Medium Cool is a weekly series related to popular culture, mostly film, TV, and books, with some music and games thrown in. We hope it’s a welcome break from the anger, hate, and idiocy we see almost daily from the other side in the political sphere.
Arguments welcomed, opinions respected, fools un-suffered. We’re here every Sunday at 7 pm.
Agatha Christie & Dorothy Sayers, Part III
by Subaru Diane
It’s still Women’s History Month, so let’s talk about some of the seismic shifts for English women in the early decades of the 20th century. Since Victorian times, women had pushed for the right to a university education and the right to vote, but the first Oxford degrees for women weren’t formally granted until 1920, and the political franchise was limited and restricted until 1928.
The Great War had given women a taste of financial independence; in the immediate post-war years they also experienced a degree of sexual autonomy previously denied them. Younger women in particular enjoyed new social freedoms: the “flapper” of the ‘20s bobbed her hair, shortened her skirts, painted her face, chucked her corsets, and smoked in public — relatively superficial, though powerful, symbols of change.
During this time, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were becoming popular, critically acclaimed, and financially secure authors. Yet behind the scenes, both women had troubling secrets: Sayers gave birth in 1924 to an illegitimate son, sent him to be raised by a cousin, and never divulged his existence to her parents for the rest of their lives. (The public at large didn’t know until years after DLS’s own death.)
As for Christie, she famously disappeared for eleven days in December 1926. Was it simply a publicity stunt to sell more books? A way of punishing her adulterous husband by putting him under suspicion of murder? Or did she have a genuine case of amnesia? She never said. Theories abound, and you probably have your own ideas!
Christie and Sayers also both created countless memorable female characters as sleuths, suspects, villains, and victims, including — but certainly not limited to — Christie’s redoubtable Miss Jane Marple, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, and Countess Vera Rossakoff; and Sayers’ Harriet Vane, Miss Katherine Climpson, the amoral Mary Whittaker, and the pathetic Mrs Flora Weldon.
I’d love to know who your own favourite female characters are — and why! — in the Christie and Sayers mysteries.
Thanks again, SD, for trying out your fun and interesting women of mystery series on us!
Looking forward to another lively discussion!
I love Harriet Vane. In “Strong Poison” she’s accused of murdering her lover and one of the fascinating twists in the case is that she claims the argument which the prosecution cites as the basis for her murderous acts came about because her lover asked her to marry him. She felt he had made a fool of her because he had persuaded her that they need not marry if they loved each other and then, after they had lived together for a while, he proposed to her as she says as if he’s awarding her a good conduct medal. This is clearly at odds with preconceptions about what women feel or want – given the era in which it was written. There are several “unfeminine” characteristics of Harriet Vane – her independence, her bluntness, her drive, her unwillingness to be the victim of condescension – and I suspect Sayers drew a great deal upon her own experiences in creating her. (Harriet Vane was also a mystery writer.)
re changes in women’s fashion into the 1920s, I read an article chronicling the decline in weight of women’s undergarments from the astonishing 15+ lbs of the late Victorian era (not to mention corsets and whalebone-reinforced dresses)
no wonder they fainted all the time
Since I normally favor Sayers in these discussions, I will offer up a Christie character this time. Frankie Derwent from Why Didn’t They Ask Evans. She is a bit of a force of nature and just steam rolls poor Bobby Jones (and most other people). Christie’s male/female pairing often end up that way. A brave, honorable, decent, but slightly dim man paired with a smart, ingenious, but not overly concerned with the niceties woman.
Harriet Vane is a wonderfully complex character. DLS based the character of Harriet’s lover, Philip Boyes, on a man who had treated her badly in much the same way, one John Cournos. It must have been enormously satisfying for Sayers to kill him off fictionally!
I was always fond of the portrayal of aged transgressive women of the previous era, notably the now-senile Cremorna Garden of Strong Poison, whose inheritance is the impetus of the murderer.
You can tell Sayers admired her.
I think there were others, including in Poirot, but can’t remember offhand
As it happens, I’m rereading some Sayers now–just finished The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. There’s a minor character there who pops again in the canon, Majorie Phelps, who has always been a favorite–self contained, confident, and utterly unawed by Peter. A Good Egg….
Nice observation. You could say much the same about two other Christie characters, Bundle Brent (The Secret of Chimneys) and Bunch Harmon (A Murder is Announced).
@Tom Levenson: She’s in Strong Poison too — a great character!
Marjorie is one of my favourites. She makes another appearance in Strong Poison, introducing Wimsey to the Bohemian sets that Harriet Vane and Philip Boyes had socialised with. She’s a nicely-drawn woman.
So, too, is Miss Meteyard in Murder Must Advertise.
How have I never discovered Harriet Vane. Thank you for leading me to her.
I think I’ve read every Agatha Christie story multiple times. Joan Hickson is my favourite version of Miss Marple. She is true to Christie’s Miss Marple.
Christie had a number of strong female characters, on both sides. For example, Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent, a side character in “The Secret of Chimneys” and a main character in “The Seven Dials Mystery.” Is that the only time that Christie wrote two novels in the same “world,” so to speak?
For another force of nature, I can give you Emily Trefusis in “The Sittaford Mystery,” aka “The Murder at Hazelmoor,” whose fiance has been wrongly accused of the murder and who was absolutely determined that she was not going to see him hanged.
In one of her best mysteries, “Death on the Nile,” there is Jacqueline de Bellefort, a women who was perhaps too much in love with Simon Doyle.
In “4:50 from Paddington,” aka “What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw,” I was fond of the character of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, particularly in the description of the life she could have led versus the life she chose to lead. I never did figure out who she ended up with at the end of the mystery, though.
