Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity (2006) by Merja Makinen

Yes, I know. There must be many blog readers scratching their heads and not because of nits… well I hope not anyways. I was of course supposed to be reviewing Christianna Brand’s Tour De Force (1955), but today’s read sort of snuck ahead in the queue, (terrible, I know!). But don’t worry the Brand review will be forthcoming in due course…

Anyways back to today’s book, which is one I have been wanting to read for ages and also one I’ve had since Christmas, so probably one of the oldest books on my TBR pile. But finally, it has got read! Technically I do have a connection with today’s author, as both Makinen and myself both wrote an entry for 100 Greatest Literary Sleuths (2018). To give you a general sound bite of what the book is about here is what Makinen writes in her introduction:

‘I wanted to find a way of arguing that, plying her craft during the first half of the twentieth century, Christie was writing during a period of intense gender renegotiation in relation to the modern world and that a political conservatism did not necessarily rule out a questioning and even subversive attitude to cultural gender expectations. Where Christie’s assumptions about class remained conservative and often reinforced retrograde, hidebound social divisions, her representation of femininity contested traditional expectations and found much in common with more left-wing writers such as Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, writing during the same period.’

Moreover, she is keen to look at Christie’s work widely as well as narrowly, in order to correct ‘over-large generalisations,’ on class and gender made by other critics, usually focusing on a couple of references in Christie’s autobiography, which was written when she was much older. Whilst today some would argue that vintage crime is being critiqued more on its social themes, than it’s plotting and endings, back in 2006 it seems to Makinen, that part of the reason why Christie’s books were not given much attention in terms of their gender depictions, was because of a tendency to focus on plotting and puzzles instead. What do you think? Do you think there has been a shift in focus?

After the introduction, Chapter 1 sets up the social, historical and political context for women, during the 1920s and onwards. One of the first points she brings up is the need to look at how the ‘domestic minutiae’ of the women’s lives were changing and how in her novels and ‘in the domestic minutiae of their settings,’ Christie ‘chart[s] exactly these social changes, beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1970s.’ Bargainnier affirms this point in writing that, ‘unconsciously, however, she left a social history of fifty years of upper middleclass English life, recording the changes, for good or for ill, which occurred.’ Following on from this there is an enjoyable interlude looking at how cars changed life for women, including Christie herself, with the serialisation of The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), buying her, her first car; an event which she recalls as being one of the most exciting moments of her life. The remainder of this chapter redefines what is meant by “Edwardian Christie”, as well as providing an extensive survey of the existing academic and critical work on Christie and gender. Through this survey Makinen indicates the new points she is wanting to make, in particular how the range of female characters, and their roles, is much wider in Christie’s stories than hitherto suggested, providing ‘a quiet but sustained subversion and questioning of contemporary mores.’ Furthermore, Makinen also delineates the diverse responses, feminists have made towards Christie’s work and it seems that she aligns her own ideas of Christie with those made by Gillian Gill, Mary Anne Ackershoek and Gill Plain. Gill, even goes as far as saying that:

‘Christie was significantly less enslaved by the ideology and structural prejudices of her culture, time and class than her contemporaries,’ she argues, because ‘she sought to create fictional correlatives for her inner world of fantasy rather than to offer a mirror to her time and social caste.’

Conservatism does not preclude feminism or proto-feminist ideas. One idea which particularly struck me is one made by Mary Anne Ackershoek. Makinen records this, writing that, ‘the most fundamental change, she sees as being a crisis of authority, since the devastations of the war proves the “betrayal of paternal trust,” and Poirot and Marple form part of an “alternative authority” of feminised detectives “deeply rooted in female experience.”

Moreover, I was also intrigued by the idea that the subversion to be found in Christie’s work when it comes to women, is often found in the writing before the ending. Makinen, amongst others therefore wants to move away from prioritising the endings of mystery novels.

Makinen’s second chapter moves onto examining the Beresfords, Mrs Oliver, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, suggesting ‘that the Christie of the twenties and thirties was attempting to re-draw new, more modern relationships between the active participants, which allowed women a more dominant, active role when young, when middle aged and when elderly, while men adopt a more passive, even feminine position.’ I think this point is particularly borne out well in her discussion of Tuppence Beresford, making a strong case for her being the ‘dominant partner,’ emphasising her ‘more active femininity,’ in comparison to Tommy being more ‘slow in mental processes.’ Historical context is also fruitfully brought up in relation to Tuppence’s determination to pay for her share of things in The Secret Adversary (1922); a text which also implies masculine protectiveness is an ‘outworn Victorian concept.’ Additionally, in regards to the original point at the beginning of this paragraph, I think Makinen makes some interesting points about Poirot being a ‘new model for masculinity as a reaction to the machismo heroic model demanded before and during the war;’ a point I feel the author develops from Alison Light’s work. The comparison made between Poirot and Hastings was also enjoyable to read.

