Seated comfortably in a first-class carriage on the 4.50 from Paddington Mrs McGillicuddy sees a murder committed in a passing train. She is on her way to visit her old friend Miss Jane Marple, and luckily so. Who better to provide a sympathetic hearing for such a disturbing experience? Unfortunately, Mrs McGillicuddy seems to have been the only witness to the murder and there is no mention of it in the morning papers. Therefore, the two women take their story to Sergeant Cornish, the solitary policeman in charge of law and order in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead.
He would like to persuade Mrs McGillicuddy that she must have been dreaming and send her gently on her way, but he needs to be careful. Mrs McGillicuddy’s reliability is vouched for by Miss Marple, and Sergeant Cornish is wary of treating her as just another gullible old woman: ‘He knew all about Miss Marple. Everybody in St. Mary Mead knew Miss Marple; fluffy and dithery in appearance, but inwardly as sharp and as shrewd as they make them’.
Presumably Sergeant Cornish sees Miss Marple about the village all of the time and has often heard her praised or mocked by his senior officers. Yet when he says that along with everyone else in St. Mary Mead he knows ‘all about her’, what does he mean?
The answer is almost nothing more than we are told here. He is aware of there being two Miss Marples, and that they appear to contradict each other, with the ‘fluffy and dithery’ outward appearance being no guide to the inner shrewdness. And that’s about it. Just those two, apparently contradictory, fixed marks of identity that allow her to function as a successful detective. Of the woman herself, her inner thoughts and feelings, her personal experiences past or present, of how she came to be both dithery and shrewd, he can know virtually nothing.
More surprisingly, the other inhabitants of St. Mary Mead share his ignorance, and so do Christie’s many readers. Miss Marple may be one of modern fiction’s most endurable characters and far and away its most celebrated woman detective, but she is also an unknown quantity and has to be treated with caution. The little we are ever told of her early life contains barely a hint of how she came to be the woman she is. She insists on being taken at face value, by those around her and by the reader as well.
Much the same can be said of Agatha Christie herself. Christie’s relationship with Miss Marple was intensely personal as well as creative, but at the same time deeply ambivalent. Although the two women shared many characteristics, attitudes and values, there was one fundamental, carefully maintained division between them.
The little we do know of Miss Marple’s past life contains barely a hint of anything of any significance that might help explain how she came to be what she is. In this she is quite different from Christie. At the centre of Christie’s life there has long been a huge mystery that once solved - or so it is widely and rather curiously believed - will explain pretty well everything about her. In fact, so large a part does her eleven-day disappearance in December 1926 continue to play in the many biographies and documentaries she attracts that it can sometimes seem to be the only part of her long and varied life in which anyone is really interested.
That the amount of attention paid to the disappearance has been excessive is indisputable. It has not only deflected attention away from Christie the writer, but has also imposed upon her a distorted, oversimplified identity. The most irritating and in some respects the most damaging thing about the disappearance is the easy assumption that it represents a uniquely mysterious moment in Christie’s life. That is not so. Important, yes, very important even, but not unique. In fact, virtually everything about Christie is a mystery and resists easy explanation. A supreme writer of mysteries, Christie was herself a mystery, and, as with the disappearance, she was continuously involved in the process of self-mystification.
She rarely spoke about her personal life or work, and would not willingly allow her own opinion on any topic to be made public. It is instructive to read the rare interviews she did grant. They tend to reveal nothing that her readers might want to know about her and are notable for her often deliberately bland responses to the interviewer’s questions. In her own work - whether in the form of pseudonymous romances, autobiography, plays, fables, or the detective stories on which her fame mainly rests - she is always the imaginative manipulative artist.
The common view of her as a rather simple-minded inventor of ingenious riddles, closer to crossword puzzles than true novels and only distantly connected with literature, is ludicrously inadequate. So are the common assumptions that she was someone with little interest in or understanding of the world around her, the nostalgic purveyor of a faded, fast-vanishing or long-vanished image of England; elitist, prudish, class-ridden, rather prim (priggish even), and nationalistic to the point of xenophobia; someone relentlessly snobbish and fascinated by the goings on of country-house society about which she writes endlessly.
The work of no writer fitting this kind of image could ever have survived as long and as positively as Christie’s has done. It would certainly not continue to be read, enjoyed, and admired by such large numbers of people of different nationalities, age, gender, education and literary interests. Nor is there is any point in trying to explain away this exceptional popularity in terms of some kind of mind-numbing bestsellerism. That’s an entirely false view of literary history. Bestsellers simply do not survive in this way. When they survive at all, that is. Christie has not only survived, she has seen off the actual bestsellers of her own day along with those other writers who during her own lifetime were so often called on to illustrate her inferiority. Notable among these were the many other ‘golden-age’ writers of detective fiction, once Christie’s rivals, but who have now either disappeared or are firmly ensconced in their own specialist niches. Also to be taken into account are the once-vaunted literary novelists who could always be invoked to put Christie’s writing in its true place. Many of them are now all but totally forgotten.
One of the oddest things about Christie’s reputation as a novelist is that she herself was assiduous in helping to maintain its low status by her fierce belief that the work should be left to speak for itself. Her reluctance to make virtually any public statement about her life or art she explained away in terms of the extreme, almost chronic shyness from which she suffered. Not that this ever stopped her from writing and publishing far more than most other writers, or from achieving world-wide celebrity through her writing and, subsequently, through the modern mass media’s voracious interest in her life and work.
Her personal reticence was largely strategic. She liked to describe herself, in apparent innocence but actually as a way of mocking superior reviewers and condescending literary critics, as a ‘low brow’. They, of course, were ‘high brows’. This was a pose as well.
She was, in truth, an extremely intelligent woman, with a restless, curious intellect, well-informed on an exceptionally large number of subjects; a more than merely talented musician; well-read in literature of the present and the past, with an interest in devising psychological interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, many of which find their way directly or indirectly into the novels. In public she appeared content to endorse the general view of herself as a compiler of entertaining detective stories, and understandably so. After all, this she most certainly was. But she was also a skilled, allusive, self-conscious and increasingly self-referential writer, determined that her novels should communicate on a number of different levels. And as if all of this wasn’t enough, she was meticulous in striving to keep these and other talents hidden.
How well she succeeded is apparent from the standard biographies of her which have managed to establish many of the external verifiable details of her life, without challenging in any transforming way the deceptive image of herself as a woman and writer that Christie, for whatever reason, worked so hard to convey.
My aim here is to try to correct, through a series of short articles and notes, some of these misapprehensions about both Agatha Christie and her work. I begin with the elusive Miss Marple.