Tag Archive: Actress


Elvira, we are told, kept a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead at her bedside while she was on remand in Holloway. Whether she was simply an adoring fan, like so many stage-struck young women of the period, or whether she knew Tallulah personally or through the notorious Farm Street parties, we cannot be sure. As they shared a mutually very close friend, Audrey Carten, it is almost certain that Elvira had at least met the American actress, whose London lifestyle remains the very picture of 1920’s “Smart Set” excess.

Tallulah as Jean Borotra, Impersonation Party 1927 ( Georgia Doble and Elizabeth Ponsonby also in picture)

There was one person involved in the trial who most definitely did know Tallulah. Oddly enough, it was her Defence Counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, whose performance in court reduced the prosecution case to tatters and may well have saved Elvira’s life. Patrick Hastings was not only the leading (and most expensive) Advocate of his day, he was also a playwright. In 1926, Tallulah had starred in Scotch Mist, his controversial study of a failed marriage – complete with amorous wife and jealous husband.

The play was not very well received but Tallulah’s popularity (and the fact that the Bishop of London denounced it from the pulpit as an example of the immorality of the era) ensured a good run of 117 performances. In the course of the production, Hastings formed a very favourable impression of Miss Bankhead.

In his autobiography, he wrote, ” I always found Tallulah extremely charming and both my wife and I liked her enormously. Not only was she a delightful actress, but she was free from those exhibitions of the artistic temperament which are not wholly unknown in the theatre and can on occasions become a perfect nuisance”. In the light of Hastings ill-concealed disgust at the behaviour of some of Elvira’s set during the trial, this is a revealing statement. It also makes one wonder what Hastings really thought about his client’s character and her frequent “exhibitions”.

Scotch Mist was sandwiched between two much greater triumphs in Tallulah’s London stage career. She had just finished playing Iris Storm in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat. That Tallulah should play the embodiment of female modernity in what was (briefly) seen as the embodiment of the modern novel was surely appropriate and Tallulah’s army of female fans loved her in the role – her scenes in chic lingerie did no harm either.The novel was a best-seller and although it has dated badly, its importance in cementing the image of a certain type of new (and possibly dangerous) femininity cannot be exaggerated. Iris Storm racing around Mayfair in her yellow Hispano-Suiza inspired many real-life counterparts – not least Elvira.

After Scotch Mist  Tallulah opted for a change of style and earned much critical praise for her portrayal of Amy, a waitress, in Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. The play was a success (it had already been a hit in America) but its lack of glamour and raciness disappointed Tallulah’s “Gallery Girls” who also “knew what they wanted” from their idol.

Beatrix Lehmann

Bankhead’s understudy in all three productions was the redoubtable Beatrix Lehmann, whose theatrical success seemed not to have suffered from her, by contemporary standards, very open lesbianism.  From her emergence from RADA in 1924 to her death in 1979, Beatrix was a striking figure – on and off-stage. Male co-star and Tallulah’s then-current lover, Glenn Anders said that  “Tallulah must have been in love with her. We were together all of the time”.  Beatrix’s sister was the writer  and part-time Bright Young Person, Rosamond, whose 1927 novel “Dusty Answer“, with its bold depiction of homosexuality among the young university set, caused a sensation of its own. Her later works, particularly “The Echoing Grove” (1953)  place her in the front ranks of twentieth century English writers. Through Beatrix, Anders and Bankhead spent many weekends at Rosamond’s country home.

Her brother was John Lehmann , a key figure in the London literary scene of the late 1930s and 1940s and an important chronicler of male homosexual life in the Capital during the  Second World War. Beatrix herself wrote two novels in the early 1930s.

Beatrix Lehmann by Angus McBean 1937

Beatrix lived at St.George’s,  Hanover Square in the heart of Mayfair throughout the late 20s and early 30s. It is likely that she would have known many of Elvira’s circle – although her tastes seem more literary and  Bloomsbury-oriented than most of the “theatrical” crowd. We know that she was friendly with Lytton Strachey, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Tennant. Whether she was close to any of the Lesbian sub-cultural groups is less certain. At one weekend gathering, Beatrix was described by her sister as being “full of high spirits and devilry” , which would have endeared her to Elvira – if not to Sir Patrick Hastings.

