Miscellaneous Puzzles in Dornford Yates' Lower Than Vermin (1950)

Updated: 26 Apr 2015
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Dornford Yates was the pen-name of Cecil William Mercer, 1885 - 1960

Lower Than Vermin was published by Ward Lock in 1950.

If the appalling Anderson is a committed socialist, what on earth is he doing working as a Huntsman? (p15) Shouldn't he be a shop-steward somewhere?

Throughout the book, Mercer takes an extremely dim view of the French, as he did in all his later books. Why then does Vivien marry a man called Hubert de Guesclin? Sounds like a French name to me. The most famous Guesclin is probably Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France, French national hero, and unquestionably of French nationality. That's a "du" rather than a "de" but some accounts do call him Bertrand de Guesclin. Hubert proves to be the exemplary heroic husband in every respect- apart from serial failure to keep his hands off other people's wives, which eventually leads to a nasty divorce case. Perhaps the French-sounding name was supposed to signal his flawed character. On the other hand he dies nobly fighting off the Germans in WW1; Hubert contrives to be both hero and villain. Mercer's intentions are usually less than subtle, but there do seem to be questions about exactly what he was doing with Hubert.

Vivien's personal maid is called Pricket- an unusual name. (eg p109,123) Could this be derived from Miss Mary Prickett, (two t's) who was governess to the Liddle family? Oxford gossip had it that Lewis Carroll was after Miss Prickett, but it is now generally accepted that he was really interested in one of her charges, Alice Liddell. Mercer went to Oxford, and it is entirely possible that we would have heard the old gossip, and retained the name for a servant character. It is generally accepted that Mary Prickett was the inspiration for The Red Queen. Prickett is a locally distinctive name, particularly common in the village of Binsey, a little to the north of Oxford.

Talking of governesses, initially Eleanor Carson plays this role to Phillip and Vivien, going on to be a duenna and a sort of major-domo. This is another example of Mercer's disturbing and thoroughly irritating habit of recycling the names of minor characters. In the Chandos books, for example Blind Corner, 'Carson' is Jonathan Mansel's manservant. Considering that Eleanor Carson is really quite a major character in Vermin, it is surprising that Mercer did not bother to give her a unique surname.

In the Berry series 'Falcon' is at times a maid and (more often, I think) a Chief-Inspector at New Scotland Yard. (eg in The House That Berry Built) In And Berry Came Too the Pleydell's butler is called Falcon. In the Chandos book Red In The Morning (1946) Falcon is back in the police. In what is sometimes billed as Mercer's only straight detective novel- the less than satisfactory Ne'er-Do-Well, (1954) Falcon has reached the rank of Superintendent, apparently without any relapses into butlering.

Perhaps the most astonishing recycling of names in Vermin is the appearance of someone called Berry on pages 105 and 112. He is a huntsman, ie a paid servant who directs the dogs, and certainly not Berry Pleydell. This bit of recycling really grates; if Mercer thinks he is up to something subtle here, it's wholly lost on me.

Mercer's interest in the theatre in the earlier part of his life is well-known. In Vermin the only character linked with the stage is Orley Mantlet, the leading lady of a successful london show. She plans to marry Huffy, the son of Vivien, but the family close ranks against the lady, initially at least because she is simply of the wrong class; see page 251. However, we soon learn she is a bad 'un; she got her big break in show-biz by sleeping with a Jewish chap, and in MercerWorld that's about as bad as it gets. Vivien sees off Orley, whose not-quite-straightforward business dealings are very conveniently unearthed by the family solicitor.

Since Mercer was well into his hate-the-French phase by the time Vermin was written, (1950) one wonders if the peculiar name 'Orley' is some sort of reference to the airport near Paris, which opened in 1932. But that is spelt Orly. I can't make much out of Mantlet, which is "...a large shield or portable shelter used for stopping arrows or bullets, in medieval warfare", and sounds more as if it should be attached to one of Mercer's heros- look at Richard Chandos, whose name is taken straight from the medieval hero Sir John Chandos.

Anyway, the point is that this villainess is in the theatre, and this was long after Mercer had divorced from his first wife, the American actress Bettine Edwards. Perhaps Mercer's love of the theatre had turned to hate, much as his love for France turned to hate.

There was also a short story in which the villainess and sort-of-villain (called 'Tops', which I assume was meant to have some sort of derogatory associations, but it's lost on me) were a theatrical double-act enthusiastically pressing the heroine to commit perjury. I have to admit I have yet to track down which book it's in, and find the date, but I strongly suspect it was after Mercer became disillusioned with theatre folk.

If you're not familiar with the English peerage, this is how the ranks go:

Duke & Duchess
Marquess & Marchioness
Earl & Countess
Viscount & Viscountess
Baron & Baroness

You will note that Phillip, as Earl of Ringwood, (this is of course an imaginary title, though Ringwood is a real place) is only halfway up the league table. Mercer presumably thought it was pushing it too far to make one of the two major characters a Duke. Today (2015) there are only 25 of them, (not counting royal dukedoms that go with the job, eg Prince Phillip is Duke of Edinburgh) so squeezing in an imaginary extra duke might have been harder, though I'm sure it could have been done. Plenty of authors have invented their own dukes, a fine example being The Duke of Denver, the elder brother of Lord Peter Wimsey. This is of course the Denver in Norfolk, not the one in the USA.

I suspect the truth is that Mercer thought it would be disrespectful to chronicle the ups and downs of a duke.

However, the upper echelons of the British aristocracy are present in the book as bit players.

There is of course the villainous Duchess de Sevignac (introduced on p141, see also p161, p167) but Mercer was not even slightly impressed by French dukedoms.

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