Another key point of interest for me in this chapter is when the author considers the changing nature of public opinion of the detectives. In the early days, unlike in detective fiction, ‘the public police force itself was still in its infancy and high suspect.’ Consequently, Makinen goes on to say:

‘Detecting itself, at the turn of the century, was often seen as slightly deviant, dishonourable and ungentlemanly within the aristocratic society that was invariably its setting, until the advent of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, its dishonourableness may hold the key to the plethora of ‘lady detectives’ popular during the early period, since femininity is often ‘othered’ by dominant discourses defining what is honourable and right within the sphere of the Masculine.’

I wouldn’t say this is a new point, but I enjoyed how she linked it to women and the creation of the female detective.

The two detectives whose readings were not quite so strong, in my opinion, were for Ariadne Oliver and Miss Marple. For the former I don’t feel a substantial enough case is made for Oliver’s revealing a more subversive side to femininity, whilst with the latter I think there was a lot of a leaning on other academic’s thoughts. Perhaps trying to discuss so many big characters in one chapter, was a bit ambitious. I wonder if splitting the characters into a couple of chapters would have made more room for further discussion. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about the performative nature of femininity, as shown through Miss Marple:

‘The textual focus on Miss Marple’s appearance, the pink cheeks and the fluffy knitting, the apparently meandering talk, all point to an awareness of elderly femininity as a form of masquerade, a performance that lives up to expectations in order to gain its own advantages.’

Chapter 3 is by far the largest chapter of the book, which explores ‘positive feminine characterisations’ in Christie novels and the ‘diverse variety of available feminine positions within the books.’ Within this chapter we read about young adventurers, career women, mistresses, as well as women who leave spouse and children. The latter of these is argued to receive more favourably depictions than you might expect, especially in comparison to depictions of the traditional and selfless wife. This is a very thought-provoking chapter, one which found me agreeing and disagreeing at various points. But in some ways, I think that makes for a more interesting read.

My biggest bone of contention is thus… Sue Ellen Campbell is said to have made the claim that Sayers’ 1930s Harriet Vane trilogy, changed the ‘direction of the genre’ in terms of giving us the first ‘strong, independent and sexually active female detective and for blending the genres of detective and romance fiction.’ However, Makinen asserts that it is Christie had been doing this ‘since the 1920s,’ with ‘Tuppence Beresford and the intrepid young adventurers’ predating Harriet Vane, ‘both in their strength and independence and in their utilisation of the romance genre.’ She feels accordingly that Christie’s own innovations have been supposedly overlooked, yet for me I feel these innovations of ‘challenges to feminine prototypes’ is being over-stretched. As far as I can see, Gaudy Night (1935) has had a more demonstrable impact on later female writers, than The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) for instance, which features Anne Beddingfield.

Furthermore, my main issue with using intrepid young adventurers like Anne, to make such a point, is that their independence is sunk through a return to gender stereotypes.

I don’t feel the ‘shifting of Golden Age genre traits’ can be laid at Christie’s door, as I feel other writers made bigger and more significant contributions. You could even argue that it was the rise of mystery novels being married with the novel of manners, which provided the biggest shift. However, feel free to disagree. Returning to Anne Beddingfield, any empowerment she demonstrates at the beginning of the book does not remain for long. In my own review of this story I argue that Anne succumbs to contemporary media representations of the heroine, rather than providing a sustained critique, which is what Makinen suggests. She is keen to emphasise how Anne actively runs away from domesticity, yet she seems to ignore the paradox of Anne actively desiring subservience and in some ways, I think eloping off into the jungle, was only going to lead to Anne reconstructing domesticity norms again. After all I can’t see Harry being particularly hot on a woman’s right to be independent. But yes, I happily admit, Anne is not a favourite character of mine and maybe a better argument can be constructed for Tuppence. So, feel free to weigh in on the matter! With other texts brought into the discussion I think Makinen makes a stronger case for Bundle in The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), but I felt that the reading of Cinderella in The Murder on the Links (1923), needed textual detail. For other points raised in the chapter, a wide range of books are considered, including: They Came to Baghdad (1951), Destination Unknown (1954), The Sittaford Mystery (1931), Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934), Murder is Easy (1939) and The Pale Horse (1961).

