Agatha Christie liked to claim that Miss Marple crept up on her furtively, surreptitiously, taking her over effortlessly. There was no deliberation, no advance planning, no conscious will involved. In An Autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, the most celebrated female detective in literary history is described as having ‘insinuated' herself ‘so quietly' into Christie's life that her moment of arrival was barely noticed. Even recalling the publication of the first Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) failed to stir Christie's reluctant memory: ‘I cannot remember where, when or how I wrote it, why I came to write it, or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character - Miss Marple - to act as the sleuth in the story.'
She was not always so forgetful. Elsewhere in the Autobiography she acknowledged that Miss Marple might well have owed something to the women she met through her two elderly mid-Victorian relatives who were known within the family as Auntie-Grannie and Granny B. It was also Christie herself who proposed Caroline Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) as a possible forerunner of Miss Marple, and who suggested that her wider portrayal of the village community in Roger Ackroyd must have meant that she had many of the characters who would eventually people St. Mary Mead ‘lined up below the borderline of consciousness, ready to come to life and step out on to the stage.'
That seems to indicate a high degree of self-understanding, but it still didn't prevent her from claiming that when she started to write Vicarage she had no idea what made her think of Miss Marple as the central character. Even more confusingly, just a few paragraphs after making that assertion she speaks of publishing a group of Miss Marple short stories three years before the novel. There is no awareness of any inconsistency in these or other similar statements.
Christie's apparent absent-mindedness at such moments is characteristic of the ambivalence she always showed towards Miss Marple. After the publication of those early short stories and Vicarage, Miss Marple came and went in Christie's life fitfully and seemingly without design. A lasting interest in her emerged only in the 1950s and by then she was being guarded by Christie with a shield of half-memories and misinformation. And with good reason, for the village detective's origins and early development were linked inextricably to that period of Christie's life she would happily have wiped entirely from her memory.
The publication in June 1926 of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, acknowledged from the start as a classic of detective fiction, should have inaugurated a time of personal triumph for Christie. In reality it led her into the notorious events that are now so firmly lodged in the public mind that they tend to be referred to simply as ‘the disappearance' or ‘the missing days'. Christie's motives and actions during this critical period of her life, from the moment sometime in the middle of 1926 when her husband Archie told her he had fallen in love with another woman, through her disappearance for eleven days early in December 1926 and her stay during this period at the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, to a divorce being formally granted in October 1928, are matters of intense controversy, strongly debated by her biographers1. It's a slightly different, though closely related matter, that concerns me here.
The image of herself at this time that Christie wanted future generations to accept is presented with deceptive care in An Autobiography. It is of someone utterly lonely, abandoned, betrayed, hunted down by a ferocious pack of press wolves, and forced by financial hardship to rush to complete publishing contracts in which she no longer had any faith. She claimed especially to loathe the two books she was currently working on: The Mystery of the Blue Train, the crucial intended follow-up to Roger Ackroyd, and The Big Four, a collection of earlier Poirot adventures hastily cobbled together for publication in volume form.
There can be no doubt that Christie was traumatized by the events of 1926, but they did not reduce her to the state of personal helplessness she liked to evoke. Her immediate response was to indulge in one of her periodic frenzies of writing. First she began clearing out of the way the two books she would always love to hate. The Big Four was the only Christie title to be published in 1927, while The Blue Train which was far more difficult for her to deal with was not published until early in the following year. Even as these depressing tasks were being completed she had begun a whole series of literary experiments. She tried nothing new with Poirot, leaving him aside for the moment, but she did renew her interest in Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and Mr Harley Quin, characters who carried some personal significance for Christie. She also wrote a play, a thriller, and Giant's Bread (1930), the first of the Mary Westmacott novels.
Not only does much of the work she produced at this time carry the appearance of having been written haphazardly, it was also published in the same way. So much so that Janet Morgan, even when working from Christie's own papers, admits to finding it difficult to establish a reliable order of composition for the books published over the next year or so. The one relatively stable point in the creative flurry was Miss Marple. Not only is she Christie's most important, and original, literary achievement in the few years immediately following the disappearance, she is also the character whose creation is most intimately indebted to that time of personal pain and mystery.
