In one of the earliest books in Ruth Rendell’s popular Inspector Wexford series, A Guilty Thing Surprised, Wexford identifies a murderer after reading a work of literary criticism, gaining that elusive insight fictional detectives count on for solving crimes. The brother of the victim had published a scholarly study of the English romantic poet, William Wordsworth, and to the inspector’s surprise, he is drawn into a history of disturbed family relations, of secrets hidden behind a respectable façade. There are suspicions of brother-sister incest and definite evidence of psychological incest, of the inability of two siblings to extricate themselves from emotionally damaging attachments. Although the subject of the book Wexford was reading had lived two centuries earlier, Wexford encountered similarly blighted family landscapes every time he investigated a new case. They are the domestic battlefields that Ruth Rendell has repopulated with different families in the sixty-one novels and large body of shorter fiction that she has written (with more likely to come). Not finding the author of the Wordsworth study sympa- thetic, Wexford had expected to find his book tiresome, and he was surprised at how compelling the story was that gripped him. The reading itself was not unusual, for Wexford frequently read literary biographies and critical studies of authors. His wife Dora would often ask why he read what someone else said about a book instead of just reading the book itself. The inspector would find himself at a loss to describe a pleasure perhaps only comprehensible to someone who already shared it. But he would patiently explain that literary criticism was a form of education and, as was true of all education, its purpose was “to turn the soul’s eyes toward the light.” When Ruth Rendell used Wexford’s reading to articulate this defense of the art of criticism, did she hope that someday she would be the subject of such a study? Could she be such a subject so long as she was praised as the “best mystery writer anywhere in the English-speaking world,” and crime fiction was thought of essentially as the construction of ingeniously wrought puzzles? As a literary critic who has published on writers acknowledged to be worthy of critical analysis, I have taken Ruth Rendell’s celebration of criticism as a starting point to study her as I have other authors, as a literary artist who deserves critical attention.
A Guilty Thing Surprised is the fifth of the twenty-three books that, at this writing, comprise the Wexford series, also known by the fictional rural town in which the inspector lives and works, the Kingsmarkham series. The first one was published in 1964, the most recent in 2011, the series having endeared itself to Rendell readers for forty-seven years. During that time, there have appeared numerous books not part of the series, several of the most compelling written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Ten of the thirteen novels written by Rendell as Vine will be discussed at length in this study: to identify them, see the list of books at the end. For to avoid confusion, I will only use the name Ruth Rendell. There are also collections of short stories, and works of non-fiction. That Rendell is a prolific author is obvious, and every time I think I have finished this book, another novel appears to require further consideration or elaboration of an idea or theme about which I thought I had nothing more to say.
One example reveals very clearly that neither Rendell’s fictional world nor her characters are static creations, and that her writing reflects changes in a world she has always observed with her keen eye and analytical mind. In Live Flesh (1986), Rendell constructs a coherent and unified case study of a serial rapist in which all the psychological pieces seem to neatly explain the criminal. Later, in The Rottweiler (2003), a serial killer will desperately try to create his own case study in the hope that if he achieves self-understanding, he may be able to resist the impulse to attack women. What he discovers is a trigger that initiates such assaults, but triggers and causes are clearly not the same. Self-sufficient enlightenment eludes the criminal, the reader, and perhaps even the author, who has come to understand that the more that is known about human behavior, the more elusive seem attempts to fully account for it. The coherent case history may be a thing of the past, may in fact falsify reality. Causes of human action may remain mysteries, and unlike the solutions to specific crimes, they may not be susceptible to final resolu- tions. Rendell says as much in The Blood Doctor, noting that even psychologists and psychiatrists cannot provide complete explanations for why people act as they do.
