I’ve already mentioned Miss Marple’s appeal as the quintessential Spinster Detective. But there’s more to say about her from a feminist perspective, and about the various adaptations (or, as I’ll refer to them from now on, “The Marples”). The setting of many of the stories in an England emerging from World War II, the shift in class structures this caused, and women’s changing roles are all played out in microcosm in the fictional village of St. Mary Mead.
We can see that the old class structures of English society are creaking under the pressure of changes that occurred in the wake of the war; one of the odd recurring themes in Miss Marple is the struggle that the (upper class, establishment) families have in finding “decent help” since the war (meaning competent servants who are prepared to work for them and treat them with the required deference).
Remember I mentioned Murder, She Said? Miss Marple goes to see an employment agency for servants; at first, the owner thinks she is looking to hire some “help” and is dismissive. Then she says she wants a position as a maid, and suddenly he’s all ears. In a few of the Hickson adaptations, there are scenes of domestic workers not having boiled eggs “properly,” tea trays being banged down on sideboards, and muted complaints from the classes who seem used to being able to pay people to make things exactly so for them.
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, which has been adapted four times for the screen, including a Bengali version which switches the action to Kolkata, features the introducing of council housing to the village—public housing construction stepped up in the UK after the war, partly to replace the thousands of damaged homes and partly for ideological reasons—and we get a little window in The Mirror Crack’d into the changes this caused. At the same time, the large house Gossington Hall has been sold to a wealthy American actress and her husband.
Miss Marple, on a basic level, is yet another example of the posh amateur detective solving the crimes that occur in circles of class privilege and money (as a friend pointed out, the working-class residents of St. Mary Meade seem to be actually beneath suspicion). But there are enough subtle glimpses of how the social structure at the time was changing to make it interesting.
Wardrobe, clothing and how women present themselves, and how women measure up against the village’s ideas of “respectability” also crop up fairly often as plot points. Wardrobe is given detailed attention and helps to tell the story of social change.
There’s a fantastic bit of dialogue in the Marple film I mentioned earlier, Murder, She Said, in which Marple sees a woman being strangled through the window of a passing train. Her body is later found in a manor house. No-one knows who the victim is at first, but someone in the family must have done it. The family is sitting around speculating about who the victim could have been; she was apparently found wearing “French” clothes, leading the family to assume this means she must have been French (and therefore, perhaps “a spy”).
A woman suggests that English girls sometimes go to Paris to buy clothes. To paraphrase (as I don’t have a copy with me right now), the patriarch of the family replies: No decent English girls would.
Miss Marple herself, in the Rutherford incarnation, as I mentioned goes undercover as a housekeeper. Most of the time she falls into the role with gusto, and is seen napping in the kitchen after cooking “traditional English” food for the family (which, as England was assimilating the cultures of the countries it had colonized, blithely included curry). But she also confounds the expectations of the household where she’s employed by bringing along golf clubs (she’s also a former golf champion, it turns out).
This weekend I rewatched one of the best Joan Hickson Marples, The Body in the Library. The body of a young woman, with “platinum blond hair” and a tattered evening dress, is discovered in the library of Jane Marple’s friend Mrs. Bantry.
First of all, I love the Marple-Bantry double-act: Mrs. Bantry is a bit like the Watson to Marple’s Holmes. Even the old fashioned wardrobe references their friendship (and isn’t it good to see female friendships represented on screen? This definitely passes the Bechdel Test).
Jane’s respectable, slightly old-fashioned and buttoned-up outfits, and her frequent knitting, have given rise to plenty of interest (try googling “What would Miss Marple knit?”)
But by contrast, a fair few of the female victims in Miss Marple are marked subtly or not-so-subtly as “not respectable” in the view of St. Mary Mead’s society, by means of their clothes, and the adaptations have various amounts of fun with the sexist reactions of the village to women and girls who don’t abide by their social conventions.
For example, because the victim of The Body in the Library is a “platinum blond,” at first the police suspect she might have been the girlfriend of the village’s resident movie star, Basil Blake:
Without giving too much away, the mystery of The Body in the Library turns on a dress, hair dye, and nail varnish. Just like Miss Marple hides a “mind like a meat cleaver” in the persona of a Spinster Detective, the murderer in this story seeks to conceal the deed by means of a series of misdirections about the “type” of woman who has been killed. Even the motivation for the murder hinges on yet another shocking blonde.
In Sleeping Murder, another wonderful Joan Hickson adaptation, the murder victim is a woman who is meant to have “run off” with another man, leaving her husband, after what seems like a string of affairs.
Refreshingly, in all these cases, Miss Marple manages to spot the judgments made about the victims, pinpointing the motivations and contradictions of the various characters on screen, and ultimately honing in on the truth.