Although the village setting of the earliest Miss Marple short stories owes something to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Mystery of the Blue Train, the atmosphere of quiet domesticity in the stories is new. Murder remains on the agenda, but not as the brooding presence we find in the novels.
The very first of the stories, 'The Tuesday Night Club,' opens as though in a theatre, with the curtain rising on a cluster of fictional characters and props that were to stay essentially unchanged for the whole of Christie's career. Miss Marple is at home in her handsome cottage in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead which is situated in an unspecified area of the Home Counties. She is entertaining guests invited by her visiting nephew Raymond West, a very superior modern novelist who is shown to treat his aunt with harsh condescension but great kindness as well.
Accompanying him is an assertive modern painter called Joyce Lemprière. The two will eventually marry. Raymond actually proposes to Joyce during one of these early stories. When they do marry, Joyce changes her name to West in the conventional manner. Less conventionally, and presumably because of a lapse of memory on Christie's part, she also changes her first name to Joan. Another guest is Sir Henry Clithering, a recently retired Commissioner of Scotland Yard. He is meeting Miss Marple for the first time, but will quickly become a great admirer and make himself indispensable to her career as a detective. The other two guests are Dr Pender, a clergyman, and Mr Petherick, a solicitor, neither of whom would appear in the full-scale Miss Marple novels to come.
For the second batch of stories beginning with 'The Blue Geranium' Christie moved the setting away from Miss Marple's cottage. The story-telling now takes place at the home of Colonel and Mrs 'Dolly' Bantry. They were new characters and at first don't wish to know Miss Marple. They only invite her to dinner because Sir Henry Clithering, who is visiting the Bantrys, is keen to meet her again. Dolly regards Miss Marple as no different from other gossiping old women in the village, and is surprised that Sir Henry thinks her company worth having. That prejudice is soon dispelled, and in the future the Bantrys will count among Miss Maple's few close friends. By this time, Raymond and Joyce have presumably returned to London. The new guests are a Dr Lloyd and 'the beautiful and popular' actress Jane Helier. She now takes over from Raymond and Joyce the task of representing the larger world of metropolitan sophistication.
There is, therefore, much in these stories that was to survive fundamentally unchanged over the years. The one major exception is Miss Marple herself.
She is introduced, in 'The Tuesday Night Club', sitting 'erect' in a 'big grandfather chair', surrounded by the guests. Her dress is described with the kind of detail usually given by novelists to historical costumes:
Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very
much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was
arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice.
She had on back lace mittens, and a black lace cap
surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair.
She is knitting 'something white and soft and fleecy' and viewing the guests 'with faded blue eyes, benignant and kindly'. Later she is shown with 'an old lace fichu draped round her shoulders.' Raymond looks about the room in which they are seated. He admires its age, sturdy furniture, and the 'broad black-beams across the ceiling,' and thinks how fitting the atmosphere is to his aunt's personality.
Miss Marple is certainly old and stately, ensconced regally in her grandfather chair, framed as though by the seasoned wood of an ancestral home. She is not only Victorian in manner, she is Queen Victoria, much as the aged monarch was so often portrayed during the final years of the nineteenth century. As Marion Shaw and Sabine Vanacker have pointed out in their book Reflecting on Miss Marple (1991), there is a notable similarity here between Miss Marple and the widowed Queen Victoria as presented in popular woodcuts of the 1880s.
This dignified outmoded image was further enhanced by a series of Gilbert Wilkinson illustrations that accompanied the stories in The Royal Magazine, the first visual representations of Miss Marple ever published. Wilkinson kept faith with the historical pose, but lessened the tone of Victorian severity by giving Miss Marple eyes that are large and expressive rather than faded, and thin tight lips that are very clearly controlling inner thoughts. She is kindly, but knowing or quizzical rather than benignant.
The guests have gathered to play a parlour game. Each of them has to narrate an unsolved murder mystery which the other guests then discuss and attempt to solve. At first, Raymond and Joyce assume that ancient, fussy, unmarried Aunt Jane will not be interested in the game or even, perhaps, be alert enough to take part in it. But Miss Marple insists, and one by one as the mysteries are aired, and the guests admit to being bewildered, she intervenes to provide the right answer. Gradually the Queen Victoria image drops away and we have revealed the common-sense approach of the future solver of much larger problems: 'Well, my dear …human nature is much the same everywhere, and of course, one has opportunities of observing it at close quarters in a village.'
