I’ll be honest, I’ve been kind of dreading this. A glance across the spines of the Dr. John Thorndyke novels and short story collections by R. Austin Freeman reveals Helen Vardon’s Confession (1922) to be his longest book by a factor of about 50%, yet Nick Fuller — who directed me so some excellent Thorndyke novels when I was new to author and character both — considers it perhaps Freeman’s worst offering. And having now read it, I can see its many problems, not least of which is a short story’s worth of criminous endeavour hiding in a 130,000 word novel that takes in too many loose ideas to warrant its tedious length. This was…not fun to read.
To save her — guilty, let it be remembered — father from criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and disgrace, twenty-something Helen Vardon makes a disagreeable marriage with the far older Mr. Lewis Otway, a marriage which, immediately upon its completion, she is given two reasons to bitterly regret. As such, she refuses to live with Otway and moves instead to London under the partial stewardship of Dr. Thorndyke and his assistant Francis Polton. Here, in a sort of idealised artists’ commune in the East End, she begins to enjoy a freer life, which the occasional presence of Mr. Otway does little to spoil. When, however, a long-forgotten romance rears its head, Helen must contend with the ramifications of her sham marriage and the puckered, disapproving face of society that will always look askance at a wife who does not lodge with her husband.
The novel opens and closes well; Freeman is writing in a very emotion-heavy, almost Edwardian style, like the worst excesses of Wilkie Collins, but still captured my drifting attention with some superb turns of phrase, like Otway suggesting marriage to Helen “in a dry, commercial tone, as if he were trying to sell me something at a rather high price; as, in fact, he was”, or Helen reflecting that, as unpleasant as this all-but-forced marriage is, “[w]hen one is walking to the gallows, one does not boggle at an uncomfortable shoe”. The first third, entitled ‘Tragedy’, moves slowly, but sets up an engaging situation and is packed with enough incident to keep anyone already attuned to Freeman and his talents intrigued.
It is in the second part, ‘Romance’, that the problems start to become insuperable, since so little of any event occurs — indeed, you could skip straight to chapter 22 at the end of this part and miss out on very little, since Freeman seems to be casting around for a theme, with repeated dredgings bringing to the surface all manner of half-baked notions which, if developed, might make for an interesting reflection on certain aspects of life in 1908, but which here are picked up, turned over, and then discarded when something else takes his fancy. Perhaps the most interesting notion at play here is the role of the Artist, with Helen’s practical skill as a jeweller allowing her to live independently, if somewhat curtailed in her ambitions by the need to produce work that vendors are willing to sell. There could be a parallel here with the position of Freeman as an author of popular prose…
“Surely it is only reasonable that he should consider the needs and the wishes of the buyers. And all good craftsmen do. Chippendale’s chairs were not only good to look at; they were comfortable to sit on and serviceable in use. The only difference between an artist craftsman and a commercial producer is that the artist always does his best, for his own satisfaction apart from the question of payment; whereas the commercial producer thinks of the profit only, and turns out the worst stuff that the buyer will put up with.”
…but it gets tangled up with spiritualism, hypnotic suggestion, and much (admittedly forward-looking) reflection on the nature of marriage in society. One of these threads will have some loose bearing on the plot going forward, but Agatha Christie explored a similar idea in a 1940 novel without maundering on about it for 30,00 words first.
One must also contend with the fact that Helen Vardon herself is quite unlikeable. Freeman, whose unfortunate eugenicist leanings can be found in the reflections of Helen as she drives through poor London neighbourhoods, seems to have little sympathy with his narrator (“Woman-like, I had acted on a strong conviction; and that conviction had been wrong…”), and also has her engage in a series of frankly maddening actions: withholding key information at an inquest, promising confidentiality around a matter of identity only to brazenly break that confidence a few pages later, then failing to keep her own counsel when it will obviously only make things worse for her. With the book’s length and molasses pace straining at the patience as it already is, you’d at least want your narrator to be sympathetic, and for all its commendably pro-feminist agenda, showing his women-only artists’ commune in a very supportive and positive way, the narrative fails to uphold Helen as any more than an impetuous, selfish, and painfully naive brat.
Thank the heavens, then, for Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, whose handful of brief appearances just about helped maintain my interest and restored some measure of dignity to a floundering mess of a narrative. Interestingly, he’s not presented as an angel of salvation but rather a potentially threatening observer of evidence, warning Helen that, if he finds against her, he will report this with the same avidity as if he is able to clear her name when murder speaks and flicks its tongue in her direction.
The cool, relentless impartiality, the unhuman indifference to everything but the actual truth that the letter conveyed appalled me; and I even seemed to read a direct menace in its tone. If I had employed him, I should have done so at my own risk; so he seemed to hint. His intention was to “find out all he could and tell the court all he knew.” How much would he find out? How much did he know already?
