‘So sweet and funny and old-world. You just can’t think of anything nasty happening here, can you?’
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Spider Web
This is another Christie re-read and to date I have normally been re-reading Christies which I have strongly enjoyed. However today’s read is a bit of a departure. I have no qualms with the writing style, nor the characters or the premise of the murder, yet for all that when I first read it a few years I was a little disappointed with it, mostly because Miss Marple didn’t feature more prominently (turning up at page 142 out of 190) and as a consequence I didn’t rate it as highly as other Marple mysteries. In some ways I have felt this book could probably function as a standalone mystery without Miss Marple in it. Nevertheless I decided on a re-read to see if my opinion has changed in anyway.
To briefly recap the plot of the book, Jerry and Joanna Burton, brother and sister, move into the village of Lymstock, on the advice of Jerry’s doctor who feels he needs complete rest, after having been hospitalised due to an aeroplane crash. They predict calmness and even banality while in Lymstock, but events soon change their minds. A poison pen writer is running amuck in the area and eventually this seems to lead to the suicide of Mrs Symmington, the solicitor’s wife. Yet this is far from a simple case as further sinister events occur. One Lymstock inhabitant believes this has to be stopped and calls in an expert on ‘human wickedness.’ No prizes for guessing who this might be…
However, there is more going on in this mystery novel than its’ plot synopsis might suggest and what stood out the most for me were some of the female characters, in particular Joanna Burton and Megan Hunter, Mrs Symmington’s daughter from her first marriage. In fact Megan Hunter is the maligned lady I refer to in my post title. But more on that later.
Joanna is first presented to us as a “modern” woman. Jerry sums her up as a:
‘very pretty and very gay [woman], and she likes dancing and cocktails and love affairs and rushing about in high-powered cars.’
It could also be intimated that she is a woman who needs direction in her life or some form of work as in her fleeting love affair up to the point of this book, she tends to pick men who are apparently unsung geniuses, who she tries to elevate and promote. Alas ingratitude on their part means such relationships don’t last long. During the course of this novel though, another courtship of sorts takes place and leads to her marrying someone who is far from her usual type and there is a definite sense that she’ll be sharing in her new husband’s work and in this she’ll find more fulfilment. Moreover, as the story progresses it could be said that she becomes a character of more substance, rather than being someone only to be known for their appearance, though she does start off a little like that. For example her ideas of fashion which fits into the countryside is quite amusing. Jerry writes that she was:
‘was dressed… for le sport. That is to say she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short-sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect.’
Furthermore, she thinks that she has adopted the right style of makeup because she used her ‘country tan make up no. 2.’ So perhaps there is a little bit of superficiality to her at the beginning, but she becomes a more complex character as the story unfolds.
I think the only other thing I noticed about Joanna is that when it comes to her brother she almost becomes an honorary man. For instance when the Burtons receive their first anonymous note Jerry writes that:
‘In novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women. It is implied that women must at all costs be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems. I am sorry to say it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna.’
This of course could be saying more about Jerry than Joanna, but there is still a sense that he perceives her as not a typical woman or that her femininity is only skin deep. Joanna also makes herself an honorary man at one point when she teases Jerry about his response to the Symmington’s nursery maid, where she agrees with his masculine chagrin over the wastefulness of her beauty and also uses masculine language to describe women in general: ‘a nice bit of skirt.’
From the very first mention of her, Megan is cast apart from other women. She is an
‘awkward girl,’ who ‘although… was actually twenty… looked more like a schoolgirlish sixteen.’ Her distinctiveness is also given a more sinister tone with phrases such as, ‘a shadow darkened my plate and I turned my head to see Megan…’ Additionally she perceives herself as a form of outcast, thanking Jerry when he treats her ‘just as though I was a real person,’ which implies other people do not. I had remembered that Megan was an odd one out type of character but it was on this re-read that I think I found a possible reason why (more of which later). I liked how she along with Miss Marple were instrumental in uncovering the guilty person and proving their guilt. It was nice to see a woman taking the active role, with characters such as Jerry, taking a more passive one, in terms of physical action.
