drenched allusion to A.A. Milne’s renowned 1922 detective story The Red House Mystery, an allusion that Fellowes hid in plain sight in Downton Abbey, and I concluded as follows:
“And here’s the final takeaway of all of the above. It’s not just an esoteric literary game to be played only by literary sleuths like myself. I remain confident that Fellowes has been playing fair with this veiled allusion to Milne and Shakespeare, and that, sooner or later, in Season 6 if not later in Season 5…….Julian Fellowes is going to spring his own carefully laid five-year trap on the viewers of Downton Abbey, and show us how Thomas Barrow, his Iago, somehow, some way, carefully planned and instigated the murder of Green, and then worked, meticulously, tirelessly, and creatively, to frame Bates for that murder!”
In an Introduction to The Red House Mystery written by Milne after his unexpected commercial success (23 editions over one decade) in the detective story genre, he outlined a few basic rules that every proper detective story should follow, and included therein the deliberate omission of any romantic storyline that might distract from the pure readerly pleasure of solving a murder mystery. I have delved further into Milne’s classic detective story, and, as I will now show you, I am convinced that Milne was being deliberately misleading in promulgating that no-romance rule; and that, behind the screen of an ordinary whodunit, Milne actually painted a very subtle portrait of a villain tormented by homosexual self-loathing and anger which ultimately drives him to murder.
I have long been of the minority scholarly school of thought that sees Iago as being a closeted gay man whose anger toward Othello is (ironically) motivated by jealousy of Othello himself. Therefore, what I see Iago and Milne’s Matthew Crayley sharing implicitly with Fellowes’s Thomas Barrow is that they are all three of them tormented, angry closeted gay men. Which tells me that Julian Fellowes must have recognized this subtext in both Shakespeare’s Iago and Milne’s Matthew, and brilliantly made it explicit in his 21st century series which has as its most compelling subplot the complex character of Thomas Barrow.
The best way for you to test the validity of my above claim is for you to read the entire text of The Red House Mystery, which you will find here:
I urge you to do so, it’s not a long read, and Milne’s writing style is a pleasure to read—it’s clear to me that his well known lifelong love of Jane Austen’s novels, particularly Pride & Prejudice (which he adapted for the stage in the mid 1930’s, although his adaptation was overshadowed by the much more popular, but much less faithful, adaptation of P&P by Helen Jerome) was very beneficial to the development of his own writing style.
And, even more relevant than that, I believe Milne must have absorbed, on some level, Jane Austen’s shadow story expertise, because I see evidence of this all over the place in the way he hid the painful details of the love/hate relationship between Mark and Matthew in plain sight in his detective novel which left for the sharp elves the task of detecting the hidden love story.
But for those who would not wish to read Milne’s novel on the above say-so alone, I will now provide you with key excerpts from Matthew Cayley’s confessional letter to sleuth Anthony Gillingham, near the end of the novel text. Gillingham, like Sherlock Holmes, has relentlessly investigated and analyzed the facts surrounding the apparent murder of black sheep brother Robert Ablett by Mark Ablett, and has concluded that the murder victim is actually Mark Ablett himself, and that the murderer is his younger cousin Matthew. Gillingham chooses to discreetly convey his knowledge of the truth privately to Matthew rather than to the police, and Matthew kills himself as a result.
These excerpts (in ALL CAPS, supplemented by my bracketed comments) make the Iago-Othello homoerotic relationship between Matthew and his cousin Mark (these names themselves a dark Biblical twist, given that the Gospel of Matthew is an expansion of the Gospel of Mark) crystal clear:
[Matthew Cayley’s letter to Anthony Gillingham]
"I must begin by taking you back to a summer day fifteen years ago, when I was a boy of thirteen and Mark a young man of twenty-five. His whole life was make-believe, and just now he was pretending to be a philanthropist. He sat in our little drawing-room, flicking his gloves against the back of his left hand, and my mother, good soul, thought what a noble young gentleman he was, and Philip and I, hastily washed and crammed into collars, stood in front of him, nudging each other and kicking the backs of our heels and cursing him in our hearts for having interrupted our game. He had decided to adopt one of us, kind Cousin Mark. HEAVEN KNOWS WHY HE CHOSE ME. Philip was eleven; two years longer to wait. PERHAPS THAT WAS WHY.
[The veiled implication is that Matthew was sexually maturing at 13, while Philip, at 11, was not]
"Well, MARK EDUCATED ME. I went to a public school and to Cambridge, and I became his secretary. WELL, MUCH MORE THAN HIS SECRETARY as your friend Beverley perhaps has told you: HIS LAND AGENT, HIS FINANCIAL ADVISOR, HIS COURIER, HIS—but this most of all—HIS AUDIENCE.
[That hanging ‘his’ is ambiguous—was he going to say ‘audience’ or was he perhaps going to say ‘lover”?]
Mark could never live alone. There must always be somebody to listen to him. I think in his heart he hoped I should be his Boswell. He told me one day that he had made me his literary executor—poor devil. And he used to write me THE ABSURDEST LONG LETTERS WHEN I WAS AWAY FROM HIM, letters which I read once and THEN TORE UP. The futility of the man!
