The Victorian Sage

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Tag: Agatha Christie

Damsels in Distress; Stern, Silent Rhodesians; and Imperial Dreamlands: Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

Once again I have been perusing the work of Agatha Christie, this time a relatively little-known, relatively early novel called The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). The title of the book is a particularly uninteresting one. A man in a brown suit is far from a noteworthy phenomenon, and, prima facie, there is little reason why one would want to read about him. Christie was not a particularly good titler of books: she often used generic titles involving Murder (…in Mesopotamia, …on the Orient Express, …is Easy, etc.) or Death (…on the Nile, …in the Clouds, …Comes as the End, etc.) and also had a fondness for using nursery rhymes (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; Five Little Pigs; And Then There Were None; etc.). But The Man in the Brown Suit perhaps takes the prize as the most boring title she ever used.

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But Brown Suit is not a boring book. It is interesting in that it is uncharacteristic of Christie. It is less a detective novel than an adventure novel. It is very much in the vein, indeed, of John Buchan’s Greenmantle and such works. A dash of espionage, some foreign travel, embroilment in huge political conspiracies, a daring and reckless central figure. Christie’s protagonist and narrator (of most of the book) is an 18-year-old girl called Anne Beddingfield. Here is a notable point of difference from Buchan. Buchan’s hero in Greenmantle, The 39 Steps and others in the series is Richard Hanny, and he is a bachelor who surrounds himself with loyal and similarly adventurous male friends. Women don’t get a look in. (Note: the romantic interest introduced by Hitchcock in the famous film version of Steps does not exist in the novel.)

In feminizing the genre, Christie introduces a few notes not found in writers like Buchan. One notable motif in Brown Suit is that of the damsel in distress, that age-old and much critiqued trope. Christie is self-consciously working with this trope from the beginning and throughout, as is evidenced by the narrator’s repeated references to “The Perils of Pamela”, obviously a play on the famous silent-era serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), which is still today a byword for damsel-in-distress narrative. One could make the case that Christie is satirizing this trope:

Pamela was a magnificent young woman […]. She was not really clever, the Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way […], the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode. I used to come out with my head in a delirious whirl […]. (11)

Thus Anne recognizes a certain formulaism and unreality about the series, but at an emotional level it retains its impact. This is a central theme of Brown Suit, both interesting and irritating. Christie/Anne is constantly displaying a consciousness of the improbabilities of the plot, but such a plot is still evidently emotionally satisfying for both narrator and author.

Also differing from Buchan is the inclusion of a romantic subplot – indeed it is so central that one might consider it co-plot rather than subplot. Anne’s thirst for Perils-of-Pamela-style adventure is from the beginning indistinguishable from her desire to find romantic love. She has a very specific ideal of romantic love: “stern, silent Rhodesians” (11). This tag recurs several times in Anne’s narrative to describe the man of her dreams. Here enters the complicating factor of imperialism. Rhodesia had recently – just the preceding year, in fact – been annexed by the British, so Anne’s romantic desires are firmly focused on the figure of the imperial conqueror.

So, the excitement of the imperial project is inscribed in Brown Suit. While England is a place of “butchers and bakers and milkmen and greengrocers” (9) and of “drab utility” (11), the imperial battlegrounds of South Africa and Rhodesia are loci of adventure and excitement, of attractively inarticulate men of action and of romantic opportunity. This initial set-up dichotomizing boring, utilitarian England and the exciting, adventuresome realm of foreign affair (imperialism and war) is strongly reminiscent of Buchan (see the opening of The 39 Steps) and of Erskine Childers’ seminal spy novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903). It is here that Anne can play out the battle within her between the woman of action and the submissive damsel in need of rescue. Even in the closing pages of the book, Anne writes of her lover: “I followed him as meekly as the Barotsi woman I had observed at the falls, only I wasn’t carrying a frying-pan on my head” (189-190). Thus Anne has neither sought nor found emancipation, but she has found a true master, one such as could only exist in the dreamlands of imperialism.

This, then, is a very different Christie. The youth of her heroine gives her much scope to reflect on gender, desire and on the search for fulfilment in life. Poirot might be little more than a brain inside a utilitarian shell of a body, but Anne is a more complete human being in certain respects. Her idealization of the “stern, silent Rhodesian” type may seem immature, and even troubling in the context of the imperial struggles (and indeed the trade union struggles mentioned in the book) of the time, and they demonstrate Christie to have been at a far remove from any insight into the workings of imperialism. In Brown Suit, imperialism is a fantasmic construct. But that is not a reason to avoid the book, for the fantasy of imperialism was as important as the reality. As Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness, the genuine belief in the imperialist mission by those removed from it was central to its perpetuation: “that great and saving illusion“, as Conrad’s Marlow called it. This illusion would appear to be a central dynamic principle behind The Man in the Brown Suit, a work which is in itself energetic and readable, though unlikely to be much remembered were it not for Christie’s more straightforward detective works.

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Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942): Victorianism and Knowing One’s Place

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.

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Five Little Pigs (HarperCollins, 2207)

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. It is either Poirot or the narrator themselves – in either case, there is a definite weight to this opinion. Christie’s narrator’s are rarely 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 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, socially mobile young woman.