@SiubhanDuinne: One might even say therapeutic!
Who doesn’t love Harriet Belinda Hubbard? Or maybe I really just love Lauren Bacall.
Just got in from an afternoon party and hope to comment more later, but I just wanted to stick a pin in here.
I have been reading the Wimsey novels in order, and I’m now halfway through Murder Must Advertise. As for female characters, I liked Miss Climpson, and I also liked her associate Joan Murchison in Strong Poison, who was planted in the attorney’s office as a spy and ended up doing a spot of burglary work for Lord Peter.
Flora Weldon was a sad case, beautifully detailed. I am wondering what will ultimately happen with Dian de Momerie in Murder Must Advertise. Another “sad” character? (No spoilers!)
I haven’t read any of Christie’s Miss Marple novels (yet), but, as for the films, I will say that Joan Hickson is the best. She conveys that slight undertone of menace that I think is required in the character. Nemesis, indeed.
My vote for least favourite woman in the Christie pantheon is Ariadne Oliver. I know that she is an author insert and is there because Christie wanted to poke a bit of fun at herself, but she kept giving me the impression that Christie doesn’t really have a good sense of humour.
They’re not my favourite Christie female characters but both Lady Sedgewick and her daughter Elvira in At Bertram’s Hotel are certainly not shrinking violets.
Lady Sedgewick in particular is a great villain, if she had mustachios she’d be twirling them while tying some hapless male to a railway line.
Almost, but there was the occasional crossover. For instance, Mrs Dane Calthrop knows both Miss Marple (The Moving Finger) and Ariadne Oliver (The Pale Horse), who is in turn a friend of Poirot’s (Cards on the Table, Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and a handful of others).
Mrs Oliver is one of my favourite Christie characters. She’s so obviously a satire on Christie herself, with the wild hairstyles and constantly eating apples and leaving the cores strewn about as she works out her latest mystery novel! And she came to detest her detective creation every bit as much as Christie came to loathe Poirot.
@Wyatt Salamanca: The James Bond novels are also being reworked with the approval of Ian Fleming’s family.
I think nearly all of them are interconnected by side characters. Superintendent Battle is the detective in the two Bundle Brent stories, and he shows up in the Poirot novel Cards on the Table, as does Colonel Race, who appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit.
I can’t remember if the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stories are connected, but I think Miss Lemon appeared as a secretary both for Poirot and Parker Pyne. Death Comes as the End, which takes place in ancient Egypt, is the only one that is definitely out of the “canon”.
One of the many great episodes in Strong Poison is Miss Murchison’s lesson in lock-picking from a retired burglar who was a friend of Lord Peter.
Woo hoo, I’m so glad to see this thread back!
I have no opinion about the Christie disappearance, except that people under major emotional stress do weird things. I don’t think we have to assume a plot to frame her soon-to-be-ex husband. I always cut people a lot of slack for a year after a major emotional blow (a bereavement, an unwanted divorce).
Sayers? This quote from “Have His Carcass” resonates with me. “The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.” (I think “wealth” to Sayers meant, not the modern idea of wealth, but a middle class income. Sayers had been too poor to afford bus fare as an advertising copywriter in the 1920s/early 1930s.)
The central issue in “Strong Poison”- did Harriet have a motive to murder Phillip Boyes- resonates with me, and I confess this with some shame. In the runup to “Strong Poison” Harriet and Phillip Boyes were lovers in the atmosphere of the British 1920s- radical leftism, anarchism, free love. Phillip Boyes professed to believe in all these things and professed a conscientious objection to the institution of marriage. Harriet (understandable at the time) thought sex outside of marriage was wrong, but (perceiving a conflict between her own conscience and her lover’s conscience) sacrificed her own conscience and lived with Phillip outside of marriage. Then he revealed that he didn’t really object to marriage at all, he was just testing her! It might not be obvious to modern people who take living together outside of marriage for granted, but in the context of the time, this was a hideous betrayal.
Here’s how this resonates with me. In my early twenties I had a boyfriend- whom I desperately loved- who was definitely on the right. His father was an executive of a corporation which owned restaurants where the staff was, at the time, on strike. My father had been a union organizer as a young man, I had been a union organizer in a year off from college, and I was raised to believe that YOU NEVER CROSS A UNION PICKET LINE – YOU DIE BEFORE YOU CROSS A PICKET LINE.
So we (bf and I) were going out to dinner. He professed a moral commitment that he MUST eat in his father’s company’s restaurant due to family values. Confronted with an apparent conflict of moral values, I gave in, and crossed a picket line for the only time in my life. A few weeks later (strike still on) he went out to dinner at a different restaurant (staff not on strike). His commitment to only eating at his father’s company’s restaurant had evaporated. Words cannot describe my rage: you got me to violate my conscience and you were FAKING IT? I didn’t actually murder him, but a betrayal of that magnitude would have been a credible motive for murder.
Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, is something of a force of nature herself!
I enjoyed Sayers’ novels without being able to really like Peter, who struck me as just too precious for words, in a bad way. Too affectated? Too much an assortment of contradictory character traits?
Fortunately, the BBC series was just excellent, and very well cast. Ian Carmichael really rescued the character for me.
Harriet I liked right from the start (while not sure why she was falling in love with a man I considered a drip), and Harriet Miller did right by her as well.
Oddly, even though I read the credits at the time, years later I was sure that Juliet Stevenson had played Harriet Vane. There is a resemblance between the two women is all I can say.
@Wolvesvalley: yes, good scene. I just saw my first Joan Hickson, The Body in the Library. Very good. She was ruthless with the schoolgirl witness! Julia Mackenzie would never have done that! (I love Mackenzie and McEwan, don’t get me wrong).