In that novel and in Anna’s Book, a missing notebook or missing pages of a diary hinder the search for the truth that adheres to a mystery not yet solved. These lost pages can perhaps be read as metaphors for the uncertainty that attaches to any attempt to fully understand people. That some of Rendell’s later novels may therefore appear less “neat” in their construction than her former books is not a sign of exhausted talents and too much prolixity, but is rather a sign of how her work reflects the changing times. Today, there are more, not fewer, controversies concerning human behavior. The nature vs. nurture argument, for instance, a subject that has drawn Rendell’s interest throughout her writing career, seems more problematic than ever. For what are called the hard sciences, along with evolutionary psychology, have in their attempts at explanation reversed the direction of the pendulum that began centuries ago to move away from ideas of original sin and innate depravity to the effects of the environment in which people are raised and live out their lives. Today, the mystery writer who takes on the challenges of these new explorations into the mind and brain (if they can be differentiated) will be indistinguishable from serious novelists for whom the uncertainties of human existence supply perennial subjects. Ruth Rendell should be read not specifically as a writer of mysteries but rather as a novelist who rightfully enjoys her fine reputation among other acclaimed authors, such as Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, who have read and praised her fiction. But despite a growing body of scholarly work on the crime fiction genre and some of its notable practitioners, the mystery novel as a form of popular entertainment has yet to relinquish its defensiveness when it claims the status of serious literature. It is one of the purposes of this study of Rendell to challenge the assumptions that cling to the genre.
The gap between mysteries as mere entertainment and crime fiction as significant art is the subject of a book with the intriguing title The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. John T. Irwin poses what he calls a simple-minded question: “How does one write analytic detective fiction as high art when the genre’s central narrative mechanism seems to discourage the unlimited rereading associated with serious writing?” If the point of crime fiction is the “deductive solution of a mystery,” how does the writer create a “work that can be reread by people other than those with poor memories?” Irwin creates a metaphor out of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter.” Poe’s renowned detective, August Dupin, an ancestor of Reginald Wexford as he is of countless other fictional investigators, has been asked to recover a letter highly incriminating of an important person. Although the police have vainly torn apart the dwelling where the letter should have been found, Dupin easily finds it “hidden” in full view, turned inside out with a false address and addressee written on it. In Irwin’s study, the letter becomes emblematic of his subject. For just as the letter can be turned inside-out and outside-in, so too can some mysteries be read and reread, each reading yielding some new pleasure or insight. The solution to the crime, the plot, and the revelation of whodunit become less important as characterization, psychology, and complex themes command readers’ interest.
Rendell’s novels are, nonetheless, traditional mysteries insofar as crimes are committed and criminals sought and apprehended. But if that were all, she would fail the test that Irwin applies to distinguish mysteries that are high art from crime writing that essentially works through a puzzle, however entertaining and absorbing that puzzle may be. Some of Rendell’s most compelling mysteries, moreover, deviate from familiar narrative patterns. In The House of Stairs, it is the identity of the victim and not that of the criminal that is withheld until the story’s end. In A Fatal Inversion, both victim and murderer are unknown until the book’s conclusion. The suspense in an early work, The Face of Trespass, and in the later, much acclaimed The Bridesmaid, builds over whether a besotted young man will acquiesce to his lover’s demands that he prove his devotion by killing someone. In the earlier novel, an inconvenient husband has to be gotten out of the way, a common enough motive for murder. By the later book, Rendell’s forays into human psychology resemble those of Dostoevsky and Camus, who wrote about motiveless crimes, or at least ones in which the ostensible motive hardly begins to explain the killing. In The Bridesmaid, the most randomly chosen victim will satisfy the psychotic woman whose deluded lover can hardly believe she wishes him to murder someone, and for no reason. But because he is so enthralled by his femme fatale, readers will be caught up in the uncertainty of whether he will deliver this proof of his love.
