Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tuesday Night Blog Murders: Christie and servants

Have I really not blogged since last Tuesday? It felt as if I had been working but clearly not on this blog. Memo to self: finish all those blogs you have started.

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.

In the same novel we get a wonderful character (to make up for the flimsy plot) of Lucy Eyelessbarrow, a Cambridge graduate in mathematics, who decides to make money as an all purpose domestic worker. Her understanding of economics is clearly superior to many an academic economist: she sees a gap in the market and decides to fill it. As a consequence she can get any fee she names and controls her working conditions beyond the dream of any trade unionist. (And here is a really stupid cover, according to which Lucy must have been practising golf in a very tight skirt.)

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.


  1. Wonderfully insightful article, Helen. I think I really started to notice servants on TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs and, later, Downton Abbey, where the downstairs often bore witness to the most heinous acts by the members of upstairs, sometimes while the servants were in the room!!! During my first go round reading Christie, which occurred mostly as a teenager, I feel like I ignored servants and certainly ignored the sociology of Christie's novels. Now I revel in it and found myself nodding a lot as I read your piece. I do think that some of the most poignant moments in After the Funeral (one of my top four Christies!) come from the butler Lanscombe's reminiscences of the Golden Years of upper class life and how it has all passed on.

  2. Great. You give the whole subject a really thorough going-over, and - like Brad - I kept nodding as you make the points that casual readers fail to see. I like the moment in Moving Finger when Joanna is embarrassed that the parlourmaid feels she has to check with her (much younger, temporary tenant) mistress before having someone to tea in the kitchen.
    I love everything about the companion in one of the books you mention above. There's a final devastating revelation, and a motive that I have seen described as ridiculous - to me, Christie brought it off perfectly and chillingly... and, as you say, you could never say she didn't take servants seriously.

  3. This is a terrific indepth look at the servant subject. I've always thought Christie understood servants very well and that most of her books reflected this. I've never understood critics who think she has no depth and no understanding of character. She was able to sum up characters in so very few words and gestures that I think a lot of people missed the details she did give.

  4. Obviously, I agree that Christie is seriously under-rated. Her understanding of social relations and the change in them is superior to many others who are described as better writers or someone who "surmounted the genre" - words that make us all reach for the nearest missile to throw. I think it is precisely because she is such an economic and low key writer that she is underestimated.

    1. "I think it is precisely because she is such an economic and low key writer that she is underestimated."

      Yep. She was an intelligent, witty, perceptive and very skillful writer but she didn't make a big fuss about it. Also she didn't have an obvious political axe to grind and that counts against her in the eyes of many modern critics. She simply observed society with a great deal of interest and intelligence and gave her readers credit for being smart enough to make their own judgments.

  5. Great piece! I always think of the Maggie Smith character in Gosford Park as the anti-Marple, someone clearly just exploiting her "girls," trying to get the the most out of them for the least possible money and hiring inexperienced, desperate young women simply so she can pay very little.

    Miss Marple, we are clearly meant to see, really does "train" these girls, to help them out in later life. I get a little tired of the comical undersized maid with adenoids who sniffs, but these girls, as portrayed in Christie books, really do need help from someone like Miss Marple!

    I love the companions in Christie. She always does them well, always so put-upon by their dragon employers, but often getting the better of them!

    1. Are there still companions or has that particular job gone out completely?

  6. I think there are very sound reasons why servants remain very much in the background in most golden age detective fiction. A servant can't be a suspect because it wouldn't work in plot terms - a servant would have unlimited opportunities to commit the murder, fingerprint and other forensic evidence would be useless (obviously every servant's fingerprints and footprints will be just about everywhere), there would be no opportunity for the author to make use of alibis since servants can come and go pretty much as they please. For a servant to be the murderer would simply be too easy, and make things too difficult for even the greatest detective.

    Since servants are generally disqualified from being suspects there is no reason to tell the reader much about them - that would be an unnecessary distraction and would slow down the action. The only characters the reader needs to know about are the detective, the victim(s) and the suspects.

    So the fact that a writer pays little attention to servants does not imply any kind of class prejudice - it is merely a function of the necessary structure of the golden age detective story. Such a tale needs to be fast-moving and tightly focused on the elements that are essential.

  7. The early novels and short stories have a good many servants.
    Was this an actual fact of life for the middle class in England prior to the war? If so, that's something I never realized, probably because I know next to nothing about England from 1900-1940. I'd always thought of servants as being a feature of the landed gentry and the aristocracy. The idea of middle class people regularly employing servants is fascinating to me.

    1. Christie's books are a good guide. Middle class people had servants up to the Second World War but not so much during it or afterwards.

  8. Christie once wrote that when she was young, she never thought she would be so rich she could afford an automobile, or so poor she couldn't afford a servant.

    Upper middle class families had servants before the war; note "The Adventure of the Clapham Cook", which begins with the disappearance of cook from a very conventional middle-class household in the very middle-class district of Clapham.

    But after the war... part of it was the impact of taxation, but another part of it was the improved conditions of the working class. There were far fewer people willing to "go into service".

    This change was satirized in Murder, She Said, the Margaret Rutherford film of 4.50 from Paddington. In the film, Marple places herself as servant to the Crackenthorpe family. When she appears at the agency, the proprietor says he has no candidates available whatever. He is delighted to find someone who wants a job, and offers her several ludicrously plush positions - all of which she passes up for the Crackenthorpe job.