I love, well, really, all the female professors in Gaudy Night.
I am completely opposed to this. Even if done for the best of reasons, it is erasing history.
I am picturing someone smoothing out the rough bits of Mein Kampf. You’ll end up with an eight-page pamphlet that tells you nothing.
Or look at Florida today: “Someone told Rosa Parks to move on the bus. She refused, and things are better now.” WTF?
I love that story! I mean, I hate that it happened, but you’re right — in terms of a moral betrayal, it is right there with Philip Boyes’ turnabout regarding marriage. If you ever decide to write detective stories, I hope you’ll work this anecdote in as justified motive!
@CaseyL: I would say some of Wimsey’s affectations are part of his way of dealing with his PTSD. Look at the way his former soldiers (Denton among them) admire and respect him. There must be some there there.
@Princess: I was so effing pissed off when I got to the end of Gaudy Night (which is way too long, fight me) and the big payoff was in untranslated Latin. So pretentious. I preferred Strong Poison.
Yes! A great scene. Also Murchison’s detailed background as an unmarried woman working in the business world.
Similarly, Miss Climpson’s history as a spinster living in boarding houses is tragic, until she finds employment through Lord Peter.
@Omnes Omnibus: again, fight me, but I prefer Wimsey to Vane.
@zhena gogolia: oh, I loved every word. But it was pretty much designed for me — I won’t fight you!
@Steeplejack: it really strikes terror into your heart about boarding houses.
You know — I cringe at the unattractive racial and ethnic stereotypes, but as I do more and more reading in social history, I must say I think it’s wrong to bowdlerise and sanitise Christie’s (or Sayers’) language to mollify today’s sensibilities. It strikes me as dishonest — lying by omission.
@CaseyL: You might like the Peter of the Jill Paton Walsh pastiches (including one book that was partially written prior to DLS’s death) better. He’s much less of a jackass and in the final book, he copes with deep humanity with Gerald’s death.
I’m very ambivalent on this. Not on what they’re doing to history – that’s racial erasure in service of white supremacy, and I hate it with all of my heart – but reworking literature so it’s less offensive.
I can sort of see why they’re doing so: they want young people to discover, read, and enjoy the novels. Racist/anti-Semitic/colonialist language will be deeply hurtful and they might decide not to continue reading.
(I remember being absolutely gutted when I read anti-Semitic remarks in Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn mysteries. She’s one of the rare writers – rare persons, actually – who overcame her own prejudice. Jewish characters are center stage in her last novel, Light Thickens, and I do think she was trying to make amends. But if I’d known ahead of time that was there, I might not ever have started reading her books at all.)
OTOH, Sayers’ attitudes were typical of her time, and removing them whitewashes the reality of that era.
I can’t honestly say I “love” Miss Hillyard :-)
But the Dean? Miss DeVine? Terrific characters! (As are some of the students, and Harriet’s own classmates. I’ve always wished we could have seen more of Phoebe Tucker, Harriet’s archaeologist friend.)
A theme in these novels that hits me is how constricted women’s lives were just through a simple lack of money, or the opportunity to earn some money. (It is getting better at the agency in Murder Must Advertise.)
sheila in nc
I think Lady Mary Wimsey’s arc is really interesting.
@persistentillusion: I’ve read those! And do like them very much – and you’re right: Peter is much less of an ass in them :)
Yes, and that experience was what gave her the ability to convincingly conduct the fake seance that revealed the will (which Miss Murchison picked the lock to find, along with the illicit packet of arsenic and the documents that proved the motive for the murder).
That book has so many wonderful episodes — I think someone else has already mentioned Lord Peter’s foray into Bloomsbury guided by Marjorie Phelps.
Reading the Wimsey books straight through, chronologically, it becomes clear that the “silly-young-ass-about-town” flippancy was a persona Peter affected to cope, in part, with his own insecurities and wounds to the psyche. In each successive book — and most especially in the four with Harriet Vane — you can see his defences being peeled away. I find it a remarkable character arc over the course of eleven novels.
@Princess: Oh yes. I particularly like the Dean, Miss Martin, who is so brisk and matter-of-fact but also so kind and caring.
@CaseyL: I agree about Peter. I’ve decided that Sayers tried very hard to come up with a man who would be right for Harriet – someone who really did have principles but was also worldly and as much of a feminist as a man in those days could be. Perhaps this was an impossible recipe. But also for plot purposes he had to be someone who had scruples about pressing her to marry him after saving her from hanging. Perhaps it’s just too hard to create a believable character who checks all those boxes. A lot of wishful thinking goes into Peter Wimsey.
This is a bit lengthy for a comment (pace Tony Jay!), but I think it’s worth quoting the passage in Unnatural Death where Peter explains to his friend, Detective Inspector Parker, just why he has set up Miss Climpson and her agency:
Haven’t read much Dorothy Sayers. What I have read I don’t remember much.
Christie’s draws her female characters well. Especially her villains or overbearing characters.
I can go on.
I actually like Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s over wrought apple eating slightly ridiculous writer.
Jacqueline Bellefort is a wonderful tragic villainess as was Gilda from The Hollow. In fact all the female characters in The Hollow were great except that annoying actress.
Then there was the murderess Vera of And Then There Were None
As a recurring character I also enjoyed Miss Lemon. And Ariadne Oliver was a hoot.
But it’s hard to beat Mrs. Marple
@SiubhanDuinne: very good
@rivers: There’s been a rumor in mystery circles for years that Sayers fell in love with her creation, and that affected how she wrote him. A variant on the Mary Sue trope.
the Christie that I’m fine with updating is “And Then There Were None”
@Princess: They’re fantastic characters. What I also like about Gaudy Night is the fact that Harriet falls for the stereotype of the women in the academic cloister driven mad by celibacy when it’s Peter who realizes that the woman in the traditionally “wifely” role is the one who is a homicidal maniac. Sayers does such a good job of making Harriet very complicated.