Not that the conventional mystery necessarily lacks psychological or philosophical depth. Writers of crime fiction will inevitably come to their craft with ideas or beliefs about evil and its origins, about fate and its vagaries, and therefore about the reasons why crimes are committed. Even implicitly, their books will raise questions concerning what it means to speak of human nature, or conversely, why it is said when a particularly gruesome crime has been committed that the perpetrator is an animal. But those mystery writers who meet Irwin’s standards for the mystery novel as art will more actively engage their reader in a deeper exploration of these subjects than the puzzle requires. Increasingly in her novels Ruth Rendell moves into the realms of the social and even hard sciences. In The House of Stairs, she takes up the genetic uncertainties associated with Huntington’s disease (at the time in which the novel is set), but also asks whether there might be a gene that corresponds to the so-called bad seed, and writes a book that constantly questions how much free will humans can claim to possess. Later, in The Blood Doctor, Rendell will add to these considerations the consequences of human freedom that has breached the limits beyond which people perhaps ought not venture. Rendell understands very well that ambiguities lie not in the answers to questions posed about human behavior, but in the questions themselves. This study of Ruth Rendell will emphasize how she roots her novels in the biological and social units known as the family. In particular, it will show how she has explored in depth the tensions within families that lead to murder. For in most of Ruth Rendell’s novels, and certainly in the best of them, speculations concerning human motivation emerge from her brilliant portrayals of highly dysfunctional families. The adjective is apparently not one that Rendell favors. The word dysfunctional is used ironically in Babes in the Woods where a woman protests that her daughter, her son-in-law, and grandchildren are not a dysfunctional family, when in fact they constitute an extremely disturbed family unit. In Thirteen Steps Down, published soon after, the word appears in the musings of an unsympathetic character, an upwardly mobile young man who will not commit himself to a woman until he is satisfied that, as his wife, she will fit into the neat scheme he has devised for his life. And this scheme excludes troubled family relations. In End in Tears, Jenny Burden uses the word as a convenient designation of a large group of people she deals with as a teacher.
Just how sensitive Rendell is to language and how carefully she assigns words to her characters are made clear in another recent book, The Minotaur. Her first-person narrator is Kerstin, a young Swedish woman who accepts employment in an extremely disturbed English family, writing years later about the strange events she had been witness to and to which she had perhaps contributed. Although fluent in English, Kerstin considers the language with the interest but also detachment of a non-native speaker, and will sometimes remark on how a word that could define a situation (for example, sexist) had not been current when the incident it could describe actually occurred.
Ruth Rendell can therefore acknowledge the usefulness of a word while disapproving of popular jargon, which reduces the power of language and—in the case of dysfunctional—converts complex problems into mere pop-psychology. Still, Rendell is a genius at portraying disturbed families. From her earliest books, motives for murder have been rooted in the intrapersonal dynamics of mismatched husbands and wives who have come to loathe each other; in overtly destructive or—just as damaging—indifferent parents and sometimes their equally repellent children; and in siblings who perpetuate with each other and within their own families the pathology that in one Wexford novel the inspector traces to the first family, Adam and Eve, and therefore implicitly to the first murderer and victim, Cain and Abel. It is commonplace to point out that people are more likely to be hurt or killed by members of their own family than by strangers on the street. Something deeply embedded in family dynamics creates a potential for violence.
Today, as the whodunit gives way to the popularity of the whydunit, many crime writers draw on the hidden family secret that explodes in a horrible crime, the secret itself often supplying the story’s final revelation (that the victim was the object or perpetrator of sexual abuse has become so common a plot element that it has ceased to deliver an effective surprise). But no writer in the mystery genre takes readers on as complex a journey into the variety of troubled family relations as does Rendell (a renowned writer, Ross Macdonald, tends to play variations on a more narrow, Freudian-based family paradigm).
In her fiction, Rendell can inspire in her readers the kind of pity and terror traditionally associated with ancient tragedy, which as Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, consistently takes for its subject families who have perpetuated terrible acts or who have suffered from them. A similar claim is made in Rendell’s The Brimstone Wedding, in which one of the two main characters, Genevieve, says of the community that surrounds her that they are “a family, but you have to remember families are where most of the trouble starts in this world.” And in No Night Is Too Long, a book supplies the means by which two lovers are brought together. Its title is The Golovlyov Family, and the family it portrays makes the Karamazovs seem by comparison to consist of benign and loving relations. What Wexford thinks when he has to deal with the Hathall family in Shake Hands Forever, that he had “never come across a family so nourished on hatred,” could apply as well to other families he deals with in the course of his investigations. Aristotle’s description of the place of family in tragedy suggests his strong influence on Rendell novels.