Throughout these stories Christie can be observed feeling her way into a new kind of literary territory. Uneasily so at times. Some of plots are laboured, and Miss Marple's solutions too mundane to carry conviction, though with 'The Bloodstained Pavement' she does open up the sordid theme of sexual manipulation that will re-emerge later in Evil under the Sun and A Caribbean Mystery. Generally though, the second batch of stories show far more confidence on Christie's part. Miss Marple remains much as before. On her visits to the Bantrys' house she is still wearing her black lace mittens and lace fichu.
The greatest change between the two groups of stories lies in the way that the solving of the mysteries is related more personally to individual narrators. Some of the most effective stories are really about the nature of storytelling itself. In 'The Herb of Death' Dolly Bantry's bumbling fear of narrative ('I've been listening to you all and I don't know how you do it') is transformed by Christie into a master-class on dinner-table dialogue. 'The Affair at the Bungalow', one of Christie's very best short stories, is a playful double-take on the use of an unreliable narrator, with Jane Helier, apparently dumb as well as beautiful and unable to invent the simplest of narratives, slyly revealing just how good an actress she is.
At this same time Christie was also revising Partners in Crime, a collection of Tommy and Tuppence stories in which the young married couple re-enact the manners and techniques of various famous literary detectives. Christie herself was doing much the same thing. Whether working through Miss Marple, Dolly Bantry, Jane Helier, or Tommy and Tuppence, she was consistently experimenting with story. She was also carefully hiding herself within ingenious puzzles as she was always to do. And, there were other, more personal motives at work as well, most centrally in the creation of Miss Marple.
The nearest Christie ever came to identifying a prototype for Miss Marple was in An Autobiography where she describes her as 'the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother's Ealing cronies.' Not, it's important to note, actually like her grandmother, or indeed either of the grandmothers because Christie always thought of Auntie-Grannie and Granny B. as something of a couple. It's the type of old ladies they would have known that Christie has in mind for Miss Marple. In other words, someone connected with the family, but not actually of the family.
This kind of oblique connection with Miss Marple is supported by Christie's vivid portrayal of the grandmothers in An Autobiography. They are very lively, even racy and flirtatious, much concerned with spending money and enjoying life in London, and surrounded by a rather eccentric circle of friends. None of this is remotely like the village-based Miss Marple who is dignified, in some respects isolated, calm, lady-like, necessarily careful with money, and the possessor of firm moral and artistic standards, all of which are traditionally and conventionally Victorian. She is a visible representative of a bygone age.
Indirect as the family connection may be, it is there all right but placed at a significantly different angle. For at the heart of the first group of Miss Marple stories there is constantly present a classic early twentieth-century clash between the generations. Some of the guests are not a great deal younger than Miss Marple and are generally sympathetic to her. But strikingly different are Raymond and Joyce. They are much younger than everyone else and are totally intolerant of the past, especially the era associated with their mid-Victorian grandparents. They themselves are aggressively up-to-date. Joyce, 'the artist, with her close-cropped black head and queer hazel-green eyes,' might have been a sketch taken straight from D.H.Lawrence, a contemporary novelist that the young Christie read with great enthusiasm. Raymond and Joyce both openly mock the Victorian painters and poets admired by Miss Marple. Raymond's own novels which are relentlessly 'unpleasant' and Joyce's paintings which are fiercely non-figurative, epitomise the new artistic standards that have rendered their Victorian predecessors as unacceptably naïve and old-fashioned which is also, of course, how they view Miss Marple.
Although the mood of anti-Victorianism that is so important to the dominant social and artistic values of the 1920s is often assumed to be a result of the First World War, the historical situation was far more complex than this suggests. It is true that the war came to represent in the most appalling of ways the final demise of Victorian idealism as well as the subsequent emergence of modernism, but the process was slow and tortuous. It was demonstrably a product of the final decades of Queen Victoria's long reign, a process examined in detail in my book The Haunted Study (1989). The writers and artists who by the 1920s had firmly established themselves as the leaders of a whole series of artistic revolutions (whether Joyce and Lawrence, Pound and Eliot, or Picasso and Braque, along with many other writers, painters and musicians) were in terms of birth and early upbringing, all late-nineteenth century figures.
