In the meantime, I return to Agatha Christie and the Tuesday Night Blog Murders. In my previous posting I explained the basis of this series so I need not repeat myself. I know Christie did occasionally but she usually managed to have an extra twist to make the repetition not exactly that. See, for example, Sleeping Murder and Nemesis. Spot the difference in the two almost identical plots.
Today I wish to discuss the treatment of servants in Christie's books. Firstly, it is worth noting that of all the Golden Age Detective writers Christie was probably the most acute observer of social changes. Her books are of the period in which they are set and all attempts to move them to a different decade (because the clothes are prettier or the scenery more easily cobbled together) have been a failure. It is not possible to imagine the circumstances of The Body in the Library, published in 1942 but clearly of the thirties in the post-war period as the BBC TV series with the superb Joan Hickson tried to do if a little half-heartedly. The Bantrys could not have afforded the staff they had in the late forties and Christie would not have written that.
The early novels and short stories have a good many servants. Large houses have large staff, smaller households have usually two servants, a cook and a maid, bachelors' establishments have men servants. Even the vicarage where the murder is committed has a servant of quite unsurpassable incompetence. In The Moving Finger, also published in 1942 but also of the thirties, a very ordinary country solicitor has a cook and a maid as well as a part-time gardener and a nanny for his young sons. Again the BBC tried to shift the action to the post-war period and again it seemed unlikely: a man like Richard Symmington would not have had that big a staff in the later forties but neither could the series dispense with any of them, as they were all essential to the plot.
Christie knew that the world had changed with the Second World War, that taxes hit middle class people (about whom she wrote mostly) very hard, that the government interfered in people's lives almost constantly (as mentioned in, among others, Mrs McGinty Is Dead) and there were no more servants for most people. The staff of maids and cooks turns into foreign refugees (A Murder Is Announced), ubiquitous daily chars (Mrs McGinty Is Dead, The Pale Horse and others) or dubious au pairs (Third Girl). Griselda Clements who appears briefly in The 4.50 From Paddington would have long ago had to learn to cook and manage with a daily woman coming in to help and bringing gossip twice a week.
When Cedric Crackenthorpe tells his sister Emma to tell Miss Marple who is walking up the drive that she is out, Emma wants to know whether she is to go down and tell her that herself or ask Lucy (who has told them that Miss Marple was her aunt) to do so. Cedric laughs ruefully and admits that he was thinking of the old days when a house like that would have had staff. In the decades after the war even a rich Hollywood star could not give a party without employing temporary help from the new "Development" that has grown up beside St Mary Mead. (The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side)
A few of the old servants survive as in After The Funeral but they are usually kept on at some expense to the family an out of loyalty.
Poirot is, obviously, an exception in that he manages to keep on his invaluable man servant George and the equally invaluable secretary Miss Lemon who, astonishingly, has a sister in Hickory Dickory Dock. The sister runs a hostel for young people and foreign students (a post-war touch) where all sorts of strange things happen.
Secondly, there is Christie's treatment of servants as characters and she is much maligned by critics who do not seem to know her work as much as they should.
There is no question that Christie wrote about the class she knew best: the professional middle class. Her characters, are doctors, lawyers, clergymen, writers, some businessmen though she is not enamoured of the big ones (A Pocket Full Of Rye), writers and other suchlike individuals. Interestingly, given that Christie was not precisely a feminist, she has a professional woman doctor in the 1938 Appointment With Death. There is the odd appearance of members of the aristocracy but they are rarely attractive (the Bantrys are landed gentry not aristocracy) and she has the English middle class suspicion of anyone who makes too much money. At the other end of the scale, she does not venture much into the working class milieu, though Mrs McGinty Is Dead comes close with its description of the victim's life as a charwoman and her lodger, who is possibly the least attractive innocent to be accused and found guilty of murder. There is an interesting detail in the novel that shows Christie's understanding of a class she rarely wrote about: Poirot is launched on the investigation by the fact that not long before her death Mrs McGinty had bought a bottle of ink. Why should she have done that? Perhaps, her niece suggests, she had to write something to the government, a well known complaint in those years (and more recently). Mrs McGinty, unlike Poirot and people of his class, would not have had ink as a matter of course in her house. Is this a sign of Christie's supercilious attitude or of an ability to understand how other people lived? My view is that it is the latter. (But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?)
There are scattered references to servants that make us of the more sensitive age cringe. In The Incident Of The Dog's Ball that later became, with a completely different murderer, Dumb Witness, Hastings says about a housekeeper: "She entered with the gusto of her class into a description of her [late mistress] illness and death." It was, for some reason, a given in the Golden Age that servants adored talking about illness and death though why that should be so is never explained.
A number of Christie's plots hinge on that well-known fact that "nobody notices a servant". This extends to air stewards (Death In The Clouds), butlers (Three Act Tragedy), companions (After The Funeral) and governesses (The Secret of Chimneys) as well as others. Of course, the point is that in the Poirot novels he does realize the connection (as do others like the playwright, Miss Wills in The Three Act Tragedy and Helen in After The Funeral). In other words, people might dismiss servants as being of no importance but that fact is used by Christie for her own purposes as is the general English disdain for foreigners that allows people dismiss Poirot as a mountebank. They do not find out how wrong they are until it is too late.
The most delightful usage of "nobody looks at a companion" is in The Nemean Lion, the first of The Labours of Hercules in which Miss Amy Carnaby, a companion to the horrible Lady Hoggin, organizes a highly ingenious criminal conspiracy to extract money in order to help elderly single ladies who are falling on very hard times. She uses her pekingese dog, Augustus, pretends to be stupider than she is and assumes, correctly, that nobody ever looks at a companion.
In a later story Poirot tells Miss Carnaby that he remembers her as one of the most successful criminals of his career.
And so we come to Miss Marple, whose attitude to servants is very different. She knows very well how useful conversation with maids in hotels can be if one is trying to unravel a mystery (A Murder Is Announced and At Bertram's Hotel), she knows how girls who are likely to go into service react in various situations (Body In The Library), she trains young girls out of an orphanage to be good servants when there are openings for servants in good houses and she does not lose touch with them when they leave. It is the news that one of her former maids had been murdered that brings her like an avenging fury to Yewtree Lodge in A Pocket Full Of Rye.
Her ability to understand servant girls and the situations they might find themselves in as well as her compassion is demonstrated first in the very first short story she appears in, The Tuesday Night Club. In another short story The Case Of The Perfect Maid she is motivated partly, as she explains to the hapless Inspector Slack, by her indignation:
I'm not going to have one of our village girl's character for honesty taken away like that! Gladys Holmes is as honest as the day and everybody's going to know it!Clearly, not someone who does not notice or care about servants.
Miss Marple, too, has difficulties after the war. At first she manages to find young girls whom she can train but times change. Once she hires Lucy Eyelessbarrow (Raymond West helps again) whom she then recalls when she needs someone to do the investigating but Lucy has other plans and, anyway, Miss Marple could not afford her rates. The much referred to Faithful Florence runs her own life now and the companion (hired by the invaluable Raymond West) in The Mirror Crack'd is intolerable. Solution is provided by young Cherry Baker, the cleaner, who lives with her husband in a smart new but not very soundproof house in the "Development". She suggests that the two of them move into some spare rooms in an outhouse (not previously mentioned). Cherry can look after Miss Marple and will even learn to sweep the stairs with a pan and brush (a sacrifice about which Miss Marple is very doubtful) while Jim can act as a sort of a handyman in his spare time (when he is not laying out toy railways or listening to classical music). That the arrangement suits everyone is proved by Cherry's reappearance as a well established person in Miss Marple's home at the end of Nemesis.