Rendell has acknowledged her deep interest in the classics. She has been quoted as saying that, after she stopped working at a job to raise her son, she studied on her own two subjects that she would have pursued had she gone to a university. One of these was ancient Greek. In Greek literature, two families—The House of Atreus and The House of Laius—supplied material for the Homeric epics and more than half of the Greek plays that have survived from ancient times. Greek myths and narratives created for centuries a literary treasure trove for authors who drew on them for their own plots and characters. Ancient writers possessed such keen insight into family dynamics that even authors who did not borrow directly from the classics can be studied within traditions traceable to them. This study of Ruth Rendell will argue that, not only did she make the family her central and recurring motif, but also that the ancient writers, particularly Homer and the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as well as the psychological theories derived from their understanding of family dynamics, were sources from which Rendell consistently borrowed (see Chapter 3).
Although this study of Ruth Rendell is not primarily a source study, it will claim that insight into her fiction can be attained by studying how the two major dynastic families portrayed in Greek myth, epic, and, especially, tragedy, make themselves felt in her writing. The House of Atreus involves the events leading to and following the Trojan War and to the murder of Clytemnestra committed by Orestes with the aid of Electra, who are avenging the murder of their father Agamemnon. The story of the House of Laius tells how Oedipus unknowingly slays his father Laius, marries his mother Jocasta, and embroils his own children in the consequences of his patricide (see Chapter 2 for a detailed summary of these family sagas). Both of these dynastic stories eventually gave a name to a psychological theory—the Oedipus and Electra complexes of, respectively, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung—and Ruth Rendell’s novels demonstrate that she is as familiar with competing psychological paradigms as she is with the ancient narratives that supplied their names.
The next chapter of this book will outline the classical narratives, reminders to those who may have forgotten some of the details or introductions to those who never knew them well. Similarly, Rendell’s readings of Freud and Jung and her awareness of the theoretical differences that eventually alienated these giants of psychological theory help frame her own stories. Chapter 3 will discuss how the Oedipus complex of Freud and the Electra complex of Jung make their way into Rendell’s fiction. She frequently refers to Oedipus but, if my numerous readings of her books have not failed me, there are no direct references to Electra, although Electra’s mother, Clytemnestra, is named in the novels. Electra’s devotion to her father and, perhaps more to the point, her hatred of Clytemnestra create a pattern defining many Rendell plots. For there is perhaps no other author who portrays mother-daughter conflict as starkly as Rendell does. She also treats in her novels a theme that emerges from the three Electra plays of the Greek tragedians (one each by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—see Chapters 8 and 9), the problematic daddy’s girl, not pampered pet but rather obsessed victim of a male-dominated society. A seemingly only moderate feminist who in her later Wexford books slyly satirizes the excesses of the woman’s movement, Rendell seems usually to avoid the word patriarchy as she does dysfunctional. Still, the concepts associated with patriarchy can be found throughout her books.
This study of Ruth Rendell will, in short, place her writing in a complex cultural framework. Culture, however, is a word whose definition confounds even the anthropologists who have made of it a discipline that has become increasingly important in the social sciences. It would therefore be useful to discuss briefly how any study of Rendell inevitably becomes a study in culture. First, that Rendell draws on the ancient Greek tragedians is itself a cultural phenomenon in the sense that in studying the crime fiction genre, one might distinguish between a so-called high culture (Dostoevsky) and a lower one (Agatha Christie). This meaning of culture is not ordinarily the one anthropologists and sociologists are concerned with, although of course the art of a people is important to describing and individuating it. Second, to read through Rendell’s novels chronologically is to recognize how she has described the changes in English society as a homogeneous urban population in the early Kingsmarkham novels gives way to what is now popularly designated as ethnic diversity. In a late Wexford book, Not in the Flesh, Rendell also takes up the subject of cultural relativism. The Somali immigrants who have come to England practice female genital mutilation (clitorodectomies), what is sometimes called female circumcision. Although this practice was denounced by many Africans who came to England to spare their daughters this ordeal, and although the procedure was illegal in England, there remained families determined that their daughters undergo it. Not because they did not love their children, but because they did. From their perspective, they were ensuring their daughters would eventually find suitable husbands. One little girl in the novel speaks to the tragic results when a people are forced to give up their customs before they themselves are ready to do so. In the next Wexford novel, The Monster in the Box, the inspector thinks about how “experience had taught him what deep waters one struggles to swim in when plunging into the traditions of another culture.” The most politically correct member of his team, Hannah Goldsmith, finds herself confounded by the tension between her radical feminism and her determination to be sensitive to the practices of other cultures and thereby to avoid racism. At issue are forced arranged marriages practiced by some Moslem families, although, like clitorodectomies, such marriages are illegal in England.