In Britain in the 1920s, the most influential attack on the mid-Victorians was delivered by Lytton Strachey, born in 1880, who in Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921) offered a collective portrait of them as fake, false, prudish, and hypocritical. The term that came to describe Strachey's approach, using a current piece of American slang to do so, was 'debunking'. For any self-respecting young person in the 1920s, the Victorians could only be truly understood by first stripping from them all of their characteristic humbug, nonsense, bunk or bunkum. Raymond West and Joyce Lemprière are typical debunkers.
Christie was at one with the pioneering modernists in being born a late Victorian who survived the First World War to establish herself as writer in the 1920s. She was an exact contemporary of the modernists, though is never thought of as such. In the culturally divisive language of the time she was regarded as a 'low brow' while they were 'high brow'. Christie was fully conscious of being described in this way, and resented it as unfair and inaccurate. Together with her handsome young war-hero husband Archie, recreated fictionally as Tommy and Tuppence, she had been part of the bright-young-thing mood of the 1920s, and evokes the atmosphere often in her work. She had also made her own distinctive contribution to the experimental literature of the time in the form of the definitive, daringly modern narrative Roger Ackroyd.
The impact of that book and the work immediately following it should not be underestimated or placed too easily into a totally separate, and inferior, category of literature. The immediate literary context of Roger Ackroyd suggests very different possibilities. Ulysses and The Waste Land had been published just four years before Roger Ackroyd, while Mrs Dalloway was published one year earlier and To the Lighthouse just one year later. Aldous Huxley, the type of intellectually superior novelist, dealing with modern life in purposefully unpleasant ways, and perhaps providing a hint for Christie's portrayal of Raymond West, was already known for Crome Yellow ( 1921) and Antic Hay (1923), with Point Counter Point still to come in 1928. In the early stages of this period, Christie's own artistic interests in painting and music as well as literature were largely with the Moderns, her own generation.
Then, abruptly, in 1926, everything fell apart as Christie herself became a victim of the pleasure-seeking, sexually liberated, iconoclastic 1920s. It is this that provides the context for the Victorian versus Modern clashes at the Tuesday Night Club. Yearning for stability Christie places Miss Marple firmly and safely back with the mid-Victorians and fixes her in opposition to a much younger generation represented by Raymond, the son of Miss Marple's shadowy sister, and his wife-to-be Joyce. The missing late-Victorian space is occupied by Christie, balancing generations, unable and unwilling to condemn the moderns yet unsure what exactly she can salvage from them.
For Christie, Miss Marple was a retreat from the gaiety and pain of the age, even in some senses a retreat from youth itself. Although at this time of personal crisis Christie would have had the older members of her family (especially her mother Clara Miller and Auntie-Grannie and Granny B.) very much in mind, she succeeds in holding them back from directly influencing the portrayal of Miss Marple. Instead, what we get is someone placed slightly beyond them, an elderly mid-Victorian, who sets herself up as an unyielding representative of an unchanging and unchallengeable morality.
Miss Marple is not only unmarried, with none of the hideous clutter of marriage or divorce hanging about her (as it so obviously was hanging about Christie ), but old, very old, as old as Queen Victoria, with no danger of her ever being thought of as sexually attractive, or of drawing upon herself any of the destructive trends of the twentieth century. With no surviving close relatives, and, as far as anyone knows, virtually no personal history worth speaking of, her own past is a comforting void not up for discussion or dispute.
Her literary and artistic tastes are provoked in response to the debunking modernism of Raymond and Joyce who are always sure they are right and, when tested against their ancient old-fashioned aunt, are always shown to be wrong. In terms of the arts they represent they cannot be other than they are, and it is notable that while Aunt Jane may not approve of Raymond and Joyce's forms of artistic expression, she is enormously proud of their success. What they lack, inevitably so, is wisdom. That can only come with age and experience of life, with a passion for watching and observing life, with the gradual growth of tolerance and understanding.
Miss Marple is blessed with all of these qualities and they will, eventually, bring her recognition as a great detective. But to achieve that she needed to move beyond the limitations imposed by her Victorian fancy dress and, while retaining the wisdom of her ancestors, confront the modern world. This was the path that Christie would eventually, and after many stops-and-starts, lead her character along. The process is actually initiated in 'Death by Drowning' the very last of these early stories, the thirteenth of The Thirteen Problems (1932), when Miss Marple, no longer a Queen Victoria lookalike, steps out into St. Mary Mead to solve a murder mystery.
But up until this moment of independence, Miss Marple is first and foremost a defiant personification of Christie's lost stability, so unyielding that all fashions and trends, all modern creeds and beliefs, even the twentieth century itself, are obliterated by her.