She enjoyed a long and triumphant career on stage, in films and latterly on television.Among  her more famous cinematic appearances  are those in “The Passing of The Third Floor Back” (1935) and The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965). She is now probably best known for her performances as Professor Rumford in  the 1978 Doctor Who series “The Stones of Blood”. She is regularly voted “best supporting part ever” by the worshippers of that particular cult.

I wonder how many of those fans would associate the good Professor with wild times with Tallulah in the London of the 1920s?

Valerie Taylor

Here’s yet another actress who may in some way be connected to Elvira’s circle.

Valerie Taylor (1902-88) had a long career on stage and in film. She was best known at the time of the Barney case for her  six-year association with  John Balderston’s play “Berkeley Square“, in which she starred both in the West End and  on Broadway and eventually on film. Other triumphs included her 1929 role as Nina, opposite John Gielgud,  in Chekhov’s “The Seagull“. (Funnily enough,  Beatrix Thomson had played in “The Three Sisters”  a couple of years earlier.). Taylor, while remaining primarily attached to the theatre, would later appear in film classics such as “Went The Day Well?”  and “Repulsion“. Again, like the other actresses that I have posted about, she was also a writer  – and has one or two screenplay credits.

She had some strong Bloomsbury connections, which included correspondences with Clive Bell and an unlikely relationship with Eddy Sackville-West.  In Michael De La Noy’s biography (“Eddy”)  she is described as “simultaneously throwing herself at the feet of both Raymond Mortimer and Eddy’s cousin Vita”. Mortimer, who wrote so “colourfully” to Eddy about Arthur Jeffress’  Red and White Party, seems to have been briefly engaged to Valerie. These pairings-up of gay men and bisexual or gay women should by now be becoming familiar to anyone reading this blog.

She was also acquainted with the Mayfair/Chelsea crowd. Maurice Richardson, of whom more anon, recalls a party in 1929 where he “fell for Valerie Taylor in a gold evening dress. I thought I was going to make her but got brushed off later.” Brian Howard was also in attendance and, as a fight broke out later on, so, I would imagine, were some of our usual suspects. If Elvira ever met Valerie it would have been in this environment, as I just can’t picture Mrs.Barney at Knole or Charleston.

From 1930 onwards Valerie Taylor divided her time between England and America. She married Hugh Sinclair (who played “The Saint” in a number of fondly-remembered B-Movies). Taylor and Sinclair had acted together in the almost-openly lesbian play “Love of Women” by Aimee Stuart (whose friends included Sunday Wilshin and Nerina Shute). In Harlem they danced the night away with a young Lucille Ball and in Hollywood were friends with the legendary Mercedes de Acosta (reputedly the lover of both Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead).

She returned to England after the War and left Sinclair for a mining-engineer. Before the break-up they had a property in Perranporth, Cornwall, and she collaborated with Winston Graham (of “Poldark” fame) on the screenplay for “Take My Life” (1947). He, then aged 39 and she 45, describes her thus, “She was a highly strung, highly articulate, beautiful but rather overpowering young woman who was full of ideas.”  – which makes her sound pretty impressive to me.

She is not high among my candidates for a close friend of Elvira’s or as an attendee of the cocktail party. However, she would have known Howard and Gathorne-Hardy and most of Elvira’s theatrical friends. She is also, I suspect, someone whose career, on and off-stage, Elvira would have rather envied.

Beatrix Thomson

One of the people interviewed by Peter Cotes about Elvira was Beatrix Thomson, a name once well known in theatre and the cinema. Born in 1900 she was a leading light of the London stage in the 1920s, playing in Capek’s “R.U.R.”  and in the iconic Basil Dean production of “The Constant Nymph”, among many others. Today, if she is  remembered at all it is as the third wife of Claude Rains (of Casablanca fame), to whom she was married between 1925 and 1935.

It could well be her who provides the very positive view of the aspiring “Dolores Ashley” ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/dolores-ashley-elvira-as-actress/ )  that contrasts so markedly with the general later consensus about Elvira. She is not especially likely to have been at the cocktail party, due to work commitments, but she is worth considering as an acquaintance of Elvira’s beyond Mrs.Barney’s “Blue Kitten” days.

