I attempt here to précis and comment on Alison Light’s brilliant and innovative analysis of Agatha Christie in her Forever England (Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars: 1991) which was a group read for WWTTA in 2007 (yes it has taken me that long!). This analysis, which forms Chapter 2 of the book, is much the most interesting thing I have ever read on Christie and has led me to re-think many assumptions. The analysis is of Christie’s cultural, social and political position not of her as a mystery writer (which is a field that has received a certain amount of coverage).
Attempting a précis is no small matter as Light’s analysis is densely packed and closely argued. Anyone really interested is recommended to try and get hold of a copy of the book: unfortunately in the UK at least this is much easier said than done. I purchased my copy at an exorbitant price in Wigtownacouple of years ago, but that was cheap compared with on-line prices.
Light starts by comparing Christie with Ivy Compton-Burnett, the subject of her first chapter, and asserting that they ‘have in common a modernist spirit’ and ‘share a modernist irony, a strict formalism of technique, and employ a language of reticence which was able to articulate a conservative Englishness but in a modern form.’ Light then goes on to the crucial task of rescuing Christie from her television adaptors ; she does this by an analysis of the differences between the text of Nemesis and the 80’s Hickson adaptation (exactly the example I would have chosen and have indeed used). As Light points out the adaptation was ‘a lively concoction on the part of the television producers and owed as much to a Toryism of the 1980’s as it did to any conservatism on Christie’s part’. In the adaptation Rafiel House is restored to the rightful heir, who is a worthy patrician, following Miss M’s solution of the case; Rafiel House is a ‘noble edifice’ fallen into ruin which can now be restored to its 18thC glory. In the book the heir is a wretched figure, of no moral worth and Rafiel House plays almost no part at all. The only ‘beautifully proportioned’ house in the book is in fact the centre of pathological hatred and evil. As Light comments ‘The novel is not simply an encomium in praise of social stability, but a much darker assertion of the destructive capacity of love…..If this is conservatism then it needs a more capacious understanding than the 1980’s heritage versions brought to bear on it’.
Having shown how mistaken it is to proceed on the basis of anything other than the texts, Light proceeds to note the peculiar animus in which Christie is held by the literary establishment and academia (an animus which certainly continues to this day as reviews of the latest Christie biography have demonstrated ). There is an almost complete lack of serious study of Christie and that which exists tends to study Christie’s work as a whole, stressing structural and narrative features ; Light wishes to avoid ‘homogenising half a century of novels into a timeless mulch’ and concentrate on Christie’s inter-war fiction and its historically contingency. Light sums up her argument…
‘In rediscovering the Christie of the inter-war years, I shall argue that the fiction speaks to very different kinds of conservatism from the kind with which she is usually associated, one which went straight to the heart of new kinds of anxiety about English social life and new ideas of the English. And that it is in the Poirot years rather than those of Miss Marple which help us to understand the relationship between the feminisationofthe genre, modern recasting of ideas about the sexes and the politics of the form. It may be precisely because she is not the comfortable high Tory for whom she has so often been mistaken, but a representative of a conservatism much closer to the heart of English life, that she has remained both a literary embarrassment and continuously popular.’
Having set out the terms of her argument Light then goes back to basics, starting from the fact that Christie is (as agreed by all) ‘primarily a constructor of puzzles’. In this she was a part of the enormous growth of the ‘whodunit’ in the years after WW1 – with writers drawn from across the political spectrum from the Coles on the one hand (left) to Sayers on the other (right). Light goes on to consider the rise of the whodunit and the demise of the established thriller – although pointing out that there is no hard and fast break and that the thrillers of, for instance, Buchan and ‘Sapper‘ continued to be popular. But there was no doubt that the whodunit was the dominant form of those inter-war years. What has not been considered is the extent to which this form was, in itself, part of the modernist wave…
‘Once we consider the whodunit as a form of popular modernism, these apparent failings, the emptying of moral and social effect, the evacuating of notions of ‘character’, the transparency of the prose….appear in a different light. What has come to seem the epitome of the old-fashioned and the genteel, arguably began life as a modernising, de-sacramentalising form, emancipating itself from the literary lumber of the past. In popular fiction as much as in high culture, older models were to be self-consciously redeployed, parodied, pastiched, pilloried. We might expect the literature of crime in particular, which had formerly been the place of violence and male heroics, to be particularly traumatised by war.’
