A Monstrous Regiment of Women
One part of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz is a retrospective of the LRK oeuvre—a fancy way of saying that I’ll be looking at each of my twenty books, a week at a time. A Monstrous Regiment of Women was the second Mary Russell novel, published in 1995, and won the Nero Wolfe award.
In 1558, John Knox wrote a vehement protest against women monarchs entitled, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against a Monstrous Regiment of Women.” (Modern English would use the word Régime rather than Regiment.) Queen Elizabeth I was by no means amused; a “Second Blast of the Trumpet” was never written.
In the winter of 1920, Mary Russell is on the brink of her 21st birthday, when she enters into her majority and inherits the estate left by her parents’ death seven years before. The largest question in her life is that of her one-time teacher, later partner in detection, Sherlock Holmes: What exactly is the basis of their relationship? She herself is not at all certain.
How does one write a romance about two people who are not demonstrably romantic? Particularly when the story is being told by one of them, as an old woman, who closely guards her privacy?
The answer to that lies in the way in which people conceal truths from themselves. Russell sees but does not perceive; she hears but does not listen. A part of her knows that she wishes to extend her partnership with Holmes into the fullness of a marriage partnership; at the same time, she well understands the hazards of affiliating herself with a man of such strong attitudes and forceful opinions. She tries to claim the best of both worlds—a marriage, but one based on rational decision rather than commitment. To her astonishment and dismay, Holmes himself, that utter rationalist, instantly quashes that as an impossibility, a crippled imitation of a marriage that would be doomed from the beginning.
Thus Russell is set onto a quest for nothing less than her future. She begins in her past, with a friend from the University, who introduces her to a woman, and to another possible future life.
Margery Childe gives Russell a clear alternative to the kind of marriage Holmes would entail. As a part of the community around this woman—as a member of a “monstrous régime of women”—Russell would have everything she wants: intellectual stimulation, a family of co-believers, respect, excitement. What else could a feminist ask for?
And since Margery Childe, as Russell comes to realize, is nothing less than a living mystic and worker of miracles, this milieu would even provide her with the solid meat of theology for which she hungers—and which Holmes holds in scorn.
It would have to be one or the other, for becoming a member of Childe’s community would exclude Holmes.
Monstrous Regiment demonstrates why I appreciate the forms of crime fiction, because it gives me an entertaining story to tell, while at the same time unrolling threads of meaning throughout the plot lines. Mysticism, feminist identity, scriptural interpretation, the struggle for equality between the sexes, control and submission, friendship and love: all the colors on the painter’s palette, brought together in service of an entertainment.