Yet another of that era’s  independently-minded women,so many of whom carved a career in the performing arts, Beatrix Thomson was a playwright as well as a successful actress.Two other factors make her likely to be someone Elvira and her circle would have known and admired.

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Firstly, in 1929, she became the first actress, and one of the relatively few Englishwomen,  to hold an aviation licence.

Women in cars, speedboats and planes were a powerful symbol of the new freedoms that (generally wealthy) young women of the period were claiming for themselves. The aviatrice had a particular glamour –  youthful and modern, a defier of convention – they had a huge impact on attitudes about women, and equally significantly, women’s attitudes to themselves. Elvira, much given to hero-worship, would surely have been a keen follower of press reports about  the likes of Amy Johnson and Beryl Markham.

Secondly, in 1931, Beatrix, along with Helena Pickard, became co-manager of the Grafton Theatre on Tottenham Court Road. This gave her a chance to direct as well as act. The Grafton advertised itself as producing  “London’s Most Intimate Shows”, a reference to its small size but one designed to appeal to would-be sophisticates. In the short time that Pickard and Thomson ran the place it was dedicated to new plays seems to have particularly focussed on the talent of a number of women playwrights (including the managers’). Indeed, there is something markedly proto-feminist about the whole endeavour.

Elvira, as an avid first-nighter, would have attended many of these plays and, as was her habit, would have socialised with the performers after the show. In that period of time, Beatrix, who had been separated from her husband for three years, was living in Shepherd Market, very much a Mayfair-Bohemian address. It was also next to Half Moon Street, sometime residence of Brenda  Dean Paul, Gertrude Gamble and others who hover about the fringes of the case.

Pickard (1901-1959) was the wife of actor Cedric Hardwicke and the mother of Edward Hardwicke (best known as Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series). She was described as “a colourful personality” making her too a candidate for Elvira’s set.

Thomson moved into films for a while  (once co-starring with Edward Hardwicke) but returned to the stage after the Second World War during which she volunteered for work in aircraft production. Apparently, she most commonly referred to herself as an “airwoman”, but that is not confirmed on passenger lists where she is definitely “Actress”. She died in 1986.

Thomson and Hardwicke

Cotes claimed that his book differed from other writings on the case because he knew so many people who had known Elvira. I’m convinced Beatrix Thomson was one of those. She fits the profile – free-spirited,wealthy parents,involved with the theatre, based in Mayfair and separated from her husband. There is, it must be said, no hint of scandal or excess, in her long career but the possible areas of overlap are considerable. And, of course, she flew a plane. Irresistible, I would have thought.

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Audrey and Kenneth Carten

After the initial rejoicing at Elvira’s “Not Guilty” verdict the  public started to turn against her. Reports of her continued recklessness and high-living, and a distinct absence of grieving or remorse, began to turn her into something of a pariah. She was even seen as a possible threat to the stability of the country. Her behaviour , at a time when much of the nation was suffering severe hardship, was in danger of tarnishing the good standing of  the already-rattled  ruling classes. Commentators from the Left and the Right drew, from very different motives, very similar conclusions. Elvira was a menace to “Society”.

A welter of rumours, some already simmering leading up to the trial, started to do the rounds. Letters to editors and the police hinted at collusion and corruption in high places. “One Law for the Rich…”  was the phrase on many a lip. Worse still, the  barely concealed “sex and drugs” aspect of Elvira’s lifestyle  started to emerge more openly. Some of the tales told were fanciful and exaggerated, some were other people’s scandals appended to her name (Brenda Dean Paul’s particularly). One story,with a ring of truth about it, was, however, too scandalous to see the light of day.

In August 1932 a woman called Gertrude Gamble, but known as Barbara E.Graham, committed suicide (see forthcoming post).Her inquest was brief and concluded that Miss Gamble, a registered drug-addict, had thrown herself from her hotel window while “of unsound mind”. Sir John and Lady Mullen attended the inquest, ostensibly because a suicide note had mentioned Elvira Barney. But there was more to it than that.

