Control and Freedom in Animal References for Women in Mystery Fiction

I came across the piece below, which I wrote for a while ago for another platform, (I forget which one?!), but I thought it might be of interest for readers of this blog. It covers some well-known characters and authors, but it also explores a less well-known play from the 1910s. This piece is not comprehensive, so it would be interesting to hear of other examples from mystery novels/plays etc., which fit this particular theme.

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An idea I have been considering for some time now is the way animal imagery has been used by mystery writers who predominately began writing in the interwar period, to describe women. The more I have encountered such imagery the more, for me at any rate, a pattern of sorts began to emerge. In some ways you could say there is a dichotomy in what effects such imagery has. On the one hand with female characters, who are young and for whom it is assumed marriage is a likely possibility, animal references arguably reflect a desire for male control, a need for that female character to be contained and managed. On the other hand for female characters who are elderly, single and assumed likely to stay that way and are in the role of the sleuth, animal imagery becomes a tool for empowerment. In this post I will be sharing and exploring some of the key examples I have come across recently, which demonstrate both effects animal imagery can have in such mystery fiction, as well as highlighting the questions these examples raise about gender depiction and relations, as well as the role of women.

Controlling Animal References

When planning this piece the example which immediately leapt into mind for this category was the famously ambiguous and iconic scene in Dorothy L Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night (1935), when Lord Peter Wimsey gives Harriet Vane a dog collar to wear on her neck to protect her from being strangled. This is a scene which arguably has become infamous, or at the very least contentious, due to the potential subtext of ownership and control that it has. The fact this is the novel where Vane agrees to marry Wimsey also charges this scene with extra importance, leading some readers to wonder whether Vane has yielded up her independence and autonomy in her acceptance of Wimsey.

Images of canines and canine paraphernalia also crop up in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), where such vignettes also have an unsettling effect when used within the burgeoning romance between Jerry Burton and Megan Hunter. Megan from the very beginning is described by other characters in language which demarcates her an as outcast; (potential reasons for which I explore more fully in my review of this novel on my blog). Initially Jerry can be seen positively as he treats her like an adult and champions her cause in the face of criticism from others. Yet he is not above using critical and demarcating language in reference to her himself and in particular his use of such language reveals a controlling side. For example Jerry writes after a comment by Megan that ‘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’ (Christie, 1942: 55). In this example the controlling side has not yet been established, though it has reaffirmed the way the other characters deem Megan as an oddity. The need for control or possession comes later such as when Megan stops staying at Jerry and Joanna’s home and Jerry is saddened by this, having wanted to take her on a walk. Yet it is Jerry’s sister who tellingly quips back with the remark, ‘with a collar and lead I suppose?’ (Christie, 1942: 111). She goes onto diagnosis his state of mind as ‘master’s lost his dog’ (Christie, 1942: 111).

Screenshot from ITV’s Adaptation of The Moving Finger

What I think makes this use of the dog collar less ambiguous than it is in Sayers’ work is that the images clearly envisages a lead and a master or owner, which begins to suggest a far less equable power balance between Jerry and Megan. It is also at this point that the reader may start questioning what Jerry is getting out of the relationship and how benevolent his actions are towards her. After all he never really refutes his sister’s suggestions. Furthermore, what confirms or crystallises these concerns is how this scene resurfaces at the denouement of the story, with Joanna giving Megan and Jerry a sheep dog as a wedding present, along with two collars and leads. On the surface this may appear like an in-joke between siblings but it does raise the question, as it did with Harriet Vane, of whether Megan will keep her independent spirit and have an equable role within the marriage. However, unlike with Vane, where a sequel shows Vane and Wimsey in a fairly balanced relationship, there is no sequel for Megan and Jerry to find out how their relationship pans out.

An underlying desire on Jerry’s part to control or manage Megan also comes across in the way he wishes to improve her or make her more conformable to society’s expectations on how a woman should look. One of the reasons why Megan is deemed odd and why she is often described with animal images, is due to her disinterest in her personal appearance, which Jerry captures 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’ (Christie, 1942: 19). So although Jerry is attracted to her as she is, this animal imagery also highlights how his mind is turning towards what she could become or rather what he could make her become. His desires are achieved when he takes her to London to give her a makeover, including her hair, face and clothes – the style of which is controlled by Jerry’s orders to the sales assistants and his wallet. So Jerry’s use of animal imagery arguably not only has moments where it outcasts her as different and socially unacceptable, but such imagery also sets up a relationship dynamic where Megan is lower than himself. Perhaps by repeatedly suggesting she is not entirely human and by referring to her as a dog or a horse (animals which you expect obedience and submission from), he is able to maintain the version of Megan that he wishes and avoid having to treat her as an equal and allow her to control her own appearance.

