Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Spinsters getting things done

Agatha Christie's The Murder in the Vicarage was free for Kindle, so of course I snapped it up. Of course it was good. Liking an Agatha Christie mystery is like, I don't know, enjoying a symphony by Beethoven or admitting that the French make some pretty decent wine. I liked that the story was told from the first-person perspective of one of the by-stander characters; that was pretty neat. Also, sunsets are profoundly beautiful.

Agatha Christie novels seem like classic old-lady reading, which, I admit, is kind of a barrier for me, although I also avoid books that are very popular currently. I will need to get over that because Miss Marple is a very enjoyable character. Of course she's a kind of soul sister to Dorothy Sayers' Miss Climpson, another spinster using her snooping powers for good. And I suspect I'm drawn to both of them through my childhood love of Nancy Drew -- another series I burned through as quickly as possible. Sure, Nancy had Bess and Ned and her father (Mr. Drew, Esq.?), but for the most part her investigating activities were powered by her own snooping.

Miss Climpson, if you're wondering, first appears in Unnatural Death; another notable spinster of the Wimsey series is Miss Murchison, who appears in Strong Poison.

Of course (setting aside Nancy Drew, Yank of the first order) both Climpson and Marple also belong to a very particular moment in the history of women, and specifically of single women. The late Victorian and Edwardian period had seen the rise of professional women asserting their right to support themselves, often through serving the professional needs of other women. Although many scholars argue that the rise of Freudian theories, which cast suspicion on single women as "repressed" (see: Gaudy Night), put an end to this flowering of independent single women, the situation between the wars was still very significant. After all, it was widely believed that the slaughter of the First World War must leave many women single who would otherwise have gotten married. And, let's don't forget, women in Britain got the vote in two stages: in 1918 women who might be qualified as "older" or more stable received the vote, and in 1928 women got the vote on the same basis as men.

All of which is to say that in the 1920s and 1930s when Christie and Sayers were writing the characters of Marple and Climpson, respectively, we have a society that was thinking about the contributions women on their own could make to society, and had been thinking about this for some time. Of course this isn't all rosy. Both Marple and Climpson are obviously "marginal"; they're almost constantly being insulted directly or indirectly. Their detective activities are an outlet of useful activity in lives that would otherwise, by implication, be pretty useless. But I still think they're interesting characters that point up a contemporary interest in spinsters, and a wider sense that women were becoming important (somehow).

Setting the historical interest aside, I've always liked characters who use their Special Expertise to solve a problem. Maybe that's why I like mysteries so much: because I'm just waiting for the situation in which my knowing what guttae are or how to format a bibliographic entry in Chicago style makes me the hero.

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