One of the most memorable aspects of Christie's autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, is its joyous celebration of courtship and marriage. Recalling her younger self in the years leading up to the First World War, Christie describes with a frankness that will seem barely believable to young readers today that her main aim in life then was to be happily married. It was not only marriage itself she admired but the whole romantic process - learning the delicious skills of 'flirtation,' choosing among competing suitors with everything being finally settled by transforming love, and then a contented marriage. Being happily married, she insists, was the most rewarding way for a woman to spend her life. What could be more satisfying?
We now know that Christie failed in that ambition, at the first attempt at least, and always bitterly regretted having done so. Her broken marriage to Archie Christie is a dominant theme of her fiction, explored in a large variety of different ways, some crudely obvious, some deeply hidden. But there's no reason to believe that that personal failure ever weakened her early idealistic view of marriage. It is even made clear in An Autobiography that the other youthful dreams of this remarkably talented young woman - notably of becoming a professional singer or pianist - were never as important to her as love and marriage. And as for being a professional writer, well she often claimed never to have aspired to that at all.
Along with so much else that Christie says about herself, there are puzzles here, but one thing that can be assumed from it is that she never seriously regarded a single life as an option much worth considering. It's true that in her later novels she can be seen developing an admiration for a new kind of career woman who remains single because devoted to her work. Christie freely acknowledges the personal satisfaction those women get from their work and, especially, the important contribution they make to society, but shows no special understanding of how their lives are lived. More characteristic are the adventurous, fiercely independent young women, who appear frequently in Christie's novels. Their independence and adventures usually end with marriage in the accepted way of romantic fiction.
Christie's personal views on such matters were no doubt shared with most other women of her age and upbringing. From her parents she would have been made aware of the plight of what were then known as 'redundant women,' that is the large number of unmarried women created by the social and gender restrictions of the Victorian period. As the relevance of that particular concept began to fade, it was swiftly replaced by the different, though similar sounding, phenomenon of 'surplus women' whose unmarried state had been forced upon them by the mass slaughter of young men during the First World War. Christie never discusses these important social issues directly, but she was certainly conscious of them There are pertinent references in her novels to both redundant and surplus women. Christie would have grown up surrounded by the firm belief that spinsterhood was an unfortunate and sadly inevitable condition for a great many women.
Yet, not only did she create in Miss Marple the most famous spinster detective in fiction, she made her someone who seems never to have had much interest in marriage. For herself, that is. As a detective she is, of course, deeply interested in the marriages of other people. But why she is Miss Marple is never explained by Christie. Nor does Miss Marple herself ever express any regret at being unmarried or childless, or indeed anything but personal satisfaction with her single status. She is simply what she is, someone the reader could never imagine behaving like, say, the young Agatha Christie of An Autobiography; a young woman practised in the arts of flirtation, proud of her ability to attract the attention of young men, and steadfastly set on marriage as a career.
Miss Marple's experience of courtship was not remotely like this. From the novels, all we learn is that there were two young men she might possibly have married. The first, recalled in Bertram's when she was 'such a silly girl in many ways,' caused her to 'cry herself to sleep for at least a week.' Her mother had been responsible for the tears by nipping the 'friendship so firmly in the bud.' And a good job too, Miss Marple came to believe. When she meets the man in later years she finds him 'quite dreadful!' The second suitor, who is recalled in Caribbean, had been 'unexpectedly warmly welcomed by her father' – the 'unexpectedly' is surely meant to be significant. He is encouraged to call, but this time Miss Marple was not interested. He wasn't dreadful, just dull, 'very dull.'
Miss Marple would have been in her late teens when these potential love affairs were dispelled, and that is all we ever learn about the romantic side of her life. But it is still quite a bit more than we are told about her as a young and a middle-aged woman. One moment she is 'such a silly girl,' the next an elderly lady. We are told virtually nothing about the middle years of her life.
