Friday, July 31, 2015

Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger (1911)

Lowndes, Marie Belloc, The Lodger, McClure Magazine, January 1911
______, The Lodger, 1913
______, The Lodger, New York: Dell Books, 19 (my edition, pictured)

The Lodger at Goodreads
The Lodger at IBList

Rating: 8/10

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.

The literary myth surrounding Marie Belloc Lowndes's most famous work is that it stemmed from a dinner party conversation. Someone reported that they knew of a former cook and butler who temporarily housed the Whitechapel Murderer, today better known as Jack the Ripper. First published in 1911, just under a quarter of a century after the infamous crimes, Lowndes's novel reflects an interest in that particular scenario and hence does not focus primarily on its titular character. Instead, it focuses on the aging and struggling couple and their strained relationship more than it does on the crimes and the killer. This is to the novel's benefit, as the tense relationship does more to enhance the murders than would any amount of blood.

Moreover, the work acts as an interesting position on the actual crimes: it was written early enough to have avoided the modern Ripper canon, so that there are more murders attributed to the moniker. It also appeared at a time when censorship prohibited any kind of accurate description of the Ripper's brutal slayings. No dismembered corpses and displaced organs; just a little bit of blood.

It is no wonder that, though I read the novel as a teenager in the anthology of Jack the Ripper stories, Red Jack (Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh & Frank D. McSherry, jr., eds, NY: DAW Books, 1988), I had absolutely no recollection of it. At that age I was seeking the thrills of suspense, violence and surprise endings, and probably wasn't even aware of the incredible tension generated by the protagonists: landlords Robert and Ellen Bunting. The Buntings are retired butler and cook, and in their retirement age are suffering from poverty, from years of repressed emotion, and from memories of past glory. The presence of this mysterious and eccentric lodger, Mr. Sleuth, who might be responsible for the recent spate of killings attributed to a serial killer known as the Avenger, acts as a kind of personification of the troubles between man and wife.

Lowndes's prose is gaslit: dark and hazy, tight and claustrophobic. Immediately the gloom is established, the room cozy yet in a "grimy" London neighbourhood, where the focus on our heroes is in light of their poverty. Effective too is the contrast between husband and wife: Mr. Bunting is "leaning back in a deep leather arm-chair," while Mrs. Bunting is "sitting up in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair." This contrast is important as it accurately delineates the characters, and might as well be describing how they are settled within their own skins. Whereas Mr. Bunting is mostly relaxed and easy-going, Mrs. Bunting is a ball of anxiety. It is she who first suspects that their Lodger might be the Avenger, and she clutches at this secret though it makes her incredibly tight and wound up, bordering on a nervous breakdown. Mr. Bunting only suspects their lodger fairly late in the narrative, and while he too becomes unbearably nervous, it is clear that his wife has the strongest sensibility and is better able to cope with the anxieties, though unfortunately she releases steam by snapping at her devoted ans sensitive husband.

Mrs. Bunting can come across as unlikeable in her extreme treatment of her easygoing husband, yet there is the understanding that this side of her is a result of the stresses of poverty, heightened by the suspicion she is housing a serial murderer. Most interesting in her characterization is an instinctive, irrational need in the early part of the text to defend her lodger. While part of this is denial that Mr. Sleuth is a killer, there is a side of her that feels compelled to protect the man. Having been servant and servient throughout her career, she harbours a sense of responsibility to the man whose basic household needs she is catering to. All this despite the guilt--and in this she is guilty--of allowing the Avenger to commit more murders. In protecting his identity she is an accomplice to the deaths that occur during his stay at her home. An unlikeable character who is accomplice to murder makes for a unique protagonist, and this heightens the novel both in interest and in complexity, a work well in advance and subtlety than Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (though in fairness the two are mostly incomparable).

Other characters are less dimensional. Mr. Bunting has some level of complexity, though this is primarily in light of his relationship with Ellen Bunting, for otherwise he has a fairly fixed personality to comply with his role in the novel. His niece and her lover, local policeman Joe Chandler, exist primarily to break the tensions of the story, to offer some light amid the gloom, and with their blossoming romance, some sense of a possible positive future. In addition, Chandler is required in order to share information with both the Buntings and the reader, to hypothesize and to increase certain elements of tension, such as the lodger's abhorrence of visitors to the house. The lodger himself, Mr. Sleuth, is a mysterious, anxious eccentric who is fairly stock, though it is his stockness within these qualities that makes him suit his role.

A novel for which much can be written and through several angles, and one I will certainly revisit.

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