Miss Marple represents different things to different readers. To some she is simply a source of entertainment, a good way of spending an idle weekend afternoon. To others she may bring a sense of nostalgia, for a way of life no longer existing or evoke memories of a well-loved elderly relative. But for me, I have increasingly found her to be an important cornerstone in the way women are represented as detectives in fiction.
When detective fiction first emerged as a separate genre in the 19th century, women on the whole did not have it easy as fictional detectives, struggling to maintain both the literary and social expectations of the heroine and the hero, (which the role of detective aligned itself with). If fictional female sleuths were young as well, they found this even harder. These difficulties came to a head at the height of the Golden Age detection fiction era with Dorothy L. Sayers (1929) commenting on the problems such fictional detectives caused for readers and literary expectations alike:
In order to justify their choice of sex, they are obliged to be so irritatingly intuitive as to destroy that quiet enjoyment of the logical which we look for in our detective reading. Or else they are active and courageous, and insist on walking into physical danger and hampering the men engaged on the job. Marriage, also, looms too large in their view of life; which is not surprising, for they are all young and beautiful…Not from personal experience, for they are always immaculate as the driven snow. Presumably it is all intuition. (Sayers, 1929: 15-16)
As Sayers suggests, at the time young fictional female sleuths were lumbered with having to solve crimes alongside coping with a romantic subplot, which often required them to be rescued by their romantic interest and/or be married at the end. Agatha Christie’s Tuppence Beresford, (in The Secret Adversary), and Anne Beddingfield are examples of such characters. Moreover, even Baroness Orczy’ Lady Molly in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910), retired from her job once she had released her wrongfully imprisoned husband and George R. Sims’ suitably feminine Dorcas Dene only began her detective career as a means of supporting her blind husband in two casebooks published between 1897 and 1898. Birgitta Berglund (2000) concludes on this that if a female detective, ‘does not retain her feminine attributes, she is accused of being unwomanly, and if she does, she is accused of being unprofessional’ (Berglund, 2000: 144). Now writers could do as Sayers did with Harriet Vane and allow any romance to develop over a quartet of novels, meaning the detective plot is not overthrown (especially in the first two) to the demands of the romance subplot. Yet, even this quartet is arguably controversial and divisive for readers of Golden Age crime fiction, with Gaudy Night (1935) producing a love it or hate it dichotomy. For others during this time period, a time which was perhaps not ready for or able to conceive the fictional female detectives which would be created in the 1960s and beyond by authors such as Amanda Cross, Marcia Muller and Sara Paretsky, there was an alternative: the elderly female detective. Enter Miss Marple and a few others of course…
Not only at the time did using an older woman as a detective help ameliorate to an extent some of these problems, due to the fact compared to their much younger counterparts they had a wider range and larger quantity of experiences to draw upon whilst investigating, such detectives could also be utilised to undermine and undercut the age and gender stereotypes attached to that ‘typical old maid of fiction’ (Christie, 1932: 131) and real life. A key technique I will be looking at in close detail, in relation to Christie’s Miss Marple, is how as a character she uses these usually negative stereotypes such as being a burden to others due to perceived physical or mental weakness, as a form of camouflage during her investigations, only revealing her true nature and powers to the other characters at the end. This duality has a comically shocking effect and Q. D. Leavis reinforces the advantages of this asserting that ‘the peculiar property of a good novel … is the series of shocks it gives to the reader’s preconceptions, usually unconscious of how people behave and why’ (Leavis, 2000: 256). As this post will go on to show, Christie, in her Miss Marple novels repeatedly sets up preconceptions the readers may have had about elderly women, only to then knock them down.
Fighting Ageism: If Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade
As mentioned above there were and still are many adverse stereotypes attached to elderly women. As well as physical and mental weakness, being prudish, unworldly or anachronistic and gossipy and interfering are other stigmas associated with this particular demographic. All of which suggest that an elderly woman should be the last person to make an effective detective, as such stereotypes intimate such people, are quite, frankly past it and are too old to be sleuthing.
