The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: imperialism

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.


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.

Henty’s With Clive in India

Up until very recently, I had only the vaguest notion of who G.A. Henty was. Who he was, incidentally, was a late 19-century novelist of imperialism, writing dozens of formulaic novels set all over the globe involving militarism and conquest, mostly focused on English soldiers and their victories over various peoples. The books were aimed at a young readership. I was offered a copy of The Complete G.A. Henty through Amazon on condition that I review it on that site. I accepted. I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet, as I want to read a larger selection, but I’ve read one novel in full, With Clive in India.

This may not be Henty’s most representative novel. He notes in the preface that he has given more space than usual to historical detail, and, in fact, the vast majority of the book is historical rather than novelistic. The only more widely-read work I can compare it to in this respect is Moby Dick – that, too, starts off like a novel but soon ditches the genre almost totally to foist upon the reader endless information on a subject related to the plot. Henty’s style is nothing like Melville’s, however. Henty started out as a journalist, and his prose retains a bland journalistic tone. Whatever his aims were in the novel, they were not literary.

The information that Henty chooses to give is mostly military. Battle scenes abound, as the protagonist in Clive’s forces conquers his way across India, overcoming the French along the way. None of this is very interesting. What I thought would be worth noting, though, were the ideological techniques Henty used to justify and glorify imperialism to his young 19th-century audience. I can make a couple of points about this, some of which were a little surprising to me:

  • Religion: There is none. The Irish servant character, Tim, is overtly religious, but he’s played for laughs. The English protagonist, Charlie Marryat, only brings in religion once in the whole book, I think: when he’s talking to his love interest, Ada, and their lives are in danger he tells her to “pray God to give you strength”. He himself does not pray, though, then or ever, and religion appears to play for him no part. Nor is it introduced by the narrator at any point in relation to the imperial mission.
  • Race: Even knowing little about Henty, I knew of his reputation for racism. The racism in With Clive in India, then, was less overt than I had imagined. There is little denigration of other races, little sense that the Indians or other races present (French, Irish) are essentially inferior or less competent than the English: “Look what rough tools that man is working with, and what delicate and intricate work he is turning out. If these fellows could but fight as well as they work, and were but united among themselves, not only should we be unable to set a foot in India, but the emperor, with the enormous armies which he would be able to raise, would be able to threaten Europe. I suppose they never have been really good fighting men. Alexander, a couple of thousand years ago, defeated them; and since then the Afghans, and other northern peoples, have been always overrunning and conquering them.I can’t make it out. These Sepoys, after only a few weeks’ training, fight almost as well as our own men. I wonder how it is that, when commanded by their own countrymen, they are able to make so poor a fight of it.”

    The argument seems to be that the Indians are inferior in providing leadership. Herein is implied the justification for imperialism. I was surprised at how modest the claim was, ontologically: they’re really the same as us, as long as they have the right guidance. Of course, this can be seen as monstrously patronising, but when compared to Marlow in Heart of Darkness and his horror at the idea of distant kinship, I’m tempted to say Henty’s is a more tolerant view than some that were around at the time. Henty has less of the anxiety about race that you find in Conrad. Charlie and his servants Tim (Irish) and Hossein (Indian) all get along very well, and in a spirit of mutual trust and affection. The ideological energies of the novel don’t come from dwelling on the inferiorities of other races. Late in the novel Charlie introduces Hossein as follows: “He calls himself my servant. I call him my friend.” Hossein remains a servant, though, to the end. Henty idealizes the relationship, so that being a perpetual servant seems like a pleasant and rewarding activity.

  • National myths: Another element that surprised me slightly was Henty’s willingness to chronicle the less salutary aspects of English imperialism. The novel is named after the famous imperialist Robert Clive, and I expected a heroized depiction of him. That is offered, to an extent. But, firstly, there’s very little characterization of him, rather an account of his military campaigns. And secondly, though Henty offers encomia on Clive’s bravery, efficiency, etc., he also offers overt criticism. Clive is described by the narrator at one point as “wholly unscrupulous”. An episode involving extortion, fraud and a forged signature on Clive’s part Henty recounts in detail and attempts no defense of Clive, rather concluding that “the whole transaction [was] one of the blackest in the annals of English history”, “dishonorable” and “disgraceful”.

So, though Henty’s work is widely considered to be  concerned with advocating English imperialism, it seems to accomplish this less by religion, racism or national mythifying than by presenting the military enterprise as being enormously fun, and also financially rewarding. Henty perhaps judged that it is these elements of fun and reward that would appeal to a young audience and prepare them for imperialist ideology, and his popularity seems to indicate he was right.

Eunoia Review

beautiful thinking

The Long Victorian - c.1789 - 1914

The literary world of the Long Nineteenth Century, c.1789 - 1914

Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Faculty of Arts, HKU

Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Faculty of Arts, HKU

Reading 1900-1950

The special collection of popular fiction at Sheffield Hallam University

ELT Planning

TEFL tips and ideas from a developing teacher

British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA)

Promoting the scholarly study of literature

Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

The best mystery and crime fiction (up to 1987): Book and movie reviews

Video Krypt

VHS Rules, OK?

my small infinities

My wee little life in this great big world and related sundries.

Nirvana Legacy

Dark Slivers out now: Kindle ebook or, for paperback, email

it's this or get a real job


"The game is afoot."

Exploring Youth Issues

Dr. Alan Mackie @ Edinburgh University

Bundle of Books

Thoughts from a bookworm

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia

Anti-Fascist News

Taking on Fascism and Racism from the Ground Up.

Black Label Logic

The Sophisticated man's shitlord