Some months ago I wrote on Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, suggesting that it was a middle-class revenge fantasy aimed against the hedonistic youth of the day, and noting that Christie’s ire seemed to be particularly directed against the figure of the attractive, party-loving young woman. On recently reading Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), I was again struck by Christie’s use of the figure of the attractive and sexually available young woman, and, in the context of my previous reading of Christie, the particular animus the author seems to feel for this figure, so at odds with the conception of Christie as a cool and unemotional writer, one concerned with bringing the detective genre to “geometrical perfection“, as Tzvetan Todorov put it. In many ways, this conception is not inaccurate, but still Christie’s books are not without anger and hostility.
In Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot undertakes to investigate a 16-year-old case: the murder of the painter Amyas Crale, for which his wife Caroline was convicted. An open-and-shut case, it seemed at the time, for Caroline never publicly protested her innocence, and she died shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment. Caroline’s motive was said to be Amyas’ affair with his young model Elsa Greer – now Lady Dittisham. All very satisfactory, but Poirot becomes convinced Caroline was innocent. In his conviction he turns out, of course, to be correct.
Before turning to the figure of Elsa Greer, it is worth defining the philosophical and ideological position from which Christie seems to condemn this character. This position is, in a word, Victorianism. This is articulated in the description of the governess character, Miss Williams, another potential suspect.
Nevertheless, to Poirot’s eye, there was no despondency there and no sense of failure. Miss Williams’ life had been interesting to her – she was still interested in people and events. She had the enormous mental and emotional advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret. (HarperCollins, 2007, p. 185)
Who speaks here? That opening to Poirot’s eye indicates that the passage is a piece of interior focalization. But it doesn’t sound like Poirot. We can’t imagine him saying these pious words. If not Poirot, it can only be the narrator – in either case, there is a definite weight to this opinion. Christie’s third-person narrators are rarely if ever unreliable; Poirot even more rarely. In the context of Elsa’s character, the concept the narrator/Poirot introduces here of knowing one’s place becomes key.
In fact, we’ve already found that Elsa Greer/Lady Dittisham is linked to social mobility – of not knowing, but creating your place. She tells Poirot early on: “My father, you know, was a mill hand. He worked his way up and made a fortune” (152). This is a significant fact for Poirot, for just a few pages later: “He smiled very faintly. In her voice was the arrogance of the successful mill hand who had risen to riches” (157). This is pretty brutal. No sooner is the admission of humble birth made, than it becomes an index of Elsa’s character flaws. Later, another character writes: “All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands” (227). Elsa did not know her place, as her father had not, but even when she seems to have escaped her lowly upbringing, she is at any moment capable of giving herself away. This not knowing your place is also presented by Christie as a modern – that is, not Victorian – characteristic, for Elsa herself is described as a girl “who went in for being modern” (121).
What Elsa is not, is a gentlewoman. It is the anti-Elsa, Miss Williams, who articulates this most clearly when she details the struggle between Elsa and Caroline over Amyas Crale:
Miss Greer’s manner had been unbearably insolent the last few days. She was feeling sure of herself and she wanted to assert her importance. Mrs Crale behaved like a true gentlewoman. She was icily polite, but she told the other clearly what she thought of her. (264)
Here we have the essence of gentility: icy politeness to the unacceptable other, to the social interloper. Once we know this – Elsa’s social defeat by Caroline – there is perhaps an inevitability to the solution. Caroline didn’t kill Amyas; Elsa did. He was, of course, about to dump her to reclaim his marriage to the gentlewoman Caroline. For how could a man of such talent and culture, even an egotistical one like Amyas, choose the classless Elsa? To a degree unusual in Christie books, the solution here seems less a dispassionately crafted puzzle and more the inevitable result of an ideological bias. Knowing what we know of Elsa and Caroline, how could the book end but with the defeat and unmasking of the millhand’s daughter?
Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, before him, did not always punish the guilty. And so it was here. He confronts ex-Elsa, now Lady Dittisham:
“Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?”
“No, I do not. I do not think you have ever in your life cared about what any other person would feel. If you had, you might be happier.”
She said sharply: “Why are you sorry for me?”
“Because, my child, you have so much to learn.”
“What have I got to learn?”
“All the grown-up emotions – pity, sympathy, understanding. The only things you know – have ever known – are love and hate.” (334-5)
And so Lady Dittisham walks free. The characterization of the working class as lawless children without the discipline or understanding to govern themselves, a feature of Victorians like Thomas Carlyle, haunts this passage. Elsa/Lady Dittisham is not a real adult, and those things she has yet to learn, she will never learn them. We have already seen that you cannot learn these things. Elsa had only one lesson to learn, and that was the same one Miss Williams learned: know your place. She did not learn it, and the consequences were tragic. That is the ideological lesson of Christie’s severe moral drama, her tribute to Victorian paternalism and protest against the modern, insolent, socially mobile young woman.