Death in that remark

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: setting sun (symphony in grey and black). Amgueddfa Cymru, my photo.

by Ruth Rendell.
Arena Novella, Arrow Books 1988 (1987)

“There is death in that remark, the sound of death.”

Antigone’s response to Creon, in Sophocles’ play, as translated by Elvira.

Psychologically as well as intellectually this novella is as satisfying as it is perplexing. Written by one of the doyennes of crime fiction, Heartstones has intimations of unnatural deaths but without a sleuth leading the reader through to a revelatory conclusion.

To me Heartstones is a modern-day equivalent of a Classical Greek tragedy, one that’s transposed to an anonymous cathedral town (probably near the south coast of England) and played out with a limited cast, and sundry bystanders as chorus. With passing references and quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea there’s no doubt the author wanted us to make this particular connection, but Greek drama isn’t the only echo we are meant to hear: almost everything seems to have a symbolic significance, from the title to the house the fated family live in, and on to the stories told about the building.

At a little under eighty pages there’s a lot packed into this volume, but we ponder the genres Rendell hints at — crime fiction, Gothick romance, ghost story, horror tale, psychological thriller — particularly when the novella begins and ends with references to poison.

The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The premise is as follows. 15-year-old Elvira is writing an intermittent diary. She lives with her sister Spinny and recently widowed father Luke, an academic at the university, in a late medieval building within sight of the west front of the cathedral. The thoroughfares are laid with heart-shaped stones from Newhaven, East Sussex. Elvira believes she has an especial, if not exclusive, relationship with her father — it comes across almost as sublimated incest — and so is dismayed when Luke announces he hopes to marry a young academic, for whom she naturally forms an instant dislike. In the meantime her sister Despina (who, like Elvira, is named after characters in Mozart operas) is wary of a ghostly cat and fears hearing the voice of a woman believed to have been executed as a witch in the 17th century.

“There is death in that remark, the sound of death,” is Elvira’s translation of a line from Antigone, a play she is going through with Luke. This seems to be the lines (933-4) Antigone says to Creon of Thebes, translated by Edward Hayes Plumptre as “Ah me! this word of thine | ⁠Tells of death drawing nigh.” The king has ordered Antigone walled up, condemned to death for burying her slain brother in violation of Creon’s express order that the body be denied final rites, and Elvira’s translation, “there is death in that remark,” suggests that Antigone knows that the king’s last words portend her imminent death. In actual fact Creon’s stubbornness is merely the prelude to more tragic deaths.

Now the situations in Antigone and in Medea are not in any way exact parallels with those in Heartstones, but the fact attention is thus drawn to them indicates deliberate intent, because the main protagonists in Rendell’s tale, and the portents that are continuously but subtly alluded to, are the very stuff of Greek tragedy. Elvira emerges as a daddy’s girl, addicted to Gothick tales by Ann Radcliffe and Edgar Allan Poe, seemingly precocious but actually deluded in this regard. She also has a tendency towards anorexia, in contrast to her younger sister who enjoys her food, perhaps too much. Luke, meanwhile, is cold and aloof, if not distant, but his infatuation with Dr Mary Leonard will lead inexorably to her dramatic descent from scaffolding erected on the front of the cathedral. Did she fall or was she pushed? If that latter, who arranged it? And what has happened to the poison that Elvira in an earlier melodramatic moment had laid aside?

There is an additional thread about a witch’s cat which had allegedly been sacrificed by being, like Antigone, walled up alive. Why is Spinny so affected by the apparitions that her sleep is constantly disturbed, and whence come the mysterious holes which later start manifesting around the house?

I mustn’t say more of the plot, because that would severely hamper the enjoyment of those who haven’t read this novella yet. But I must say something about Elvira’s characterisation, which I think the author has got spot on. She captures the girl’s literary obsessions perfectly, her use of words like ‘perforce’ and ‘specious’, her pedantry with ‘anorectic’ being more correct than ‘anorexic’, her inflated feelings of being exceptionally gifted, and above all her lack of self-awareness.

That there is an apparent upturn in Elvira’s fortune and wellbeing towards the end of the narrative is of course a typical step in tragedy’s ultimate trajectory. Rendell’s psychological skills even in a miniature such as this are astounding.

“None of those poets has discovered
How to put an end with their singing
To grief, bitter grief . . .”

From ‘Medea’ by Euripides, as translated by Elvira.

No 11 of my 15 Books of Summer

20 thoughts on “Death in that remark

  1. This sounds quite chilling actually, but interesting in its parallels to Greek tragedy; I might just pick it up for one of my Halloween reads.

    All the cat references jumped out at me of course, and this seems like one belonging on my Keli Cat’s Book Corner list; perhaps in a separate category on gothic/horror tales rather than amongst the mysteries on my list/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I picked this up as my first ever Rendell title as it was short — bloggers kept saying she was so much better than P D James so the decision was a no brainer — and I’m so glad I did. It’s certainly a taut psychological study of a disturbed young woman to which has been added some intellectual gloss. The cat which wanders in and out of the plot I see as a symbol of Elvira herself, which I suspect is how her sister Despina must come to regard Elvira at the unstated denouement of this piece. A worthy addition to your cat titles, methinks!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ve read a couple of her Wexford books, but not nearly enough I would say. Psychological studies can be disturbing to read (even in fiction) but also intriguing, so I would like to pick this up sometime.

        This is going on my TBR and the cat list.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. jjlothin

    Can I add my name to the ‘Rendell over PD James’ chorus? And particularly the Rendell/Barbara Vine novels (eg, A fatal inversion), as opposed to the Wexfords.

    Although I don’t remember reading this one … As ever, you have intrigued me to try!

    It’s criminal the way a writer like Rendell can be dismissed as simply ‘crime [genre] fiction’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As it happens, I’ve just acquired her The Water’s Lovely which doesn’t seem to be a Wexford mystery but does have the key word ‘psychological’ in the blurb. The two P D James fictions I have read — the Austen sequel and the dystopian Children of Men — were enjoyable but dreadfully old-fashioned in feel, whereas this Rendell title was both timeless and modern. That said, I’ve got a quartet of James’s short stories featuring Dalglish to read so they may be a change, for when a change is due!

      I think this novella is still in print, or at least easily obtainable secondhand, so I’d interested in what you thought if and when you read it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        Absolutely: it’s ‘old-fashioned’ vs ‘timeless’! (Although I do find some of the names she gives her characters annoying …)

        Just bookmarked a copy on EBay for £2.19 inc p&p!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It does, and yet it never felt at all dense—Rendell really gets inside the head of the disturbed adolescent, leaving us teetering on the edge of a precipice for which there is only one outcome!


    1. That she was a good writer I’ve just started discovering, and I definitely hope to continue! And maybe I’ll check your reviews to see if there are any pointers for my future reading…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If this is like a Vine, then I’d certainly like to read more Vine! And though it’s a mystery of sorts it can scarcely be classed as crime fiction, more in the nature of character studies with not a detective or amateur sleuth in sight — unless one counts the reader.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was through my mentions of P D James that I was recommended Rendell as being, well, ‘better’ in terms of psychological development. I shall have to form my own opinions about that by reading more of both their fictions!

      Liked by 1 person

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