Agatha’s Christie’s The Body in the Library (1942): Revenge on Boisterous Youth

The purest essence of genre fiction is found, perhaps, in the detective novels of Agatha Christie. Many admire her works, but few consider them to be literature. In “The Typology of Detective Fiction“, Tzvetan Todorov makes the distinction that great literature is that which transgresses the norms of a genre, an thus creates its own genre. Christie’s novels are the archetypal “whodunits” for Todorov, not concerned with transgressing norms, but with bringing them to a “geometrical perfection”. On one hand, this is an admirable quality, but on the other it is easy to see how such a technical perfection might be considered inferior to a more humanistic literature, as a triumph of the mechanical intellect over the dynamical (as Carlyle would say). Christie is therefore a perfect plotting machine, but not a great writer.

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So, on opening The Body in the Library (1942) recently, this distinction was one I had in mind. In mind, also, was how Christie would stand up after so many years. In my early teenage years, I had read her books voraciously, transfixed by her ingenuity, methodical plotting, and clear, unobstructed style. But I had long ago moved on to other things.

The Body in the Library opens unexpectedly: with a dream scene. We are inside the consciousness of the sleeping Mrs Bantry. Even in her subconscious, however, this Christie character is evidently pretty tame. She is dreaming of winning the local flower show. On a slightly less banal note, the Vicar’s wife inhabits the dream dressed in a bathing suit, in a touch that signifies the surrealism of the dream world, or that, perhaps, hints at a submerged homoeroticism in Mrs Bantry.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agatha_Christie

In general, Christie spends very little time in her characters’ consciousness. There is much external focalization and very little internal focalization, in Genette’s terms. Mrs Bantry is woken by a maid with the news that there is, as the title predicted, A Body in the Library. Christie, again against the conception of her as a mechanical writer, has a bit of “meta” fun with this body (e.g. a character says, “Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I’ve never known a case in real life.”[Harper Collins, 2011, 4]).

This is a Miss Marple book. Up to the point I have read (about half way), Miss Marple’s investigation is intercut with that of Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable in charge of the case. He gets just as much space as her, but it is clear that Miss Marple has access to modes of investigation he cannot reach. She has, according to another character (Sir Henry Clithering) “specialized knowledge”: “Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life” (93). Precisely because of her sheltered and boring existence, without apparent profession and without close family, she has observed her own microcosm of life in the village with such acuity that she can apply her learning to the whole of humanity, having a convenient parallel for every occurrence. That’s the idea in this book, at least; it would be interesting to see if Christie takes it to spaces beyond the English country village. There is, thus far, no mention of the clue-based rationalism of Holmes or Poirot; this is a psychology-based insight into crime, based on a close examination of a rural slice of human nature, and a conviction that “Human nature is very much the same anywhere” (99).

As for the politics of Christie, or at least of the “implied author” here. What looms large in Library is the generation gap, the near-absolute incompatibility of the ways of life involved. Representing the youth, first of all, is the murder victim herself, who appears in the opening pages as the titular body, a body that is somehow “cheap, tawdry, flamboyant” (11). Throughout, as her life is pieced together by investigators, Ruby Keene is spoken of in curiously disparaging terms by almost all characters. Even Miss Marple herself is surprisingly dismissive of Ruby’s personality. For example, here. in the context of her relationship with an older man, and what he saw in her:

“[…] She may have had some remarkable qualities.”

“Probably not”, said Miss Marple placidly.

[…]

“This girl saw her opportunity and played it for all she was worth!” [said Miss Marple.] (95-96)

Ruby is a lower-class person, a dancer by trade; she is also virgo intacta, according to the doctor who examined her body. Perhaps it is all a ruse by Christie, and the denouement will reveal that Ruby was something other than she has appeared, but Miss Marple’s dismissal of her suggests otherwise, and it is a little discomfiting to read the contempt with which she is discussed (“weaselly” and “stupid” are two epithets I recall being used by other characters about her), and to consider it in the light of the class politics of the novel.

But one must emphasize the generational conflict at the heart of the novel. This is manifest in the suspicion with which Ruby’s attachment to an older, wealthier man is discussed. It is manifest in the early pages when Miss Marple reflects that this tawdry body must have originated at one of young Basil Blake’s house parties:

It seemed to me that the only possible explanation was Basil Blake. He does have parties […]. Shouting and singing – the most terrible noise – everyone very drunk, I’m afraid – and the mess and the broken glass next morning simply unbelievable[.] (17)

When the police pay a visit to Blake, it is revealed that he lives in a “hideous shell of half timbering and sham Tudor” (20). A hideous shell! And this is the narrator, the mild, blank Christiean narrator who makes this judgement. The young in The Body in the Library are a threat, an obscene irruption, oversexed and underclothed, vulgar and tasteless. As such, the novel is reading to me at the moment almost as a middle-class and middle-aged fantasy of revenge. There, perhaps, is the significance of the dream opening: a clue to the fantasmic underpinning of the novel. But perhaps I have merely been taken in by Christie and by the end I will have been forced to changed my mind. In any case, finishing the book will be a pleasure, for the unobstructed clarity of Christie’s prose and her narrative drive have not changed.

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