Miss Marple frequently comes up against this idea during her investigations such as in 4:50 From Paddington (1957), where the vicar’s wife says, ‘at her age the old pet should give up that sort of thing,’ (Christie, 1957: 26) with the phrase ‘old pet,’ potentially having a rather patronising tone. Yet unlike perhaps Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, Miss Marple does not attack these negative expectations directly. Conversely she arguably chooses to exploit these stereotypes instead, utilising them to disguise her real intentions during her investigations. For example, Miss Marple is very adept at using the stereotype of old ladies being gossipy as a mask for interviewing suspects. Often these people talk much more freely to her and are unsuspicious of her motives because of course ‘old maids are notoriously inquisitive’ (Christie, 1971: 42). I love how the word ‘notoriously,’ gives the suggestion that being gossipy is almost like a criminal charge which is laid against older women. Agatha Christie herself also commented on how her amateur detective was suitably camouflaged by her age: ‘My Miss Marple is … happily placed – an elderly gossipy lady in a small village, who pokes her nose into all that does or does not concern her,’ (Christie, 1945; 2012: XIV). Furthermore, in her later Miss Marple novels, Christie does include moments of self-analysis and assessment for Miss Marple, through free indirect discourse, where she scrutinises her own ‘qualifications’ (Nemesis, 1971: 50) for being a detective. She decides that she ‘was inquisitive, she asked questions, she was the sort of age and type that could be expected to ask questions… [she was] very ordinary. An ordinary rather scatty old lady. And that of course is good camouflage’ (Nemesis, 1971: 50). Her self-reflection asserts that the very stereotypes which argue she should not be a detective, are absolutely ideal for using as a disguise, which can then be thrown away at the end of the story when revealing the killer.
It is therefore unsurprising that cosy and idle conversation is paramount to her success as an amateur sleuth, which Miss Marple identifies herself in A Caribbean Mystery (1964): ‘She had one weapon and one weapon only, and that was conversation,’ (Christie, 1964: 41) a line which is stylistically very reminiscent of a spy thriller and I think it is a deliberate choice which has the effect of jarring with our preconceptions of Miss Marple. The importance of conversation in Miss Marple’s investigations is asseverated by Earl F. Bargainnier (1980) who argues that ‘her use of social conversation requires her to be a consummate actress,’ (Bargainnier, 1980: 75) a career type which illustrates how Miss Marple has a certain duality: the way she is seen by others and the way she actually is. This duality is best demonstrated through the juxtaposition between how some characters in the novel perceive Miss Marple and her own speech, as well as that of her closer friends who has seen behind the facade she uses to investigate crimes. For example on the one hand a stranger to Miss Marple regards her as a ‘charming old-world lady… [and therefore as] the last person to be mentioned in connexion with murder’ (Christie, 1960: 203). But this notion that elderly women are out of touch with the times and become shrinking violets with anything unpleasant, is quickly dispelled. Firstly by Miss Marple herself when she admonishes the vicar in The Murder At the Vicarage (1930): ‘Dear Vicar…you are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it’ (Christie, 1930: 18) and also by her closer friends who suggest she has a ‘mind like a sink,’ (Christie, 1950: 156) and that she ‘knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known’ (Christie, 1942: 182).
Miss Marple’s physical appearance also depicts the discord between her conventional stereotypical old lady exterior and her true capabilities as a detective. For example Miss Marple is described as ‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner,’ (Christie, 1930: 14) and D. I. Slack in The Murder At The Vicarage (1930) is concerned she will go into ‘hysterics’ (Christie, 1930: 61) when he interviews her. This is debunked by the vicar in the novel who asserts that ‘for all her fragile appearance, Miss Marple is capable of holding her own with any policeman or Chief Constable in existence’ (Christie, 1930: 61). Another pertinent example of Miss Marple’s duality is found in 4:50 From Paddington (1957) where she is delineated as ‘woolly and fluffy – a picture of a sweet old lady,’ (Christie, 1957: 112) on the outside, yet in reality she is ‘inwardly sharp and shrewd as they make them’ (Christie, 1957: 16).
