“Christmas Day, thought Belle, and things going on just the same. People at the mortuary ready to bring round the hearse, doctors and policemen on duty, and all that crowd of idlers in the street, with nothing better to do than just stare at the house where a stupid woman, for whom nobody cared, was murdered last night.”
It’s Christmas Eve, and Belle Adair is about to cut her throat. Once a lady (more or less), Belle is now reduced to the most sordid poverty. Dancing in the pantomime when she’s lucky, walking the streets when she’s not, spending more and more of her meager funds on gin–it’s no kind of life, she decides. Due to a strange twist of fate, however, it isn’t Belle who is found with her throat cut on Christmas morning, but her neighbor Daisy. Belle is sure she knows more about the murder than Scotland Yard. If she plays her cards right, this could be the chance of a lifetime, but the slightest miscalculation could lead to Belle from the gutter to the grave.
Moss Rose comes close to being a kind of gaslight noir, as two misfits find themselves drawn together by a dreadful crime even as they both realize it may lead to their ultimate destruction. With nothing left to lose, Belle relentlessly pursues a killer who has every advantage over her in Victorian society. Her resourcefulness is fascinating to watch as the reader wonders just how far this mysterious character is willing to go and what she is actually after. Moss Rose is a little too long, and not always subtle in its exploration of the dangerous games played between men and women, but its battle of wills between two fatally flawed characters is always entertaining.
As bad as Belle’s plight is, things could always be worse. At least she hasn’t fallen as far as Daisy Arrow, who is reduced to the lowest levels of prostitution. It is Daisy who saves Belle’s life by taking away her knife when she confesses suicidal thoughts. And it is Daisy who will be murdered with that same knife after bringing home a friend for the night, “a real gentleman.” Gentlemen are rare in the corner of London that Daisy and Belle inhabit. Belle can’t help being intrigued by the possibilities. It’s too late for Daisy, but there may still be time for Belle to save herself…if she can withstand the temptations that led to her downfall.
Belle likes to think of herself as highly rational, yet it’s clear that she is driven by demons and compulsions that are just as powerful as those that motivate the murderer. Despite her beauty and talent, she is not a success as a dancer because she gives nothing of herself to the audience: “it was always the same with Belle, she never made a success, there was something remote and alien about her, some quality of disdain and coldness that made people uneasy, even hostile.” Her situation is pitiful, but sympathy is the last thing Belle wants. The trouble is that the only way for a woman to get along in this era is by endearing herself to others, especially to men. “Why should I have to care whether men love or like me?” she wonders. “That is what is so galling, and I suppose that brings me to what I want–independence. To be able to be indifferent to all of them.” Belle doesn’t fight fair, but what of it?
“It is no shame to fight with the only weapons I have. Who are these people that I should not take advantage of their follies, their weaknesses–their faults? There was always someone to take advantage of me.”
She shrank from the memories of the men who had said that they admired and valued her, and then, at the first quarrel or the first disgust, left her without the least concern. “That it was in their power to do that!” she thought, most bitterly, “that they had the money, the position, and I–nothing! But now a man is in my power. What do I want of him?” That question ran around in her mind like a rat in a trap. She had done with lusts, with emotions, she believed, as a child, sick from surfeit, has done with sweets. All passions seemed to her tawdry, what she had heard named love seemed but the tinsel dressing to disguise bestiality. She needed only the icy solitude of the mind, something to feed her pride, to glut her active malice against all mankind.
To secure her independence, Belle must face down an adversary who, though he is guilty of far worse indiscretions than she, has been protected by his gender and social position. In a world where appearances are everything, she cannily exploits her one asset, her ladylike manner, taking advantage of the ways in which men underestimate women. There is no better camouflage than shabby gentility, and Belle very consciously deploys it as a disguise to keep embarrassed police officers and magistrates from inquiring further into her past. When Belle finally locates the killer, she knows it, because he sees right through this surface to the woman she really is. The question is whether both of them can suppress their most destructive impulses long enough to see the game through.
Joseph Shearing (a pseudonym of Marjorie Bowen) skillfully evokes 1870s London, grounding Belle’s disgrace in concrete details of poverty and degradation. Backstage life at the theater, for example, is far from glamorous.
[Belle] was seated by a deal table which was scattered with hares’ feet, rags, glass jewels, pots of cream and rouge, odd thumbed playing cards, mugs and empty bottles–all flyblown and filthy. Her green and red dress was meant to represent a moss rose, a green cap was tied over her yellow wig; her face, without make-up or powder, looked pallid, almost featureless in the harsh light of the gas-jet which, enclosed in a wire cage, flared from a bracket on the dirty plaster wall, above which were open rafters hung with cobwebs.
This isn’t the kind of Victorian Christmas that Dickens would approve of, but it’s easy to see how the glitz of the gin palace, false as it is, appeals to Belle as she trudges home to her cold and dirty lodgings. It appeases, for just a moment, her dreams of another life. Belle’s pantomime dance to the Moss Rose Waltz is her one moment of beauty, but even that is brief, illusory, and ultimately unsatisfying. The song and the flower will keep popping up throughout her journey, as if to remind her how large the gulf is between a dream and reality.
Moss Rose is centered around an unusual antiheroine who finds, in death, something to live for. The mystery and urgency of Belle’s quest makes the early parts of the book compulsive reading. Once her plans are revealed, however, it becomes a little too long and slow for the story it has chosen to tell. For all of these characters, the seeds of their futures were planted long ago. All that remains to be seen is whether it is already too late to prevent them from bursting into full, terrible bloom.
Kirkus Review, February 4, 1935
A morbid study of two characters bound together by knowledge of a crime, for the Francis Iles audience. Better than his previous book.
Moss Rose is out of print, with affordable used copies available. This title is in the public domain in Australia and Australian readers may view it at Project Gutenberg Australia
The 1947 film version, starring Peggy Cummings and Victor Mature, is available in 8 parts in a rather low-quality print on YouTube