It is in this context that Christie starts writing and the signs of her modernity are ‘clearest in her uneasy dabblings in available popular forms throughout the 1920’s.’ – the thrillers, short stories and whodunits many of them now neglected (as Light remarks who can seriously read The Big Four??). This confusion can be found in Christie’s first book – The Mysterious Affairs at Styles. Light remarks that it is ‘in many ways a stilted book, casually relying upon earlier narratorial shorthands’: maps, disguises, poisons, espionage (a dire sub-plot). The narrator, Hastings, speaks in ‘the pre-war language of romance’ and the love interest is ‘Edwardian novelettish’. In this, his first appearance, Poirot is altogether too Holmesian, too concerned with material clues, which feels ‘ a touch fustian’. But even here Christie sounds a modern note – where Watson was embodiment of solid English virtues, Hastings is more of a stooge, a buffoon, his pre-war attitudes already ‘a casualty of history’. And it is taken for granted that the family at Styles will be squabbling and petty. In Doyle’s world moral transgressions while thrilling ‘would ultimately be deemed contemptible’ , in Christie ‘crime makes not for tragedy, nor even for the shudders of melodrama, but oddly and startlingly, for a laugh.’ (this is a crucial point in not taking Christie’s corpus as a whole – the comedy gradually disappears from her work from WW2 onwards). In Christie’s first short story collection – Poirot Investigates (1925) – this humorous element is very obvious – ‘This is the world of farce not melodrama’. In the ‘lighthearted thrillers’ (The Secret Adversary, Secret of Chimneys etc.) the twenties slang and nicknames (Tuppence, Bundle, Frankie) might now irritate but there is ‘an archness one hears again and and again in the period – in Wooster, in Wimsey, but also in Waugh and Huxley, and in the essays of Virginia Woolf – a refusal of seriousness, of the cumbrous and the weighty, as well as of the moral sententiousness of the older generation’. Christie’s dialogue is ‘minimalist’.
‘If nothing else, what marks Christie’s work, for all time, as of the post-war generation is its brightness of tone and the premium placed on youth, that elixir with healing powers that had been so wantonly wasted.’ .
Light now proceeds to the heart of the matter. The way in which young writer of the 20’s were reacting to the war….
‘It is as a literature of convalescence that we might understand something of the sea-change which came over detective fiction after the war. For what is most noticeable about the appearance of the whodunit, and most paradoxical, is the removal of the threat of violence.’
The gothic, the terrifying, the sensational are expunged. Above all the sensational; Christie’s work bears no traces of the sensational tradition. This is one of the sharpest contrasts with a pre-war writer such as Doyle – Holmes is littered with the sensational (‘a gigantic Hound!’). Blood is absent from Christie. Both she and her readers had had more than their fill of blood in the absolute horror of 1914-18. The one-dimensionality of the characters is a further development of this…
‘Fleshiness, either figuratively or literally, was perhaps in gross bad taste after the butchery many had witnessed. Violence is literally bad form.’
The lack of emotional engagement which later, rather dim, critics such as Edmund Wilson criticised, is a deliberately sought effect. The novels are intended not to be cathartic but ‘preoccupying, the mental equivalent of pottering’. This was the era not only of Golden Age mystery fiction but of the rise and rise of the crossword.
Action was also out of fashion. Ideas of masculinity were being redefined. In Campion and Wimsey, Allinghamand Sayers redrew the map with their foppishness, violence always a matter of last resort. In Poirot Christie took this even further. Poirot is a ‘committed modernist’ in his service flat, ‘ultra modern, very abstract, all squares and cubes’ (Hallowe’en Party). And of course he is Belgian with all the connotations which that carried for inter-war readers (‘gallant little Belgium’). There is much that is farcical about Poirot, readers are not required to take him too seriously. Light comments that ‘like so much else in Christie’s fiction he could offer her readers the pleasure of modernity without its pains.’
It is this aspect of Christie’s fiction which annoyed certain male critics, notably Raymond Chandler ; Chandler was clearly affronted by thefeminisation of the genre, the dismissal of male violence and ‘romantic masculinity’  . These critics completely failed to grasp Christie’s alignment with the spirit of her age and her modernity.
Light then moves on to a feature of Christie’s inter-war writing which marks her out vividly from her peers (especially Sayers)…
‘What is striking about Christie’s fiction between the wars is not its snobbishness but its comparative freedom from much of the rancour and discontent about an expanding middle class which motivates her fellow writer.’ The commonplace, the ordinary, the middle-class are presented as wholly acceptable, never satirised. Christie never writes down to her readers (in the way Sayers does). Poirot himself is is a ‘little man’, as Light remarks ‘a happy tourist’…
‘Christie stimulates neither class envy nor deference. Poirot is forward looking and democratic in his appeal: it is ultimately civilian, domestic pleasures which he celebrates.’
Light quotes a typical Sayers phrase about ‘new civilisation’ being a ‘jungle’. There is none of this in Christie. Light exemplifies this brilliantly with a lengthy excerpt from the ABC Murdersabout the growth of ‘small houses and bungalows, new roads’ on the coast-line near Torbay. Christie offers this as an observation with no aesthetic judgement: Light invites us to imagine what Sayers would have said, and one can well imagine. In this context it is mysterious that Christie is seen as a writer of ‘country house fiction and a breed of backward looking Tory’. As Light remarks…
‘Her novels are largely indifferent to the doings of the upper classes, and she is certainly not in love with a Lord.’
