An Irishwoman's Diary
‘DOWN these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” wrote Raymond Chandler. Was the master of noir talking about the Waterford of his childhood? Chandler’s mother was Florence Thornton from Waterford city, and according to his biographer Tom Hiney, the future novelist spent childhood summers sitting rigid at his uncle’s table, watching the icy old termagant terrorising his household.
A letter Chandler wrote in 1945 describes the family: “I have a great many Irish relatives, some poor, some not poor, and all Protestants, and some of them Sinn Féiners and some of them entirely pro-British.
“The head of the family, if he is still living, is a very wealthy lawyer who hated the law, but felt obliged to carry on his father’s firm. He had a housekeeper who came from a county family and did not regard my uncle as quite a gentleman because he was a solicitor . . .
“My uncle’s snob housekeeper wouldn’t have a Catholic servant in the house, although they were probably much better than the trash she did have.”
Chandler wrote that his mother was “of a Quaker family”, but he seems to have been storytelling: in the 1901 and 1911 census, Chandler’s uncle is listed as Church of Ireland. There are no Thorntons among the Waterford Friends listed in the Quaker Library in Stocking Lane, Dublin.
As for his account of housekeeper Miss Groome allowing no Catholic servants, the census shows Bridget Keely and Mary Anne O’Donnell, “Roman Catholic”, living in the home of Ernest Isaac Thornton, along with Edwina Charlotte Selena Groome.
Chandler’s mother, Florence, was a pretty little woman who threw her heart away on his American father, who “was found drunk if he was found at all”, Chandler wrote. Mother and son fled the US for Ireland, then London.
Florence’s prune-mouthed mother was imported to oversee the household.
She pointedly didn’t have wine served to Florence at table. Did Florence herself have a “strong weakness” or was it that poor relations would be kept in lentil soup, but giving them wine after they’re so careless as to lose a husband was going too far? Uncle Ernest paid for Chandler’s studies in Dulwich College. It must have been a school for bons mots – Chandler’s first year there was PG Wodehouse’s last, so the noir novelist who wrote the immortal “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” was looking up to the farceur who described an aunt: “She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight around the hips that season”.
Chrysalid Dulwich writers Chandler, Wodehouse and CS Forester had a great editor in headmaster AH Gilkes, known for his “quality of merciless chaff”, who would go to a boy’s study to tear apart an essay.
If he still visited Waterford in his teens Chandler must have got the flavour of the city’s speech. He later reminisced to Waterford writer Bill Long about browsing in Power’s secondhand bookshop.
Chandler favoured law; his uncle harrumphed at financing his studies past the age of 16 – it was time to support his mother. Dulwich had given him a superb grounding in the classics, so he was sent for a year to the continent to add modern languages, then took the civil service examination, coming third out of 800, claims Hiney.
He lasted six months monitoring stores on London’s docks before leaving, to Uncle Ernest’s outrage. An Irish friend of Ernest’s, Roland Ponsonby Blennerhasset, introduced him to the Westminster Gazette, edited by Stephen Spender’s uncle, where he sold “verses, sketches and unsigned things” for three guineas a week.
Chandler had clung to his American accent despite leaving America at seven. He sailed for the US at 24, having borrowed money (at interest) from his Waterford uncle. Here the “doubtfully honest” Ernest Fitt, husband of Florence’s sister, enlivened Chandler’s life with fun lubricated by raw corn mash.
In 1917, like many Anglo-Irish boys, he fought with the Canadian army in France. Demobbed, he worked as a reporter, a fruit-picker, a tennis-racquet-stringer – the usual stuff – took a correspondence course in bookkeeping, got a job in oil through a friend. This lasted until gin and the Depression knocked it from under him.
Chandler had always had a louche taste for dime novels – probably why he was haunting Power’s bookshop. Now, in his 40s, he devoted himself to the study of their language, plots and tropes, forming a pattern in his mind for a knightly hero: a human man, a man who makes mistakes, but a man noble at heart amid a dark world.
His debut novel, The Big Sleep, introduced California private detective Philip Marlowe, investigating the first of a series of intricate plots glued together with tight wordplay that reads as if it’s written out of the side of the mouth.
It was an immediate success, adapted twice for film, is commonly listed as one of the top US novels, and set Chandler off on a lifetime of writing for profit. Forever after, he would define the standard of grimy murder, red-lipped blondes, betrayal and low life – and cold, hard, mean-minded upper-class families.
Uncle Ernest and Miss Groome would have been horrified.
Lucille Redmond’s ebook of short stories, Love, is available on Amazon and iTunes