There is, though, one exception to this fifty-odd years of blankness. Several times Miss Marple refers to her considerable experience of nursing, and always as though it has some special relevance for her. As there is no reason to believe she ever worked for her living, and, indeed, good historical reasons to suppose that she would not have been expected to, the nursing involved was probably domestic. It therefore looks as though there were two classic reasons for her spinsterhood, remembering that the whole of her life was passed during a time of either redundant or surplus women, neither of which social phenomena seem ever to have directly affected her. We have to assume that when she was young her marriage prospects were low because she was too bright and sharp for the men who showed an interest in her, while as she grew older much of her life was spent caring for her sick parents. Even this is supposition.
Although Christie provides no reliable information to explain why Miss Marple remained unmarried, she quite clearly did not wish her to be defined in terms of the morally and socially inferior roles often assigned to old unmarried women in literature. For a while in the very first Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), it looked as though Christie might be going to portray Miss Marple as a gossiping, scandal-spreading shrew. If so, she quickly discarded the thought. What she went on to create was far more original.
For Miss Marple, spinsterhood is a source of independence, strength, and personal distinction. It is what makes her the skilled detective she is. Not personally distracted by a husband, children or any kind of family life, and even lacking any really close friends or intimates, Miss Marple is free to treat her little village of St. Mary Mead as a kind of social laboratory. There she studies life (or human nature as she likes to call it) with the focused and impersonal attention of a scientist. She often denies possessing the kind of specialist knowledge that professional policemen have. And this is true enough when she is referring to criminology, but it is far from true of the knowledge that she herself has in abundance. This kind of knowledge is open to everyone, and is not therefore specialist knowledge, though, in a neat distinction, Miss Marple does accept that it could be described as 'specialized.' It is also generally despised, undervalued or simply ignored. What Miss Marple knows and fully understands is what she has observed. Observation, for her, is knowledge. The village parallels which so impress Sir Henry Clithering and other top policeman, are simply observations of everyday life which have been mulled over by her and developed into a kind of pragmatic behaviourism.
It is this distanced observation of life that is responsible for her developing into such a truly powerful person. She is far removed from the standard image of a fussy old maid, though she uses the customary props of that image to great personal advantage, shielding her true nature and fooling her opponents into under-estimating her. She retained her early love of gossip, but it becomes used positively, as a source of knowledge and information, and never maliciously. In this sense she belongs to the age-old tradition of wise solitary women to be found in myth, legend, and fairy tales, women both saintly and demonic, often celibate, always possessed of special knowledge and powers. This is recognized by Lucy Eyelesbarrow, one of Christie's best portraits of the modern career woman. 'Darling,' Lucy tells Miss Marple admiringly in 4.50 from Paddington ( 1957). 'A hundred years ago you would certainly have been burned as a witch.'
Even so, Miss Marple, can't act entirely alone. There are bound to be occasions when she needs help from the police. She is, after all, an agent of law and order, as well as an elderly, vulnerable woman who cannot expect to be able to handle the physical dangers that being a detective will inevitably entail. When needed, the police are readily on hand simply because they openly admire her very special gifts. When they (and sometimes the criminals she confronts as well) describe her as terrifying or ruthless, they are at one with Lucy Eyelesbarrow in recognizing her very special qualities. And her contacts through the police are not simply local. They rise as high as the British Home Secretary who describes her in Nemesis (1971) as 'the most frightening woman I ever met.'
Although this hard, austere, celibate and solitary Miss Marple is the woman consciously presented by Christie in the novels, there has been over the years a marked reluctance by many readers, screen directors, and adapters of her work, to accept it. Christie herself reveals in the Autobiography that people were always writing to her to suggest 'that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot should meet.' It was an idea she strongly resisted, on Miss Marple's behalf, one imagines, rather than Poirot's. After all Poirot has a variety of employees and companions to give help and advice - Miss Lemon, Hastings, Ariadne Oliver. Miss Marple, though, has no one, her very nature as a detective depends on her aloneness. Clearly enough, one would have thought, but it has aroused a surprising amount of resentment.