As a mystery, this fails terribly — the idea that only two people know about Object X when we’ve seen and heard a third person notice, ask about, and take possession of it is clumsy riddle-mongering at its laziest — but Thorndyke’s brilliantly clear-sighted evidence which closes the book, and Freeman’s undeniable ingenuity in constructing problem and solution alike, scrape this an extra star, even if it would have been a four-star novella at any other stage in either man’s illustrious career. I’d say this is only for completists, but I’m not sure whether that’s true: my admiration for Thorndyke has increased at seeing him save this meandering tract, and hopefully Freeman and I will meet in more favourable conditions next time, but only the most wildly curious, patient, or avid fans need apply here (or will care about the reference to ‘The Mandarin’s Pearl’ (1909) from John Thorndyke’s Cases [ss] (1909)). Nothing about the experience of wading through this will improve any feelings that you already have about Thorndyke or Freeman, whatever those may be.
R. Austin Freeman on The Invisible Event:
The Red Thumb Mark (1907)
John Thorndyke’s Cases, a.k.a. Dr. Thorndyke’s Cases [ss] (1909)
The Eye of Osiris, a.k.a. The Vanishing Man (1911)
The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912)
The Singing Bone, a.k.a. The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke [ss] (1912)
A Silent Witness (1914)
The Great Portrait Mystery [ss] (1918)
Helen Vardon’s Confession (1922)
The D’Arblay Mystery (1926)
The Magic Casket [ss] (1927)
As a Thief in the Night (1928)
Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930)
14 thoughts on “#1043: Helen Vardon’s Confession (1922) by R. Austin Freeman”
Having never read a single Freeman, I sort of assumed this would be the standard of his work in general. Every description I’ve heard of his work has made him sound tedious and dull, and this review does not improve him in my estimation. Are there any Freemans worth bothering with?
Oh, Libby, oh no, Freeman’s a delight at his best; everyone has an off day, and I’m more than happy to allow his this one dud book after the excellence I’ve read from him elsewhere.
Let me direct you to my five-star reviews of The D’Arblay Mystery (1926) and of As a Thief in the Night (1928). And to Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930), which should have been a five-star review but I was especially dense when I first picked up Freeman and didn’t appreciate the joy and delight of the Thorndyke stories.
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I read a whole lot of “mystery” during the course of a year. Probably about 5% of it is because I’m interested in the purported “mystery therein. For me, the chief interest of these writers works is in the literary value. A story told by a writer from that period, especially if it has a crime element and an endeavour to find the malefactor is very revealing. What used to be thought of a the worst thing a person could do at that time, murder, has been superceded in our times by acts which do not even bear mention let alone thought. I find A long, rambling novel about evil acts from that time soothing.
Dr. Crippen has no shudders for me. But Stephen King does. Freeman, the man who “wrote too much” is pretty engaging most of the time.
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There’s some pretty good writing in Freeman’s books, and for anyone with patience enough to enjoy Doyle, Chesterton, Orczy, and other early innovators there’d be no trouble finding RAF eminently readable.
I’m still waiting for him to sock a really blistering whodunnit on me, but there’s so much else of value in him when he’s good that I’m more than happy to simply have a (mostly) lovely time while in his company.
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Thanks for enduring and sharing your thoughts. I do plan on getting back to Freeman soon but it won’t be this one.
It’s a good short story, and if one were to skip out the middle section it would be a not-terrible novel…but the choice to expand this up to such tedious length with so many meandering distractions is an odd one. The desire to stretch one’s wings must be strong in an author who has hit a groove — but surely with experience comes the ability to tell wheat from chaff 🙂
I have read Mr Polton Explains which I thought was pretty dire, but at least it does not sound as long as this one!
I am nervously anticipating your Coggin review next week. In some ways I think this should be the story out of the four which would work best for you. Lady Lupin is less scatterbrained and it probably has the best mystery plot too, although it has been a while since I read the earlier ones in the series.
I refuse to believe that anythinhg which sheds more light on Francis Polton is truly all bad, as he’s easily one of the best characters in the whole of detective fiction. But that book’s a long way in the future, so there’s plenty of time for this optimism to turn and bite me 😄
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Well if you already like him as a character that might help, but as an entry point into Freeman’s work, it was torture lol
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I have a feeling it was his final Thorndyke novel, so, yes, as an entry on the series it’s unlikely to be the best. Time will tell how well a long-standing fan like myself takes to it 🙂
The real question is whether it dragged more than The Tragedy of X.
Oh, it did, which you’ll no doubt appreciate. But in this book’s favour is that the prospect of the detective turning up again was a pleasing one, so it’s swings and roundabouts really.
Thanks for reminding me, too, that I still have The Tragedy of Y on the TBR. “It’s a much better book,” everyone says, apparently failing to realise how little that means.
It isn’t that Tragedy of Y is better, it is that it is actually a good book period. Which means that Ellery Queen has two good books by my count (from what I’ve read so far).
Okay, fine, I’ll read the damn thing. Just give me a couple of weeks.