What is the matter with Cyril Hare’s Frank Pettigrew (‘Tragedy at Law’)?
March 1, 2013 § 1 Comment
Hare showed from the first an agreeable liveliness in writing dialogue, and an unusual capacity for using his legal knowledge. In his fourth book, Tragedy at Law (1942), his gifts coalesced, and the account of the life of a judge on circuit is done with a sense of comedy and a feeling for character that keeps one totally absorbed in the misadventures of the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, Justice of the King’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice. Julian Symons in Bloody Murder
I feel indebted to the late Julian Symons for bringing Tragedy at Law to my attention. I first read Tragedy at Law (borrowed from Highgate Library) about three years ago. I recollect reading the start with a great deal of pleasure, but feeling dissatisfied with the end.
The plot was not entirely satisfactory. But that would not have been a cause for dissatisfaction: the resolution of a crime novel rarely is satisfying.
Last Autumn I bought my own copy of Tragedy at Law from Oxfam. In January, I chanced to pick it up, intending to read only a few pages. All the same, I carried on reading until I finished it. Not only does Cyril Hare write well but he writes with a particular kind of English good-humoured humour that I take great pleasure in. Those who knew Barber best used to say that whenever he was particularly faddy or exacting he invariably excused himself by referring to the high standards set by his colleagues or, in their default, his predecessors. One had a vision of a great company of masterful beings, in scarlet and white, urging on the modest Barber to abate no jot of his just dues in the interests of the whole judiciary of England, past and present. Certainly Barber usually showed no reluctance in obeying their summons. (Chapter 1)
Cyril Hare shows a fine management too of the long sentence: a type that the writer can so easily lose control of. In place of the monastic seclusion of the Canon’s house in the Close, the Judge’s household was lodged in a gaunt Victorian mansion, with vast ill-furnished rooms which contrived to be at once chill and stuffy, whose huge plate-glass windows gave on to a wilderness of smokey chimneys by day and raised perpetual difficulties over the black-out at night. (Chapter 9)
There are so many good things, the atmosphere, the personalities and the real sympathy we feel towards an intelligent barrister like Frank Pettigrew who has not had so successful a career as it first promised to be. Looking back at the confident, and—he could fairly say it now—brilliant young man who had opened his career at the bar beneath that self-same flaking plaster ceiling, he fell to wondering what had gone wrong with him. Everything had promised well at first, and everything had turned out ill. [Then Pettigrew thinks less about blaming other things and more about acknowledging some deficiency in himself.] Something that he lacked and others, whom he knew to be his inferiors in so many ways, possessed in full measure? Some quality that was neither character nor intellect nor luck, but without which none of these gifts would avail to carry their possessor to the front? (Chapter 1)
Pettigrew is intelligent and good-humoured but he didn’t attract Hilda, William Barber’s wife. She, we infer, had a chance to marry Pettigrew (the long drawn out agony of his pursuit of Hilda, and What a dance she had led him on!) but she didn’t take it. Why? It is hard to see why William Barber attracted her unless it was because he made a lot of money at the bar (before he became a judge) or she wanted to vicariously enjoy a legal career by manipulating her husband’s. (Hilda had been called to the bar, but, in those days, her career was hampered by the fact that she was a woman.)
We are not the only ones who wonder why she married William Barber. He is not a nice man. Independently, her brother and Sebald-Smith (the victim of the pivotal car accident) both wonder aloud, to her face, about her choosing to marry William Barber. She does not satisfy their curiosity or ours. (Was this a novelist’s sleight of hand? In the sense that Hare decided to deal with the strangeness of the marriage by showing us he was aware of it.) Do we just accept the marriage. There are marriages which the imagination, even the most practised literary one, cannot conceive. You must just accept them, as you do in the theatre when you see the ancient and doddering married to the beautiful and gay, as the given premises on which the farce is mechanically built up. (Little Lizzy by Thomas Mann)
The marriage between Hilda and William is not, in truth, farcical, we simply feel dissatisfied by it. As we are, in real life, when we can’t account for marriages between certain people.
But these wonderings are beside the point: why didn’t I enjoy Tragedy at Law more? I lay the blame on the character of Frank Pettigrew.
Pettigrew took his defeat [at the hands of William Barber] with resignation, with good humour even. He put up a semblance of a fight, but he knew he was beaten, and it was not his habit to prolong the agony in hopeless cases. In this, perhaps, he was unwise. Clients are human, and derive much consolation from “a good fight”, however vain. (Chapter 6).
But perhaps Cyril Hare made a mistake in the drawing of Frank Pettigrew’s character. There is room in literature for the brilliant man and the bitter unsuccessful man, but the mild unsuccessful man appeals less. We are human too and we want something more than a middle-aged, unsuccessful barrister. From my first reading, I remembered Pettigrew only as a recessive middle-aged man disappointed in love, unsuccessful there as well as at the bar.
When I came to the book again I was surprised to find that he was so humorous, intelligent, feeling and sympathetic. We don’t see very much of him in the second half of the book. As a main character, he should have appeared more. He begins even then to fade in our minds.
Frank Pettigrew’s personality is overcast by his failure. In recollection, he is far less interesting than he really is. His failure dims him too much.
Justice Barber did not act fairly by Frank Pettigrew. Some of Barber’s actions are deliberate, some, perhaps, impersonal and no more than the actions of a man who is not admirable. We are to understand that Justice Barber was deeply influenced by Hilda that she, in fact, wrote his judgements for him. Why didn’t Frank Pettigrew resent Hilda a little more? His career needed a boost not judgements from Williams Barber that were made more damaging by her meddling. We would have had more sympathy for Pettigrew, if he had liked Hilda (the person who is harmful to him) less. We can’t feel for him if he doesn’t feel for himself. Most people, when they have been bitten, do not put out their hand to be bitten again, and we don’t respect them when they do.
Why was Frank Pettigrew hanging around unmarried all that time? Later he marries, so why did Cyril Hare make him wait so long? We can only hope it was not because of Hilda. His constancy to Hilda when she had made her life with another man, and one Pettigrew did not like, seems neither natural nor admirable. What was he waiting for? Characters who don’t feel enough for themselves have a neutralising effect on the emotions of readers. We don’t want them to wallow in self-pity but we want them to feel something so we can identify with them. Futh in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore produced a similar but more pronounced reaction in me; he seemed to be abnormally passive. In such cases, it is hardly my place, as a reader, to usurp the functions of a fictitious character and experience emotions which that character neither can nor will experience.
Tragedy at Law does deserve a place in the top 100 crime novels of all time. But I would consider that no. 85 is too low.