However, Miss Marple does not only use negative stereotypes against elderly women as a disguise but she also re-appropriates them, giving them new meaning and thereby presenting a much more powerful and dangerous image of the elderly woman. This is epitomised through the transformative use of cat imagery in the Miss Marple novels. For example in her first novel Miss Marple is labelled as a ‘nasty old cat’ (Christie, 1930: 19) and even later on in the series she is called an ‘old pussy’ (Christie, 1950: 40), which can be seen as rather derogatory. But, as the series progresses these images begin to change as for instance she is described in Nemesis (1971) as acting ‘like a lion’ (Christie, 1971: 16), which transforms Miss Marple from a harmless domesticated feline to a wild predatory one. This is also accomplished through imagery which focuses on teeth such as in A Murder is Announced (1950), where it is suggested that Miss Marple would ‘like to get her nice ladylike teeth into’ (Christie, 1950: 40) the murder. The feline parallels are even extended to her thinking as in the short story ‘Sanctuary,’ it is said that Miss Marple ‘considered for a moment or two, and then pounced on the point,’ (Christie, 1979: 19). This stronger role in restoring justice and detecting criminals has been interestingly examined by Marian Shaw and Sabine Vanacker (1991) who outline a different role for elderly single females, such as Miss Marple. They suggest that they have ‘a social conscience, dormant most of the time but always there, watchful and easily roused’ (Shaw and Vanacker, 1991: 3), which reflects the dutiful and directive way Miss Marple responds to murders and detective investigations. Moreover, her very status as a spinster, according to Shaw and Vanacker, gives Miss Marple an increase in power because she lives ‘outside the normal expectations of a woman’s life as it is lived in patriarchal society… [which] gives her power… to threaten, to judge, to undermine and to destroy’ (Shaw and Vanacker, 1991: 43), which seems to intimate that being an elderly single lady has qualities which are suited to criminal detection and that such individuals in Ancient Greek fashion, have a role of restoring justice and avenging injustice. This is evinced strongly in Nemesis (1971) where Miss Marple is likened to Nemesis herself.
The Woman Question: Where does Miss Marple stand?
Looking back to the previous section, it can be argued that Miss Marple does show that being old does not stop you from contributing to society and more importantly for us detective fiction readers, age does not stop you solving crimes. But what is Miss Marple’s take on gender roles? How does she respond to the conundrum Berglund proposes, with femininity and professionalism being posed as antithetical to each other? The short answer would be that Miss Marple firstly does not present a black or white response to gender, neither wholly manacling women to the kitchen sink, nor wholly pushing them out the door with briefcases. After all she does say things such as, ‘You must take care of your husband… be sure to feed him properly’ (Christie, 1962: 159). Superficially this may seem like she endorses traditional domestic roles for women, but on the other hand this comment could be regarded as Miss Marple suggesting that if being a homemaker is your job then you should do it well. This ties into how Miss Marple places greater value and importance on domestic and supposedly “feminine” knowledge, which I will be discussing later on. Like with age stereotypes Miss Marple also uses gender ones for her own means in order to further her investigations, which again I will be exploring in more detail. In regards to her own life and career I believe that Miss Marple does not see femininity and professionalism as two categories which need to be kept apart, but instead asserts that they can be amalgamated. Miss Marple is simultaneously inside and outside gender conventions, traversing both the private spaces of the home and domesticity and the public arena of criminal investigations, incorporating both feminine and professional traits. Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan (1981) asseverate this and add that the purpose of Miss Marple being ‘composed of contradictory elements [is] for maximum effect’ (Craig & Cadogan, 1981: 27-28) on the reader, providing entertaining shocks for them, which connects back to Leavis’ notions of a good novel. Although I would perhaps question the word ‘contradictory,’ as if anything Miss Marple refutes this in regards to professionalism and femininity and ultimately does make some steps towards redefining femininity. To Miss Marple femininity is not unquestionably opposed to professionalism because femininity to Miss Marple is not categorically a symbol of weakness or fragility. I would not say she communicates a completely modern view of women but I think she does make progress towards it.