The example I wish to close this section with was not strictly written by an interwar mystery writer, but was written during WW1, in 1916, and started out as a one act mystery play before being turned into a short story the following year.  The play was called Trifles and was written by Susan Glaspell and it was first performed at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In its short story format it was retitled as ‘A Jury of Her Peers.’ My reason for looking at this work is that it purposefully uses animal imagery to showcase the effect male control can have on a woman and the consequences when a breaking or tipping point is reached. In this story Minnie Wright is presumed to have murdered her husband John, who was a difficult and domineering man to live with. Whilst she is detained, the Sheriff, County Attorney and a neighbouring farmer go to the scene of the crime, her home. The Sheriff and farmer’s wives also come along. The male characters do not expect much of a contribution from the women and leave them to deal with “women’s things” in the kitchen. Yet it is they who actually uncover the truth behind what made Minnie crack, which was her husband killing the one ray of sunlight in her life, her canary, and this is a truth they ultimately conceal.

Scene from a production of Trifles

However, shortly after this truth is hit upon the animal imagery and parallels begin to appear. The farmer’s wife for instance says that Minnie ‘– come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery. How – she – did change’ (Glaspell, 1917: 42).  It soon becomes apparent that it was her marriage to John which changed her. The farmer’s wife continues by saying that ‘Wright wouldn’t like the bird […] a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too’ (Glaspell, 1917: 45). Like the canary, Minnie had become a caged animal, whose freedom of expression and creativity was extinguished. Although a killer, there is a strong sympathy for Minnie, which the imagery reinforces. This text is also an interesting example as we enter the story of Minnie’s marriage at the end, which contrasts with Megan and Jerry’s relationship for instance. The dominated wife who finally cracks and murders their husband also turns up in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (1946) and her thoughts are described as before the murder as ‘like a trapped animal’ (Christie, 1946: 35).

Empowering Animal References

Two key examples of animal imagery having an empowering effect for fictional female sleuths, whose adventures began in the 1920s, are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley. With animal imagery both writers are able to present a new image of the older woman, a figure of power and of danger, which dismantles the negative stereotypical views that such people, especially single older women, are unworldly and interfering, as well as physically and mentally weak incumbents on society .

In the case of Miss Marple, empowerment in animal imagery, is also closely connected to choice, as such images are used to articulate the camouflage her natural appearance gives for her sleuthing work, a camouflage she actively encourages. For example in Nemesis (1971) Cherry Baker says of Miss Marple that when she is knitting ‘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’ (Christie, 1971: 9). What particularly interested me about this use of contrasting imagery was not just that Miss Marple uses her seemingly harmless appearance to hide her skills and power, but that she is aligned with a predatory animal, a lion, yet Miss Marple’s character is not censured, criminalised or maligned as a consequence of the power the image implies. This is not always the case for younger female characters, where such predatory animal links are often connected to the character’s sexuality and relationship with men. For instance in Christie’s Towards Zero (1944), the only female character to be aligned with a strong animal is Kay, who is likened to a ‘tiger cat’ (Christie, 1944: 62). Yet she is a character who is equally shown in a negative light in her attitude towards money and men. Other instances of animal imagery obscuring Miss Marple true abilities frequently involve cat imagery, (which incidentally also reflect negative stereotyping of older women), such as when she is called a ‘nasty old cat’ (Christie, 1930: 19) and an ‘old pussy’ (Christie, 1950: 42).

In comparison to Mitchell’s use of imagery, Christie’s can seem quite tame and moderate. Empowerment through animal imagery for Mrs Bradley is not to do with hiding her light under a bushel, as Mitchell on the whole uses a far wider range of exotic animal images for describing her sleuth, making it clear that she is not a woman to be cowed or intimated and in fact it is Mrs Bradley who makes other characters shudder and think twice. For example in The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1930) her teeth are described as ‘tigerish, carnivorous, untamed’ (Mitchell, 1934: 73), whilst in Death at the Opera (1934) she is referred to as a ‘dragon’ (Mitchell, 1934: 70), ‘like a sleepy python’ (Mitchell, 1934: 103) and as calculating as ‘an alligator which sees its evening meal within measurable distance of its jaw’ (Mitchell, 1934: 177). These images have even greater impact in the context of this story where within a subplot Mrs Bradley places herself in danger of a man who murders women he marries for their money, appearing as foolhardy and defenceless, in order to catch him out.  The ‘sleepy python’ is not quite so sleepy after all…