When it comes to career women, Makinen is keen to disagree with other critics, on the idea that Christie’s novels suggest she disliked such women. Makinen argues that such assumptions focus more on the Miss Marple books, rather than considering the whole body of work. I think she makes a strong case, commenting on the more egotistical career women in Christie’s books, such as actresses, but also looks at more positive depictions such as in The Hollow (1946), Five Little Pigs (1942) (Angela Warren), as well as Sarah King in Appointment with Death (1938). Furthermore, with this latter text Makinen raises the point that in the case of Ginevra, a theatrical career is actually needed as a ‘psychological necessity’ and this idea is reinforced with a subsequent reading of Murder Isn’t Easy. Other texts brought into the rich discussion are: Cat Among the Pigeons (1959), A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) and 4:50 from Paddington (1957). I also felt Makinen brought up a very interesting point on illegitimate daughters and unmarried mothers, arguing that the ‘social opprobrium,’ being reflected in the stories was actually not being endorsed. The chapter concludes on a discussion of what makes for a complimentary relationship in a Christie novel, suggesting that seemingly mismatched couples, can be some of the most successful ones, such as the Vicar’s marriage in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Makinen particularly stresses the point that ‘Christie has always countenanced strong women with ‘feminine’ men, what matters is the complementariness of the relationship, rather than the gender stereotypes,’ contrasting that position with the work of P. G. Wodehouse:

‘Christie’s strength lies in depicting a whole range and diversity of femininities and masculinities that form workable relationships. Some female characters inhabit culturally construed ‘feminine’ behaviour, some ‘masculine’; and so do the male characters. Where Wodehouse would find men dominated by their women risible, Christie finds it an acceptable partnership.’

Following on from that, Chapter 4 is concerned with ‘women behaving badly’ and it ‘traces the array of women who are allowed the active, destabilising role of the villain.’ Makinen provides an in-depth argument for Christie being ‘ahead of her time in her granting female agency to the villain as well as the detective.’ She goes on to claim that female murderers in mystery fiction at the time, were ‘rare.’ This is a claim I would like to test and by test, I mean pick the brains of readers with better memories than mine. So, if you know of great wealth of vintage mystery stories with female killers do let me know! Nevertheless, Makinen evidences well the vast number of examples of female killers, accomplices and crooks in Christie’s canon. It’s not something I have thought about much, but casting my mind over her books, there really are a fair bunch of them! This is quite a spoiler heavy chapter, so best to be avoided if you are a Christie novice.

Chapter 5 then moves on to comparing how Christie depicts her female villains, with how real-life female murderers were depicted in contemporary newspapers. To consider this question Makinen looks the Daily Sketch and the Daily Mail from the 1920s to 50s and I think this is a very well researched chapter, as she also brings in content from Renee Huggett and Paul Berry’s work, Daughter of Cain (1956), as evidence of other contemporary opinions on women who kill. This leads onto an interesting reading of Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952) and the chapter ends on the idea that:

‘Christie’s texts refuse to castigate female murderers for rejecting the stereotypes of nurture and subservience because these have not been the mainstays of characterising femininity in her books.’

My only quibble with this chapter, as such, is the tendency for the end of the chapter to repeat several phrases and near full sentences from the chapter’s exposition. I think doing this gave it more of a repetitive feel, rather than a sense of the argument being concluded.

The final chapter looks at ‘what occurs when femininity impacts on the representation of other races,’ as well as looking at how Middle Eastern locations are used as a space for exploring ‘divergent [Anglo-American] femininities, particularly powerful, tyrannical and malevolent women.’ Texts included in this discussion are: Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Appointment with Death (1938), Death on the Nile (1937) and Death Comes as the End (1945). Furthermore, Makinen also flags up the point raised by Sara Mills and Mary Louise Pratt, that 18th and 19th ‘women travellers and explorers’, due to being othered by their gender, ‘often [present] their representations [of other cultures as] more ambivalent and less focused on issues of conquest, mastery and exploitation than their male counterparts.’ I think Makinen builds on this point well in the chapter, showing a more nuanced reading of the ‘conventional British stereotypes,’ Christie’s books include, ‘arguing for a broader acceptance of difference’ in them.

Makinen also talks about the ways in which ‘Little Englander’ attitudes are sometimes ridiculed in the books, such as in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and how ‘insularity and xenophobia tend to be apportioned to dominant male characters[…] whereas the English enjoyment of foreign encounters tend to be by women.’ This last comment may prove to have a number of exceptions, (correct as appropriate!), though Julia Upjohns is certainly a good example included for English women being open to enjoying other cultures. Makinen also goes on to explore how Christie ‘invokes racial stereotypes in order to fool the reader,’ as a form of red herring, as well as using character from others cultures as a means ‘to interrogate the failings of the English upper classes who look down on them.’