Returning to the idea of Miss Marple’s promotion of domestic knowledge, Mary Loeffelholz (1997) argues that Miss Marple can be viewed as a ‘feminist heroine… [who] quietly challenges the notion that women’s sphere, the stereotypically private sphere of home and garden contains nothing that could possibly foster deductive intelligence… [yet] at the same time… she never openly fights with the boundaries of that sphere’ (Loeffelholz, 1997: 33). This stance is strongly supported by the stories themselves, as on the one hand, in the short story ‘Tuesday Night Club’ (1932), Miss Marple’s domestic knowledges gives her the upper hand over the male characters when solving the case outlined, noting the significance of the banting servant and that the arsenic was put into the hundreds and thousands on the trifle. The value of domestic knowledge is also depicted through classical allusions such as to Penelope’s weaving in Homer’s Odyssey. In The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), with Doctor Haydock advising Miss Marple that ‘if you can’t knit, what about unravelling for a change. Penelope did… unravelling’s rather in your line’ (Christie, 1962: 31-32). The domestic analogy inherent here promotes the domestic sphere as it implies that the skills derived from domestic activities can be applied to activities beyond that sphere, such as detecting. Moreover, in the Odyssey Penelope undoes her weaving at night, without her suitors realising and Miss Marple parallels this by unravelling parts of the mysteries that the male police detectives have been unable to, through seemingly innocuous activities, which makes them unaware of what she is actually up to. The nursery rhyme connection to the murders in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) are another example of this.
On the other hand though, I agree with Loeffelholz that Miss Marple does not fight openly ‘with the boundaries of’ domesticity, as Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley arguably does, which I think ties into how Miss Marple uses gender stereotypes to her own advantage. Kathy Mezei (2007) suggests that Miss Marple’s language contains many ‘clichés of deferential speech’ (Mezei, 2007: 109) such as quite, so and just. On the surface this appears to place Miss Marple in a weaker or inferior position in comparison to the police in charge of the investigations, thereby be confirming the gender hierarchy. But such ‘self-deprecating’ (Mezei, 2007: 109) language in fact enables her to easily join and direct criminal investigations, as she is not outwardly threatening the male authority figures, which makes this language a form of subtle power that is disguised by gender conventions. For example in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), Miss Marple utilises deferential speech on Inspector Neele, when trying to legitimatise her role in the investigation: ‘I suppose it would be great presumption on my part – if only I could assist you in my very humble and, I’m afraid, very feminine way’ (Christie, 1953: 97 Own Emphasis Added). This self-deprecation is a ruse and in Sleeping Murder (1976), we realise how much influence Miss Marple has when Inspector Primer says of her that ‘she’s a very celebrated lady… Got the Chief Constable of at least three counties in her pocket’ (Christie, 1976: 178).