@SiubhanDuinne: Yes!!! I love this passage – it’s brilliant.
I think a certain very limited editing in order to engage a wider audience is OK, although I think the works ought to be maintained and available in their original forms as well.
For a bit of context, I spent some of last weekend reading with a very young relative, who’d selected a Nancy Drew mystery for her chapter book. I’d go along with two versions of these books: the original definitely to be maintained, but an optional edited one for those who choose to use them. The automatic suspicion of the brown and black people from another continent being seen as perfectly natural, along with wondering what they’re doing here in River Heights, was uncomfortable at best. I don’t know how that particular book could have been edited, TBH, but I see some value in removing a racial/ethnic slur from an Agatha Christie book and replacing it with a term that will not slap a member of that racial/ethnic group in the face when they read it. It helps, of course, that those descriptions can often be removed without doing harm to the mystery itself. My $0.02, FWIW.
@CaseyL: A bit of confusion here? Steeplejack’s post concerned use of the n-word and racist stereotypes in Agatha Christie’s work. Christie’s attitudes were indeed typical for her time.
Sayers is not Christie. The only black character (as far as I remember) in Sayer’s work is the Rev. Halleluiah Dawson in “Unnatural Death” who is a completely sympathetic character, unsuccessfully framed by the psychopathic murderer. At the end of the book, the reader is invited to rejoice that the murderer’s plans have miscarried so that Rev. Dawson receives money that he should (in justice) have received, and desperately needs. The only use of the n-word is a third party quote that the author and the reader clearly do not sympathize with.
Sayers’ record with Jews is not quite as good, but she does do a very sympathetic portrayal of the Levy family in “Whose Body” followed up with Rachel Levy marrying Whimsey’s friend Freddy Arbuthnot in “Strong Poison”.
At that point, I think Miss Climpson was a solo agent (Parker and Lord Peter visited her in her flat, in which she had apparently been recently established by Lord Peter), but by Strong Poison she had a whole organization fronted by a typing bureau. (I am tempted to quote the whole passage about the ladies who answered advertisements, and the assortment of enterprising gentlemen who subsequently appeared before a magistrate, but I will refrain.)
@Torrey: After I found that Kipling raised money for the man who ordered the slaughter at the Jallianwala Bagh I could not read his stuff. His attitude towards India and Indians is a turnoff for me. I had no idea when I first came across The Jungle Book and his poetry as a child. But now I can no longer enjoy his work.
@Andrya: Oops – yes, I meant Christie, not Sayers. Sayers work was/is very progressive for its time; Christie’s was absolutely not.
The Dark Avenger
@Omnes Omnibus: The Ian Carmichael episodes are available on YouTube, video(of. Ghastly quality) and radio. One thing I noticed in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was how much everyone drank, Lord Peter included.
There’s a scene in the novel Live And Let Die where Bond’s genitals are mutilated with a clothes hanger. Oh you Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Regarding Miss Marple, are there later mystery-solving elderly spinsters who can be considered her descendants? I find myself thinking of Sharyn McCrumb’s Nora Bonesteel, who has many of the same characteristics. transmuted to Appalachian culture. (Which means that the kinds of things she knits are not fluffy and delicate, and she raises her own vegetables.)
👍 to all that.
@schrodingers_cat: Similar experience. I used to love the novels of Anthony Trollope until I read that he had advocated geocide of native Australians. I put them all (paperback) into my local paper recycling, and never read one again.
I have none of your scruples and will quote the passage with reckless abandon:
@schrodingers_cat: I never learned that much about Kipling. I thought his early stories showed signs of a liberal mind. But some of his later writings showed a very reactionary bent. I wonder if success and acceptance warped his outlook.
I’m OK with editing the books lightly, as long as they include an appendix with what was cut. I think a lot of us are old enough to remember when this language was casually used. People growing up today have no sense of it, except that it is never acceptable, and that people who use it are wicked. (Or they are racists.) It’s probably too much to expect someone to let go of that conditioning to be able to enjoy a book intending to be read for pleasure.
I do agree that something is lost when books are bowdlerized. These books were written by women who were very astute observers of (white) character. Who is using pejorative language, and what sort of character they have, is important in learning what sort of people become racist, misogynists, etc. There is also a sense of what sort of character flaws tend to be joined together as a package deal. I was having a discussion with someone about teaching D.W. Griffith. They were very anti. I agreed that D.W. Griffith can be replaced on a syllabus, but that there was a place to teach him and that how his racism and worship of white womanhood are deeply intertwined should be an important part of that. Sorry, got off track. Also, dinner is ready, so I will be back.
Shorter: Yes to getting rid of language that will bump a reader out of a book. Coming across the n-word in a pleasure read stops the mind with a giant “HOLY FUCK.” At least that is what happened to me today. That said, in re-reading Christie, I realize that part of what is lost in cutting racist characters out of books is that we are not teaching modern (white) children what kind of “good” people are likely to hide some very racist ideas. People who are caught up with the idea of being respectable, rather than actually being a kind and good person.
Miss Marple! Also Anne Beddingfeld, she of the “neat little waist” in The Man in the Brown Suit, because her adventures are just so darned romantic; Letitia Blacklock, because she is daring and has suffered; and Miss Hinchcliffe, because she suffers too, in a very different way — both characters in A Murder Is Announced. So well drawn.
If Mary Westmacott books count, then I must include Joan Scudamore in Absent in the Spring. That work is a tour de force.