Lady Mullens

Two weeks earlier Gertrude/Barbara had sent both Elvira and Lady Mullens angry, but coherent, letters which detailed the events of the Elvira’s  journey at the end of July to France. This was to “recuperate” and Miss Gamble was there in some sort of unspecified carer’s role. On the very first night, in what Gamble described as a “filthy” hotel, Elvira had engaged in a drunken and drug-fuelled orgy with Audrey Carten and her brother, Kenneth (see    https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/chelsea-sandwiches/  ) . In two sentences she catalogues a scene of cocaine-use,drunkenness, sexual perversion and incest. At the centre of which is a woman supposedly in deep mourning for her recently deceased lover.  Scandalous is barely the word.

Somehow these letters found themselves in the hands of the Police and at least one newspaper, but no-one wanted to know. The police, quite sensibly, felt that with Gamble dead there was no point opening this can of worms – although the fact that the copy the police received was heavily annotated suggests they gave the later some credence. The newspapers’ motives are less clear but, in this era, scandals that were too damning to the upper echelons tended to stay locked away  unless absolutely unavoidable.

Who were these two bedmates of Elvira? In 1932, Audrey Carten would have been the better known of the pair. Gertrude Gamble explained to lady Mullen that Audrey was ” One of the best known Lesbians in London” but the public would have known her as an actress and promising playwright.

Audrey Carten 1929

She was born  Audrey Hare Bicker-Caarten into large  middle-class family living in Blomfield Road, Maida Vale. Her younger sister Waveney was born in 1903 and Kenneth arrived in 1911. By 1920  Audrey Carten was on stage and making a name for herself by investing some of Shakespeare’s heroines with a little verve and spirit. There was a humour and style about her performances that marked her out as “Modern”.

Her real breakthrough came in 1923 when she played Una Lowry  in Gerald Du Maurier’s “The Dancers”, at the Wyndham Theatre. Critics praised her “delicate, eerie,sensitive”  portrayal of, by happy coincidence – given the concerns of this blog, an aristocratic woman who had become “an erratic and neurotic nightbird”. But what made “The Dancers” the sensation of the season was the casting of the character Maxine. For it was in this part and in this play that Tallulah Bankhead burst upon the London stage and launched her eight year reign as the queen of all things exciting and outrageous about the 1920s.

Tallulah Bankhead in The Dancers

It is impossible to recapture the impact that Bankhead made, firstly on stage and then on the night-life of London. The Bright Young Generation worshipped her and she was as much its inspiration as any Oxford aesthete. Her army of devoted female fans have become a thing of legend and no book of the period is complete without at least one anecdote of Tallulah misbehaving at a party or a nightclub. Elvira was one of those fans and remained loyal, keeping a photograph of Tallulah at her bedside while on remand in Holloway. Whether she was more than just a fan, we don’t know. Audrey Carten  became a very close friend – that much is certain.

Tallulah in 1928

The two were together at parties, restaurants and various functions throughout the decade. A memoir of Lady  Caroline Paget recalls her being introduced to Tallulah and her “friend and travelling companion” Audrey Carten, probably in 1930.(Caroline Paget was a leading socialite of the 1930s and her name too was to be linked with Carten’s). Even if Elvira never met Tallulah, to be intimate with her “travelling companion” would have thrilled her immensely.

Caroline Paget by Rex Whistler 1936

Another extrovert who was very much part of Carten’s life in the mid-twenties was Gwen Farrar. Unlike the omniverous Tallulah, Farrar was a strict Lesbian, who by presenting herself on stage as a comic turn –  one much favoured by the BYP, was able to present a masculine image to the world at large that must have been the envy of many at the time. She was one of the great stars of the period – on stage, on records and in cinema shorts. Off stage she was the lover of Barbara “Joe” Carstairs and Dolly Wilde among others. Carten was now mixing with the inner circle of wealthy and artistic Lesbian London.

Gwen Farrar

In 1925, in an act that Elvira would quite likely have  approved of, Farrah and Carten were arrested for assaulting a police officer. The poor constable had objected to them parking their car directly outside the Savoy Hotel. Carten had “obstructed” while the more direct Farrar had thrown a punch. The case caused more mirth than censure and charges were eventually dropped.

