B: November 10, 1878 Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India - D: January 28, 1961England
Life & Writing
The first thing you must know about Patricia Wentworth is the fact this isn’t her real name! Wentworth’s real name was Dora Amy Elles. Born in India, she lived there until a teen when her family shipped her back to London to attend Blackheath High School (it evidently is a pretty prestigious school). After graduation she returned to India, where she got her first taste of publication for an article published in the Civil and Military Gazette. In 1906 she married Colonel George Dillion who left her widow after a few short years. By 1910, she’d packed up her daughter and three step-sons and moved back to England and penned her first novel.
Wentworth published eight novels over the next ten years in order to support herself and her family. In 1920 she married George Oliver Turnbull, and her new husband supported his wife’s writing. This is when her career really took off! With his encouragement and help (he transcribed while Wentworth dictated) she went on to write sixty-eight more books. This support should not be scoffed at - look at June Wright; she lacked support from her husband and gave up her writing career after only eight books. In any case, Wentworth had a long and successful career, publishing her last book the same year she passed away.
“Ridiculous rubbish if you ask me! Modern Craze! Wedding’s quite bad enough without dragging everyone through a rehearsal first!”
- Poison In The Pen
Detective: Miss Maud Silver
1st in Series: Grey Mask (1928) Last: Girl In The Cellar (1961)
No. of Books In Series: 32
Detective: Ernest Lamb
1st in Series: The Blind Time (1939) Sequel: Pursuit Of A Parcel (1942)
Detective: Benbow Smith
1st in Series: Fool Errant (1929) Last: Down Under (1937)
No. of Books In Series: 4
Detective: Frank Garrett
1st in Series: Dead Or Alive (1936) Sequel: Rolling Stone (1940)
Non-Mystery Books: 37
Silver vs. Marple
Without a doubt Patricia Wentworth’s most famous character is Miss Silver. A retired governess, Miss Maud Silver became a private detective in order to supplement her small income. Silver set up her office in the drawing room of her residence, pairing this homey setting with a frumpy sense of style and constant knitting - she put her clients at ease and lulled suspects in complacency. These clients which Silver served came from among her acquaintances and strangers alike - but they were generally among the upper class. Not unlike another spinster sleuth we know....
The similarities between Christie’s Miss Marple and Wentworth’s Miss Silver is striking enough, I feel I must elaborate on it. The most significant traits these two distinguished ladies share are spinsterhood, knitting and nosiness. However there isn’t a breath anywhere about Wentworth appropriating Christie’s Marple for her own use, mainly due to one significant difference between the two ladies, Miss Silver receives compensation for her efforts, i.e. she’s paid for the cases she investigates. Silver is a professional whom some have argued was the precursor to today’s female PI’s - V.I. Warshawski or Kinsey Milhone. Miss Marple is essentially a very talented amateur (I believe she is only financially rewarded once - in Nemesis).
Another notable distinction is their methods of detection. Miss Silver follows a more active and action oriented approach. She tails suspects, conducts interviews, does fact checking and once she even broke into a house following up on a clue! While Miss Marple uses a more cerebral style, relying on her knowledge of human behavior to crack a case. Christie often employed a young able-bodied person within Miss Marple’s sphere of influence to supply any action the mystery required - Marple simply pulled the strings behind the scenes. For example, Miss Marple hired Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 4:50 From Paddington to infiltrate the Crackenthorpe household to find a body/murderer. Miss Marple did not actively follow up on the clues, check alibis or search the grounds, these tasks were left to Lucy who reported the results back to her. This information and Marple’s deductions are what allowed the case to be solved!
While similar in sensibilities, these two grand ladies do differ greatly in their essentials and when read will never be mistaken for one another mainly due to one key difference - money. Miss Marple never had to work, she was independently wealthy and received some support from her nephew which left Marple free to pursue her hobbies, including crime solving, at her leisure. On the other hand, Miss Silver needed to work her entire life, first as a governess and then as a private investigator in order to keep herself in tea and toast!
*Now you may think that looking at the publication dates would resolve this issue and while researching this piece I found many people believe Miss Silver predates Miss Marple. Which is kinda true. The first Miss Silver book Grey Mask (1928) does predate Murder At The Vicarage (Miss Marple’s first full length novel) by almost two years. The problem here is Vicarage was not Marple’s first appearance in print! Marple’s roots extend back to December of 1927 to a short story called The Tuesday Night Club, first printed in ‘The Royal Magazine’ in the UK (the story was eventually incorporated into a collection called The Thirteen Problems in the UK and The Tuesday Murder Club in the US). So in actuality Miss Marple came first - but only by a few months.
When reading up on Mrs. Wentworth it was often highlighted that she won an award for her 1910 debut novel, A Marriage Under The Terror, a romance set during the French Revolution and a story which she’d claimed she’d always wanted to write. Which is all well and good, except these same articles fail to mention that the “award” she won was a bit more than just a plaque - it got her first book published!
The Melrose Prize was awarded by Andrew Melrose, the head of a British publishing house, who was noted for fostering new authors and their works. While it was a distinguished award, the Melrose Prize was also a competition. Usually Melrose only allowed debut novelists to enter the contest but in 1910 he opened it up to professional writers as well. The winner not only got their book published, but won 262 pound cash prize (according to The Bank of England’s inflation calculator this would be about 27,565 pounds or $46,585 in 2014 money), in other words a nice chunk of change.
According to the New York Times there were one hundred and sixty-seven manuscripts entered into competition (and it is rumored that a number of big names entered, but they were coy about actually naming names). Every year three judges read each entry, which had been stripped of all identifiers so no one knew who’d written the book to keep things fair. Former judges included Joseph Conrad (who wrote among other things Heart of Darkness) and H.G. Wells (famed for The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau). Even with the stiff competition from both pros and amateurs Wentworth’s debut novel came out on top and launched her fifty year career.
My 52 Weeks With Christie: A.Miner©2015