The country house is ‘cheerfully updated over the years’ – a hotel in Evil Under the Sun, a boarding school in Cat Among the Pigeons (and my own favourite example a putative home for refugees in After the Funeral, where Poirot assumes – a rare case – an alias).
Light emphasises that all this does not mean Christie is free from class bias in her writings. Far from it. Working-class characters are generally crude caricatures, about whom the only thing that can be said is that they will almost certainly NOT be the murderer….
‘Like the aristocracy they may be seen as ignorant and self-regarding, but above all, uninteresting: their appearances are minimal and carry little narrative weight. Real life lies elsewhere for Christie, inside the homes of the middle class of whatever variety…’
Light then goes on to consider Christie’s relative lack of nationalism and her anti-Semitism, but these are for once, subjects which have been covered elsewhere, so I will skip her still penetrating observations on these subjects. She concludes this section by writing…
‘Christie’s achievement in the inter-war years was to find a form which could playfully head off and defuse potential nervousness about modernity, and make light of the fears of an expanding middle class….It did not testify however to the disappearance of those fears but to their continuing presence in new forms.’
Light now turns to the ‘new forms’…..
‘At the heart of Agatha Christie’s writing, productive of both its reassuring comedy and its narrative grip, is…a game of make-believe which plays deliberately with the metamorphosis of the everyday and the comfortable into the unfamiliar and the sinister.’
Thus the presence of so many nursery rhyme titles. And also the fact that so many of her books are set within the family. It is the family and its dislocations which are the crux and…
‘It is this sense of a safe, known world thrown out of kilter which Christie shares with many modernist writers.’
In the writers of ‘high culture’ we find a number of ‘existential crises’…’the obsession with unstable identities, the ultimate unknowability of others, the sense of guilt which accompanies civilisation, and the concomitant effect which such destabilisation has upon the certainties of realist narrative’ ; Light suggest that all these have their parallels in Christie. The unreliable narrator, the lack of emotional depth in her characters (which prevents out finding ‘solace or identification’) and uncertainty about the characters’ moral nature (‘an ambivalence upon which the plot depends’).
‘The exigencies of the puzzle-form draw attention above all to the contrivance of the writing whilst its minimalist economy poses a kind of challenge to the reader: our awareness of how many pages we have to go makes reading a whodunit a particularly physical experience of writing…’
Yet where in in modernist writers such issues could become painfully existential questions, in Christie they are transformed into play; Christie…
‘comically transmutes such anxieties into a new kind of community’.
Light points out that the 1930’s were Christie’s most prolific period – 24 books during the decade; but while the Home Counties village is assumed to be her typical milieu in fact only about a quarter of her books have this setting and most of those are post-1945. The dominant locational feature of the 1930’s is in fact ‘abroad’; she captured ‘a middlebrow world of burgeoning tourism’. And group tourism. These were not ‘journeys of adventure or conquest’ but domesticated and managed tourism – ‘abroad’ is familiarised. And central is the journey itself – the boats (Death on The Nile), Trains (Blue, Orient Express) and Planes (Death in the Clouds) which feature so strongly. The crimes are always ‘closed’ and murder ‘socialises and familiarises’ – everyone is as Light playfully observes ‘often literally, in the same boat.‘If the voyage from home is a ‘symbol of desire’ and the journey ‘an ancient symbol of the process towards death’ then Christie’s travellers ‘make a circular not a linear progression’. Light describes this as part of the ‘peculiarly unprogressive drive of the detective story’ – much of the story is in fact being told ‘backwards’; as Christie herself makes a character say in Towards Zero ‘…the murder is the end. The story begins long before that.’
The tendency within the fiction is for the apparently random to be connected; to be drawn back to the familial circle – nowhere is this more apparent than in The ABC Murderswhere the seemingly public, random, is shown to be private, domestic, intentional. But a part of this process is that apparent familial and communal unities are shown as paper-thin….’Blood is certainly thinner than water’ Light comments….’Christie modernises the detective story by domesticating it, bringing it firmly inside the respectable classes.’ Even her weapons are often drawn from the ‘banal impedimenta of home life’ – a kitchen pestle, a meat skewer,a golf club, a corn knife. It is often precisely the ‘nice people’ who in Christie prove to be the cleverest killers. The only excluded class are the clergy (as Light comments a ‘more old fashioned conservatism than one which thrives on social snubs’). Christie’s works are certainly populated with ‘types’ (‘old-fashioned’ spinster, mild-mannered doctor, dyspeptic colonel etc.) – the point is that these types carry no ‘reliable moral cargo’ and any one of them may emerge as a killer. Light comments ‘Christie is here as clearly ‘post-realist’ as any other modernist, deliberately playing with the assumptions of an earlier literary form, and working in pastiche’….
