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August 18, 2005

Miss Marple and the Lesbians

There's so much I want to say in this one entry that I hope everything comes through coherently.

Let me start with a disclaimer. I have surmised that the fewer opinions I have on matters of import, the happier I generally am. I would resolve to have no opinions on any matter, but as that is out of the question (being the second most opinionated person on Earth), I have resolved to confine my opinions to matters of interest in which I can speak with, if not true expertise, at least a modicum of understanding. This would, of course, greatly narrow the scope of my discussion to golden-age mysteries and ME. Given that neither subject would have an enormous audience, today I plan to regale you with tales of Golden Age mysteries.

One of the few mysteries I recall with any sense of detail at all is A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie. I can't really account for why I recall this one, but I suspect that it was the first time I "solved" a mystery before the solution was revealed by the author. A Murder is Announced is by Agatha Christie and it features her detective Miss Marple (if the title hadn't already given this away.

I say I recall this book in some detail. I remembered as I was watching it that one of the victims was named Murgatroyd. Now, I had heard my mother say ten billion times "Heaven to Murgatroyd," and had puzzled over that expression long and hard. It had never occurred to me that Murgatroyd was a person's name. I also remember that the solution of the mystery hinged on the Shepherdess, and for me a seemingly cryptic statement from the one witness who could see anyting. In fact, this is what revealed the whole thing for me--so it wasn't really a fair solution, although, as the statement occurred a good 50 pages before the end and the discussion as to what was going on, I feel vindicated in considering this my first "solved" mystery--and solved on the clues.

A new series has come out recently featuring Miss Marple mysteries. Now, Miss Marple has not had the kind cinematic treatment of Hercule Poirot, etc. Her history starts with the delightful Dame Margaret Rutherford--who was indeed a wonderful cinematic presence but about as far from the essence of Miss Marple as one could get. She did, however, have Dame Agatha's approval. I recall a movie (The Mirror Crack'd) in which Helen Hayes played Miss Marple to the delightful strains of semi-villain Elizabeth Taylor. Finally, Joan Hickson did a very fine job of playing the "fluffy" wool-gathering old lady who is sharp as steel underneath.

The present incarnation is played by Gwendolin McEwan, and I have to say that it is certainly interesting and novel. I would say that McEwan doesn't come anywhere within fifty yards of the character as written by Agatha Christie (that was hit dead-on by Joan Hickson) and yet, as an interpretation of the Christie character, this is certainly acceptable and interesting.

What I find a bit disturbing is the proliferation of sexual antics that seems to bestrew itself across the screen in this most recent set of productions. I've only viewed two so far--Body in the Library and A Murder is Announced. In each of these there was at least one lesbian relationship and any number of adulterous assignations. Now, I probably missed a great deal in my early readings, but I don't think Dame Christie wrote a Lesbian couple into every one of her novels. And with Body in the Library it is this Lesbian "folie a deux" that gives us the denouement.

I really don't have anything against lesbians, on screen or otherwise, but I do have a problem with "reclaiming literature." One can never, with any authority, discuss authorial intention. But I suspect toleration for lesbians was not one of the chief agendas of the Agatha Christie novels, nor do I suspect that the thought of lesbian attachements so frequently crossed Dame Christie's mind.

On the other hand, I can be a seriously inattentive reader, paying attention only to what the author wishes me to look at (hence I'm not particularly good at solving mysteries because I'm always chasing after red herrings) and it is entirely possible that the whole plethora of novels is veritably overrun with lesbians and who knows what.

However, one gets the distinct impression that Miss Marple herself may be lesbian--and while that may be so, it conflicts with my understanding of the novels. Not that that should be any sort of guide or parameter. Nevertheless, it seems odd that watching a random two out of four of these mysteries, I should twice encounter lesbian couples who are integral to the action.

