Elizabeth Wilson is best known for her commentaries on feminism, fashion and popular culture. A visiting professor at the London College of Fashion, and a crime fiction author, she is currently working on the idea of ‘glamour’ – ‘what it is and how it differs from celebrity’. Set in 1951, her latest novel, The Girl in Berlin (Serpents Tail), is about secrets, spies, the Special Branch and betrayal. Her treacherous alter ego is Margaret Lockwood. EITHNE FARRY
The ultimate 1940s British film star, Margaret Lockwood, played one of the great femmes fatales in the Gainsborough Studios melodrama The Wicked Lady. She was insane with wickedness, but how she enjoyed it! Poaching her best friend’s fiancé, the aristocratic Sir Ralph Skelton, was just for starters. Bored with provincial married life, she impersonates the notorious highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson. During a successful hold-up she meets the real Jackson and they become lovers, although in the meantime she has fallen for a handsome neighbour, Kit Locksby. Intoxicated by her double life, she murders a guard during another ambush, poisons a family retainer who discovers her secret, betrays Jackson when he is unfaithful and is eventually killed, making a deathbed declaration of love to Locksby.
In The Man in Grey, Lockwood played a cold and heartless husband stealer and murderess (again opposite James Mason), a far cry from the exuberance of Lady Skelton, but both films perversely lend romantic passion a Gothic twist. Lockwood and Mason enact the Fallen Woman and the Fatal Man, hero and heroine of the Romantic Movement, but their love appears as an engine of crime and betrayal, destroying those who suffer from it, rather than as a source of redemption or tragic loss.
Secretive myself, I am drawn to the idea of persons who dare to live double lives, whose motives are occult and perverse, reminding us that all lives are ultimately secret and unknowable, that each of us, to some extent, wears a mask.
My first crime novel, The Twilight Hour, turned on an impersonation. My second, War Damage, featured a woman whose dubious past comes back to haunt her – always a hazard for those who lead a double life or reinvent the past – and my new one, The Girl in Berlin, includes a cameo of Anthony Blunt, who spied for the Soviet Union. His was not so much a double life as a double personality. And while to ‘live a lie’ may be immoral, isn’t it also daring – a defiant gesture against normality?