And, also under the Westmacott name, Unfinished Portrait tells us possibly everything we are ever going to know about Christie’s disappearance. A few months after her beloved mother died, Archibald Christie asked for a divorce. I read somewhere, once, that he “informed” Agatha of his wish by announcing his engagement to another woman in the middle of a dinner party the Christies were giving. IMO Agatha couldn’t have dumped him fast enough after that. But she was still deeply grieving the loss of her mother, and under the compounded stress of loss and public humiliation, she broke. Nervous breakdown, maybe amnesia, probably contemplated suicide.
The Agatha Christie-Max Mallowan relationship and Julia and Paul Child relationship have always struck me as being somehow similar. Don’t know why!
@CaseyL: Thanks for clarifying, I thought it was probably a typo. (A group of my students once gave me the title “The Typo Queen of XYZ college”.)
Also, so far as fashion is concerned, cloche hats came into vogue in parallel with the spread of more and speedier automobiles. Kept the ladies’ hair from becoming windblown and disheveled when riding in open top cars (and close fitting so not prone to being blown off or askew).
My wife absolutely adores Miss Marple. I think because she loves mysteries, and precisely because Marple is a smart, woman character not centered on her sex appeal to Cis/Het men. I’ve watched a bunch of the MM mysteries with her, and I can see why she loves them. They definitely have a certain type of charm and usually the stories are great. I just wish they would digitally restore some of the old 70’s-80’s ones. I have never understood why it is that one can easily find digitally restored (ahem) “adult” videos from the 70’s that look clear as day (or so I’ve heard…), but they somehow can’t do that for old PBS/BBC movies and even popular blockbuster films.
Suranne Jones as Ann Lister is awesome as is anything Sally Wainwright does.
@Geminid: He was born and grew up in India, his father was the first dean of the JJ School of Arts. The less said about his attitude towards India and Indians the better. IIRC wasn’t Kipling who coined the term, white man’s burden.
@Geminid: I just learned he wrote Captains Courageous.
@SiubhanDuinne: Your Medium Cool series has got me reading through them in order again, and Wimsey’s Bertie Wooster persona is pretty clearly a way to mask or hold at bay his PSTD, as well as an effective method of getting witnesses to open up to him. He does evolve over the course of the books.
Thank you! I don’t suppose even you may dare to quote the entirety of the gathering at the Kropotkys’. :-)
I haven’t read it in many years, but I remember Kipling’s early book Plain Tales from the Hills as being very good. Sympathetic Indian characters (not all, of course) and sharply drawn profiles of the British colonials and their foibles. Maybe it’s time for a reread.
@Wolvesvalley: I can’t resist the challenge. Whimsey at the Kropotky’s, discussing music:
“I would dispense with all definite notes. After all, the cat does not need them for his midnight melodies, powerful and expressive as they are. The love-hunger of the stallion takes no account of octave or interval in giving forth the cry of passion. It is only man, trammelled by a stultifying convention — Oh, hullo, Marjorie, sorry — what is it?”
Few people kipple anymore.
Do not tempt me like that, you wicked person!
Sayers’s fiction may contain fewer racist tropes than Christie’s, but reading through Sayers all I see is class class class classclassclass. Every character, to the most minor, is very precisely located in the class system.
Oh yes! Wonderful! As is the dinner at the Soviet Club in Clouds of Witness, and the literary cocktail party Harriet attends in Gaudy Night. Sayers had a brilliant ear for over-the-top, pretentious conversation.
I have a strong feeling about this kind of revision: it is literary vandalism. I understand quite well that the words and passages that got changed or cut are offensive in the 21st century. They should remain anyway.
Sayers and Christie were creatures of their time and place and well-privileged social class. Of course they would have the prejudices that came with that background, and that were shared by much, even most, of their contemporary readership. Those prejudices are ingrained in their novels. Take them out, sanitise these novels for modern readers, and you strip them of the early 20th century social context that made them and their authors.
Glad you brought that up, because I’m hoping/planning to make class consciousness and class mobility in Britain a major theme of our Christie/Sayers discussion in two weeks.
Of course. That was the reality of that time and place.
ETA Amir said it better.
@Steeplejack: You might find those stories are as you remember them. Kipling was young then, and marginal financially. He might have had more of an outsider’s point of view. Over the next twenty years he became a successful insider, and that may have changed him.
@schrodingers_cat: Yes it was, in the poem of the same title. It’s typical of Kipling in that it shows exactly why Orwell called him a “good bad poet” , some truly brilliant phrasing in service of a disgusting message. Orwell was not a fan of Kipling to put it mildly
“Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”
True. In Murder Must Advertise Wimsey takes part in an elaborate analysis of what constitutes a “public school”—he barely allows Harrow as a companion to his alma mater, Eton—and then says that it really doesn’t matter. 🙄
And, hero though he may be, he is happy to constantly trade on his status as a lord.
Very well said indeed. Thank you.
And not just pretentious conversation. Some of the talk in the typists’ room at Pym’s are hilarious, not to mention revealing.
@Amir Khalid: Very well said.
“It is literary vandalism.”
I am somewhat optimistic. Kipling started out as a newspaperman, and the Plain Tales have a bit of a, well, not “ripped from the headlines” feel but more of a “lightly lifted from the back pages” vibe. And, at least in the early going, he was a damn good storyteller. I think as he aged and became more “important” he fossilized into a Colonel Blimp personality.
ETA: Ah! Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) is available at Project Gutenberg, for those who might be interested.
ETFA: Background article at Wikipedia.
Mom was a big Agatha Christie fan, and I remember her keeping a list of all of her books to cross off the list from the library. That was my introduction to the British Mystery genre. But my perception of both Christie and Sayers was pretty heavily influenced by the Mystery series on PBS. I recall seeing Miss Marple and Lord Peter adaptations growing up (that show was a “must watch” in our house).
