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Murder, Miracles and Myanmar

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As I had expected, I found the famous murder trials edited by Miss F. Tennyson Jesse on the shelves of the Law Library of the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a dozen more of her books in the main collection. It is a very young university – a mere sixty years old – and it replaced Victoria College, which itself had absorbed the Normal School, as the teacher training institute was originally known, and naturally took over their libraries. Presumably the young women preparing to be junior school teachers in the 1920s and ’30s enjoyed Jesse’s novels and plays, and so obviously did their instructors and the librarians, who of course make the real decisions about library purchases.

It was through my interest in true crime that I first came across the work of Jesse – the F. was for ‘Fryniwyd’, a childhood Spoonerism of her real name, ‘Wynifried’, and ‘Tennyson’ was borrowed from her great-aunt – but only recently did I dis­cover how much else she had written. In addition to her early poems and short stories she produced ten novels, several plays, historical works and books on criminology, all meticulously researched, intelli­gently argued, beautifully written and punctuated with flashes of sly humour.

As a young writer Jesse worked as a reporter for The Times and the Daily Mail, and during the First World War she was sent to the Belgian front as a war correspondent. In 1918 the Ministry of Information asked if she would go to France to report on women’s role in the war, but she told them, ‘rather ungraciously, that if they wanted the “sunny-haired lassies-in-khaki touch” they had better send some­body else’. They agreed to her terms, and her objective yet sympathetic account, The Sword of Deborah, was published in 1919.

In 1924 Jesse wrote Murder and Its Motives in which she identified six reasons for the ultimate crime: Gain, Reve

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As I had expected, I found the famous murder trials edited by Miss F. Tennyson Jesse on the shelves of the Law Library of the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a dozen more of her books in the main collection. It is a very young university – a mere sixty years old – and it replaced Victoria College, which itself had absorbed the Normal School, as the teacher training institute was originally known, and naturally took over their libraries. Presumably the young women preparing to be junior school teachers in the 1920s and ’30s enjoyed Jesse’s novels and plays, and so obviously did their instructors and the librarians, who of course make the real decisions about library purchases.