Later chapters in this study will discuss how Kingsmarkham changes over the course of years, acquiring the social problems that were formerly associated only with the big cities. In the earlier Wexford books, the inspector finds in the beauty and peace of his country dwelling refuge from the ills that infect such places as London. By the more recent books in the series, the urban problems have spread to the suburban areas. In The Monster in the Box, contrasts between Kingsmarkham when Wexford was young and a new policeman and the present, when he persistently ruminates on these changes, supply reiterated motifs in the novel. Similarly, although class distinctions were always present in Rendell’s fiction, as they would almost inevitably be in any fiction written by an English author, the later books emphasize the connections between class and the criminal justice system. Wexford, for example, finds it increasingly difficult to do his job as restrictions in investigative procedures reflect a culturally based institution undergoing change. In Not in the Flesh, however, it is not only the underclass that is altering Kingsmarkham for the worse, nor only the developers who have transformed the beautiful landscape into housing units, but also a youthful population whose cafés and upscale boutiques have irrevocably altered the face of the town.
Finally, by making the nuclear and sometimes extended family the focus of her writing, Rendell effectively enters into one of the most problematic areas of cultural studies, in which the family itself becomes a highly controversial unit of study, complicated by how its members are defined by gender. Social scientists do not agree about whether the nuclear family or something closely resembling it is universal and, in that sense, is somehow essential to human survival. More important, perhaps, is the role of so-called family values in distinguishing lines to be drawn between socially and politically conservative or radical ideas. Among the questions Rendell’s books raise, therefore, is whether the threatened breakdown of the traditional family is to be deplored or, if not celebrated, at least approved. As anthropologist Adam Kuper has succinctly described it,
In the mid-twentieth century, mainstream sociologists and psychoanalysts tended to represent the family as a crucial source of social stability, but critics, less content with the outcome, were less respectful of the family itself. The modern nuclear family was quite commonly represented as the source of grave, perhaps terminal, social problems. It was too authoritarian, too claustrophobic, riven by irresolvable emotional strains. The family restricted the opportunities of women, fomented emotional crises that it could not resolve, protected perpetrators of violence and child abuse.
Kuper adds that in 1967, the anthropologist Edmund Leach shocked the British public in his BBC lectures “with the claim ‘that far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.’” Only three years earlier, Ruth Rendell published her first mystery novel, From Doon with Death, whose subject might indeed be described as portraying the narrow privacy and tawdry secrets of a family.
In one of her more recent novels, End in Tears, however, Rendell appears reluctant to mark the demise of the family, represented by the Wexfords, even though the body of her work supplies example after example for those eager to attack the institution. In this late book in the Wexford series, the inspector’s family is brought to the brink of collapse, but then Rendell draws back from the final catastrophe. When Wexford’s daughter Sylvia decides to become a surrogate mother and bear a child for her ex-husband and his new partner, who are experiencing a fertility problem, the Wexford family is perhaps brought to the end point of a process that had begun several novels back. For some time, the Wexfords had held together despite experiencing an erosion of what their family represented, and now it confronts the threatened loss of a family member and therefore the family itself. In the end, however, some order is restored, but it is an uneasy order that might imminently disintegrate. In The Vault, the latest of the Wexfords, the family is once again in crisis.