I will say have a certain fondness for Tuppence Beresford. :)
@stinger: I agree that class is omnipresent in Sayer’s work, but what is notable is she presents non-upper-class people as intelligent and worthy (Bunter, Charles Parker, Miss Meteyard, Padgett) and some upper-class people as obnoxious and/or ignorant (the younger Duchess of Denver, Dian de Momerie). Class was omnipresent in Sayers’ world but she didn’t promote or believe it.
That said, reading British literature of the ’20s and ’30s makes me say “Thank God for Clement Atlee”. I say that as the granddaughter of a man who went to work in Scottish coal mines at the age of 12.
I have an early class tomorrow so am going to turn in soon. But I hope anyone who’s still around will keep the conversation going. I’ll check back in the morning to catch up on missed comments.
Thanks to everyone for another thoughtful, informative, and robust discussion!
His broadmindedness was in inverse proportion to the thickness of his wallet.
@Amir Khalid: Well said.
If someone wants to edit an author’s work after they’re gone – that’s fine and happens all the time (movies, etc.). But it’s not the author’s work any more – it’s “inspired by”, or whatever.
Rachel’s “How to be a fan of problematic things” is still pretty good advice. People learn how to be better by understanding why what came before was wrong and why we don’t do things that way any more.
An interesting device Christie, Sayers, Allingham, and Marsh* used to get around the class structure of their time was their frequent use of artists, musicians & theatricals as characters who are licenced to be outside the strictures of society.
Unless they’re the baddie grocers are grocers, policemen are policemen, butlers are butlers, debs are debs etc in the world of the golden age writers and they nearly always stay in their social lane and express the expected opinions. But painters, writers etc do live outside, and do challenge that world and its moral code often at great personal cost. They are very often outsiders looking in and passing comment, expressing new and challenging ideas.
Sayers did this brilliantly with the creatives at Pyms. Mixing new attitudes, new people, a whole new industry trying to change the world for the sake of commerce
*Marsh was heavily involved in the theatre, she received her Damehood for that not her writing, so it’s not surprising actors etc feature so much in her books
I am so glad that modern birth control and reproductive rights eliminated this sad hypocrisy for most women. The invention of the birth control pill marked a revolutionary change in the lives of women.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by others who reacted to my original post.
This act of sanitizing fiction out of the fear that it might offend someone is bullshit.
If anyone is offended or triggered by certain words or phrases used by Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, Ian Flemming et al, that’s too fucking bad. Just leave the goddamn original texts alone, period.
I think there are tradeoffs, and that you’ve captured the main drawback. I imagine (actually, I hope) that a century from now, readers will look back on the 2020s and be a little bit confounded by our taboos in speech and literature.
ETA: But we live in today’s world, where I’m thinking a publisher simply couldn’t release Christie’s And then there were none under its original title (retained in the UK until well after her death).
That is a very good point. Sayers refers to it explicitly in Busman’s Honeymoon:
Of course, in London too the squares on which most people moved were relatively restricted, although, as you say, artists were more able to avoid the restrictions.
And Then There Were None might be the one good exception. Softened by the fact that a lot of novels were routinely given different titles for release in Britain and the U.S.
I wonder what has been done, if anything, about Conrad’s The N***er of the Narcissus. Guess I could check Wikipedia, as usual.
@Wolvesvalley: Hilarious, this delicate group’s feeling could never stand the strain. Too Boho by far.
Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was retitled Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone for the US market, but I can’t imagine what was wrong with the original title.
A slight quibble. The changes aren’t really being done because of any fear that sub-human scum like women, people of colour, and the lower classes might be offended. They are being done because the rights-holders are afraid that the dated language will make people realize that the books are decades behind the times and impact their sales.
The regular updates of James Bond in the film franchise, for example, helps to hide the fact that the books are over 70 years old and about as relevant to today’s world as Little Orphan Annie. They were originally written when Great Britain was a world power and not half of an island sulking off the coast of Europe. They are modernizing the books hoping to put off the day when the franchise stops bringing in the money.
Christie’s books have sold over two billion copies. The rights-holders are afraid that the “formerly acceptable to say in public” language is a barrier to selling four billion, and that is why they are making the changes. If they thought that the outrage would sell, they would leave it in.
@Steeplejack: I think it’s a very good exception. And then there were none is the last line of the kids rhyme(s) the original title(s) came from. The original title(s) are offensive, the US one is not and actually sums up the book better.
It won’t be the first time Christie’s books were retitled. Murder on the Orient Express had the US title of Murder in the Calais Coach to avoid confusion with the 1932 Graham Greene novel Stamboul Train, published in the United States as Orient Express.
And Murder in the Calais Coach is a really stupid title. There is no Calais Coach in the book
Ghost of Joe Liebling’s Dog
@Amir Khalid: As I understand it, the American title deferred to (assumed) American ignorance – “WTF’s a philosopher’s stone?!”
I could be wrong, of course…
Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic is an obvious descendent of Marple. There aren’t many books in the series, but I enjoyed them quite a bit.
@Winnefred: As I get older, I like the sadder Christie’s best. The Hollow is a particular favorite. Henrietta Savernake is a wonderful portrait of a woman who is living for her art in this world. You can see where she has managed to remain kind and caring. And the ways in which she has not. She compartmentalizes her life in order to be able to be an artist, in a way that a man might not have to.