As well as being given general animal labels, both descriptions of Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley go into further detail and focus on specific parts of the body, such as when Sir Henry wishes Miss Marple was available for solving the case in A Murder is Announced (1950): ‘Wouldn’t she like to get her nice ladylike teeth into this’ (Christie, 1950: 42). Despite the genteel slant given to the image, honing in on Miss Marple’s teeth adds a decidedly more aggressive and potentially destructive edge to her. This semantic field of the detective as predator, which builds throughout the Miss Marple novels, is compounded further when even her thinking is given a feline and directed nature such as in ‘Sanctuary’ (1979) when it is said that she ‘considered for a moment or two, and then pounced on the point’ (Christie, 1979: 19).

Like with the other animal imagery mentioned previously, when focusing on specific body parts of Mrs Bradley, the imagery is more extreme, which accumulates in the novels, especially the earlier ones, making Mrs Bradley become almost like a chimera figure. Her hands are made to sound more powerful and dangerous when they are often said to be ‘claw-like’ (Mitchell, 1930: 140) and her fingers like ‘yellow talon[s]’ (Mitchell, 1930: 179). Whilst this kind of imagery suggests Mrs Bradley is a detective to be reckoned with, conjuring up mental images of sleuths as deadly as birds of prey and wild cats, these animal references could be interpreted alternatively as ‘a blatant caricature lead[ing] one to infer that only unattractive female misfits would elect to become detective’ (Rahn, 2003: 61). This suggestion would seem to lessen the power of such images. However where one critic sees ‘misfits,’ others such as Betty Richardson (1994) see ‘a singularly emancipated heroine, […] a truly liberated woman with the brains and spirit to laugh at convention […] and the daring to rise above patriarchal laws and rules about female behaviour and appearance’ (Richardson, 1994: 229). Such a reading reinstates the power the animal imagery offers and in a way corresponds with the longevity these two characters have had.

With such a powerful and defiantly resilient image of the older woman, the question as a reader which I keep coming back to, when reading 1920s-1950s mystery fiction featuring younger women, as sleuths or suspects, is why can’t such an images be more frequent, (as there is the odd exception), for them? Why are images of power often sexualised when concerning younger women? The answers to these questions would take up far more room than a blog post, spanning several academic disciplines, but what fascinates me is how animal imagery can be seen as an important part of the conversation on this subject and as a tool in voicing opinions in how women should or could be.

References

Christie, A. (1930; 2016). The Murder at the Vicarage. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, A. (1942; 2016). The Moving Finger. London: Harper Collins

Christie, A. (1944; 2011). Towards Zero. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, A. (1946; 2015). The Hollow. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, A. (1950; 2016). A Murder is Announced. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, A. (1971; 2011). Nemesis. London: Harper Collins.

Christie, A. (1979; 2003).  Sanctuary. In: Miss Marple’s Final Cases. Poessneck: GGP Media. pp. 7-30.

Glaspell, S. (2014; 1916/17). A Jury of Her Peers. In: ‘Trifles’ and ‘A Jury of Her Peers’. USA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. pp. 21-50.

Mitchell, Gladys (1930; 2010). The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop. London: Vintage

Mitchell, G. (1934; 2010). Death at the Opera. London: Vintage

Rahn, B. J. (2003). Elderly Sleuth. In: Herbert, R. Whodunit? A Who’s Who in Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 60-62.

Richardson, B. (1994). Gladys Mitchell. In: Klein, K. Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 228 – 232.

4 comments

  1. There are tons of cat references in Christie, and many of them center around Miss Marple herself. She can be a “fluffy old pussy” or a “cat” to suggest her gossipy, interfering ways. The beautiful women in Christie are feline (I believe Nofret is described that way in Death Comes As the End, and I’ll bet all that kohl around the eyes contributes to the impression.) Does Gerda Christow get likened to a dog at first?

    Doesn’t Philip Lombard get compared to a panther? Certain characters who push the boundaries of “proper” English behavior, male or female, might be said to have animalistic characteristics. I also wonder if Christie found animal metaphors an easy reach for her viewership.

    I’m going to go home and consult my Ragdolls . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That was fascinating – thanks for sharing it with us Kate. I will be thinking about it a lot, and noticing these references! I remember Mrs Bradley being referred to as Mrs Croc (?by Laura) and described as saurian – I found that original and refreshing.

    Liked by 1 person

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