‘Far from suggesting a world in which every person knows their place, and in which values are firm and fixed, the fiction explores the difficulty of social belonging in a modern world in which the very idea of social status has something theatrical and impermanent about it……Should we not read the flood of whodunits between the wars not so much as a sign of the fixity of class assumptions but as symptomatic of their instability?’ (my underscore). The ultimate example of this within Christie’s fiction is And Then There Were None – ‘every person is a potential murderer and victim.’
But, Light argues…
‘If there is little nostalgia (in the sense we now use it of sentimental retrospect) in her inter-war writing, then Christie’s novels are nevertheless profoundly nostalgic in the original sense of the word: in their deep longing for that safe and unchanged home, from which we are all exiled by adulthood and culture’.
This leads into a discussion of Christie’s c/Conservatism which is, after all, the overarching theme of Light’s book.
‘The philosophy which sustains Christie’s conservatism and with which she resolves many of her textual dilemmas rests on an age-old belief in fallen and flawed humanity, and an almost mystical faith of the co-equality of evil with good. On the deepest level crime is never rational or rationisable; it is never fully explained since the manifestations of good and evil are ultimately a mystery………………Evil is a category in the fiction which transcends insanity and even immorality, and whose mysterious emotiveness can be effectively employed to pull the reader back from the more modern, relativising and secular implications of Christie’s plots.’
This conjunction of ‘conservative theology’ and a ‘modern outlook’ sits uneasily and may have reflected 1930’s ‘readers’ own ambivalence’. This disjunction often appears in the novel in rather a forced way. Once the evil doer has been manifested (at the time of the solution) then they must be revealed as ‘evil’ even though they have not appeared so up to that point. Light gives an example from Death in The Clouds..
‘the handsome vigorous young man turned into a rat-like creature with furtive eyes’. (!).
‘Since the effect of the plots has been to divorce moral and aesthetic feeling and to discourage identification, we can hardly feel terror or relief on behalf of the characters. Ironically, Christie’s attempts as a twentieth-century Manichean to shore up these moral fictions serves only to underline their lack of serious application.’
In her attitude to large families Christie is typically post-Victorian  – it is a ‘breeding ground for thwarted desires’ – ‘inside the family one is apt to get too intense’ (Appointment With Death– which is indeed the locus classicus of the monstrous family). Patriarchs and matriarchs are often dispatched (Appointment, Xmas, Crooked House). Christie’s families….’are usually replaced at the close by the modern couple, an ideal relationship, more instrumental, de-sentimentalised, and without fuss.’
Psychology is crucial for Christie. Light writes….
‘It is the modern discourse of popular psychology which provides an appropriate language for Christie’s version of conservatism, robbing her novels of their melodrama and lending a humanising, common touch to moral judgements.’ In the 30’s novels ‘psychological explanation of crime and motivation is taken for granted’. Poirot is often compared to an analyst. But, crucially, the ‘true criminal is never sick and always sane’. Psychological explanation is for Christie a ‘form of common sense’ but in fact, of course, in Christie’s stories there is one ‘true’ solution where psychoanalysis would suggest ‘a labyrinth of infinite possibilities’. And it is tied back to her conservatism because the unconscious is represented as wholly negative; it is seen as a ‘ repository for purely anti-social desires of an unambiguously destructive kind…..This is a Freudian view without any of Freud’s radical potential, without his notion of an organising drive to pleasure, or of desires other than vicious ones, nothing erotic and nothing contradictory – only a bleak landscape of necessary repression in which all instincts are to be denied.’
But Light notes ‘In the context of the late 1930’s even such a view could be marshalled as an argument against the excesses of fascism which comes in turn to be represented as an outbreak of ‘barbarism”. For Christie fascism is a kind of hubris and the solution ‘humility’. Power is suspect as is shown in One,Two, Buckle My Shoe.
Light then turns briefly to Christie’s post-War novels noting that what is ‘most striking’ in the later books is ‘how little support Christie gives to the idea of a more authentic, proper past or to a reassertion of an older way of life’ – most strikingly exemplified in At Bertrams Hotel. Light comments ‘The strongest conservative feeling in Christie’s fiction lies not in an idealisation of the past, and certainly not in a planning of utopias, but in the desire to stay put in the present.’
Light then drives to the centre of her thesis…
‘Christie’s conservatism is not romantic and individualist but matter of fact and conforming; not backward-looking but inward-looking (my italics). Her dream is not of a grander, nobler existence but of a quiet life.’
Putting it in a wider political and sociological context….
‘Agatha Christie’s was one distinctly anonymous voice which helped to create and ratify the new accents of the British middlebrow between the wars and to shape that idea of a nation of benign crossword puzzlers and home owners, enjoying privacy and moderation and domestic consumption, and indifferent to Politics at large.’
The private was both an antidote to and a model for the public.
‘in the end…we might look for the special powers of Christie’s conservatism not in any overt reference to political ideologies or moral fictions but in her command of a language of domestication and privatisation’.