End in Tears is not, however, the first book in which Rendell takes up questions of bioethics and the many new ways that families can be created. In The Blood Doctor, Rendell acerbically, if also ambiguously, treats the idea of “designer babies.” In this book, the ancient theme of the family curse that wends its way through ancient tragedies is expressed not only through genetically-based diseases, but also through the biological and ethical implications of the technology surrounding human reproduction.
The interaction of culture (with its various meanings), family and technology is particularly marked in The Minotaur. In this novel—once again about a highly disturbed family—beautiful objects, a geode and a Roman vase, are defiantly appropriated by family members to demonstrate each one’s power and importance in relation to the others. They virtually steal the objects from each other. A geode is a rock that, when split, reveals a beautiful interior formed of minerals, such as amethyst, and that takes ages to develop (although just how long geologists do not know). Once the interior design is revealed, it proves unique, different from any other geode. The geode is thus both ancient and also highly individualized, and can easily serve as a model of human biology. One’s DNA results from ages of continuous genetic inheritance and creates a biological identity that differs from anyone else’s (except an identical twin’s). The Cosway family in The Minotaur has taken countless generations to reach its present psychological configuration, both typical of disturbed families but also unique in how it is expressed in their intra- familial strife. The beautiful interior of the geode may symbolize the unfulfilled gifts possessed by the only Cosway son, John, who, born with some seemingly genetic disorder, has unfairly become what some psychologists call the family’s “designated victim” (or scapegoat), the one upon whom all family tensions descend. The geode can also be a metaphor for human potential: the rough exterior stone is the disturbed family, but the beautiful crystal formation inside is the possibility of a joy none of the Cosways realize, although some of them pursue it avidly. The geode may also symbolize the very novel Rendell has written, the work of art created from a subject that focuses on biological and psychological diseased states of being.
Readers of The Minotaur receive a more explicit invitation to consider the origins of the Roman vase that inspires in the narrator an “urge to possess it.” Again, the vase speaks to time passing as generations succeed generations. The narrator muses that an “ancestor” of the Cosways had found the vase “miraculously intact,” and thinks about how householders “tend to throw away their rubbish on the same site as that used by the generation immediately before them, while that previous generation favors the site used by his forebears and so on back for centuries.” So to dig down through layers of garbage may result in the discovery of a treasure. Given Rendell’s wide reading, her specific interest in and knowledge of the transmission of inherited diseases (see, especially, The Blood Doctor), it is likely that she is familiar with the concept of junk DNA, those long stretches of genetic code inscribed on human chromosomes that so far remain unexplained in terms of function or biological significance. Yet the accumulated “junk” remains part of an individual’s inheritance, its meaning perhaps on the verge of discovery. To extend this idea to a cultural inheritance is far from saying that Ruth Rendell would view as junk the inherited reading that reaches back from her work to the ancient classics, but only that she has made the Roman vase into a possible figure of her own literary creation as she draws on the great tradition of ancient literature, too often relegated in modern times to the junk heap of neglected classics. Just as the Roman vase in The Minotaur survives as a reminder of ancient glories, so too could Rendell keep alive in her own work the classics threatened with extinction, with burial under the detritus of modern tastes. The very title of her novel, of course, draws on Greek mythology, on the multi-layered story about a family whose members turn on each other—as do those in the novel. The Minotaur can be read as a summing up, of the bringing together in sharp relief those themes that had commanded Rendell’s attention from the beginning of her writing career. As she continued to write, these themes had been transformed by the rapidly changing world in which Rendell lives and which she has always observed, often with keen irony, down to the smallest details.