[That does sound like the actions of a lovesick man, but Matthew doesn’t want to acknowledge it, so he has to destroy the letters so they won’t be a constant reminder]
"It was three years ago that Philip got into trouble. He had been hurried through a cheap grammar school and into a London office, and discovered there that there was not much fun to be got in this world on two pounds a week. I had a frantic letter from him one day, saying that he must have a hundred at once, or he would be ruined, and I went to Mark for the money. Only to borrow it, you understand; he gave me a good salary and I could have paid it back in three months. But no. He saw nothing for himself in it, I suppose; no applause, no admiration. Philip's gratitude would be to me, not to him. I begged, I threatened, we argued; and while we were arguing, Philip was arrested. It killed my mother—he was always her favourite—but Mark, as usual, got his satisfaction out of it. He preened himself on his judgment of character in having chosen me and not Philip twelve years before!
"Later on I apologized to Mark for the reckless things I had said to him, and he played the part of a magnanimous gentleman with his accustomed skill, but, though outwardly we were as before to each other, from that day forward, THOUGH HIS VANITY WOULD NEVER LET HIM SEE IT, I WAS HIS BITTEREST ENEMY. If that had been all, I wonder if I should have killed him? To live on terms of INTIMATE FRIENDSHIP WITH A MAN WHOM YOU HATE is dangerous work for your friend. Because of his belief in me as his admiring and grateful protege and his belief in himself as my benefactor, HE WAS NOW UTTERLY IN MY POWER. I could take my time and choose my opportunity. Perhaps I should not have killed him, but I had sworn to have my revenge—and there he was, poor vain fool, at my mercy. I WAS IN NO HURRY.
"Two years later I had to reconsider my position, for my revenge was being taken out of my hands. Mark began to drink. Could I have stopped him? I don't think so, but to my immense surprise I found myself trying to. Instinct, perhaps, getting the better of reason; or did I reason it out and tell myself that, if he drank himself to death, I should lose my revenge? Upon my word, I cannot tell you; but, FOR WHATEVER MOTIVE, I DID GENUINELY WANT TO STOP IT. Drinking is such A BEASTLY THING, anyhow.
"I could not stop him, but I kept him within certain bounds, so that nobody but myself knew his secret. Yes, I kept him outwardly decent; and perhaps now I was becoming like THE CANNIBAL WHO KEEPS HIS VICTIM IN GOOD CONDITION FOR HIS OWN ENDS. I used to gloat over Mark, thinking how utterly he was mine to ruin as I pleased, financially, morally, whatever way would give me most satisfaction. I had but to take my hand away from him and he sank. But again I was in no hurry.
"Then he killed himself. That futile little drunkard, eaten up with his own selfishness and vanity, OFFERED HIS BEASTLINESS TO THE TRUEST AND PUREST WOMAN ON THIS EARTH.
[The abundant animal imagery used by Iago in Othello is always associated with sexual disgust]
You have seen her, Mr. Gillingham, but you never knew Mark Ablett. Even if he had not been a drunkard, there was no chance for her of happiness with him. I had known him for many years, but never once had I seen him moved by any generous emotion. To have lived with that shrivelled little soul would have been hell for her; and a thousand times worse hell when he began to drink.
"So he had to be killed. I was the only one left to protect her, for her mother was in league with Mark to bring about her ruin. I would have shot him openly for her sake, and with what gladness, but I had no mind to sacrifice myself needlessly. HE WAS IN MY POWER; I COULD PERSUADE HIM TO ALMOST ANYTHING BY FLATTERY; surely it would not be difficult to give his death the appearance of an accident.
[Then Matthew dramatizes for Anthony the dialog with Mark in which he, Iago-like, sucks Mark into the very scheme that will enable Matthew to murder him without detection, by playing on Mark’s vanity, and by giving suggestions in a hesitant manner that make Mark feel he has concocted the entire scheme on his own. That is followed by the following end of the letter]
"Good-bye, Mr. Gillingham. I'm sorry that your stay with us was not of a pleasanter nature, but you understand the difficulties in which I was placed. Don't let Bill think too badly of me. He is a good fellow; look after him. He will be surprised. The young are always surprised. And thank you for letting me end my own way. I expect you did sympathize a little, you know. We might have been friends in another world—you and I, and I and she. Tell her what you like. Everything or nothing. You will know what is best. Good-bye, Mr. Gillingham.
"I AM LONELY TONIGHT WITHOUT MARK. THAT’S FUNNY, ISN’T IT?"
[Yes, it’s “funny” in the sense of very curious, a bookend to Mark’s loneliness for Matthew that he expressed in those long “absurd” letters years before—Matthew cannot admit his feelings for Mark to Anthony Gillingham or to himself. That P.S. in Matthew’s letter is Milne’s broadest hint, but only the last in a series of subtler hints, that a significant part of Matthew’s complex tortured motivation was his own (unacknowledged) romantic/sexual love for Mark. In other words, Matthew is a tortured closeted gay man in 1922 who murders the man he loves rather than allow his beloved to marry a woman—and that goes to the heart of Fellowes’s Thomas Barrow, doesn’t it? If he cannot be happy in love, then no one must be happy in love.]
So we see that Milne picked up on that subtext in Othello, and then Fellowes in turn picked up on it in both Othello and The Red House Mystery. A brilliant literary layer cake.
And so I conclude with a prediction: if Fellowes does indeed continue to track Milne’s novel, and I believe he will, that is going to make for some very interesting twists in the final denouement of the struggle between Bates and Barrow that we all know is going to occur in Season (or should I better say, ACT) Six of Downton Abbey, the tragedy disguised as a country house soap opera!
I.e., what a great (indeed Shakespearean and Austenian) twist it will be if it turns out that our international obsession with the trials and tribulations of the Grantham family upstairs will in the end be understood to have been a sideshow, with the most significant and compelling action going on offstage, between Barrow and Bates.
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