Megan and Jerry
Before looking at Megan herself I wanted to look at her relationship with Jerry first. It would be fair to say that Jerry does try to champion her when others criticise her. He is not satisfied with believing the accepted truths around her which portray her as backward. This is a positive thing. However, the way he goes about communicating his championing and supporting of her can be unsettling at times. He may be prepared to regard her as an adult but he is not above appraising her, identifying where she falls short in his opinion and in his own way makes her an outcast sometimes, or rather his outcast or human oddity. This comes across in his tendency to describe her in terms of animals as evinced in this example:
‘It was a remark that one fancies perhaps erroneously that one’s dog would say if he could talk. It occurred to me that Megan, for all she looked like a horse, had the disposition of a dog. She was certainly not quite human.’
It is at moments like this that Jerry’s general championing of her is a bit more complicated and ambiguous than we might first think. Equally the final sentence does show he can be just as bad as the local inhabitants for using demarcating language in his perceptions of her. The dog image resurfaces in a more unsettling way later on in the novel. Jerry is disappointed when Megan stops staying at their home, as he wanted to take her for a walk somewhere. Jerry’s very perceptive sister though quips back with the remark, ‘with a collar and lead I suppose?’ and she follows this up with ‘Master’s lost his dog, that’s what’s the matter with you.’ I suppose I found this unsettling because of the possessive connotations and the implied power balance and it made me rethink how benevolent Jerry’s perceptions of Megan really are. At the denouement of the tale Joanna gives Megan and Jerry a sheep dog as a wedding present with two collars and leads. Megan may be wondering why there is the extra collar and lead, but we and Jerry know of the in-joke. Maybe this is just meant to be read as amusing but another part of me felt a bit unsettled by it and made me wonder what married life will be like for them. Will Megan retain her disregard for social conventions and exert her independent spirit or will she become subordinate to Jerry?
Another key instance of Jerry using animal images to describe Megan is when he writes that: ‘she looked, I decided this morning, much more like a horse than a human being. In fact she would have been a very nice horse with a little grooming.’ Leaving the more criminal connotations of the word ‘grooming’ to one side, it is true that Jerry does try to “improve her,” such as getting her to take more pride in her personal appearance and taking her to London to buy her a complete new set of clothes. This moment even has a slight My Fair Lady or Pygmalion Bride feel to it. He is also interested in her mind such as suggesting that him reading to her 100 Chinese poems will ‘complete… [her] education.’ It interested me greatly that she rejects Jerry’s first marriage proposal. He says he will make her love him, yet her reply is quite telling in light of the all improvements she has been undergoing: ‘I don’t want to be made.’
Megan the Maligned Rationalist
Megan is often referred to as a ‘half-wit,’ ‘stupid,’ or ‘queer,’ and even Jerry who loves her, separates her from others through his zoomorphisms of her. Yet early on in the book it suddenly came to my attention to ask the question why is Megan seen as so different and this was followed by the answer because she is a female rationalist. Now for those of you who have been reading my blog for a while might remember that I did a post on Ellery Queen which looked at what his Myers Brigg’s personality type might be. (If this is a new concept to you, click on the EQ post as at the beginning of it there is a general introduction to the topic). Now rationalists are not all that common, in fact it is argued that the four subgroups only make up 5-10% of the population. Moreover, the traits which are said to characterise this group, are amongst others:
- Being logical and intolerant of logical inconsistencies
However, you may notice that a lot of these traits have been seen as stereotypically masculine traits or when seen in woman, as negative ones. You may now begin to see where I am going with this idea. Rationalists tend to be drawn towards jobs such as being scientists, engineers, researchers, lawyers, analysts, inventors, or academics. Therefore looking at the population rate, the key characteristics and job preferences of this personality group it is not surprising that a female rationalist is going to find it hard to fit in and to find an environment or career which allows them to use their natural skills and talents. Considering this book was written in the 1940s this is easily understandable, though even today such individuals find it difficult at times to be understood by others, which is confirmed in blog posts such as this one on thoughtcatalog, which has rationalist females say what they wish ‘the world understood’ about them. Furthermore, another writer on tumblr says that when identifying female rationalists generally, they ‘don’t usually match the gender role/societal expectation of women, often enjoy intellectual debate and research [and that] something often seems a bit off; they may be cold, naïve, eccentric or argumentative’ Now I don’t particularly like the phrasing of the last example, as saying ‘something seems a bit off’, sounds like something is wrong when it isn’t, but in a way the last example on the list does embody some of the feelings some of the character have about Megan.