There is a reserve, an impersonality, in Christie’s prose hidden behind the ‘candid friendliness and unpretentious colloquialism’; this prose appears ‘random and informal’ but ‘was actually studied and controlled.’ In gender terms Light argues the crucial point here is that this reserve (the stiff upper lip) becomes disassociated from maleness and becomes ‘ a new kind of feminity’….
‘We might see in this retreat into hearty reticence a rejection of the intensity of feeling and uncontrolled expressivity with which the feminine had previously been associated. For Christie it was by denying the feminine (in its late Victorian and Edwardian dress) and by ventiloquising what had been its male part, cheerily domesticated, that she could find ways of speaking as a modern woman. Reticence could be a form of conservative self-protection, but also of new-found power.’
Christie’s favourite heroines (like Jane Grey in Death in the Clouds or Katherine Grey in Blue Train) are ‘sensible and unassuming, whose sexuality is muted and lies in the quality of their reserve’. They sacrifice the ‘romantic in favour of the domestic’. Christie herself was never more discrete and reserved than when in auto-biographical mode. Both her auto-biographies (Come, Tell me How you Live and An Autobiography)are ‘masterpieces…of self-concealment’. Her ‘preferred self is profoundly anti-romantic and cannot resist puncturing every stirring moment with a sense of the ridiculous’. Bathos allows a ‘modern ironising which Christie clearly found liberating.’ She is eager to claim the role of philistine  and champion of the diurnal…
‘This is not a profound book….It is in fact, small beer – a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings’ (Come Tell Me How You Live, p13).
Sexuality, despair, unhappiness are excluded…
‘The only acceptable face of independent modern femininity is that of the ‘coper’, usually the domestic manager, making the most of the little things of life’. It was from these ‘little things’ that a ‘whole national consciousness has been made’. Light draws attention to a very extraordinary passage in Come, Tell Me How You Live where Christie writes about the chador –
‘it must be nice to have your face veiled. It must make you feel very private, very secret…Only your eyes look out on the world – you see it, but it does not see you.’
[apart from what this says about Christie this passage has of course gained new and strange resonances given contemporary debates around the chador].
In her final paragraphs Light considers ‘another story altogether’, one suggesting that the entire construction of the inter-war Christie may be viewed in another way. This is based on her reading of one of the Mary Westmancott books Absent in the Spring, written in one week during the war, published in 1944 and described by Christie as ‘the book she had always wanted to write’. In it Joan Scudamore is a middle-aged woman remarkably like Christie – ‘conventional, provincial, mildly Christian’ believing herself to be ‘broadminded, generous and not given to histrionics’. In the book she is stranded in the desert waiting for a ‘vague train connection’. Without the trappings of social life she is forced to look inward and ‘Christie ruthlessly removes each plank of Joan’s personality revealing the selfishness and repressiveness which underlies each apparent virtue’. She returns to England full of good intentions to change but in fact resumes ‘exactly where she left off’.
‘Absent in the Spring is an impressive novel by any standard….which as a bleak and economical study of self-deception points to a level of self-knowledge and indeed of self-hatred in Christie we might not suspect from reading her autobiography. Joan’s story however ends with the coming of war and the novel is written with a hindsight which suggests that by 1944 that image of the coping, bright and emotionally reticent woman had met with a crisis of confidence. What had seemed desirable in 1938 or 1939 now seemed to be self-deluding and limiting.’
The following commentary is very largely based on one I wrote for WWTTA in 2007.
>>I would want to preface my comments by saying that I
thought Light’s analysis was the best thing I have ever read
about Christie. Now it is true, as Light herself points out,
that, given Christie’s sales both past and present, there is
astonishingly little serious writing about her (although the
invaluable Notes have supplied some references of which
I was unaware). But even so Light’s analysis is fascinating
and original. What stands out instantly is that she has
read Christie! I know this sounds absurd but I have read
so many articles and comments where it is perfectly clear
that the writer has, in fact, never read Christie; they are just
basing their views on a consensual position, or even in some
cases on television adaptations. I knew that Light was going to
be good when she started by pointing out how misleading the
1980s adaptations are and specifying Nemesis – the comparison
between book and adaptation endings of Nemesis is one I
have often used myself, and one can go further than Light;
the actual ending of Nemesis is downbeat, dark and biblical
(but Nemesis is very late Christie). So throughout the
chapter I am constantly re-assured that Light is paying close
attention to the text.
I found the analysis of Christie as modernist, in terms of both
style and content, wholly convincing and quite new to me. It
explains a great deal which I had mis-, or not, understood.
So what follows is as usual distorted by the fact that I am picking
up on areas of disagreement, or at least interrogation, rather than
merely parroting or applauding Light – the margins of my copy
are laden with ticks, but they make for an uninteresting commentary!
With that large reservation here goes….