The most vigorous assault on Miss Marple's independence, along with virtually every other of her distinctive characteristics in the novels, was mounted in the Margaret Rutherford films. In these arrogant travesties, which pained Christie and did lasting damage to Miss Marple's image with the general public, Rutherford insisted that a companion role in the films be found for her devoted real-life husband Stringer Davis. He was cast as the village librarian and allowed to trot around after Miss Marple, making her screen image seem more that of a bossy wife with a weak husband than a formidable solitary spinster. Not that Stringer Davis's presence prevented Miss Marple from attracting some romantic attention. Two of the films close with her receiving proposals of marriage, both from larger-than-life popular British comedy actors. In Murder She Said (1962), the honour falls to the character played by James Robertson Justice: in Murder at the Gallop (1963), to the character played by Robert Morley.
Nor was this the only indignity imposed on Christie by the Rutherford/Davis partnership. In the film The Alphabet Murders (1966) which featured Tony Randall in the role of Hercule Poirot, walk-on parts were given to Rutherford and Davis in their Miss Marple roles. The two detectives don't actually speak or work on a case together, but they are allowed to acknowledge each other's existence. So, Christie's own view that it would be totally incongruous for her two famous detectives to appear together was flouted in a quite arbitrary manner.
Similarly pointless was the treatment of Miss Marple in the series of ITV films that began on 12 December 2004 with Geraldine McEwan in the title role. The whole project was deliberately revisionist, beginning with the decision to remove the Miss from Miss Marple's name to leave simply Marple as the title of the series. This was done, presumably, to give a fashionable touch of feminist independence to the character, but also to reject centuries of literary tradition and assert that spinsters were in effect no different from married women. Geraldine McEwan herself went out of her way to justify the new way of thinking in the TV Times (11-17 December 2004). The reason why 'Miss Marple has gone all girlie,' she explained, was because it had been decided to 'go for a look that was much softer and prettier and more feminine …to get away from the village spinster image.' McEwan's way of communicating this was to try to create an impression of permanent youthfulness in Miss Marple by exploiting the facial mannerisms and to some extent the clothes of a younger woman. She certainly made Miss Marple appear more perky or sprightly than the dignified Jane Hickson, the actor most associated with the role at that time, though the physical image McEwan projected remained, unavoidably one feels, that of an elderly, rather eccentric, woman, still more of a Miss than a Mrs.
There was, though a further and more distorting element to the McEwan/Marple air of permanent youthfulness. We learn, as a theme running through the series, that Miss Marple had once had a lover, a married army officer who died in the First World War. To his memory she had been devoted ever since. McEwan cheerfully explained that it is this experience that accounts for Miss Marple's unshockability on sexual matters and makes her 'so astute at understanding the foibles of the human heart.'
In its way this extreme deviation from the novels was as perverse as those perpetrated by Margaret Rutherford. The long years of village life, celibacy, solitude, close observation and developed intellgence that Christie had been so careful to present as responsible for producing the wise spinster of St. Mary Mead were all rejected, to be casually replaced in Marple by the easier, more mundane, and morally cheaper existence of a long-distant illicit love affair.
Still, it has to be said that unsatisfactory as all of this is, it has to some extent been Christie's own extreme reticence on the details of Miss Marple's life that has encouraged readers, actors, and directors, to indulge in such fanciful inventions. Nor has it been only popularising television and film that has succumbed to the temptation of feeling that Miss Marple's life really does demand to be made a little more sexy. Julian Symons was himself a distinguished writer of detective stories, a Christie admirer and one of her most perceptive critics. Yet he also obviously felt that Miss Marple's knowledge of life needed to be explained in terms of the kind of down-to-earth personal experience that Christie never allowed her.
In a pastiche Sherlock Holmes story Symons has the great detective, now long retired, come grudgingly to the aid of a pretty young woman who 'knows very little indeed of the world and its wickedness.' She has become engaged to a heartless con-man, and Holmes reveals the man's true nature to her. In characteristic Christie style, the young woman acknowledges her lover's 'worthlessness' and scornfully returns his fake engagement ring, but admits that she will never forget him and will never marry. Only when everything is over does Holmes learn that the name of the woman is Jane Marple which, of course, means nothing to him anyway. See, Julian Symons, 'How a Hermit was Disturbed in his Retirement,' The Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations (1981).