Oh, and Miss Marple is a sharp-tongued acidulous feminist to boot. I honestly don't recall it from the books, and frankly, it puts me off a bit to see it on the screen. Nevertheless, as with the Poirot movies, these are well done, Ms. McEwan is an interesting screen presence, and apart from these quibbles, an acceptable Miss Marple, and the mysteries are true to the books that gave them life (again apart from some of the overt lesbian themes, which may, in fact be present but to which I may be oblivious). Watch for yourself and derive an impression if you are familiar with these books. They are certainly with an hour and a half in comparison to much of the drivel churned out by television and movie producers of the present era.

Anyway, it was good to think back on A Murder is Announced even though I knew the murderer from about two minutes into the show until the end. It was interesting to see even the list Jane Marple produces before coming to the solution of the mystery. These really are, like the Poirot series, faithful to their mystery plot origin.

Posted by Steven Riddle at August 18, 2005 9:09 AM

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Eeeek! Just when you think that nothing can surprise you anymore. It sounds as if my beloved Miss Marple has been bent beyond practically all recognition.

Posted by: Julie D. at August 18, 2005 11:24 AM

I never got the impression that Miss Marple, and certainly not Agatha Christie, was a Lesbian. Miss Marple was an elderly spinster. From what I know about Agatha Christie, she was an orthodox and conservative Anglican.

Posted by: Father Ethan at August 19, 2005 11:06 AM

Dear Father Ethan,

It is very comforting to hear this observation confirmed by another observer. I concur absolutely and find this reimaging odd and disturbing.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at August 19, 2005 11:22 AM

It had been a number of years since I'd read the Miss Marple mysteries, and I didn't remember the details of any of the books that filmed for the series, but I was seriously thrown off by the lesbian subplots, which I'm sure weren't there in the originals (though would I have noticed it as a twelve-year-old?). The solution to The Body in the Library was very jarring, since the lesbian relationship was so crucial to the denoument. I'm tempted to go out to the library and check them all out again to see if I was just too young to catch all that stuff or if the BBC was just messing with source material.

I did enjoy Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. I don't know if she was right for the part, but she was delightful to watch.

Posted by: MrsDarwin at August 19, 2005 6:00 PM

Perhaps it was a fad of the time, what with Bloomsbury and all. Dorothy Sayers' novels had a few instances of sexual inversion too, usually related to Lord Peter's occasional visits into the world of artists.

Incidentally, BBC7 is currently airing their radio serializations of Poirot mysteries from the archives, and you can use the "listen again" feature to replay shows for six days after airing.

Posted by: RC [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2005 10:58 PM

I second Father Ethan's contention that Miss Marple was no lesbian; in fact, I don't recall that Agatha Christie ever, in any of her stories, mentions homosexuality even tangentially.

I doubt that Christie herself was anything other than straight. She was twice married - the breakup of her first marriage was her husband's fault - and bore a child.

Miss Marple was no feminist, either. She was something quite different: a strong-minded Victorian woman, entirely secure and comfortable in her femininity.

Posted by: Bob the Ape at August 21, 2005 7:33 AM

I had to go to the library and check out some of the books these mysteries are based on.

The lesbian ending of The Body in the Library is completely inaccurate -- in fact, the producers had to change the identity of one of the murderers to a woman to make it fit. That's just blatant tampering, and for no good reason; do they think that it reflects positively on lesbians to have a murdering pair of them in a mystery? Or is the noteworthy thing not that it is done well, but that it is done at all?

I think that the lesbian pair in A Murder is Announced was so far removed from the two spinsters in the book as to be unrecognizable. There was indeed a gruff mannish half of the pair, but the other woman was not a sweet young thing with plenty of sex appeal but a distinctly middle aged, scatty, disheveled dame without a whiff of sexuality about her.

For whatever reason this has been really eating at me ever since I saw the series, and to find that one of the mysteries was drastically altered to fit in a lesbian pair was infuriating. I think Agatha Christie would have been appalled.

Posted by: MrsDarwin at August 21, 2005 9:36 PM

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