Agatha Christie as history

I confess I have always enjoyed reading Agatha Christie, ever since one of her books arrived at home for my mum as the month’s choice in the Companion Book Club range. That book was a double novel volume, ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’ and ‘They Do It With Mirrors’. I continued to be a fan and ended up with a full set of Christie’s which I unfortunately lost when a box of my precious books was left with a friend when I moved… lost, lost, lost!

Back to Agatha Christie. When people criticise her for being dated… well, yes, obviously she is, she was writing her books a hundred years ago, her first ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles‘ was published in 1920! Whatever anyone’s thoughts on her stories, to read them opens a door into the past; the mystery, which is the main aspect of the novel may not seem very mysterious any more, but the background detail, just written in to add colour and interest gives us what people wore, what they ate, how they passed their time, how they travelled, how they conversed – and how they spoke to people of different classes.

It is the class aspect which I think has struck me most in rereading Christie – class transcended wealth, so the poorest middle class person saw themselves as superior to the ordinary working classes, and however many millions someone might have acquired, if they were from the lower orders they were never, ever upper class. Although a great writer in many ways, Christie is hopeless at describing ordinary people – who are usually servants in the household (even modest homes), shop or farm workers.

I was rereading one of her novels before I went to sleep last night and there was a young girl who was working as a servant in a moneyed household. She was just an ordinary girl but as usual with Christie, she was clumsy and adenoidal – an imagined stereotype. One of the main characters was a rich woman who enjoyed a life of leisure and luxury – when her husband bankrupted them, she was at a loss as to how to earn any money at all and I thought to myself that the disparaged servant would always be able to earn a living, she had more skills and ability than her privileged employer!

I might not like these attitudes, but they were of their time. If I look at these books not as something to send me off to sleep, but as a social document they are informative and will help me in my writing. I have put my 1950’s book to one side for the moment, but when I return to it there are some things I will thank Mrs Christie for!

9 Comments

  1. david lewis

    We were so far down the ladder in England that it was thought pretentious to give your child a middle name at birth.When I applied for a Visa card at the bank years ago they insisted that I have a middle name. I just put down R as it my brothers name and it was accepted. The class conscience snobbery even trickled down to those living just a little above poverty and my Dad would scare us with tales of the dreaded workhouse.

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    1. Lois

      The hospital where I was born used to be a workhouse, and some of my friends mums actually paid to go to a nursing home so their children wouldn’t be born ‘in the workhouse’… and these were just ordinary folk who couldn’t spare the money, but the stigma was so great. My middle name is Elizabeth… no idea why!

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  2. david lewis

    I guess my middle name is Robert not just R as that was my brothers name.The lowest on the totem pole in my Dads day were called Navvies. I didn’t find out until years later that Navvies was short for Navigators who were Irish laborers that built the canals across England.I guess even Gypsies had a higher ranking. My Dad didn’t want me to esteem to be any more than a tradesman although I loved economics and finance but I ended up loving my job and I earned a great living.

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    1. Lois

      Navvies have a proud history – even though they were treated so badly – it’s on their shoulders and because of their skill with spades that Britain rose to be a Victorian super-power – canals, roads, railways, sewers, underground railways, foundations for mighty buildings… all thanks to the navigators. The pub we had as our local in Oldham was called the Navigation because it was right beside a canal! Our friends no longer run it, they moved to Spain a while ago, it’s still a very fine pub: http://thenavigationdobcross.co.uk/

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  3. david lewis

    I also learned that Gypsies got there name because people thought they were from Egypt. My Mother was scared to death of them thinking they could put a curse on us or even kidnap me and my brother and raise us to be thieves.

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    1. Lois

      My dad always reckoned we had gypsy blood – his grandma was very dark and it was a family story… I can’t find any trace of that! Because when we lived in Cambridge it was very rural there were a lot of gypsies who travelled round doing seasonal work on the farms so I guess we were used to them

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