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Books: Death in Little Venice

As the ninth Barbara Vine thriller is published, Ruth Rendell talks about moths, murder and the English worship of secrecy to Paul Binding

Paul Binding
Sunday 29 March 1998 00:02 GMT

"I ALWAYS write about what interests me," Ruth Rendell says. "People's use of words; their choice of clothes; sexual relationships; the natural world, plants and flowers. And butterflies and moths, of course; my books are full of butterflies and moths."

The character at the centre of her latest novel under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine, Gerald Candless, a writer, has a moth as logo for his books. This moth's English name, The Chimney Sweeper's Boy (in Latin it's Epichnopterix plumella) provides the novel's title and most powerful symbol. The Chimney Sweeper's Boy reminds us that classical mythology long ago equated butterflies with psyche, the soul, "from the analogy between metamorphosis and resurrection", leaving a prison-house of the flesh for the ultimate liberty of the world of truth. In the case of Gerald Candless (who dies at the end of the first chapter) the moth is a key to his troubled and elaborately concealed past.

"I always know when a novel is going to be a Barbara Vine one," Ruth Rendell tells me. "In fact I believe that if I weren't to write it as Barbara Vine, I wouldn't be able to write it all." Yet the first Barbara Vine novel came late in Ruth Rendell's prodigiously prolific career, with A Dark-Adapted Eye in 1986. Its appearance was a surprise to a number of her many readers. After all she had repeatedly broken her sequence of detective novels featuring Chief Inspector Wexford and the Sussex town of Kingsmarkham to produce crime novels which transcended their genre in their insights into morbid psychology. Some of her most remarkable and popular productions came in this latter category, such as A Judgement in Stone (1977) - recently filmed by Claude Chabrol - with its terrifying portrait of an illiterate woman avenging herself for her disability on the family who employ her. These fictions, however, never relinquished the author's strong grip on English sociological complexities, just as the more ostensibly social Wexford novels regularly gave us convincing and deeply felt depictions of people at emotional odds with the world about them.

So why did Rendell launch herself on a third category of productions? It wasn't as though she were disguising herself to escape from her ever- increasing public reputation; she was making no secret of this new identity, and her pseudonym derived, we learned, from her middle names. Though it's easy enough - in settings, observations, interests - to relate them to Ruth Rendell's work, the Barbara Vine emancipate certain important imaginative and artistic concerns of the author's from the tight structure of a Wexford story or from the relentless singularities of the non-Wexford books. While, in common with the rest of her work, a crime of violence is always of importance in a Barbara Vine novel, her themes can take more complex forms and soar into an ampler air, fledged moths after a necessary metamorphosis.

On my visit to Ruth Rendell in her house in London's Little Venice she and I tried to enumerate the features that characterise the nine Barbara Vine novels (all published by Viking Penguin in distinction to Hutchinson). Outstanding is a concern with the inter-relation of past and present, how one period with its mores and expectations presses on another long after it has passed. The tragedy at the heart of The Chimney Sweeper's Boy - the full and all-important details of which we learn only at the novel's close - is a product of the culture of its time, that strange fervid last stand of sexual puritanism which (and in retrospect increasingly) the Fifties and earlier Sixties witnessed.

Again, the Barbara Vine novels are distinguished by a tendency to first- person narration. No Night Is Too Long (1994), for example - possibly the most suspenseful of the nine - is unimaginable told in any other voice but young Tim Cornish's, with his sexual ambivalence and his literary ambitions. This in fact isn't the case with The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, though its many quotations both direct and indirect from the writer Gerald Candless's fiction reveals the working of a mind, its translation of events and other people, in a manner not unrelated to the device.

Use of the first person by no means confines the writer to one predicament (on the contrary, these novels are densely peopled) but it does mean that revelation and discussion of personal matters are fuller and more overt in Barbara Vine than in Ruth Rendell. Especially where these relate to questions of sexual fulfilment: "I very much like writing about homosexual relations. I don't quite know why. Perhaps it's because I feel there's still so much to be said about them." Another reason - and certainly The Chimney Sweeper's Boy would suggest it - is that homosexuality exists often in defiance of both social and individual wishes, and at variance with much conscious programming.

"The Chimney Sweeper's Boy began differently from any previous book I'd written," she reveals. "It actually derives from a story a friend - the novel's dedicatee, Patrick Maher - told me. People are always telling me stories, of course, and suggesting that I make something out of them, but never before this have I felt I wanted to use one. But this I knew I must, it was so horrifying."

Gerald Candless is a novelist of considerable standing, critical and popular, living in an isolated house on a superbly rendered North Devon coast, with his wife, Ursula. His two daughters, Sarah and Hope, regularly visit him. Such is Gerald's anxiety that life should be as untroubled for his daughters as possible that he hides from them the fact that he is shortly to undergo bypass surgery. He dies before this of a heart attack (the result of a chance glimpse of someone from his past), thus bringing Sarah and Hope the shock and distress that, ironically, a less considerate father would have spared them.

Further shocks and distress are in store. After inconsistencies and untruths in the story of his life as he has presented it have become undeniable, Sarah in particular realises that he quite literally was not the man they'd believed him to be. Gerald Candless was not even Gerald Candless, that being not merely an assumed but a borrowed name. So she must find out who he really was.

His novels could, if properly read, offer clues - in their plots, choice of characters, recurrent symbols, and sequence. But dictating these - and intrusive into all the lives of those connected with him - is that existence of the writer's before his self-metamorphosis, and the emotions involved.

Such is the tension engendered by the quest for the man behind Gerald Candless, such is the careful and elaborate nature of the plotting, culminating in the desolation of the episode in the past with which the book ends, that it would be wrong to give away more of the plot. But one can say, while spoiling nothing, that the novel compels readers to re-examine their ideas about honesty in art. Gerald Candless lives a deliberate lie, his novels both traffic in and are nurtured by that lie, yet they are - as the summaries and quotations reveal - instruments of truth, bringers of light. Gerald has made his wife, to use her own words, "deeply unhappy", and has smothered his daughters in a love with neurotic roots. Yet he has also meant something very important to people, and we learn that even to those he has wronged he has also done, in his own way, good. His kind of samizdat is maybe what every truly moral and audacious writer has to practise, and Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, and contemplating her own career and achievements, must have had this in mind while creating this ambitious novel.

Meeting her, you feel no whiff of the macabre. "I'm concerned with the lost, the lonely, the shy," she says. "I think shyness is in some ways more widespread now than formerly. I used to be shy myself. Of course, you can't be me now and remain shy, but I remember very well what it felt like. All my work is the expression of my moral standpoint. Though I deal with violence, I want to leave readers feeling their sympathies have been enlarged. If I couldn't feel sympathy for all my characters, I wouldn't be able to write about them as I do."

Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine is read by just about everybody, and has become almost a national institution. She's passionately involved with green and socialist matters, and with a justice too rare in the field she was ennobled last year. Even so I believe Barbara Vine does not enjoy her rightful reputation; many of Ruth Rendell's novels are just about as good as genre fiction can ever be, but Barbara Vine's belong to the mainstream of our literature, and not least because of their detective story residuum.

The English psyche, obsessed by secrecy, continually impelled towards disguises, has given rise to a curious phenomenon. Many of our greatest novels are concerned with the uncovering of deceptions, with the difficult pursuit of truth in a world intent on obfuscation: Emma, Bleak House, Great Expectations, The Secret Agent, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Darkness Visible. We still inhabit an England where novels like scythes are needed, and here is The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, to cut a way for us to where truth and clarity lie. 'The Chimney Sweeper's Boy' by Barbara Vine, Viking pounds 15.99

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