Jessica Mann, 1937-2018 - review by Natasha Cooper

Natasha Cooper

In Memoriam

Jessica Mann, 1937-2018


Jessica Mann, who first contributed to Literary Review in 1993 and has been the magazine’s crime fiction critic since 2006, died in Cornwall on Tuesday 10 July.

The daughter of refugees from Nazi Germany, she was born in London in 1937. Two years later she was evacuated, with her four-year-old brother, to North America. This was not an unusual experience at the time, but it must have been profoundly dislocating for such young children. In 2005 she published Out of Harm’s Way, exploring the whole issue of the wartime evacuation of children. She wrote: ‘In the tragic sagas of expulsion, exile and population transfer that make up twentieth-century history the trans-oceanic wanderings of a few protected children might seem a mere footnote.’ But it was an important story and the memories she relates are moving in the extreme. Cressida Connolly, reviewing the book, confessed, ‘I was crying by page 20 and actually unable to read for tears by page 33.’

Jessica returned to London in 1943, where she was educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School, before going on to read archaeology at Newnham College, Cambridge. It was during her undergraduate years that she met the archaeologist Charles Thomas, whom she married a week after she graduated in 1959 at the age of twenty-one. She then studied law and was called to the Bar but never practised because she and her husband moved to Cornwall, where it was difficult to pursue a career as a barrister.

She belonged to that transitional generation of women, highly intelligent and educated on equal terms with male undergraduates, who were expected by much of society to find the satisfaction they needed in domestic life. She often used the phrase ‘weeping into the nappy bucket’ to sum up their frustrations. Writing in The Guardian in 2012, she describes some of the drudgery, which involved boiling ‘the towelling and muslin nappies, at least 10 per baby per day’.

This and other remembered travails formed the basis of her memoir The Fifties Mystique, which was reviewed in these pages in May 2012 by Katharine Whitehorn. Here Jessica quotes the male president of the all-women Radcliffe College telling the new students that their years there would ‘prepare them to be splendid wives and mothers’. She also quotes the advice dispensed by an agony aunt to new brides in the 1950s: ‘Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it … Listen to him … remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.’

Far too intelligent and enquiring to live in what she described as a kind of captivity, Jessica combined motherhood of four beloved children with writing and public service. Her first crime novel, A Charitable End, was published in 1971 and her last, The Stroke of Death, in 2016. Set in places where she and Charles lived or visited – such as Cornwall, Edinburgh, London and Egypt – the novels are elegantly written and never include the kind of graphic violence that became not only fashionable but also, for a time, a requirement if a crime novel was to qualify for a big marketing budget. She was a member of the Detection Club, an excellent speaker and a discriminating and respected critic.

She also broadcast and wrote many articles for newspapers and journals, including the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, House & Garden and The Oldie. She was a planning inspector and served on employment tribunals as well as on many NHS committees.

Parkinson’s disease made her later years hard, but she was remarkably stoical, never complaining and handling the condition in a way that drew admiration from fellow writers. She managed her medication so that she was able to continue speaking in public on subjects that she cared deeply about, such as violence in crime fiction, with all her familiar acerbic intelligence.

Her husband died in 2016 and she moved back to London, where she once said, ‘All I want to do is spend time with Charles.’ Her last few days were spent in Cornwall with her daughter Lavinia, visiting Charles’s grave and other places that had meant a lot to her. It was there that she lost consciousness and died, surrounded by all four of her children, of whom she was immensely proud.

Clever, curious, generous, an elegant writer and a loyal friend, Jessica Mann will not be forgotten.

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