Thirty years on, how does the cool, clever, sophisticated investigator Jemima Shore in Antonia Fraser’s Oxford Blood measure up to her grittier sisters-in-detection?
Quite well, actually, if you are up for a light, racy, engaging read which hovers uncertainly between the crime and social satire genres, but pulls off an enjoyable story peopled with lively characters.
Within its scope, the novel, which was published bang in the middle of the 1980s, creates a recognisable picture of the 80s, in some aspects alarmingly similar to the present day, give or take the odd pink boiler suit and reference to obsolete political parties (those of tender years or short memory might need to look up the SDP).
The story is slight and comparatively bloodless, but a substantial enough thread on which to hang a plot chunky with set pieces, character sketches, social comment.
The novel kicks off with that old favourite, a deathbed confession, given a little added piquancy in that the troubled soul is a nun, a type familiar to the convent-educated Jemima.
The mystery that unwinds is based on issues (hah!) of blood groups, paternity and inheritance, and, in a later age, would be solved more quickly than you can say Jeremy Kyle.
We become acquainted with titled lords and ladies and the way of life among the upper classes — ‘Quite a relief when the Prince of Wales finally got married, I can tell you.’
We grow familiar with eccentric academics, Elizabethan country homes, traditional Oxford practices (sporting the oak, anyone?). Finally, we reach a quite satisfying denouement with the required element of I-should-have-seen-that-coming.
Stranger on the Shore
Slightly less satisfying is the figure of Jemima herself. Not that she isn’t interesting and engaging, but complexities and tensions in her character are hinted at rather than developed.
She works as a television documentary-maker who likes to make serious programmes about the cultural identity of Asian women and the growth of feminism in the West Indies. She believes in justice and equality and social fairness and is vehemently opposed to racism.
Her love life is complicated. After a long, painful affair with a married Member of Parliament, she is now involved with lawyer Cass Brinsley in what they see as an ‘open’ relationship.
And yet the sum of Jemima is less than the parts.
It seems that with Ms Shore, as with other aspects of the novel, Fraser chooses to sit on the fence. Jemima’s character is not light enough to be total fluffy entertainment, and not rounded enough to be a convincing picture of a complex, independent feminist of the 1980s.
She refers to the ‘pain of the moment’ when her married lover reveals that his wife was pregnant, but a little more fleshing out of her emotional life would add some oomph to her characterisation.
Other themes are similarly fudged. The narrative tone is brittle and throwaway.
Targets are presented as the objects of ridicule and satire, but then redeemed in a way which suggests playing safe more than anything else.
Against her wishes, Jemima is making a non-critical TV programme about the privileged youngsters at Oxford University, the golden lads and girls who, unlike Shakespeare’s, are not likely to, as chimney sweepers, come to dust.
Antonia Fraser presents a picture of spoilt, self-indulgent students, members of the Oxford Bloods (shades of the Bullingdon Club) who attend the Chimneysweepers’ Dinner, dress code ‘Gilded Rubbish’, cue ironic trashy sparkles, with a loud background of Wagner to mask the sound of breaking glass. Don’t you just love them?
Jemima’s views about equality and unfair privilege and patronage could have come from present-day arguments and debates, and this section of privileged youth has been recently lambasted in, for example, Laura Wade’s play Posh.
However, what Jemima would have liked to do in the programme is contrast the rich students with those struggling to manage on grants and little money, hardly a cutting-edge angle on class politics.
The political figure who speaks out against inequality, a decent person, is dismissed as a ‘moralist’ and rather ridiculed through his setting up of CompCamp for the benefit of comprehensive school students.
Oxford’s Got Talent
But Fraser has some fun with other targets. She has a pop at TV talent shows with Binyon the Singing Butler, and takes on the familiar but always entertaining type of academic household signalled by ‘North Oxford’ — ‘reading Proust between pangs of labour’ — only remarkable now for the lack of reference to house prices.
Details of cars, clothes and lifestyle give colour and substance to characters. There are incidental references to 80s’ music — Boy George, Culture Club, Talking Heads (a liking for the latter indicating anarchist tendencies, according to one of the toffs).
Jemima drives a small white Mercedes. One of the gilded youth drives a Maserati, ‘dashing and rather too ostentatious, like its owner’, and the sharp little navy blue Mini (my favourite) indicates the sound credentials of the girl who owns it.
As for clothes, it was a masterstroke to dress Jemima in minimalist, cleverly and beautifully cut Jean Muir. Laura Ashley is in evidence at the student ball (no velvet headbands mentioned, but surely must have been there) and a sprigged muslin crinoline puts in an appearance.
Details of Jemima’s London home suggest luxury and refined taste. Her flat in Holland Park Mansions (now there’s a posh address) has a balcony with delicate lighting which makes into another room. There’s a pot of yellow witch hazel. Floris Wild Hyacinth in her bath. She likes opera, and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.
A nice intertextual touch tells us that Jemima enjoys reading PD James and prefers Ruth Rendell’s more macabre works — now that could do with some unpicking.
But that would be another book, another Jemima. The pleasure to be had from her character and the Jemima Shore series as a whole is light, sparkling and dry, much like the champagne quaffed in such quantity throughout the novel.