Sally Watson, Daphne Loveridge, Gwyneth Pane and Nina Harson meet on the roof of their Oxford college boathouse to swear foundation oaths for a new society, the Lode League. Their purpose is to stand against the pernicious influence of Persephone College’s hated Bursar and to do everything in their power to repay her for some of the misery she inflicts on the poor students. But, as they share out wire rings to mark themselves as members of this noble enterprise, something happens that they could never have expected. Down the river in the twilight comes a canoe, nosing its way along the bank; and in the canoe lies the figure of the Bursar herself; and the Bursar, when the girls manage to hook in the canoe with a punting pole and paddles, is definitely and unequivocally dead.
Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human.
The four girls, struck by the solemnity of their discovery, decide that the Bursar must have been murdered and resolve to find the culprit. They have rivals in detection, of course. There’s Inspector Wythe, the superintendent of the Oxford police force, and Detective-Inspector Braydon of Scotland Yard, but the girls know Oxford far better, they’re sure, than these plodding policemen ever will. And, for his part, when he becomes aware of the competition, Braydon is secretly quite willing to let them get on with it, just for the interest of seeing what they do discover – as long as they don’t go round messing up crime scenes, of course.
As the girls of Persephone dig deeper into the events of that grim afternoon, they find themselves swamped with a spiralling mass of questions. Who could have hated the Bursar enough to really, truly want her dead? Could it have been something to do with the sinister, misogynist Mr Lond, who owns the house next to the college and has been fighting against the Bursar’s use of an allegedly public footpath across his land? Or could it be linked to the local landowner who tried, and failed to persuade the Bursar to buy some of his land for an extension to the College? How did the Bursar actually die, and when? And, the crucial question, where? Why has the Bursar always been so mysterious about her niece Pamela, who has been so diligently kept away from Oxford that the poor thing’s been forced to end up studying at Cambridge, of all places? Why are boys from the nearby college of St Simeon’s creeping around the grounds of Persephone after dark, and why is the girls’ temperamental Eastern European friend, Draga Czernak, having long, agitated conversations in Serbian over the telephone? There are mysteries here and, with pluck and determination – and a little help from Sally’s sister Betty Pongleton and her husband Basil -the girls of Persephone are sure they can iron them out.
I was drawn to this because it was published in 1935 and, although I don’t read many crime novels, I was attracted by the nostalgic Oxford setting. In the end, it was quite different to what I thought it would be like, and I actually enjoyed it more because of that: it was spiced with hints of old-fashioned girls’ school fiction: Inspector Morse by way of Malory Towers, perhaps. It’s just gruesome enough to be deliciously shocking, and just convoluted enough to tease you with red herrings, but the solution to some of the mysteries – if not, perhaps, the exact sequence of events – are clear from a relatively early point. But it’s good, wholesome fun, if one can say that about a murder mystery, full of earnest questions about how fast one can row a canoe from one college to another, and the kind of red-cheeked, jolly-hockey-sticks spirit that I’ve always found rather endearing.
This is apparently one of only three novels written by Hay, and it presumably has an element of lived experience in its descriptions of a women’s college. Hay herself was at St Hilda’s – the thinly-veiled prototype for her fictional Persephone – between 1913 and 1916, at a date when women weren’t even allowed to take degrees, and her novel is shot through with little glimpses of how frustrating it was to be an academic woman at this time, from the patronising reports about ‘undergraduettes’ in the papers, to the more vicious misogyny of the half-cracked Lond in his rambling old house. It’s noticeable that the ‘good guys’, whether that’s Braydon, Sally’s long suffering brother-in-law Basil, or the boys at St Sim’s, have slightly more respect for the female of the species, even if they don’t necessarily understand her all that well.
Hard-boiled readers of thrillers and the nastier kinds of modern Scandinavian murders might find this a little too quaint for their palates, it’s true, but I rather liked its old-world innocence. It preserves a vanished society (and in some ways, it’s good that it’s vanished): tutors must come to teach at Persephone, as it wouldn’t be proper for a girl to go to a men’s college; all colleges are, of course, single-sex; girls and boys mix only when the boys take the girls out for lunch or tea; and the girls must always be sure to get home to college in time to dress for dinner. Despite the whodunnit at its core, it’s a light, undemanding vintage tale and just the thing, perhaps, for a lazy afternoon in the park (or beside the river!).