Dear Dame Agatha Christie,

Since I graduated from college, I’ve gorged on your novels, especially those featuring Miss Jane Marple.  I was a new bride, a new teacher, and new to New Haven Connecticut, and I loved escaping to St. Mary Mead, the prototypical English village where Jane lives. When I first began following her adventures, I’d never heard the word feminism, but even so I just loved the way that wise woman turns the stereotype of the small-town spinster upside down and inside out.

Jane is a cynic and a sophisticate, always ready to believe the worst of seemingly good people, eager to check out her hunches, and determined to punish the evildoers she unmasks. She capitalizes on the sexist and ageist views others have of her to manipulate them into revealing information or otherwise doing her will. She may be graying and wear the decorous dresses and hats we associate with elderly British women, but her eyes and ears are sharp, and her lust for information rivals that of Sherlock. Jane is a classic ratiocinative sleuth wearing a shawl, a chapeau, and a friendly smile instead of a cape, a deerstalker hat, and an arrogant sneer.

Her sleuthing prowess is not the only thing about her that intrigued me back then though. I’d been groomed to attract a husband so I could become a wife and mother, goals that, once accomplished, would fulfill and sustain me in my undoubtedly dependent dotage. Any alternative life plan was unthinkable. But reading about Jane Marple made me think about it. Thanks to her, while reading student papers, burning supper, and doing laundry I dared to wonder “what if” I’d waited a bit to marry.  What if I weren’t putting a husband through grad school? If we didn’t have to live in New Haven? Would I have been able to get work that enabled me to write something besides lesson plans? What if I didn’t worry about my old age just yet? There is no indication that Miss Jane Marple views her single state, her childlessness, or her advanced age as liabilities. 

My own advancing age was, literally, another story.  Decades later my first drenching hot flash hit me with the force of a tsunami of sweat instigated by my dwindling estrogen supply. Dismayed by this soaking and all the follow-up ones and angered by the dearth of menopausal fictional protagonists, I invented such a personage. But I had no story for her, so she remained, sweating and forgetting only inside my head.

Then local politicians forced the first woman president of the community college where I taught to resign. They did so because she refused to hire their ill-prepared relatives and friends to fill academic posts. Faculty protests changed nothing, and I felt helpless. It occurred to me that by insisting on the resignation of this committed educational leader, the politicos had orchestrated her professional demise just as surely as if they had actually murdered her. I envisioned her crumpled body on the ground. Corny as it sounds, the instant I pictured this woman as a corpse, I asked myself, “What would Miss Marple do?” The answer was simple.  She’d expose the killers and bring them to justice. There was the story I needed and it was a mystery. The sweaty character hanging out in my head made her way onto the page as amateur sleuth Bel Barrett, a modern and menopausal version of Jane Marple.

 But writing mysteries like yours did not turn out to be as effortless as reading them. Jane and Hercule are familiar to millions all over the world. People who have never set foot in England know their way around St. Mary Mead and Bertram’s Hotel. Finally, your adroitly plotted puzzles appear seamless, the clues so deftly planted as to be invisible. I will never forget my astonishment at the end of my first reading of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. How had I, a student of The New Criticism, a decoder of Eliot and Faulkner for god’s sake, missed that? I still have much to learn from you about plotting and from Jane about aging, so I always have an excuse to reread your books. Thank you so much for them all.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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1 Comment

Filed under feminist fiction, mystery

One response to “Dear Dame Agatha Christie,

  1. Dear Jane,

    Another beautiful tribute to a perennial muse. I love how you wove her storytelling into that time period of your life, where you yearned in the real world to live like the characters did on the page. Powerful stuff. It’s been years since I’ve read an Agatha Christie novel, and you’ve just inspired me to open them again.

    Also, I couldn’t agree with you more about the lack of strong female protagonists. I feel the same dearth exists today, and it’s something I struggle with even for my three-year-old daughter. For my four-year-old son, a wealth of role models dance and talk and carry on in front of him in books and in tv shows. Lightning McQueen (from the Disney movie Cars), dating back to Mowgli from The Jungle Book.

    But for my little girl, there are almost no stories that feature a young, female main character — where the female isn’t a helpless — or worse — arrogant excuse for a girl. It’s become expected in children’s literature today that little girls whine and lie and bully, and it’s got to stop.

    I read my daughter books like “The Little House” by Virginia Lee Burton, and “10 Apples Up On Top” by Dr. Seuss because the themes are strong. But I wish I had for her a book where the female lead was strong.

    I think the theme you touched upon, as a new wife, is something we all feel at different times of our lives. Thanks for taking the time to put pen to paper and share your thoughts.

    Melissa

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