That this has been insufficiently recognised is due largely to the kind of difficulty in fixing dates of composition for works of this period identified by Janet Morgan. It is not uncommon for even otherwise reliable commentators on Christie to refer to The Murder at the Vicarage as containing Miss Marple's first appearance in print, and to the short stories as though they appeared after the novel. Even when the stories are properly acknowledged as preceding the novel, there is often an accompanying vagueness about where, as well as when, they were actually published: sometimes the details are ignored, sometimes the stories are attributed to the wrong magazines.
For the sake of accuracy alone it is worth getting the facts straight, and a few bibliographical details will easily clarify the situation2. This, however, is not the only issue at stake. Far more is involved. Miss Marple was not just a part of this particular spell of literary activity: she played a leading role in it. And, as far as Christie's recovery is concerned, an inspirational one as well. Without the disappearance we might never have had Miss Marple at all.
Christie must have started writing about Miss Marple by at least the summer of 1927, some six months after the disappearance, or possibly earlier. Whenever exactly, it initiated a spell of concentrated and extended writing about the village detective that continued through the spells of depression; the wrangling over divorce proceedings; the distasteful revisions to The Blue Train; any psycho-analytical treatment she may or may not have undergone (another controversial issue among her biographers!); the divorce itself; Archie's remarriage; her remarkable, spontaneous trip to the Middle East; her meeting with, and marriage to, Max Mallowan; and for up to two more years after she had become Mrs Mallowan.
And this was the period of time - approximately five years in all from 1927 to 1932 - during which, according to the account given in An Autobiography, Miss Marple was ‘insinuating' herself so quietly into Christie's consciousness that her arrival went virtually unnoticed.
Christie's dislike of The Blue Train has been rightly acknowledged by her biographers as especially revealing of her frame of mind at this turning point in her life. Barely concealed by the sensational murder, is a story of casual love affairs, marriage break-ups, divorce, and the difficulty of choosing between reliable and unreliable suitors. All of this is easily related to Christie's own situation while she was struggling to write the book. So is the nature of the heroine, Katherine Grey, an attractive single woman of thirty-three who is suddenly released from her tedious life as a paid companion to an elderly widow Mrs Harfield and strikes out on her own.
The small details of Katherine's life before she attains independence are of particular interest. She is living in a village in Kent. Mrs Harfield's Christian name is given, by her scrounging distant relatives, as Emma, though she is known to her friends in the village as Jane. That need hardly be significant, but the name of the village is. It is called St. Mary Mead, and it would soon be requisitioned by Christie to become the permanent home of Miss Jane Marple.
Very soon! Indeed, the cross-over of village names seems to confirm that Christie may have begun thinking about Miss Marple quite early in 1927 when she was desperately trying to complete The Blue Train. There were troublesome delays, and it was not until February 1928 that The Blue Train was serialised in The Star newspaper. It was published in book form the following year. The first Miss Marple story had appeared in December 1927. This means that in the topsy-turvy world of Christie's publications at this time, the Miss Marple stories (and her St. Mary Mead) actually began appearing in print before The Blue Train (and Katherine Grey's St. Mary Mead).
Christie had used the rather similar name of Styles St. Mary for the village base of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was to reappear just once again in Christie's fiction, many years later in Curtain so that it could provide the setting of Poirot's last, as well as his first, case. St. Mary Mead in Kent was never to be heard of again, but transferred to a different unnamed county not all that far away.
Katherine Grey was to go as well, though not before she develops an attitude that would later come to be seen as a Miss Marple trademark: ‘Oh dear,' Katherine thought to herself, ‘how extraordinarily alike the world seems to be everywhere! People were always telling me things in St. Mary Mead, and it is just the same thing here.' The St. Mary Mead that was a central preoccupation of Christie's mind for the next five years was already being established as a perfect training-ground for Miss Marple. Even so, whatever the similarity of the names, the mood was very different. The Blue Train would always be associated by Christie with personal humiliation and loss; Miss Marple with rehabilitation and growth.
There was another complicated transference of names going on at this time. Janet Morgan explains that Marple Hall was a large house in Cheshire not far from Abney Hall, the home of Christie's sister Madge. Morgan also notes that Christie was sufficiently struck by the unusual name to use it in an early draft of one of the Harley Quin stories, ‘The Dead Harlequin', which was collected in the volume The Mysterious Mr Quin published in April 1930. In the working draft she had given the family and the country house in the story the name of Marple. By the time it was published these had been changed to Charnley. Christie had clearly found a more pertinent use for the name of Marple in the Tuesday Night Club stories which she was starting to work on at just this time. Like St. Mary Mead, Marple was transferred from one type of story to another.