Although it was stated above that “whodunit” is less important in a Rendell novel than “whydunit,” readers of this study might not appreciate being provided with the solution to a mystery in a book they have not yet read. In his biographical work on Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne assures his readers that they may proceed without fear that he will ever reveal the identity of an Agatha Christie murderer. I cannot make such a wholesale promise, but nonetheless will usually refrain from disclosing secrets Rendell did not intend to give away until a book’s conclusion. That I usually can so refrain despite detailed analyses of the novels is itself evidence that Rendell has done far more than create the kinds of intricate puzzles that characterize mystery novels, and that she usually fulfills the criterion for crime fiction that can claim the status of serious literature, capable of rereading for character analysis, layers of psychological meaning, and treatment of social concerns. Sometimes, as in the analysis of No Night Is Too Long, the discussion will require a secret be revealed, but it is one that Rendell discloses about two-thirds of the way through this fascinating novel, and one that will not surprise the discerning readers who have paid close attention to subtle clues provided earlier. Occasionally, I may tease my own readers with partially disclosed information, but this will hopefully inspire a reading or rereading of the work under discussion. Once again, this book is not primarily a study in sources.
Sources, however, are very important in discussions of Rendell’s fiction, because she is both a voracious reader and also an extremely allusive writer. As she says of the connection between books she has read and those she has written, “I store these things and they come out.” The literature that has fed Ruth Rendell’s imagination is so vast that an encyclopedia of influences and allusions could be constructed. No attempt will be made to point out all of those I have recognized, even when an interpretation could benefit from following the path of a source through a Rendell novel. And I know I have not picked up all of her allusions. Sometimes, however, one of these will be so meaningful that it will be discussed in some detail. Occasionally, Rendell herself will make a source explicit, as she does when the plot of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove is integrated into the plot of her own The House of Stairs, or when the references to Tess of the d’Urbervilles heighten the suspense in The Water’s Lovely. At other times, Rendell seems to invite well-read readers into a more private literary world that they can share with her and that the majority of Rendell fans are unlikely to enter. Again, Henry James’ novel is central to The House of Stairs but a less obvious allusion in the same novel, to Coleridge’s “Christabel,” can be appreciated only by those familiar with the narrative poem that gives the murderess Bell her name (see Chapter 8). An even more esoteric source is Herman Melville’s failed, notorious, and rarely read novel Pierre: or the Ambiguities, on whose theme of sibling incest Rendell appears to have drawn for one of her strangest but also most brilliant novels, No Night Is Too Long.
Often, Rendell will take a source and invert the narrative elements in it, as she does in Harm Done, one of the later Inspector Wexford books. The novel provides a paradigm for how Rendell uses sources and how they supply additional levels of complexity to her writing. In Harm Done, domestic abuse is a major theme, the inspector’s daughter Sylvia having signed on as a volunteer in a shelter for endangered women. The shelter’s director is named Griselda Cooper. Any Rendell readers unfamiliar with the story of Patient Griselda will be able to proceed through the novel without experiencing any loss of meaning. But readers familiar with how the medieval authors Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio told Griselda’s story in their monumental works, The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, will immediately recognize the irony involved in giving to the director of a woman’s shelter the name of one of Western literature’s most abused women. Moreover, Rendell’s plot will emerge in sharper focus, because its sources in the early works will become obvious. In both Rendell’s novel, on one side, and Chaucer and Boccaccio’s works, on the other, the inherent tensions in a husband-wife relationship lead to the abduction of children. Again, this thematic complexity is enhanced by Rendell’s choice of a name, Griselda, but recogni- tion is not required to follow her story.
To survey, however briefly, these sources for Ruth Rendell’s writing, may seem to blur the focus of this study on the ancient narratives that cluster around the Houses of Atreus and Laius. But these ancient narratives themselves have been the fountain-head of Western literature, and the themes that will be treated in the following chapters will be those that are essential to reading and understanding these classical masterpieces. Literary descendents of such characters as Clytemnestra fill the annals of dangerous women found in centuries of writing. Griselda’s husband, who tested his wife’s obedience by taking away her children, may not be directly descended from Agamemnon, who ritually sacrificed his daughter and expected Clytemnestra to bear the loss, but these husbands are similar and Rendell would recognize them as such. In short, other literary works beside those written in ancient Greece have strongly influenced Ruth Rendell, but these later works carry the themes already present in classical literature, on which this study of her writing will focus.
