Jill Dawson: The Language of Birds


I was dubious about this, because books based on celebrity crimes can be simply trading on the public taste for scandal, but I’d heard good things about it and Jill Dawson has a good record. The Crime Writer is a dark thriller with Patricia Highsmith as protagonist, and she’s also written a well-received novel about Rupert Brooke. She specialises in giving us a different perspective on a person or situation we think we know about; in the Afterword of The Language Of Birds she quotes the aunt of the murdered nanny Sandra Rivett in the celebrated Lord Lucan case in 1974:
The entire inquest has been devoted to the life of Lord Lucan, and the life of poor Sandra has been almost ignored.
In the past 45 years there have been books, films and documentaries about Lord Lucan, but few would even remember the name of the nanny who lost her life when her killer thought he was attacking Lady Lucan.

Dawson’s story has two nannies. Lively, pretty Mandy Rivers works for Lady Morven, who is bitterly separated from her husband and fighting him for custody of the children. He stalks her, has her watched by detectives, hits her in front of the children and tells the world she’s mad. Mandy’s friend Rosemary is a country girl who seems to have some sort of psychic powers, or at least she thinks she has, because at moments of stress she hears the birds giving her warnings or threatening messages.  Maybe she “has the gift” like her grandmother, or maybe she’s a highly-suggestible child who grows into a vulnerable adult.  Whichever it is, the voices are of no practical use; if she ever needed a warning it was about the danger Lord Morven posed to Mandy, but Rosemary is completely won over by his aristocratic charm. She also buys into the idea that the problem is not this charming man but his unstable wife. Mandy is not deceived. Katherine Morven is psychologically fragile and an incompetent mother, but Mandy can handle that. She’s had her own psychological struggles, but she’s a warm, grounded girl, and she’s had her own bad relationships, so she can recognise a dangerous man when she sees one. She does think of leaving this poisonous atmosphere, but she doesn’t want to desert Katherine, her anxious son James, and neglected baby Pamela.

Mandy felt Katherine was asking her to give her real view. Perhaps that was Katherine’s unconscious desire in confessing private things: to find out how the other half lived. What did other girls not much younger than Katherine, people with normal upbringings, raised by their own families, not whacked with a hairbrush by paid professionals, what did they believe about love and sex and raising children…
But Katherine and her husband aren’t capable of asking such questions and none of the other nannies expect them to have any ideas about raising children. Mandy is different because she isn’t a trained nanny; her friend Rosemary has been a bit creative in giving her a reference.  Her normality accentuates the weirdness of the world of upper-class nannydom. Sitting on a park bench on her first outing with Pamela, Mandy is approached by another nanny:
“Is your mummy a titled mummy?”
Mandy’s smile sank. “Yes, she’s Lady Morven.”
“Oh, that’s all right then. You will excuse my mentioning it, but this is the bench reserved for titled mummies’ nannies.”
Mandy leapt up as if the bench was on fire.

Rosemary may or may not have psychic powers, but she’s basically an unimaginative and forgettable girl.  We don’t even have any sense of what she looks like, unlike red-haired Mandy with her maxi-  and miniskirts and her little red boots. Mandy is the light of Rosemary’s life, not only because of her kindness but because she makes life seem rich with possibility for a young woman.  She’s dealt with her troubles in the past bravely and unselfishly, and we have such a strong feeling that she’s ready to be happy. And yet she’s wiped out in a minute by a man’s angry ego, and then forgotten, as her aunt said.   

Friends and family spring to Lord Morven’s defence as they did to Lord Lucan’s. His wife was mad, vicious, drove him to despair, they say. As Rosemary concludes:

Whatever – it’s her fault. Over and over. If only she had been more honest, sweeter, kinder, faithful, stronger, saner or whatever, she would have been able to stop his terrible violence. In the end this is a comforting thought, I suppose. The world would be so much more manageable if only it were true, if only women were in control of men’s violence.  

And of course, the element of class comes into Mandy/Sandra’s invisibility compared with the public fascination and even sympathy with Lord Morven/Lucan. Would things have been different if a girl from a titled family had been killed by one of the “lower classes”?  

It would be easy to be heavy-handed with themes like these, but Jill Dawson’s touch is subtle. My reservation is with Rosemary. Her blindness to Morven’s real character illuminates Mandy’s grounded, humane good sense, but I’m not sure what Jill Dawson is trying to do with her bird-obsession. I think the book would be better without it. But it’s a gripping story, vivid and well-told, and it does do what she wanted, giving Mandy/Sandra a life that outweighs the sensation of the cause célèbre.

4 thoughts on “Jill Dawson: The Language of Birds

  1. This probably isn’t for me, but it might well suit a friend who reads a lot of crime (fictionalised explorations of real-life incidents included). I’m glad you feel that Dawson handles this with a light, well-judged touch as it be very tempting to dial up the melodrama with something like this.

  2. Yes, as I said I wouldn’t normally pick up something like this but I read a good rv of it in one of our better papers and thought it was worth a try. And I’m having a hard time at present finding things that interest me! Waiting for the library to give me Maria Gainza’s latest , also Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch and Andrew MIller’s The Slowworm’s Song.

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