On a tangent, I just finished a re-read of Laura. I read Vera Caspary’s autobiography first, because the library had it as an ebook. She was six years younger than Sayers and also worked in advertising, clawing her way up from the stenography pool. Her father went bankrupt when she was in her teens and could only afford to send her to a six month stenography course. She’s nowhere near the writer Sayers was, but she is smart enough that you really have to wonder what she might have done if she had had an equally rigorous education. (Although Christie had zero actual schooling!) I found myself thinking that there was a very good final paper to be found in comparing Sayers and Caspary. (Note: the autobiography is OK, more fascinating as a portrait of a Jewish middle-class woman supporting herself through freelance creative work and refusing to be tied down to a conventional marriage. Although she did get married when she was nearly 50, and although she was very much in love, she admits it was partly out of weakness and a longing to have achieved marriage.)
You could say Simon Brett has a couple of latter day Miss Marples in Carole Seddon & Jude Nichol in his Fethering mysteries. They’re neighbours, both retired, who get involved as amateur sleuths in an English seaside village. The real fun in the books is Brett tearing up English society in the modern era
Inorite. I seem to remember that the American publishers were very skittish about Harry Potter catching on, so they did things to make the first novel more palatable to the delicate American audience. Sort of how Disney, uh, “Disneyfied” the original voiceovers for Miyazaki’s films upon American release. Very broad, bratty, amped-up kids’ voices, not true to the original. They even had Phil Hartman as Juju (black cat, Kiki’s familiar) make a “Hello, Kitty” joke in Kiki’s Delivery Service! All mercifully fixed in a later release.
For some reason mysteries and crime novels, especially, underwent name changes all through the middle of the 20th century as they crossed the Atlantic. Often for no apparent reason.
@Ghost of Joe Liebling’s Dog:
Yeah, this. Especially for our (presumably) stupid kids.
When I first came to the US and remember going into a library and thinking “Wow! There’s half a dozen Agatha Christie books I’ve never even heard of, let alone read. Boy am I in for a treat!” Now there was a let down 😄
I remember reading Laura in the ’70s, can’t actually remember much about it. I did happen to see the movie version again last week, and I can never resist that. At this point I watch it to marvel at how they could pack so much furniture into those upscale New York apartments without their being unnavigable. I know it’s the magic of Hollywood, but it looks so plausible on the screen. And Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney have good chemistry, and there’s that damn theme song being pounded into your skull every damn minute. But I digress.
ETA: Sudden thought to wonder how Patricia Highsmith might fit into the discussion, to think of a single woman writing at a somewhat later time.
Simon Brett! Haven’t thought of him in ages. I loved his novels about Charles Paris, the minor actor who solved mysteries while he was “resting” (i.e., between jobs). Okay, also sometimes while on the job.
@Steeplejack: The BBC did a great series of radio adaptions starring Bill Nighy as Paris. I loved them
Just a note that the early ’80s were a golden age of crime fiction for me personally. Penguin was doing a booming business in nicely produced, green-spined paperbacks, both new works and reprints, and I read a ton of them. Blanking on names, but Andrew Garve was one author they reprinted from the ’50s and ’60s, and one particularly good novel—can’t remember the author’s name—was The Congo Venus, about a murder in colonial Africa during World War II. Same guy wrote Murder at the Flea Club, which I haven’t read and I can’t figure out why I remember that factoid. A lot of the authors’ names were pseudonyms for “respectable” writers, academics, etc.
😹 Truly. One of my favorite crime writers is Nicolas Freeling, who wrote 10 great novels featuring Inspector Van der Valk. At least three of them were given different titles for U.S. publication, and in the pre-Internet days it was hard to keep track of what was what. Same for a lot of other authors.
@Steeplejack: the Van der Valk books were great. I came to them through an old British TV series of them ( it was very popular, the theme music became a hit single)
In a completely different genre the SF author Poul Anderson had the most bewildering set of title changes, some his books seemed to appear under about 3 or 4 different titles
I’m so old that I read the Van der Valk books when they first came out. Missed the TV series, although I knew about it later (don’t think it got a U.S. release) and know that you can get DVDs and (presumably) stream it somewhere.
@Steeplejack: Yeah, I think you can.
I just looked on Youtube the Charles Paris radio shows are there.
Here’s one if you want to see what they’re like, I enjoyed them, though this one I don’t remember so there’s a treat for me
oh my lord! I loved Nicolas Freeling’s Van der Valk books! They are the most intelligent and perceptive mystery novels I ever read. I’m Not sure how available it is but in the 1980s there was a BBC series with Barry Foster as Van der Valk. He was perfect; some of the stories not so much.
I’ve really enjoyed this series, although I’m not sure I’ve kept up with all the comments on all posts. One thing I’ve wondered about, please forgive me if it’s been covered, is how or why Christie developed her very negative attitude toward adoption. It seems to be a recurring theme, adoptive parents may or may not mean well, but the venture tends to leave the children wistful if not actually damaged.
Just looked on JustWatch.com. The 1972 Van der Valk with Barry Foster is not streaming anywhere—still think I saw it on DVD somewhere—but I got a bad jolt when I was reminded that there is a recent (2020) Van der Valk with Marc Warren that is fucking awful. Saw part of one episode on PBS and said no more. Nothing like the books. Miss it if you can!
Thanks for the Charles Paris link. I’ll check it out.
Gun Before Butter (Question of Loyalty—fuck you, title change) is a goddamn masterpiece. Definitely time for a reread on that.
The New York Review of Books (I think) was reprinting some of them, but I’m not sure. Too sleepy to check the Google now.
Also reallly liked Because of the Cats. Oh, hell, they were all great.
If you (and Kalakel) like Freeling, I highly recommend Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels, starting with The Mind’s Eye and Borkmann’s Point. Also made into a pretty good TV series.
