5 February 2013

Ngaio Marsh: Black Beech and Honeydew: An Autobiography (1965)

Vy Elsom's sketch of Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) on the back cover of the dust jacket
This of course is not the revised 1981 edition of the autobiography but the first edition. Written in a fastidious and urbane style, this is in some ways a part-autobiography not in that it misses years out – indeed it takes us from Marsh's early childhood (not quite, but almost, in a conventional linear manner) virtually to the time of writing – but in that it almost misses Marsh's very public profession out. Overwhelmingly, the author concentrates on her less known work in the beginning as an actor, then later as a theatre director; but, a little like her (rather snobbish, it must be said) friends who wouldn't demean themselves by bringing up the subject, Marsh is almost silent about her popular crime novels (which amount to 32). In fact, the penultimate paragraph ends in a rare exclamation mark – 'How right I was!' – in summing up her decision to pursue her passion and direct ten Shakespeare plays rather than considerably increase her bank account funds by writing ten more novels.
Marsh also writes about her journeys by boat to England (very much her second home) and of her friends. We have to go to Joanne Drayton's Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime to discover the real name of the unstable Russian 'Sacha', who proposed to her and later killed himself (although not because of the rejection): he was Peter Tokareff. Much more important to Marsh's autobiography are the 'Lampreys', a family she spent some time with in England, and whose real name is Rhodes: the novel A Surfeit of Lampreys (a reference to the cause of Henry I's death) depicts a noted fictionalization of the Rhodes family.
Marsh does reveal that she took the Scottish name Roderick and the surname of the 17th century founder of Dulwich College – Edward Alleyne – to create the handsome, Eton-educated dectective that Marsh wanted to see as a departure from slightly eccentric detectives of other writers, who comforted their readership by churning out familiar verbal tics.
Marsh also reveals her childhood fear of poison here, and says she only uses it in her books 'on rare occasions', but although I'm only familiar with four of her novels, two of them do strongly feature poison as a murder weapon: The Nursing Home Murder (1935) and Death at the Bar (1940). I haven't yet encountered the acting profession in her work, although I'm aware that she's used it as a background to several novels.
In a word, Marsh's book inevitably (and a little disappointingly for many readers, it seems) tells the reader what she wants to tell them, although a broader picture can be seen from Drayton's biography, which – like Claire Tomalin's biography of Katherine Mansfield – I find slightly irritating because it refers to its subject throughout by her first name.
Ngaio Marsh's home in Cashmere, Christchurch, where (with the exception of visits to England) she lived for 77 years, fortunately survived earthquake damage and remains open to the public.

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