Farrah, Bankhead and Carten became fixtures of the party scene and enjoyed a reputation for excess and mischief. One often told tale added a fourth person to the group, Carten’s younger brother, the 17 years old  Kenneth. In 1928, during Aimee Semple McPherson’s much publicised (and parodied) evangelical crusade in England, a less than sober Bankhead invited the American to her home where her “gang” tried to get the preacher to admit that she was human. This involved the four telling all the worst things that they had ever done in the hope that McPherson would at least let slip some indiscretion in return. Seasoned hustler that she was, McPherson didn’t break.

Aimee Semple McPherson (Mrs.Melrose Ape in Vile Bodies)

By the end of the decade Carten was beginning to think of herself more as a writer than an actress. Teaming up with her sister, Waveney, she wrote a number of successful plays such as “Late One Night”, “Fame” and (believe it or not) “Gay Love” which was filmed in 1934. It was during this creative period that the night of passion with Elvira took place-  but they were obviously well-acquainted before that. Audrey and Kenneth were not at the cocktail party on May 30th – they were in America – but they probably attended the trial. The rendezvous  in France was pre-arranged so we can reasonably include Carten in Elvira’s circle. Given that Ruth Baldwin would have been a friend of Carten’s (through Joe Carstairs) and probably Olivia Wyndham too, the distance between Elvira and the openly lesbian guests at her party starts to evaporate.

Audrey and Kenneth seem to have spent much of the thirties crossing the Atlantic. Her plays were produced on Broadway as well as in London. On one return journey there is an interesting fellow-passenger, Ida Wylie.I.A,R. Wylie was a popular Australian romantic novelist and a long-time friend of the best-known lesbian couple in England – Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge – whom she was no doubt on her way to visit. Her presence on the ship  may be a coincidence but she and Audrey would not have wanted for conversation.

In the year that Elvira died (1936) Audrey and Waveney enjoyed another success. Noel Coward produced their adaptation of Jacques Deval’s “Madamoiselle”  which introduced a new star in Greer Garson and ran for 147 performances. That it was at Wyndham’s, where she had starred with Tallulah 13 years previously, must have given great satisfaction. Their adaptation remained popular for some years and is the only work by the sisters that seems to be easily locatable.

Waveney and Audrey

Audrey Carten died in Hastings in 1977 and Waveney in Sandwich in 1990. As for Kenneth, he became an actor too, in various smallish roles on the West End stage. His most notable achievement lies in the fact that he was part of the cast that first sang “The Stately Homes of England” (Operette 1938). The Coward connection continued to prove useful to the Cartens.

Kenneth Carten (far left) in Operette 

As did the relationship with Tallulah Bankhead. She appears to have employed him for a while and also recommended him to various American studios. Not much came of it but Tallulah retained an obvious affection for the man she had first met as a teenager in London.

In her will she left him $10,000 dollars and the portrait that Peter Shiel painted of her in 1962. It is now in the V&A.

Things would have been very different for all concerned had the Gamble accusations been published. I’m, somewhat hypocritically, rather pleased they weren’t. Anyway the truth or otherwise cannot now be proven. Personally, I am quite sure Elvira and Audrey had sex and probably not just in France. And we know that Elvira was very fond of bisexual young men. The incest I doubt – although Audrey, like Elvira, had a reputation with both sexes. Most famously, she had had an affair in the mid-twenties with the actor Gerald Du Maurier, Daphne’s father. By a nice coincidence, in 1925, in the middle of Gerald and Audrey’s liaison,  the 18 years-old Daphne had developed a “pash” on Gwen Farrar and sent her a very gushing letter, much to her parents’ annoyance. Small world, eh?

