Marie Belloc Lowndes – (Not only) A Story of London Fog

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Via Houghton Library
Via Houghton Library

Marie Belloc Lowndes, born in 1868 as the daughter of French barrister Louis Belloc and English feminist Bessie Rayner Parkes, While she received only two years of formal education she came from a very literary family, her mother wrote many poems, her paternal grandmother had translated Uncle Tom’s Cabin into French and her brother Hillaire Belloc would later also become a successful poet. So it was no big surprise when Marie started writing for newspapers the age of 16.

Even though the family lived in England from 1872 onwards Lowndes travelled to France frequently to write about the Paris exhibition of 89 for newspapers and to socialize with cool French writers like Jules Verne or Emile Zola.

In 1896 she married Times-columnist Frederick Lowndes. Soon afterwards she gave up her career in journalism and started writing novels (mostly crime-fiction), plays and some non-fiction (including a biography of the Prince of Wales and her own memoirs). From the turn of the century till her death in 1947 she wrote at least one book or play per year.

Her most famous book, The Lodger, was inspired by a tale she’d heard from Walter Sickert, an English-German painter (and probably not Jack the Ripper), who in turn had heard it from his landlady. One of her lodgers was a “pale veterinary student” who only went out at night. Shortly after Mary Kelly’s murder his parents suddenly appeared and took him away. Only some time later she realized that this lodger must have been (dramatic music please) Jack the Ripper.

Lownes published The Lodger in 1913, little more than 20 years after the Ripper killings. She either didn’t want to use the same names and circumstances so shortly after the real events or she thought that a ‘only loosely based on’ story would offer her more creative possibilities so the killer terrorizing London is not called Jack the Ripper but The Avenger (*heroically avoids temptation to add a The Avengers picture here*). Still, several details make it clear that she is alluding to the Ripper case (e.g. the detective investigating the case is called Josef Chandler, like one of the men who investigated the Ripper killings).

The focus of the story is on an older couple, the Buntings. They are in a desperate financial situation and have almost given up all hope of avoiding the workhouse when a well-dressed gentleman named Sleuth arrives who wants to rent a room in their house. He even gives them a huge sum of money as payment in advance so they couldn’t be happier. However, it doesn’t take long till Mrs Bunting begins to wonder about some of their lodger’s habits. He removes all the paintings showing women in his room, likes quoting bible-verses that talk about how evil women are, and only goes out at night.

The more Mrs Bunting learns about Sleuth and the Avenger case, the more worried she gets, but she doesn’t share her worries with her husband as she is too dependent on the rent Sleuth brings in. At one point she carefully tries to talk to her husband about the Avenger case in general but her husband cuts her off as he fears the topic would upset her too much (weak and feeble woman and all that).

Lodger

Later in the novel, Mr Bunting also starts getting suspicious about his lodger but he also doesn’t want to talk about it with his wife because he’s also too worried about the money, as well as his wife’s well-being  (yes, this does get frustrating for the reader after a while). He also tries to raise the topic with Chandler (he’s a friend of the family and engaged to Bunting’s daughter Daisy) and even suggests that somebody like their lodger might be responsible for the murders, but Chandler comes from a long line of stupid fictional policemen and doesn’t pick up on it.

In the end they do share their worries with each about it but still don’t want to talk to the police. Luckily for them their problem gets solved in a different way when Sleuth takes Daisy and her mother to the “Chamber of Horrors”. While there, he spots a policeman who is there for completely unrelated reasons but Sleuth assumes that Mrs Bunting betrayed him and flees. After that, he is never heard of again.

The story is certainly not the most original one but unusual for that time the psychological aspects are a major point. The reader has little doubt that the lodger is the Avenger but the focus of the story isn’t the question ‘did he do it or not?’ but the Bunting’s struggle, especially Mrs Bunting who is repulsed by his deeds but also feels she should be grateful because he saved them from absolute poverty.

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Novello also looks not suspicious at all here

The novel has been adapted five time, once from no other than Alfred Hitchcock. The silent movie The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog has a different ending than the novel as the studio did not want Igor Novello who played the title-character to be a bad guy. So in this adaptation, it turns out the mysterious lodger (called Jonathan Drew in this version) is hunting the Avenger himself because he killed his sister. That also means Drew and Daisy can get their happy ending here (Daisy dumps Chandler halfway through the movie).

The Lodger: A Story of the London is Hitchcock’s third movie (and his first thriller) but he later referred to it as ‘the first true Hitchcock’ as it contained themes and tropes that would later become common in his work (like the innocent man on the run…which is kind of ironic).

Hitchcock wasn’t the only one who adapted the novel. 1932 Maurice Elvey directed another version, again with Novello as the lead (basically a talkie-remake of Hitchcock’s version but unlike the original it flopped), another followed in ’44, yet another in ’53 (called The Man in the Attic) and a 2009 version that transports the plot into present-day West Hollywood where a Jack the Ripper-copycat is haunting the streets, because what great city doesn’t need a Jack the Ripper-copycat?

So far I could only track down the original Hitchcock version (which is pretty cool) and the ’53 version (which is surprisingly cheesy for a movie about a serial killer. It also looks like it’s set in the 1920s and not the 1880s).

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images via wikipedia Also: old film-posters just looked cooler

The Lodger wasn’t Lownes’s only foray into true-crime, most of her crime-novels were inspired by true events (including Lizzy Borden: A Study in Conjecture about maybe-axe-murderer Lizzie Borden, The Chink in The Armour about tennis-star-turned-murderer Veere Goold, What Really Happened about the unsolved Murder of Charles Bravo, the Madelein Smith case inspired Letty Lynton, Lowndes only other book to be filmed). The focus on the psychological aspects was also no accident. Lowndes is seen as one of the first psychological thriller writers and her daughter once said she tended “to describe the reactions of ordinary people to violence in their own circle”.

You can find some of her works, including The Lodger on Project Gutenberg and even watch the Hitchcock-version online at the Archive (which by the way also offers several audioplay-adaptations including one with Peter Lorre as the mysterious Lodger)

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