How much did Agatha Christie’s elderly protagonist, the English spinster Jane Marple, incorporate elements of the author’s own veiled personality? Was Agatha Christie a feminist writer?

There are two diametrically opposed schools of thought about Christie, principally concerning social attitudes. If you hate the patronising attitude to the working classes and the never-never land Britain that she nostalgically creates, then nothing will alter your opinion of her. But Christie could take on board social change (albeit peripherally) and some argue that the position of women — and clever women, at that — in the society of her day is a key theme in her work, craftily freighted into page-turning crime narratives.

Despite her place in the pantheon as Britain’s queen of crime, some people will simply never read an Agatha Christie novel. The endless television and film adaptations have created a series of ineluctable images in the public mind of unrealistic, picture-postcard English villages.

Christie’s two principal heroes, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the rural, genteel Jane Marple, feature in about half her novels. The spinster-cum-amateur detective Marple’s laser-like observational skills help her to nail hidden criminality with far more rigour than the police. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, ever the “great detective”, Marple (except to those with sufficient perception) is not taken very seriously by those around her yet, hidden under the tweeds, her deductive genius is hard at work.

Some think that Miss Marple’s intelligence is the most autobiographical element of Christie’s protagonist. Indeed, Christie was a clever woman whose real life was more eventful than her public normally realised (apart from her famous disappearance, well reported at the time, when it turned out that she had checked into a hotel in Harrogate under the name of her husband’s mistress). Christie’s two unhappy marriages are another tenuous — but potentially valid — link between Miss Marple’s character and her own: was Marple’s spinsterhood a projection of the state to which Christie secretly aspired?

But Marple, like so many women through the ages, concealed her potentially intimidating intellect behind a non-threatening appearance. It is enough for her that a select group of people — principally those whom she helps — can appreciate the brilliance beneath the polite, tea-sipping exterior.

Modern female sleuths struggle against male condescension but make damn sure that everyone knows their feelings. Christie’s Marple achieves results (and a certain amour-propre) by subtler means. And the understated feminist message filters through, even if Christie herself might have dismissed such notions.

The writer is the editor of British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia

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