1.) Light underestimates Christie’s sheer genius
as far as plot is concerned. Now I realise this comes outside her thesis,
and is the one area which has been covered in other criticism. But it is
important to re-iterate that no mystery writer has ever come close
to her inventiveness, subtlety, brilliance in the construction of the
puzzle-plot. No-one has ever fully analysed this – if it were possible
to do so the person would of course be making a fortune by writing
novels of their own. I am not for a minute trying to take away from the
importance of sociological, cultural , linguistic etc. analysis. But in
the final analysis what sets Christie apart is her peculiar genius in this
area. It may be a skill which one does not hold in high regard or
appreciation and many people do not. But if you do
not enjoy this skill I don’t think you will ever love Christie. Why do
so many people love this skill? Here I think Light is revelatory. I
have long pondered why Christie works so well for me when I
am depressed (which is why I have read her books so often).
Here is Light …..”their effect is preoccupying, the mental equivalent
of pottering’….they work more ‘to relieve generalised anxiety
than to generate strong emotion’. They are ‘just the answer to that
lack of capacity for concentrated thinking’ – Light links this to the
returned soldier but it applies equally to my own state when depressed
– I have little capacity for thought. It is ‘the literature of emotional
invalids’ – quite; Light compares this to playing clock-patience –
a modern equivalent and one I resort to is video games. It is
perhaps no surprise that there are several Christie video-games.
But if Christie gives this comfort, this relief, then one will love her.
However there is another note to be added. The disparagement of
Christie’s technical skill, her plotting genius, is apparently (according
to members of mystery lists) especially an Anglo-American
phenomenon. In France she is held in high regard for precisely
this reason (we might start linking this back to all sorts of cultural
arguments about classicism and formalism but I just note it in passing).
2.) I think Light tends to underestimate the importance of money in
Christie’s books. When one does an analysis of motives in Christie
(motives for the crime) one finds that money is by far the most common.
Now it is perfectly true that there are many books where this is
not the case. But as a rule if you ‘follow the money’ you will be more
likely to be right (it is of course usually very hard to do this!). In many
ways this ties into her general arguments about Christie’s middle-class
milieu and is supportive of Light’s general thesis. Money is a motivating
force for many of her murderers. Money is needed to move up the
middle-class greasy pole. This is another area where Christie
tends to differ from her peers although I do not think any proper analysis of the
motives used by Golden Age writers has ever been attempted.
In Allingham to give one example the problem and motive is often one of ego and self-absorption.
3.) Christie’s alteration over time. This is a problem for Light as
much of Christie’s work is after her period. She certainly makes
some attempt to cover it but I think I would tend to argue that
the change is greater than she allows.
4.) Christie and nationalism. Light is very good on this but I
do feel it is unfortunate that she left undiscussed and unexplored
one of the great Christie’s- N or M. This was written during
the early years of WW2 and features, interestingly, Tommy and
Tuppence, foiling a German spy plot. It is the most radical of
all Christie’s works – the spy ring eventually unmasked includes
high-ranking members of the Armed Forces, politicians, policemen
– every part of the Ruling Class. It contains – as was natural –
both Christie’s thoughts on why the war was being fought and
what ‘Englishness’ meant ; many of these thoughts reinforce
Light’s analysis of domesticity and privacy but they are far
more focused and directed (as was natural given the time)
than usual. It is, of course, propaganda and a fascinating insight
into the English conservative middle-class mind at the time.
5.) The new conservatism. I will quote Light on the new
‘the pleasures of domestic life were not merely a complementary
alternative to those of the public sphere but infinitely superior:
home, indoors, could provide proper values and behaviours, which
were not simply meant as an antidote to the pressures of work
but could become a model for a better public life’
In terms of women…
‘For Christie it was by denying the feminine (in its late Victorian
and Edwardian dress) and by ventriloquising what had been the male part,
cheerily domesticated, that she could find ways of speaking as
a woman. Reticence could be a form of conservative self-protection
but also of new found power’ (I would italicise last sentence if I could).
I knew that all this reminded me of something – and then by delicious
last chance what should appear on my television screen last night
but the (quite wonderful) adaptation of Cranford! Of course.
Light is describing Gaskell’s Cranford to a tee both in terms of
its conservatism and of female power. How could one better
describe Miss Deborah than in terms of that last sentence of Light’s?
I am not suggesting that Light is wrong in contrasting this ‘new’
conservatism of Christie’s with the latter half of the 19th and early
20th centuries, just calling to note that there are earlier literary,
social and cultural models to which the description can apply
and from where, no doubt, this new conservatism drew
some of its force (there might be those on this list who could
extend this to Austen where it seems to me that the private
is always seen as superior to the public – but I am very wary
of saying anything about Austen so will stick with Cranford!).
6.) Christie and her peers. I think Light does a wonderful
job in general in demonstrating clearly where Christie
differs from other Golden Age mystery writers, especially
Sayers. But there are moments when she loses sight of this
and drifts back into general comments on them as a group
(some of which may be true). I am however – and I admit
speaking as a biased fan – less convinced by the couple
or references to Allingham and one to Marsh that she is
really conversant with their works. The evolution of
Albert Campion – Allingham’s hero – is a peculiar one.
