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!