You might think I am imposing my own ideas on to Megan and female rationalists in general, but aside from the blog link above I also have my own grandmother experiences, who was a female rationalist. Like Megan she may have seemed to be pottering around not doing much, but in her own independent way she pursued her intellectual interests, natural history, gardening and history in general, even undertaking projects such as uncovering a lot of her family tree (before the age of digitalised records). Yet she too was also perhaps hampered by the social conventions of the times in terms of career opportunities.
Yet wait one moment you say. You haven’t actually shown how Megan herself can be read as a rationalist who is being misunderstood by those around her. Well let me remedy this for you. I first keyed into the idea that Megan might be a rationalist when she briefly waxes lyrical on how much she loves Maths, a subject which rationalists are often very good at and enjoy, such as my fellow blogger JJ at The Invisible Event. Furthermore, Megan’s vehement reluctance to join the Guides also reveals her rationalist personality, as she typifies the activities of this group as ridiculous and is not willing to participate in such ridiculousness just to please others. Rationalists ‘are sceptical of all ideas’ until proven to be valid, even their own, so in this light it understandable to see why firstly Megan did not enjoy school, as she says that the teachers could not answer her questions and that their studies lacked depth. Moreover, the methods used to teach them did not appeal and consequently she was reluctant to cooperate with them. Secondly, Megan’s disinclination to follow her parents’ ideas for what she should do is also underpinned by her sceptical nature. Secretarial courses and even breeding angora rabbits is thrown at her as something to do, yet it is understandable to see why the first of these suggestions logically is not a job a rationalist would find fulfilling and as for the second it just has no reason or logic behind it. The question could very well have been in her head, why should I breed rabbits?!
Also like a rationalist Megan can be very pragmatic, such as when she talks about the way she is not liked by her own family, especially her mother. In a blunt but very apt way she says that she thinks cats deal with unwanted children in a better way: ‘Cats eat the kittens they don’t like. Awfully sensible, I think. No waste or mess.’ For those of who are more expressive of feelings, or who expect women to be more emotional around personal problems, this way of describing how her mother doesn’t like her, could be read as misread as cold and unfeeling and this dialogue is clearly the type which fuels the others characters’ notions of Megan being ‘an awkward sort of creature’ who ‘disturbs the pattern,’ of her household. This is hardly surprising since her family is statistically unlikely to have any other rationalists in it, especially not her mother. Even within Lymstock as a whole the chances of another rationalist, especially a female one, is not very high.
Megan’s tendency to potter around and not participate in community activities is often seen negatively by characters, especially the doctor’s sister who bustles around from dawn till dusk running events and organising things (and who most likely has a Guardian personality type). However there is a fleeting moment where Jerry recasts Megan’s behaviour positively and shows there is value in it:
‘It is a theory of mine… that we owe most of our great inventions and most of the achievements of genius to idleness – either enforced or voluntary. The human mind prefers to be spoon fed with the thoughts of others, but deprived of such nourishment it will, reluctantly, begin to think for itself- and such thinking, remember, is original thinking and may have valuable results.’
Though I suppose I am unsure whether Megan will find an environment where she can use her natural talents and skills, as although Jerry values her, there is a tendency in him to try and change or “improve her”. One can only surmise what she will go on to do in her married life. Guessing she is unlikely to become a mathematical professor, though at least one hopes she finds the space to pursue her intellectual interests privately like my grandmother did.
So what do I make of this book on a re-read? I got a lot more out of it in terms of looking at Megan and she is more interesting than I remembered. I was also more aware of Christie laying traps for her readers and characters such as the assumptions surrounding poison pen writers and how this effects some of her characterisation. I was also able to see how the police and Jerry’s ideas about the case are misinformed and misdirected by what they see as the evidence and how Miss Marple is able to interpret it correctly. There are also a couple of lines in the book which once you know the solution scream out key clues to it. Yet at the time they are carefully smoke screened so their real import is not revealed. Yet yes I still bemoan the fact that Miss Marple crops up so little and I find her role in the book underdeveloped and rushed, which takes me back to my earlier assertion that this could have worked as a standalone novel, perhaps even better as one. I think the premise of the crime is clever but I don’t entirely enjoy how the mystery is solved, firstly due to the Marple issue but I also think the pacing in the last quarter of the book was too rushed.
Interestingly it seems many famous writers have had their Myers Briggs type decided on and Agatha Christie was typed as an INFJ. To check out the others click here.