Thursday 18 March 2010

So, Was Agatha Christie a Snob?

Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars by Alison Light

You can tell from the title that this is a a book by an academic feminist. She's done her research – well, she’s done some research.

Of course, Light doesn’t reveal all about “femininity etc between the wars”. This is a study of some female, conservative writers: Ivy Compton Burnett, Agatha Christie, Jan Struther and Daphne du Maurier.

She observes that our view of Christie as a purveyor of a snobbish “heritage” view of England is largely coloured by the popular TV series of the eighties. She is fair to Christie: “she found a voice in which to cultivate the ordinary and the informal … it was a modern Englishness which sought to shrug off some of the snobberies of the past.”

Aristocracy: the icing on the cake

She exonerates Christie of loving lords, but she pushes the snobbery onto Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers, who “try to dazzle their readers with mesmeric titles, flattering them with a sense of intimacy with the ‘great’ and enthusing sycophantically over patrician taste.” Sayers, perhaps, though I don’t recognise her in the above description. Allingham’s Mr Campion may be titled – he may even be a royal – but this is only hinted at, and he lives in a small London flat with an ex-burglar.

Light accuses Marsh of “lingering on the munificence of the London season” in Death in a White Tie, when in fact she is criticising its wastefulness. Poirot murmurs “pauvre femme”, when going through the pathetic effects of a working-class murder victim. “One can only imagine” Peter Wimsey’s reaction, says Light. Yes, one can – I imagine he would have been just as sympathetic.

Does she really know her subject? She says that Christie “came from that couche of the English middle class which managed to be badly off but confidently so”. When Christie was a child her family was quite well off (a couche is a layer) – later they lost their money. And her father was American. Of Christie’s autobiography, she says “it is not written, as one might expect, around moments of deep feeling and psychic crisis or growth”. This is a useful clue to what liberal feminists think novels (and women's lives) OUGHT to be about. Detective stories can, of course, never measure up.

"The pleasure of her writing comes from the way that a seemingly breezy style is suffused with a sharp sense of irony." (Nicholas Blincoe, The Observer, January 2009)

More here.

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

1 comment:

  1. Light doesn't literally deny that the Christies were well off in the beginning. But it can be said in a quite friendly way about young Agatha that she "managed to be badly off but confidently so" - and perhaps this has been a characteristic of the English middle class, it's at least an interesting idea. (On the whole, I'm in accord with your standpoint.)