“Half O’Clock in Mayfair”

Jack Kahane’s Obelisk press had already published a novel by and about people associated with Elvira’s cocktail party. This was Marjorie Firminger’s “Jam Today”  (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/  )

Marjorie Firminger, in the middle in white dress, between Napper and Brenda Dean Paul

In 1938 the same imprint  published “Half O’Clock in Mayfair” by Princess Paul Troubetzkoy.This book is so rare as to be, to all intents and purposes invisible. Neil Pearson must have a copy though, as his excellent biography-cum-archival exercise, “Obelisk” contains the following,

“”Half O’Clock in Mayfair was  published in 1938. Kahane had been introduced to the author in the Castiglione bar. Troubetzkoy’s book was (according to Kahane) “the record in novel form of a famous scandal, involving a murder or at least some form of homicide or suicide, which had shaken London a year or so before…”

According to Pearson, the novel “is a highly competent dissection of London’s atrophied high society of the late 1930s, ten years on from the zenith of the Bright Young Things. No longer bright or young, yesterdays debutantes rush round London from party to party in an increasingly desperate search for a husband, usually finding nothing but a short-lived oblivion in drink and drugs.Troubetzkoy can write and she understands her characters in all their sad vacuity.”

This to me sounds like a fictionalised account of the Barney case – with a touch of Rattigan’s After The Dance thrown in. I’d love to see a copy and would also like to know if the Princess was writing from direct experience or merely from hearsay.

Pearson admits that it is difficult to find out who Troubetzkoy actually was. This is true. Unlikely as it seems, there were a number of Prince Troubetzkoys kicking around London and up to three that went by the name of Princess Paul.

However, I think the author of Half O’clock in Mayfair was born Rhoda Muriel Boddam in Suffolk in 1898. She was the daughter of a retired Indian Army officer and his much younger wife. She married James G.H. Somervell in 1917, but this seems not to have lasted. James, whose father owned and then lost, through  bankruptcy,  Sorn Castle in Ayrshire, then spent much of the 1920’s travelling to places like Ceylon and Argentina as a Political Agent. His address throughout the period is given as the Carlton Club.

Like several other young divorcees, some of whom hover around the Barney case, Rhoda, now apparently calling herself “Marie”, tried her luck on the stage.  Using the stage name Gay Desmond, she was a chorine  in Andre Charlot’s revues at the Alhambra (acting alongside Sunday Wilshin, Anna Neagle and, I suspect, a few of Elvira’s friends).

Charlot was an important impresario and from 1915 to 1935, mixing ballet and Broadway, brought a touch of Parisian glamour to the London stage. His shows depended heavily on  beautiful female performers and many a career started at the Alhambra.

Mr. Andre Charlot rehearses his chorus for the cabaret section of the Grand Ball at the Royal Opera House

Charlot and dancers in rehearsal, 1929

In 1931, Rhoda M.M. Somervell married the elderly Russian artist, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy. She then (if we have the right princess) took up a career as a writer, producing a number of novels between 1933 and 1943. Apart from Half O’Clock in Mayfair, the most intriguing is a dystopian fantasy Exodus A.D. (1934), written in collaboration with the English Futurist, War artist (and friend of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis),  C.R.W. Nevinson.

The Troubetzkoys lived in the heart of fashionable London, at a very exclusive address – 53 St.James Square. The Prince died in 1938 and Marie, as she now was, spent her time between a Park Lane flat and a residence at Iver, near Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. Until the war, she travelled frequently to the continent and particularly France. The Castiglione Bar in Paris, where she sold her her roman a clef to Kahane, was a favourite with English and American aesthetes and artists (including Olivia Wyndham’s friend, Carl Van Vechten). The fact that an already published author turned to Kahane suggests that the book might have been too racy or too libellous for an English publisher – and also that it may have contained some inside information. Even though Elvira was dead by this time, there were others keen to distance themselves from their involvement with the Fast Set.

Princess Paul Troubetzkoy, Park Lane 1940

The books dry up after 1943. Princess Paul  died after a fall in her  garden at Word Cottage, Iver in 1948. Her death seems a little suspicious but the inquest found nothing untoward. Although her novels appear to have been reasonably well received, they are all long out of print.She is genuinely a forgotten figure.

So, assuming we have pieced together the right Princess Troubetzkoy, did she know Elvira? She is a little older than most of Elvira’s set , her artistic circle belongs to a slightly earlier generation and she is very much Mayfair rather than Chelsea.Nonetheless, these circles overlapped and she is around at the right time, in the right place, and has the right professions (actress then author). If she didn’t know Elvira, she would have known of her and known women not dissimilar to her. She would have  followed the case with the same eager curiosity as the rest of Society.

A proper examination of the novel would reveal more – has anyone a spare copy?