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I'm reading Agatha Christie's book "Dumb witness", in which there is a passage after Poirot and Hastings have their lunch and head to the church.

Though an attractive specimen of what the guidebook calls Early Perp., it had been so conscientiously restored in Victorian vandal days that little of interest remained.

What does the passage mean, especially "Victorian vandal" here?

Does it mean that "it had never been restored for such a long time that it lost its charm"? Or I'm I missing something?

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  • For what it's worth, "Early Perp." appears to refer to the Perpendicular Gothic architectural style, which had its heyday in the 15th century (long before the Victorians.) Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 20:50
  • Very nice discussion by all. The additional definition of ‘Early Perp’ was greatfully noted. Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 8:07

2 Answers 2

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Imagine you have an old house (or other building). It has a number of distinctive features - perhaps its windows are an unusual shape, or very large or small compared to how windows are now. Perhaps it has many small rooms or is one large open plan. Many people, when they "restore" a building like this, don't just fix up the surface finishes and repair holes and cracks -- they adjust the style to match what is current at the time. So the many small windows become one large one, or the large windows are replaced with several small ones, according to the fashion. The overly large (by the restorer's standards) fireplace is replaced with something smaller, or perhaps the fireplace is removed entirely, and so on. Rooms are merged or split, the kitchen is moved to a different place with all new fittings, and the like.

Some people, who like old houses better as they were, might consider such a restoration to be an act of vandalism, taking away or ruining "period features" that they hold to be "of interest". The use of a set phrase Victorian vandal days implies that a lot of people think that was being done to properties.

It very definitely doesn't mean that it was left unrestored for too long. It means that the restoration, which to be fair was almost certainly well-intentioned on the part of the restorer, took away what the speaker of your quote considers the good parts of the building.

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    This is a good description of the kind of vandalism in question, but why do you describe Victorian vandal days as a set phrase? It’s a nice pithy phrasing, but not re-used more widely as far as I’ve ever heard? Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 11:24
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    I completely agree with you on what it refers to, and that it’s written assuming that readers will find the meaning transparent. The only bit I was questioning was your description of it as a “set phrase”. Maybe I’m understanding that differently from how you meant it — I’d understand a “set phrase” as meaning a specific wording that is or was particularly widely used, as opposed to an original phrase used by the author just in this one place. Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 12:25
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    I wouldn't call it a set phrase, it's just short for "the days when Victorian vandals were common". Just like any other "xxx days" phrase.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 14:36
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine: There can be a difference between reality and what a statement alleges. The statement alleges it is a set phrase. Whether it's truly as established in real life is besides the point. This answer is explaining what the statement conveys, not whether the statement is an accurate reflection of reality. As far as the statement goes, it blindly asserts/assumes that "Victorian vandal days" is established enough that it requires no further elaboration.
    – Flater
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 5:32
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine: Note also the fuller quote (Matt Thrower's answer), this is describing Poirot's observation. Poirot is well known for his assertions about good manners and style; and he commonly phrases such assertions as if they were self-evident universal truths that everyone "obviously" agrees with. The usage of "Victorian vandal days" is in line with that.
    – Flater
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 5:35
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This is a reference to a particular enthusiasm in Victorian times for "restoring" churches and other religious buildings. In some cases, this was a due to a desire to modernise them and others to replace what was lost during the pillage of religious institutions during the Reformation. The movement is known in retrospect as the Victorian Restoration although it has little to do with restoration projects as we now understand them.

The reason Christie uses the term "vandals" - and the reason why it's unconnected with modern restoration - is because these projects were, on the whole, unsympathetic to the original buildings and artworks and poorly done. They can thus be viewed as "vandalising" the charm of the buildings rather than restoring or improving them.

Quoting the entire passage, which situates Poiroit in a church, makes this clearer:

Poirot’s scrutiny of the interior of the church was brief. Though an attractive specimen of what the guidebook calls Early Perp., it had been so conscientiously restored in Victorian vandal days that little of interest remained.

So you can almost imagine some scathing quotes around the word "restored" to make clear that it is meant in an ironic way. The "restoration" was so bad that the church is no longer of interest to sightseers.

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    Is the use of "conscientiously" here sarcastic? The literal interpretation suggests the restoration was done carefully and respectfully. I'm not sure if it merely means "thoroughly" here, or if it's an ironic usage. Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 18:53
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    @nuclearhoagie given the context I would assume it is sarcastic, yes. The Victorians presumably thought they were doing a good thing.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 22:10
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    @NuclearHoagie: Suppose someone regards patina on a silver object to be undesirable. Someone who "conscientiously restores" the work would take care to remove the patina not only on obvious visible surfaces, but also on hidden surfaces. Someone who isn't so conscientious might leave the patina on some largely-hidden surfaces, making it possible for someone who's interested in the history of the piece to examine the patina in those concealed areas, but someone who "conscientiously restored" the piece would avoid leaving such areas behind.
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 21:14
  • Nice answer! Might you wish to include an explanation of Early Perp.? It might be of interest to note that Saint Albans Cathedral was in fact a Perpendicular building restored by a Victorian vandal with precisely the effect Hastings describes.
    – verbose
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 7:17
  • @verbose thanks! Starting to draft an addition to the answer, but are you implying that the church in the book is actually St Albans Cathedral? I thought it was a village church.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 8:30

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