Agatha Christie was born a Victorian but grew up in a time when women had one foot in a crinoline and the other down a trouser leg. The Great War came and people started toppling off their Victorian pedestals into a steadily germinating modernity. More and more women were learning how to drive, volunteering as aid during the war, running establishments and basically entering what were predominantly patriarchal roles; finally, sexual stereotypes and gender roles were being renegotiated.
March 8th is (as you know) celebrated as International Women’s Day and this year got me thinking of Christie and the women characters she created. As she was a very private person and gave such few interviews, she was never seen as opinionated; her personal views on politics, feminism, race etc could only be gauged by careful scrutinisation of her work. She was left out of a lot of literary criticism for this reason and only recently (over the last 3 decades) is she finally being studied as the most successful crime writer of all time who no doubt played a pivotal part in shaping a cultural phenomenon, the hangover of which has lasted till today and will continue to do so in the future.
“I’m sorry, but I do hate this differentiation between the sexes. ‘The modern girl has a thoroughly businesslike attitude to life’ That sort of thing. It’s not a bit true! Some girls are businesslike and some aren’t. Some men are sentimental and muddle-headed, others are clear-headed and logical. There are just different types of brains.”
― Agatha Christie, Appointment with Death (1938)
Christie is not your typical feminist icon. She did not go out in the streets and fight for women’s rights, she did not (I am assuming) burn any of her bras nor did she openly admit to being a feminist. Her work however, tells a different story. Not only was she a published female author in the 1920s (which in itself is a feminist act) but within her pages she created strong, compassionate, independent and intelligent women who stood shoulder to shoulder with the men she wrote. A lot of Christie’s women were stereotypes ranging from the older single women to “foreigners” to the young, 20-something secretaries and neither of them were mere sub-plot devices. Her predecessors placed women in their novels as purely ornamental and would more often than not kill them off in the first 30 pages. But not Christie; her women were killed off as often as the men and they were by no means portrayed as weak or unimportant. Allow me to elaborate…
1. The Older Single Women
In other words, the divorced, widowed and the spinster; British demographics changed after the two wars leaving behind more women than men and so the archetype of the single woman was born. Instead of treating this cultural stereotype with kid gloves, Christie allowed her female characters to embrace singledom as a powerful advantage as opposed to something that ought to be looked down upon with pity.
The most notable spinster of the Christie canon is of course, Miss Jane Marple. Described as a little old lady from a tiny village, it is easy to lose Miss Marple in a crowd. But that is where the genius of Christie comes into play. Her frail, old detective epitomises such ambiguity in character that she is both easily overlooked and omnipresent due to the position she holds. The general mentality of people (including the various policemen she interacts with) take Miss Marple to be a nosy, batty, old lady and never in a million years would they believe that she was a detective. You see, detection was a male dominated sphere; it needed a clear mind and use of cold logic, something women were thought incapable of.
So when Miss Marple was introduced in Murder at the Vicarage (1930), the face of detective fiction was forced to change (it should be noted here that Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864) marked the first appearance of a professional female detective but did not reach popularity and so, often goes unnoticed). Miss Marple relies on her strong intuition and observations of human nature to solve her cases. Christie artfully uses Miss Marple’s intuition as an advantage, bringing to the forefront a ridiculed attribute which would force the characters to undermine her intelligence thereby accomplishing perfect narrative misdirection.
The other spectrum of older, single women consist of the divorced or widowed. Even before Miss Marple, however, we were already presented with female characters dominating the so called male spheres and/or with typically male attributes; Miss Felicity Lemon first appeared in Murder on the Links (1923) as the efficient secretary of Hercule Poirot who was an expert on nearly everything and assisted Poirot in many of his cases. Madame Olivier from The Big Four (1927) followed and was introduced as a widowed scientist known for her extensive research with nuclear power.
In Cards on the Table (1936) flourished on to the scene, my personal favourite, Mrs Ariadne Oliver. Ariadne is a crime fiction writer who created Sven Hjerson, her vegetarian Finnish detective and constantly laments his existence. Christie admitted to loosely basing the character of Mrs. Oliver on herself and just like Ariadne, she too loathed her Belgian detective, Monsieur Poirot and found his many eccentricities intolerable.
Ariadne Oliver is a recurring character and is often simply referred to as Mrs Oliver. Surprisingly though, nothing is known about her husband; we don’t know if Mrs Oliver is widowed, divorced or if her husband is travelling. The point I am coming to is that, Mrs Oliver is not described as another half of a relationship but exists as a solo entity with her own quirks and vast intelligence. Ariadne is always outspoken about women’s abilities, relies heavily on her “women’s intuition” and never considers women to be a step below their male counterparts. According to Ariadne, women are capable of as much if not more than men. It is comforting then to note that if Agatha is similar to Ariadne, then so are her feminist viewpoints.
There are of course other Christie stereotypes that I would like to share with you and I could go on and on but I’ll leave you with this for now. Until Part 2 that is!