Book review: The Attenbury Emeralds, by Jill Paton Walsh

This is one of my very favorite published fanfics.  I just finished listening to it for the second time, and I’m even more impressed than I was the first time.

It does, of course, press so many of my personal buttons:

  • A generous heaping of anglophilia
  • More specifically, a serious study of how British aristocracy lived before and after WWII
  • Butlers! (i.e., the close personal relationship between this butler and his master)
  • A study of PTSD, reflecting on Peter’s “nervous collapse” after the war, and how much he relied on Bunter to get by
  • Excellent, top-notch writing and storytelling

The story itself is really well crafted — both as a stand-alone and as a work of published fan fiction. Most fanfics delve into further character development, which this does, but the plot is also just ballsy enough (spoiler: she kills off long-term characters! Drastically changing Peter’s role in life, even in older age), and does a tremendous job of tying multiple mysteries over decades into the present-day one.

I just finished listening to Whose Body? again, after this book, and I can say with certainty that Walsh really does hold true to the spirit of so much of Sayers’ writing, especially the fourth-wall breaking reflections on how this is real life and not a detective novel, after all.

I love the changes described in the Wimsey household during and after the war, especially pertaining to the Bunters (now that he’s married and has a son of his own — named Peter — who is good friends with Peter’s own sons). I love that they’ve gotten the Bunters to share their dinner table, when it’s just them. But it held true too to Bunter’s character, how he refuses to unbend entirely or forgo the boundaries of deference.

I also love how Walsh used the present-day circumstances of the Attenbury family — the very different ways Diana, Charlotte, and Ottalie live — to illustrate how post-war British aristocracy is coping, or not, with the changing times. There was also the very telling pre-war example of when Lady Sylvia was so angry at her husband because he thought himself too hard-up to repair tenant properties, but it was still a matter of honor for him to purchase a horse at a ludicrously high price, after placing a bet. I remembered that story clearly from the first time I listened to this audiobook a few years ago.

Other images I remembered from the first listening: the young woman wearing the great emerald, lying dead in the rubble; Miss Pevenor’s obsession with jewelry, though she wore none herself; the final confrontation at the bitter woman’s cottage; Bredon Hall on fire; Peter carrying his mother up the stairs; the young boys with the barn full of salvaged goods; Peter asking Bunter to call him “your lordship,” if not “Peter,” but please not “Your Grace.” (I had misremembered Northerby’s involvement in that cottage scene, though.)

My favorite passage in the whole book, though, is when Peter starts his tale to Harriet about his first case and the condition he’d been in after the war (emphasis mine):

“…And what Bunter calls my sort of people were carrying on like the Edwardians become hysterical. Dancing, dressing up, getting presented at court, throwing huge parties, racing, gambling, prancing off to the French Riviera or Chamonix, chasing foxes, shooting grouse… I was supposed to be a good sport, and join in. It seemed meaningless to me. I found my station in life was dust and ashes in my mouth. I might have been all right with a decently useful job.”

“Couldn’t you just have gone and got one?” asked Harriet.

“Of course I could. I was just too callow to think of it. I think I went for months with no better purpose in life than trying not to disappoint Bunter. If he made breakfast, I ought to eat breakfast. If he thought I needed a new suit, I ought to order one, and so forth. If he kept showing me catalogues of book sales, I ought to collect books.”

“If I may say so, my lord,” said Bunter. “I believe the book-collecting was entirely your idea. I have been your lordship’s apprentice in anything to do with books.”

Harriet looked from one of them to the other. They were both struggling to conceal emotion. Whatever had she stirred up. Should she have guessed that the emeralds would open old wounds in this way?

“You see, Harriet,” said Peter, “that if my life was a stream of meaningless trivia, I was affronting Bunter. He was far too good a fellow to be a servant to a witless fool. I could just about manage to do what Bunter appeared to expect I might do, but I knew, really, that I was frittering both of us.”

I thought Walsh did really well by both Peter’s and Harriet’s characters: how the conclusion of the mystery took its toll on Peter, as his actions held a person’s (even a murderer’s) life in the balance; and for Harriet, how she faced the change in her station at the book’s end. How they all faced that change, really. It was also really sweet to see how their sons are developing. Walsh did an excellent job by the insufferable Helen, too.

Favorite line for her (as Helen is lashing out in a state of shock and grief):

Harriet said, “Helen, you are overwrought. We shall all assume you don’t know what you’re saying, and will speak more gently when you have recovered yourself.”

“Are you being kind to me, Harriet?” said Helen, and abruptly burst into tears.

In summary: five stars.

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