He starts out as a minor (and benign) villain and while it
is true that he is an aristocrat his character, what one might
call his meaning, evolve and change constantly. Allingham’s
great 30’s novels(after some minor, standard if charming,
thrillers) are all set in very public worlds (of art, publishing,
theatre, fashion) which are very unsettled, and Campion’s
own behaviour is anything but straight-forwardly heroic –
indeed in the very great Dancers in Mourning one could
argue that he is anti-heroic. Marsh’s vision while far less
complex and interesting has its own value and fascination
as being that of an outsider (a New Zealander).
In general I think a comparison with Allingham would
strengthen Light’s delineation of Christie’s new conservatism
but it is certainly not a simple matter of aristocrats v the bourgeois
(a comparison with Sayers is of course old conservatism v
new conservatism and Light picks this up brilliantly).
7.) Evil in Christie. Light is fascinating but inconclusive on this topic.
It really demands a separate essay. The issue interacts with my own
points 1 (on money) and 3 (on Christie’s alteration in time) and Light’s
discussion of psychology and Christie. Another book which I am
sorry Light did not discuss in more detail (though understandable as
it falls outside the period) is After the Funeral (1953) (WARNING-
SPOILER). Here the criminal is a middle-aged woman who wishes
to amass enough money to open a tea-shop (her own was ruined
in the war). So many typical elements which Light discusses
are present in the book – the closed circle, the disunited family,
the sense of strangeness, the possibility of anyone being the killer.
The ending of the book sees a discussion with Poirot on whether she
is sane or evil. The convicted murderer spends her time making
plans for tea-shops…
>>’Her newest establishment is to be the Lilac Bush. She’s opening it
‘One wonders if she was always a little mad? But me I think not.’
‘Good Lord, no! Sane as you and I when she planned that murder.
Carried it out in cold blood. She’s got a good head on her, you know,
underneath the fluffy manner'<<
How extraordinary! And funny. Christie knows her readers will instantly
connect a ‘fluffy manner’ (quite apart from the tea shops) to Miss Marple.
But what about ‘sane as you and I’? This is a woman who bashed in
another woman’s head in a brutal fashion to obtain the money to
open a tea-shop. What sort of definitions of sanity are we operating with
here? A more dramatic demonstration of what Light talks about when
she writes of a ‘safe, known world thrown out of kilter’ could hardly be
But if the killer here is sane then clearly she must be evil. And the evil
is connected to money. My own tentative feelings are that Christie
became more ‘moral’ as she aged. Nemesis would be the ultimate
example of this.
8.) Christie and privacy. I was inevitably drawn to consider the
quite extraordinary contrast between Christie, and especially the
auto-biographies as described by Light, and Richardson’s Pilgrimage,
with its endless self-analysis, its descent into and fascination with
the self. Surely we would also consider Richardson modern?
I suppose one could argue that Richardson rejects the public,
in large part for its maleness, and is concerned with the private.
But one could hardly describe her as reticent (except perhaps in
the area of sexuality). Are these two sides to a modernist coin?
Or is it that Richardson is a radical modernist where Christie
is a conservative one? I think I would tend to this conclusion
because I do find Richardson’s ruthless questioning of the self,
of identity, radical. But it is question worth pursuing.
Well these are some of my thoughts. As I have said I found the whole chapter
quite brilliant and revelatory; the best writing on Christie I have ever
encountered and productive of all kind of speculations. It is an
embarrassment of riches – and there even more in the extensive notes.
I am sure Light would agree that it forms a starting-point rather than
a conclusion. These notes are just a few of the directions where
I would wish for further exploration.<<
Ellen made an important response to this….
>>Of Austen I’ll venture a comment. Nick writes under the header of
the “new conservatism” Light finds in novel:
“‘the pleasures of domestic life were not merely a complementary
alternative to those of the public sphere but infinitely superior:
home, indoors, could provide proper values and behaviours, which
were not simply meant as an antidote to the pressures of work
but could become a model for a better public life’
In terms of women …
” (there might be those on this list who could extend this to
Austen where it seems to me that the private is always seen as
superior to the public – …”
Indeed it is, except for Austen being in a drawing room is public
life; however, she does distinguish between publicity in a small
crowd and in the marketplace arenas of the world. She writes to a
librarian of the prince with deep revulsion thinking about the life
of a courtier — and she didn’t have Fanny Burney’s account of her
five years at court to teach her this. I like Austen for this. I
recognize myself in some of her heroines.
My objection might be to Light’s calling it a new conservatism.
According to Beauman, it’s an old conservatism. Women valuing what
they are allowed to have, seeing in the home and private life respect
they are at least given to some extent and thus making a virtue of
necessity. Woman taught or trained not to be aggressive and to be
caring — at least self-sacrificing for others to whom they are related.<<
To which I replied…
>> I have been thinking
about this comment of yours for a couple of days. As I suggested I
do think Christie was tapping into an older tradition. But I still feel
there is something ‘new’ about it. I have been wondering what this is?