Furthermore, Abney Hall was where Christie was taken by Archie after his sudden arrival at the Harrogate Hydro and from where the family medical certificate was issued stating that Christie had been suffering from amnesia. It had therefore played a central part in the close of the disappearance episode and the final break with Archie. No wonder that Marple Hall and Abney Hall should have been so closely connected in Christie's mind.
The now named and domiciled spinster detective made her debut in December 1927 in the Christmas number of The Royal Magazine. This was the first anniversary, virtually to a day, of Christie's disappearance. The remaining five stories were published consecutively, one a month, in the Royal up to May 1928. Christie then went on to write a further six Miss Marple short stories. These were published between December 1929 and May 1930, once again month by month, though this time in a magazine called The Story-Teller.
While the second batch of short stories was being published, Christie was preparing to enhance Miss Marple's status by featuring her in a full-length novel. This was The Murder at the Vicarage, published in October 1930. Even then Christie was not finished with the character she would come to insist was so forgettable. In November 1931 Nash's Pall Mall Magazine published ‘Death by Drowning', a brand-new Miss Marple story and the only one of the early stories published by itself and not as part of a batch. It might even have been written in order to justify the snappy title Christie already had in mind for a collection of all of the Miss Marple stories. This was The Thirteen Problems first published in June 1932.
With Miss Marple now strongly established in the public mind, Christie allowed her to fade away almost entirely. During the next decade there was to be only one new short story, ‘Miss Marple tells a Story', which made its first appearance not in print but as a broadcast on the BBC on 11 May 1934. There would not be a second Miss Marple novel until The Body in the Library in May 1942, twelve years after the popular success of The Murder at the Vicarage, an extraordinary fallow period for such a popular character and such a commercially astute author.
For some reason Christie was beginning to feel uneasy writing about Miss Marple. Although we can never know for sure, it is not difficult to suggest a reason why. One of the most lasting effects of the disappearance on Christie was an obsessive refusal to allow any intrusion into her personal thoughts and feelings, however innocuous the resulting revelations might appear to be.
Not that there was anything innocuous about Miss Marple. She was the most important literary product of the disappearance, and perhaps, just perhaps, Christie was beginning to understand this. If so, she might well have begun to worry that in writing so much about Miss Marple she was in danger of revealing too much about herself. That there wasn't actually anything very damaging to reveal didn't matter. Personal obsessions of this kind don't function rationally, and, as we have seen, Christie's most certainly didn't.
After five years of writing intensely about Miss Marple, Christie largely dropped her. Not entirely as we can see from the isolated short story ‘Miss Marple tells a Story'. More strikingly, we now learn from John Curran's recent revelation in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks (2009), that also in the mid-1930s Christie was considering whether to give the responsibility for solving the murder mystery in Death on the Nile (1937) to Miss Marple rather than Hercule Poirot. That remains merely a fascinating might-have-been. Miss Marple was returned to the shadows and stayed there for some years to come. When she did finally reappear in 1942, her appearance and, to a lesser extent, her personality, were carefully changed in certain small but significant ways. These allowed her to adapt to changed times and prepare for a starring role in ten further novels.
But, unlike Poirot, whose career and personal background are frequently referred to and expanded over the years, the reader would never learn much more of any importance about Miss Marple. Her past life was to remain as mysterious and ultimately unknowable as Christie's own.
To be continued.
1. See, Janet Morgan, Agatha Christie A Biography (1984); Jared Cade, Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days (1998); Laura Thompson, Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007).
2. When I first began trying to establish the original periodical publication dates of these stories there was very little reliable information available. As I had been impressed by Jared Cade's positive use of bibliographical details in his study of Christie's disappearance, I approached him to see if he could help. It's a pleasure to express here my gratitude to him for the generosity and kindness of his response. Since that time, the situation has changed considerably with the publication by Harper of three massive paperback anthologies of Christie's short stories: Miss Marple and Mystery, Hercule Poirot, and Detectives and Young Adventurers. Each of these volumes has appended to it, a detailed chronology of the short stories, together with a good deal of very useful bibliographical information. These valuable lists have been compiled by Karl Pike.