Who Were You, Clara Benson?

Or should that be who are you?

I’m currently reading a crime novel by the above author supposedly written in the early twentieth century, featuring a sort of younger and more attractive Miss Marple-type detective called Angela Marchmont. There are a lot of crime novels from the ‘Golden Age’ being re-issued now, so when I saw this one and liked the sound of it it I bought it and thought no more of it. Then I started to come across online debate as to whether Clara Benson ever existed, and whether the novels might actually be modern ‘fakes’.

The website set up to accompany the books is very brief and cryptic about Clara – suspiciously so, once the seed of doubt has been sown. All it tells us is that she was born in silhouette81890, died in 1965 – no location, no other biographical information at all other than that she wrote as a hobby, for friends rather than for publication. This conveniently means that there is of course no corroborating evidence as to the existence of these manuscripts before 2015.

I pride myself on having a very good eye/ear for a fake, especially anachronisms, and I must admit that until I heard about the questions as to her identity I was halfway through the novel and nothing had jumped out at me. I still haven’t found a smoking gun; but now, with my radar set at maximum, I have started to pick out a few little thing that might be clues:

  • There is regular talk of ‘cars’, whereas in the 30s and even more so the 20s I’m pretty sure they were more likely to refer to ‘motor cars’.
  • Someone refers to a ‘glass’, ie a mirror, on one page but I also believe that this is a Victorianism or earlier which had probably died out and been replaced by ‘mirror’ by this time.
  • The expression ‘That was pretty much the case’ sounds modern to me, but I’m much less sure about that

(Note that I’m talking generally – I’m sure some Clever Dick can dig out an exception or two!)

But so far, and I’m now three-quarters of the way through, there has been no glaring anachronism. I do lean more and more towards the ‘fake’ theory though. I’ve read that one researcher has checked the birth records for 1890 and found no person of that name having been born then – although I know from my own extensive genealogical work that these things can happen even with genuine people. There is something about the general  style of the novel that makes me think it is modern: just subtle things to do with people’s attitudes and dialogue. Then there are the very short chapters, which is far from conclusive but in my experience a more modern style.

But the biggest clue for me is that there have been nine novels (so far!) I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that someone who wrote merely as a hobby could turn out nine fully formed, professionally crafted and structured novels, let alone just to pass around a few friends.

So ironically, I’m left with the feeling that the novels themselves are fakes, but that in view of how good a job someone has made of them the ‘cover story’ is surprisingly lame, vague and unconvincing. A publisher unearthing a genuine literary treasure trove like that would make far more of the author, her life and background as part of their marketing campaign.

Part of me enjoys the mystery of it, while another part, having paid money in good faith, feels cheated – without wishing to be melodramatic, almost defrauded. After all, if someone sold me a vintage car or an art deco object and after I’d handed over the cash I found it was a modern fake I’d probably be onto the police straight away!




About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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2 Responses to Who Were You, Clara Benson?

  1. Dave the Cardboard Box says:

    Nothing to say about any of your other points, but It turns out that any Clever Dick with a working knowledge of Google can sort out your vocabulary issues:

    Glass – glass was the preferred upper class word for a mirror well into the 1950s and beyond. Nancy Mitford’s essay containing a glossary of U and Non-U terms – “The English Aristocracy” – was published in 1954 and lists “glass” as a U word for the non-U mirror.

    Car – the OED cites printed references to the word ‘car’ on its own to refer to a motor car as early as 1896. There are many more from then on.

    Pretty much – the OED spotted its first use in 1682

    • My point, though, is how likely it would be to come across them, especially all of them, in one novel. Early usage doesn’t necessarily equate to common usage. For example, I really don’t believe (and my own reading experience bears this out) that the word ‘car’ was common in the early years of motoring. And since we now know that the author is a modern novelist who was only pretending to be of the period, I rest my case!

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