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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 26, 2016

“Like something out of a Jane Austen novel”: Dorothy Margaret Salisbury Davis closet Janeite!

I just became aware this evening of the writing career of Dorothy Margaret Salisbury Davis (1916 − 2014) who was an American crime fiction writer of no small repute, as she was the author of 17 crime novels, as well as 3 historical novels, and numerous short stories, and served as President of the Mystery Writers of America.

I mention all this because Google just made me aware that three of those seventeen mystery novels comprised what she called the “Mrs. Norris Series”, which I naturally found very intriguing. Was that title just random, or was it smoke suggesting a bit of Austenian subtextual fire?

I was quickly led by Google to the second of the three, entitled A Gentleman Called, which had the following blurb on the back cover:
“In Grand Master of Crime Fiction DSD’s second Mrs. Norris novel, the crime-solving Scottish housekeeper helps crack the case of a serial lady-killer”
“As housekeeper to James Jarvis’s recently deceased father, a retired major general of the US Army, Mrs. Norris has raised Jimmie since boyhood. Now the Wall Street lawyer faces a challenging case. The son of one of the firm’s old blue-blood clients has been slapped with a paternity suit. But Teddy Adkins swears he never slept with the woman.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Norris is miffed when her gentleman friend Jasper Tully, the widowed chief investigator for the Manhattan DA’s office, cancels one dinner date after another because a real estate magnate has been found strangled in the bedroom of her Upper East Side apartment. Jewelry was stolen, but there are no signs of a break-in. Tully’s investigation turns up a trail  of strangulations that extends all the way to the Midwest. As Mrs. Norris pursues her own unorthodox investigation, she uncovers a shocking link between the cases that threatens her very life.”

So, Mrs. Norris is the protagonist, but does this mean that Davis, like a Fifties Stephanie Barron, has grafted Jane Austen into her lauded crime fiction?

That’s when a search engine came to my aid one more time. If you’ll allow me to build a little suspense first, let me take you to a scene well into the second half of the novel, when Mrs. Norris finds herself being caught off guard and charmed against her will (rather like the way Fanny Price finds herself being charmed against her will by Henry Crawford’s reading of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII) by the cocky, pushy wooing of Mr. Adkins --- apparently the very same fellow who was slapped with a paternity suit, and, I also guess, perhaps someone whom Mrs. Norris will at some point suspect of being the serial killer---when the following exchange occurs:

“Do I understand, Mr. Adkins,” she said with quiet self-containment when he paused, “you are proposing that we go off to Scotland together and live another fifty-five years on my money?”
Mr. Adkins looked at her as though he were offended by so profane an interruption. “Are you so fond of money?”
“I’m fairly close with my own,” she said, “and I can count it all by nickels, let alone by dimes, and while it won’t have to do me till I’m a hundred and twenty-two—which is the age I’d be doubled—I don’t intend to have to get by on the half of it, whatever the years left me.”
“Ah, now,” Mr. Adkins said, laughing, “how well you knew yourself to say you were a prickly bundle. Bless you, my dear, I have no intention of sharing your money. Rather I intend to match it, dollar for dollar, no more, no less. I’m an investment broker, woman. I’m bonded to at least twice your worth. That’s why I offered my services to you the other day. I could advise your investment of money to return you a safe average of six percent. Are you making that now?”
“Three and a quarter,” she admitted.
“The Bowery bank,” he said with knowing deprecation. “What I should like to suggest—we match our small fortunes, mine to equal yours, and manage upon the income. Would you like to see my bond?”
“Your bond?”
“A certification of my right to invest—my brokerage license.”
“I might,” she said, “if I was going to consider your proposal.”
“All I ask tonight,” Mr. Adkins said, “and I beg it of you: do not insist upon answering my proposal now.”
“Mr. Adkins, I don’t like toting up a relationship this way.”
“I could not agree with you more!” he cried, and bounded to her side. “But I know you to be a practical woman and I wanted you satisfied therein before I bespoke the night’s true message. The night, as the song says, was made for love.” And before she could take cognizance of his intentions, he had plastered a wet kiss on her cheek.
She started up from the chair with such a bounce, she toppled her short-legged Romeo to the floor. He picked himself up with the most of a very little grace…..”

Okay, so far, do you sense any Austen echoes lurking in the background? Mrs. Norris is a woman past the usual age of courtship, as with Jane Austen’s Mrs. Norris, and she certainly knows the value of a buck, also like Jane Austen’s stingy domestic management guru. But then, she is subjected to a romantic advance that catches her offguard, very much the way Fanny Price feels after being cornered by Henry Crawford at Mansfield Park (before he changes his M.O. in Portsmouth and tries the soft cell approach). Or even, when you broaden your Austen lens, the way Darcy surprises Elizabeth with his first proposal.

Okay, I’ll stop playing games, and just give you the rest of that chapter, and then you’ll realize why I am certain the name “Mrs. Norris” was not a coincidence, not one bit:

…“I feel like something out of a Jane Austen novel,” he said, “and I have never admitted the only roles in that to which I was suited. You have hurt me deeply, Mrs. Norris. I am a sensitive man for all that I play the clown. There was something about you that seemed refreshing after my horrid experience with that, that wretch. You have disillusioned me terribly.”
“I have hurt your pride,” she said, “and what is pride to a man who has a sense of humor?”
His moment’s contemplation of that seemed to mollify him.
“Yes,” he said, “I am too sensitive, and I know I take myself too seriously. My dear, your wisdom is the perfect balance to my wit.”
He could persuade a bird, Mrs. Norris thought, to nest on a scramble egg. “I’m going to put on the kettle,” she said, “and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.”

Isn’t that wonderful? There we have Mr. Adkins as Henry Crawford, player of many roles. But more aptly, there is an unmistakable sly wink at Pride & Prejudice! Adkins, the cocky suitor whose pride is hurt by the sharp wit of the woman he is attracted to, and who must learn to develop his sense of humor. And then finally, again, Mrs. Norris perceives the Henry Crawford in Mr. Adkins, because Henry could indeed “persuade a bird to nest on a scramble egg”! And maybe that is a final wink to the four pheasant’s eggs which Mrs. Norris cadges from Mrs. Whitaker at Sotherton, or maybe Henry Crawford’s melancholy broken egg shells after Mansfield Park brunch with Fanny and William.

Whatever it all means, I’m sorry I did not realize all of the above a few years sooner, so that I might have been able to ask the author herself what it all meant.  ;)

But maybe one day I’ll be able to ask JK Rowling whether her choice of the name “Mrs. Norris” for a cat was in any way influenced by Davis’s name for her housekeeper/detective a half century earlier.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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