In part it is that Christie never looks down on or devalues young women
who work. Pairing-off and the finding of husbands is not a necessary
part of existence – though it often occurs. When it does it is all very
matter-of-fact, companionate. Another thing Light does not discuss
is the absence of sex in Christie. I don’t mean there is no sex but
there is certainly far less than in Sayers, Marsh and Allingham. It
is a part of the passionlessness of her books. Husbands are as likely
to be killers as objects of desire.
But the other thing which I suspect is new is the caring, or more
precisely the not-caring. I think this may link back to the Compton-Burnett
chapter. Children and motherhood are notably lacking in Christie.
Nothing serious. This is really at the centre of the matter as I understand
Light (and resonates with my reading of pre-WW2 Christie). Sex,
family, politics – none of them play much part or are accorded much value.
As I read Light she sees this as both modernist and liberating (because
it escapes old pre-defined roles and orthodoxies) and conservative
(because you certainly aren’t going to be bothered about
changing the world for the better). This is why Christie’s books read
like games – because the view that life is a game underlies them.
Nothing really matters. It is a very solacing attitude – or is to
me when I am ill anyway. But it is wholly escapist. We are back to
tending your own garden – and Miss Marple is above all a great one for
Anyway it is this which I think forms the ‘new’ bit – though I may
1) Light is here necessarily very out-dated. Her analysis refers above all to the Hickson Marples. Any new analysis of Christie adaptations would of course have to take account of the Suchet Poirots and McEwan Marples. These interpretations, while perhaps no ‘truer’ to Christie (the concept of truth in adaptations being in any case a difficult and ultimately fruitless pursuit), have significantly different emphases. Maybe at some point I will return to this question. It is also worth noting that in terms of Light’s general argument there is a problem with using Nemesis as it is a very late Christie and therefore outside the remit of her survey, although I am in complete agreement with her specific analysis despite the fact that Light ascribes Miss M’s motivation as being the financial benefits from RafielSnr’swill when in fact Christie imbued Nemesis – a very late novel – with a religious sensibility.
2) Laura Thomson (2007): see for instance The Guardian ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/sep/09/biography.agathachristie ) and TLS ( http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article2581238.ece ).
3.) I have noted this in my preamble. The best example of such a work is Robert Barnard’s A Talent to Deceive (1980).
4.) Styles is also one of the very few ‘country-house’ murders in Christie as a recent discussion on the GA list high-lighted; and even in this case the gathering is essentially familial.
5.) I have been re-reading Doyle. His morality is utterly conventional and boringly rigid.
6.) One of the best things about this analysis is that it places the Tommy and Tuppence books at the heart of the Christie canon and deosnot exclude them as so often occurs.
7.) Chandler wrote a famous but extraordinarily dim-witted and ignorant essay on this subject ; his hostility to women ( ‘These are the flustered old ladies–of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages–’ ) is such that it almost leads one to wonder about his sexuality, and it opens with one of the most sweeping statements of the realist fallacy ever written (‘Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic’.) : any essay written on the latter premise is clearly going to have nothing of interest to say about Christie.
8.) Light talks of this as reminding us of ‘both the terrors and the magic of the nursery’ but Christie was to take the significance of the children’s story to other levels in N or M (see Commentary 5).
9.) And links to Ivy Compton-Burnett who forms the subject of the first study in Light’s book.
10.) The claims of philistinism were entirely false; Christie was extremely well-read.
4 thoughts on “Light on Christie”
I’ve just read the blog and it’s superb — brilliant as you so often so kindly say of what I write. As we have canvassed some of these topics so often and did write the exchange, I want first to make something emphatic we did not: how Light and you agree Christie is for the quiet life and a creature of our times in her refusal to see meaning where there is none. Her patterns are over an abyss.
I’m struck by this tonight because in the last couple of years I’ve become so aware of how most people cling to their families and friends and (apparently) at the same time Christie’s large readership. I’ve been thinking one reason for LeCarre’s great popularity is his stories are transmutations of the business world, the anonymous competitive cruel relationships of people in the marketplace are embodied in the relationships of his spies (or nowadays government agents) and those they pursue or interact with. Again the spy story is a cover for something his readers have to live with daily, but we do tell ourselves hard truths about how we relate to people at work, we don’t tell these about how we relate to our families.
Second I’ll bring up all the many books which are given prestige and prizes: Whitbread, Booker, National Book, Orange &c. Such books insist they have serious meaning and have a realistic surface often in family life and love adn great politics. Christie avoids both or marginalizes them.
Thank you for both the kind comments and the, as always, incisive and telling analysis Ellen. ‘Her patterns are over the abyss’ is a most beautiful and truthful sentence.
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