Miss Marple’s use of gender stereotypes as a disguise can also be seen in the contrast between her fluffy and woolly (and therefore stereotypically female) exterior and her internal qualities, which contain masculine traits of determination and intelligence. This is epitomised through the animal imagery Cherry Baker adopts in Nemesis (1971) when she says ‘seeing you with your wool… anyone would think you were gentle as a lamb. But there’s times I could believe you’d behave like a lion if you were goaded into it’ (Nemesis, 1971: 16). Yet an interesting point is that although Miss Marple possesses qualities traditionally associated either with women or men, which in turn link to being unprofessional and professional, Miss Marple is not portrayed negatively or as a hodgepodge of characteristics as other fictional sleuths are. Instead it is shown through her character that both traditionally presumed masculine qualities and professionalism can be incorporated into the female identity successfully despite the difficulties Berglund foresees. Again a clear example of this can be found in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) where the stereotype of women being overemotional, is tackled at the end of the novel when Miss Marple has solved the case: a ‘tear rose in Miss Marple’s eye. Succeeding pity, there came anger – anger against a heartless killer. And then, displacing both these emotions, there came a surge of triumph’ (Christie, 1953: 206). Here Miss Marple does not have to deny her feelings but is able to express them and then put them in to perspective.
During the 1920s and 1930s particularly, the elderly female detective was an important bridge between the heroines of Victorian fiction and the independent and much more emancipated female detectives who were being created in 1960s and onwards. Returning to the title of my article I think it would be difficult to argue that Miss Marple is an overt or radical feminist who openly tackles gender stereotypes. However, neither do I think she is an unmoveable or unchangeable traditionalist in regards to age or gender. The third option of subtle social revolutionary seems to fit Miss Marple best, as she quietly challenges conventions through her investigations and shows up gender and age stereotypes by exploiting them as a form of disguise, only to then undercut them when she reveals the criminal and her true abilities in detection. I also think to an extent Miss Marple redefines femininity, removing the many negative associations it can have and instead shows the power it can possess and how domesticity can give knowledge and experience, which can be applied far beyond the home.
See also: Classical Allusions and Miss Marple
Bargainnier, E. F. (1980). The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie. Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press.
Berglund, B. (2000). Desires and Devices: On Women Detectives in Fiction. In: Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales, and Robert Vilain. The Art of Detective Fiction. New York: Saint Martin’s Press. pp. 138-52.
Christie, A. (1930; 2001). The Murder At The Vicarage. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1932; 2002). The Blue Geranium. In: The Thirteen Problems. London: Harper Collins. pp. 131-156.
— (1932; 2002). Tuesday Night Club. In: The Thirteen Problems. London: Harper Collins. pp. 9-28.
— . (1933; 2012). Detective Writers in England (1945). In: The Detection Club Ask A Policeman. London: Harper Collins Publishers. XIII – XX.
— . (1942; 2002). The Moving Finger. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1950; 2003). A Murder is Announced. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1953; 2003). A Pocket Full of Rye. Poessneck: GGP Media
— . (1957; 2003). 4:50 From Paddington. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1960; 1969). Greenshaw’s Folly. In: Christie, A. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. London: Pan Books. pp. 196-219.
— . (1962; 2004). The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1964; 2003). A Caribbean Mystery. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1971; 2004). Nemesis. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1976; 2004). Sleeping Murder. Poessneck: GGP Media.
— . (1979; 2003). Sanctuary. In: Christie, A. Miss Marple’s Final Cases. Poessneck: GGP Media. pp. 7-30.
Craig, P. and Cadogan, M. (1997). Grandmotherly Disguise: The Lady Investigates (1981). In: Bloom, H. British Women Fiction Writers 1900-1960 Volume 1. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. pp. 27-29.
Leavis, Q. D. (2000). Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Pimlico.
Loeffelholz, M. (1997). Experimental Lives: Women and Literature 1890 -1945. In: Bloom, H. British Women Fiction Writers 1900-1960 Volume 1. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. pp. 33-34.
Mezei, K. (2007). Spinsters, Surveillance and Speech: The Case of Miss Marple, Miss Mole, and Miss Jekyll. Journal of Modern Literature. 9, pp. 103-120.
Sayers, Dorothy L. (1929). Introduction. In: Sayers, Dorothy L. The Omnibus of Crime. New York: Harcourt, Brace. pp. 9-47.
Shaw, M. and Vanacker, S. (1991). Reflecting on Miss Marple. London: Routledge.