Some related new books by female British historians, neither of which I have read. First, by Lucy Worsley, is a biography of Agatha Christie: Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman. Second, by Janina Ramirez, is Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It. I plan to read the second one when I get a chance and give the first one as a gift.
I think SiubhanDuinne said she bought the Worsley biography and has read it or is reading it. It looks interesting, as does the other book you mentioned.
@UncleEbeneezer: The Miss Marple episodes with Joan Hickson streaming on BritBox have been remastered from the original 16mm film. Watching the old episodes is like watching through a dirty pane of glass.
The remastered episodes are amazing.
@Steeplejack: I read the Worsley biography and recommend it. It covers Christie’s life and the history of her generation of British women, the ones born in the Victorian era who had husbands and brothers fighting in WWI and sons in WWII, living long enough to see the sexual revolution of the 60s. I had checked the Laura Thompson bio out of the library, but had to return it before getting very far, but I plan to get it out again and finish it.
There is a three part TV special to go with the books. I found a glitchy on YouTube, but I’m sure it will be on PBS soon enough. Very good because Worsley goes to the actual places where Christie lived and worked. She even went to the country house where Christie met her first husband at a dance. The room where they danced is now someone’s dining room. Worsley can be a bit extra, but her background means she can get into really fascinating places to film.
One note on literary biographies. I wish publishers would do more biographies that are about the length and concentration level of a good novel. The serious historian books are good to have, but sometimes you want an introduction, something to read in an evening or two.
@Wyatt Salamanca: Wiki: “And Then There Were None” “was first published in the United Kingdom by the Collins Crime Club on 6 November 1939, as Ten Little Niggers, after the children’s counting rhyme and minstrel song, which serves as a major plot element.[
@kalakal: Orwell too was born in India like Kipling and even worked as colonial police officer IIRC.
Yeah…people tend to forget that the N word was a British slur long before the South got ahold of it…
@schrodingers_cat: yes, he was born in India, worked as a police officer in Burma
@SiubhanDuinne: Speaking of A Murder is Announced, how about Miss Murgatroyd and Miss Hinchcliffe, a pair of aging “spinsters” who I will always believe were a lesbian couple.
Since I believe Subaru Diane will be teaching a class on this topic, I need to post a correction to my post #59- I misspelled the first name of Rev. Dawson. It should be “Hallelujah” not “Halleluiah”.
There’s one other question that I think has to be covered in a class on Sayers’ work in 2023- did she demonize lesbian relationships in “Unnatural Death”? My own interpretation is “no” but that is open to question. My read on “Unnatural Death” is that Vera Findlater is a lesbian, and is in love with Mary Whittaker- but having been raised in a repressive environment, not knowing that lesbian relationships are even possible, she doesn’t even know what she wants. My take on Mary Whittaker is that she is not a lesbian, not interested in any close relationship, but recognizes Findlater’s emotions and exploits Findlater to cover her tracks. However, others may disagree.
Also, it is strongly suggested (but not explicitly stated) that the previous generation- Miss Dawson and Clara Whittaker- had a successfully and healthy lesbian relationship.
I should have posted this last night, but I only thought of it this morning.
@PaulB: Here’s an obscure one, but one of my favorite Christie mysteries: Cards on the Table. For one thing, it’s got Ariadne Oliver in it metafictionally mocking everything by complaining about how stupid she was to make her fictional detective a Finn even though she didn’t know anything about Finland.
But my favorite character is Mrs. Lorrimer, one of the murder suspects who is also believed to have murdered her husband years ago and gotten away with it. Hercule Poirot is surprised when she confesses to the current murder under investigation, and after interviewing her, tells her he doesn’t believe her confession because she was too methodical and careful to have killed anyone in the way that the current victim was killed. They actually argue about it for several pages. But then, as Poirot is leaving, he actually expresses his admiration for Mrs. Lorrimer doing what “not one woman in 10,000 could have resisted doing: revealing to me why you murdered your husband or arguing that he deserved to be killed.”
Lorrimer: (after an affronted beat) Really, M. Poirot! That’s none of your business!
I thought it had been established that Christie’s disappearance had to do with a traumatic event involving a giant killer wasp from space.
I am embarrassed to say that when I first read “The White Mans Burden” in college, I thought it was a biting satire attacking the bigotry in inherent in colonialism. My young, naive mind simply could not conceive of it being a serious piece expressing a viewpoint any intelligent educated person could possibly have.
@oatler: Must have missed that scene in the movie (which, oddly, was literally the first movie I remember seeing in a theater–my mother took me to see LaLD when I was 4). I was always amused by the fact that LaLD was one of the most aggressively racist movies in the whole Bond series, and yet Yaphet Kotto as Kananga/Mr. Big is one of my favorite Bond villains. It helped that Kotto acted Roger Moore off the screen.
Yay. Tucking into this now. Missed it last night.
My e-copy of the first 3 Lord Peter Wimsey novels has just become available from the library. Double yay. Now to develop a Sayers addiction.
@PaulB: I always thought Lucy ends up with Dermot Craddock. That’s why Miss Marple is twinkling at him at the end. He couldn’t make any moves during the investigation, but he is fascinated with her.
@stinger: Christie was classist too, almost amusingly so. There are at least 3 Christie stories in which the plot depends on characters being unable to recognize a famous and wealthy person who they all know personally once he puts on a waiter’s jacket and starts pouring them (poisoned) drinks.
You can download them all for free from Faded Page.
@Steeplejack: Yes! I appreciated your earlier recc on that. And shall be doing it.
Oops, not badgering, just couldn’t remember if you saw the earlier recommendation. The “Kindle Direct” option works very well.
@Steeplejack: No badgering, no apologizing. Appreciate the fresh links.
A lot of us miss a lot of posts; always good to have the information again.