So whilst this does feel like an absurdly long review, (though I am sure it can’t be my longest!), this review still only scratches the surface of the book and I would definitely recommend reading it for yourself to get the full weight of the arguments proffered. I also liked how Makinen says in her introduction that she is not the final word on the topic but is setting it off in a new direction, providing new fuel for the fire as it were. An assertion which is certainly been corroborated by the subsequent 13 years, in which a whole host of further work has been created about Christie and her female characters, by academics and non-academics alike. In terms of availability this book varies a lot. It took a long while to find my copy for under £20, but at the moment there are a couple for £28. After that it is a sharp jump up to £70+, so I would nab one of those two cheaper copies while you can. Aside from playing a waiting game, you could also go to your library. Those with access to a university library will probably have more luck. This is the problem with the Crime Files series by Palgrave Macmillan, as whilst they have a number of titles which would be really interesting to the vintage crime fan, the prices are invariably out of the reach of the average reader. However, keep your eyes peeled!

Rating: 4.5/5

7 comments

  1. An interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book — many thanks!

    Kate, why do you habitually use “anyways” in place of “anyway”? It drives this particular old-fart pedant nuts, and is surprising in a qualified English teacher.

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  2. Hmmmmm . . . It isn’t that I don’t buy much of this, Kate (although I don’t), but as I’m just finishing Laura Thompson’s biography, it feels like Makinen is forcing the issue, even misreading a lot of Christie’s literary intentions. I have a feeling that Agatha herself would snort in disgust over this.

    Christie was a pretty rare anomaly for her time: a working woman (one for whom her work was truly important) who was more famous and successful than most men, including both her husbands. And yet, what she wanted more than anything was domestic bliss. You can see it I. The numerous houses she bought, decorated, lived and cooked in; in her preference for the company of men over women, and the way she compartmentalized her work life. You can read it in characters like Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who uses her keen, educated brain to become the world’s best housekeeper, and in all those “bright young things” like Anne Beddingfield, Victoria Jones, and Katherine Grey, whose grappling with the villain or saving the world is just a stepping stone to snagging a husband.

    Tuppence is in every way Tommy’s equal (although I think she pays her own way because first, it post-war and they’re both broke, and second, they meet up as childhood friends, not sweethearts. Once they marry, Tommy goes off to work and Tuppence raises the children. He tells her not to do anything stupid, and she ignores him and rushes into danger. She’s definitely smarter than Tommy, but their relationship reminds me a bit of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.

    Thompson writes a lot about Miss Marple, who emerged right after the disappearance and represents all that Christie herself was not after the divorce: emotionally strong, unattached, morally sure, a ruthless dispenser of justice (often involving wayward spouses and “silly” women), the kind of no-nonsense wise woman that Christie needed in her unhappy life. There’s definitely a disguise there, with the balaclavas and the knitting, but then Poirot’s foreignness is another disguise. (And I wouldn’t confuse the habits of a true gallant with femininity. Poirot has no female attachments because he was built on the Holmesian model. He has OCD and is fussy, but if we read him as dainty and a bit lady-like, it’s because Poirot wants us to underestimate him.)

    Thompson pooh-poohs the idea that Christie was a conscious feminist, even as her very life conjures up the idea of female success. The most successful aspect of her life was her work, but what she wanted was love from a man.The women in her books come in all types and shades of morality. There are plenty of working women, but when I think of those in her books who aren’t ultimately looking for domestic bliss, I don’t see a lot of happy women. For every Angela Warren or Miss Bulstrode, there’s an Aimee Griffith (whose unhappiness comes from unrequited love), Mrs. Boynton, or Lady Westholme (a true piece of work!)

    Whew, how I went on!! See you next week, and we can talk more about it.

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    • Excellent points, Brad. I am becoming increasingly suspicious of commentaries and analyses that are presumably informed by some theoretical or ideological perspective or sensitivity, but actually force fit the facts to suit their agenda.

      A clear case in point is how for decades academic and pseudo academic commentaries and so called analyses have misrepresented the contributions and success of GAD writers like Freeman Wills Croft and John Rhode who were male and emphasized engineering and tight plotting as opposed to the Four Queens and Josephine Tey who were female and put more emphasis on psychology and comedy of manners. That misrepresentation was nicely debunked by Curtis Evans in the first chapter of his Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.

      I am an academic myself, so I hope that this comment will not be seen as some anti intellectual jab. And I have very much enjoyed the work by Christie and Tey I have read, and I plan to read some of the later works by Allingham.

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