It was through my interest in true crime that I first came across the work of Jesse – the F. was for ‘Fryniwyd’, a childhood Spoonerism of her real name, ‘Wynifried’, and ‘Tennyson’ was borrowed from her great-aunt – but only recently did I dis­cover how much else she had written. In addition to her early poems and short stories she produced ten novels, several plays, historical works and books on criminology, all meticulously researched, intelli­gently argued, beautifully written and punctuated with flashes of sly humour. As a young writer Jesse worked as a reporter for The Times and the Daily Mail, and during the First World War she was sent to the Belgian front as a war correspondent. In 1918 the Ministry of Information asked if she would go to France to report on women’s role in the war, but she told them, ‘rather ungraciously, that if they wanted the “sunny-haired lassies-in-khaki touch” they had better send some­body else’. They agreed to her terms, and her objective yet sympathetic account, The Sword of Deborah, was published in 1919. In 1924 Jesse wrote Murder and Its Motives in which she identified six reasons for the ultimate crime: Gain, Revenge, Elimination, Jealousy, Lust for Killing and Conviction (political or otherwise). She used some classic English examples but also included two notorious French cases: her knowledge of the language from her schooling in Paris allowed her to use sources beyond the reach of most other researchers. Her shrewd analyses and encyclopaedic knowledge of the field caught the attention of the criminologist Harry Hodge and led to an invitation to edit some of the Notable British Trials series: over the next thirty years she examined five famous murder cases, from the trial of Madeline Smith in 1857 to those of Evans and Christie ninety years later, the latter an account of a dreadful miscarriage of justice. She even took one celebrated case and turned it into a novel: although she claimed that ‘every character in this book is entirely fictitious’, A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) is clearly based on the celebrated 1922 trial of Frederick Bywaters and Edith Thompson for the murder of her husband. As in the case of Madeline Smith, Edith’s passionate letters to her lover played a crucial part in the case: should hints of future happiness together, if only her husband were out of the picture, be sufficient evidence of complicity in his murder? Her 1937 novel Act of God is quite different and reminded me of the works of her more celebrated literary contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. It is set on the Riviera in a small unfashionable watering place with a population of locals and retired ladies and gentlemen of very limited means who do their best to maintain the appearance of a lifestyle they could not afford elsewhere. In the English Sporting Club ‘women, too old to cash in on their looks, and too poor to be courted for their money, exploited their personalities as much as possible, chiefly by being intensely rude’. Some years previously the town had been transformed: at a spring on a local hilltop ‘no less a person than the Mother of God had appeared to two shepherd children’. The local curé believed their story, the bishop’s various committees cautiously followed suit, and the apparition was officially recognized by the Church, but ‘it is a dangerous thing to let a miracle loose upon the world’. Pilgrims flocked to be cured by the supposedly healing waters, some success­fully, and tourists followed. Shops were soon crammed with ‘the tawdry rubbish that it seems the peculiar genius of the Catholic reli­gion and of seaside towns to collect’, the locals became wealthy, and everything changed. Then one of the English residents discovered that the original ‘miraculous’ appearance was a hoax. The dilemma confronting those within and without the Church who become aware of the fraud is obvious, and goes back at least as far as Pontius Pilate’s famous challenge: ‘Quid est veritas?’ It is this question and its difficult answers that Jesse’s characters explore in her story. Her most ambitious novel, however, was The Lacquer Lady, set in Upper Burma in the 1880s and based on the research she carried out during two trips to Burma and interviews with local historians and several of the leading characters. They combine to produce a fascinat­ing account which is really more fact than fiction. The underlying metaphor is the tamein, the silken skirt worn by Burmese women: not just the garment itself with its traditional and ceremonial importance, but the ritualistic weaving of the fabric which symbolizes the eternal but ever-changing pattern of life in the Golden Palace of Mandalay. Fanny Moroni, the pretty but self-centered teenage daughter of an Italian father and an Anglo-Burmese mother, is attending boarding-school in Victorian England. Her father is a weaver (a prestigious occupation at the Palace in Mandalay) who had fallen out of favour but has now been reinstated. On finishing school Fanny returns to Burma but she finds the narrow European social round tedious com­pared to the glamour and luxury of the Golden Palace with its pomp and rituals. She cultivates a friendship with Supaya-lat, the young and ruthlessly ambitious princess whose reputation became notorious, familiar even to Rudyard Kipling’s British soldier, who fondly remembers kissing a girl of the same name in his poem ‘Mandalay’. In Burma there is no right of primogeniture for royal succession: as the old king Mindoon is dying Princess Supaya-lat conspires to become queen and seduces one of his sons, who is named as the king’s successor. Fanny becomes the new queen’s ‘spoilt pet’ and is appointed a Maid of Honour. At the time Britain is suffering military setbacks in South Africa and the Sudan, which emboldens the new king to exercise his traditional authority. Jesse uses the imagery of looms and weaving to describe the glittering but pasteboard life of the Palace to which Fanny has become accustomed, and in which she appears ‘a little lacquer lady come to life’. As in all great tragedies, however, the end is inevitable, and Fanny plays a part in the downfall of Upper Burma and its annexation by the British. Jesse maintained her interest in the Far East and seventeen years later she wrote The Story of Burma, a concise history of the country now known as Myanmar, which she dedicated to the memory of her cousin Captain Julian Tennyson, ‘killed by the Japanese when fight­ing to free Burma’. For much of her life she had persistent ill-health but this did not affect her passion for writing. Towards the very end she started to dictate the story of her own life but realized she would never be able to finish it. With a smile she said to a friend, ‘I’m think­ing of calling this life of mine The Open Door. Or do you think perhaps The Half Open Door should be enough?’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Alastair Glegg 2022


About the contributor

Alastair Glegg lives on Vancouver Island and has spent the last year getting used to being a great-grandfather and trying to think of rhymes for ‘Covid’.

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