Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.
Tales of action and adventure have been long been a part of my life, and Bo’s, too. James Bond is a mutual favorite–the suave rogue against impossible villains, constantly in daring chases across the world, winning all the women and destroying all the doomsday devices. That’s what spy films are all about, right?
And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.
The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.
In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.
Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.
Chapter 1: Black Candles
The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.
“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.
And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?
“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.
And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.
They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…
Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.
But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂
For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.
We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.
…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.
Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.
“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.
Carne isn’t the only gloomy place
in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.
Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.
This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:
“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”
“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.
Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:
“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”
It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”
Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.
[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.
We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.
Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.
Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!