Ancient literature has, moreover, not only given me a way into the complex world of Rendell’s novels, but a way of describing my method in writing about them. One of the major characters in the Trojan War tales is Penelope, who, while her husband Odysseus spent ten years at war and another ten meandering years returning to his kingdom and family, staved off suitors by agreeing she would take one of them as her husband when she finished weaving a garment that occupied her time. By day Penelope wove, and by night she undid her work, delaying the moment when she must choose a new spouse. In one of Rendell’s short stories, “A Needle for the Devil,” a minor character who writes crime fiction would “weave plots out of all kinds of common household incidents.” The themes associated with family relations are similarly woven through Rendell novels.
In the following chapters, these novels will be unwoven and rewoven to accommodate the organization of this study, which isolates familial relationships and analyzes how Rendell has treated them. This isolation will, despite its organizational benefits, create some problems. For example, the Oedipus complex involves a triadic relationship in which a young man is caught between his father and mother. But in later chapters, father-son and mother-son dyads have been separated from each other, involving, again, the unweaving of what is in Rendell’s fiction a tightly woven narrative cloth. Similarly, the daughter who prefers her father to her mother is also part of a triangular relationship. Yet it will become clear that while never losing sight of the triads, Rendell thematically emphasizes the dyads. This need to separate and integrate will also extend to the other family relationships around which this book is organized.
Some words about the following chapters may help describe how the two dynastic families that dominated classical literature have influenced the organization of this book. The next chapter will, as already stated, acquaint or reacquaint my readers with details from the ancient narratives. Chapter 3 will relate how the psychologist Carl Jung used the Electra story to challenge Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipus complex. References to Rendell novels will, again, demonstrate she is very familiar with the theories that divided Jung and Freud. Chapter 4 will follow four themes that appear throughout classical literature and throughout Rendell’s fiction. Short stories as well as her novels reveal the influence of ancient writing on her work.
Until the concluding chapter, Chapters 5 through 10 will be divided according to whether, thematically, they can be most readily attached to the stories of Oedipus or of Electra. One of the relatively neglected motifs in the Oedipus tale is his search for his identity as an adopted child looking for his origins. Self-realization through self-discovery is a reiterated narrative idea in Rendell’s fiction and, in Anna’s Book, the connection to the Oedipus story emerges very clearly. Then, as already indicated, triadic relationships will be divided into dyadic ones, the father- son relationship treated separately from mother and son. Because brothers and sisters (and less frequently brother and brother) are in Rendell’s fiction sometimes substitutes for these parent-child pairings, they too will be treated under the Oedipus heading.
Chapters 8, 9, and 10 will be organized according to the Electra story. Although, as noted above, Rendell does not directly refer to Agamemnon’s vengeful daughter, there are characters to be found throughout her writing who bear an uncanny resemblance to the three Electras of Greek tragedy. In one novel, Rendell describes such a character as a fey girl, and I have given this designation to the type in Chapter 8. The Agamemnon- Electra-Clytemnestra triad is—again—divided into the chapters on fathers and daughters (which will treat the Wexford books as a group) and mothers and daughters. The tension between the latter is also reflected in antagonism between female siblings. There are usually two sisters in conflict, but in The Minotaur, the family strife is divided among four sisters (not all easily distinguished) and a brother—almost as if Rendell was reacting against the emphasis she had usually placed on dyadic relationships.
The conclusion of this book will pull together themes Rendell weaves throughout her fiction, all of them possessing implications for family relationships. Whether she is taking up the question of genetics as a modern rendering of the theme of the family curse, the significance of gender within the family, the amount of free will any person can claim to possess, questions surrounding nature and nurture, the need to know oneself, the feasibility of a perfect or utopian existence, or the working out of justice in human society, her characters are specific actors within the troubled family whose conflicts result in aggressive acts, often crimes, committed against each other.
Note: Much research has gone into the writing of this study, but has been kept behind the scenes. Readers can consult the Sources. A Rendell Bibliography with publication dates will make it possible to work out the chronology of books being discussed.