In the first book, “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”, Mary Russell was an “apprentice” to the Master Craftsman of detection, Sherlock Holmes. She was as young and as impressionable as she was passionate and talented.
In “A Monstrous Regiment Of Women” she comes into her majority in every way. She inherits her fortune, establishes her own household, prepares prestigious academic papers and gets her own “case” to pursue.
Holmes plays an important role in the book, Russell’s relationship to him defines a great deal about her, but it Russell who is central. Her mind, her passions, her religious views, shape the events in this story and give it meaning.
One of the strengths of “A Monstrous Regiment Of Women” is how embedded it is in the period without being buried in historical detail. The book opens at Christmas 1920, when men, many of them damaged, had returned from the Great War to a land that was not “fit for heroes”, when women were being displaced from the jobs they performed while the men were at war and when the “doomed generation” haunted by death, and stalked by mental instability, sought relief in sex and drugs and jazz music. The book captures the restless, fragmented spirit of the time beautifully by focusing on events around Margery Childe, a charismatic “Minister” who uses the bible to preach love and demonstrate the value of women while promoting pragmatic philanthropy. This opens up discussions on poverty, social inequity, misogyny, theology and mysticism.
I was fascinated by the effect that Childe had on Russell. Russell is a theological scholar, passionately devoted to studying the Jewish and Christian religious texts to learn their history and unravel the meaning their writers intended to convey. Childe is aware only of the St Jame’s version of the Bible. She reads it to understand what God intends for the world. Russell’s understanding of the text is superior to Childe’s in every way except that Childe has the gift of deep, all-absorbing belief. Russell is suspicious of Childe. She is reluctant to accept that what she is seeing is a woman channelling God’s grace. It is easier for her to believe that she is seeing a woman seeking power and perhaps wealth. Unfortunately for Russell, she is too honest and her mind is too subtle to stop there. She has to confront the contrast between the strength of Childe’s belief and the depth of her own knowledge and wonder which of them is the poorer.
Childe’s “sermons” are wonderful. Although I learned nothing new about the scriptures, I could feel the tug of her passion, the undertow of her belief. I understood the appeal of surrendering myself to it rather than swimming against that tide. That Russell did not surrender tells me a great deal about her.
One of the most memorable things about the book was the misogynistic quotes that open each chapter. King doesn’t comment on them. She doesn’t have to. Each one is breathtakingly appalling in its bigotry and anger. That these quotes come from educated men who were leaders in their time is astonishing. I have become so used to the aspiration on gender equality, no matter how seldom it is achieved, that I had allowed myself to forget the centuries of male thought and teaching that declared women to be less than fully human.
The quotes took the violence against the women in the book, especially Childe and Russell, and defined it not as some extraordinary melodramatic device but as part of the day to day world, an interpretation that is much more chilling.
I continued to enjoy the contrapuntal nature of the relationship between Russell and Holmes. She is a child of the twentieth century, a woman in a society where the old certainties on gender are starting to erode, a jew studying chemistry and theology with the same intellectual curiosity. He was raised to be a Victorian Gentleman, with all the advantages of gender and class on his side, has almost retreated from public life, has a passion for science but has no noticeable inclination towards theism. What binds them together is that they both see the world in a fundamentally analytical way, that allows them a clear view of the people around them while placing them at a distance from them. They both carry scars and guilt and both choose to retain their individuality even at the cost of living outside the bounds of respectability.
I’m hooked on this series now that it is clear that Russell is not the new Watson. I’m looking forward to the rest of the books.