From Side to Side

Why do I love Miss Marple?

The books in which she resides are older; some of the books were written between the two World Wars. Agatha Christie didn’t have to recreate a past; she didn’t have to study English history to see how things were. She was writing about her own time. Miss Marple’s quaint village of St. Mary Mead is loveable and Christie had the resources to be true to life. It’s a lovely world where people live in old houses and have gardens instead of back yards; where people have sitting rooms and visitors and for some reason the kitchens have doors just like bedrooms. There is actually a meal called Tea, though where it fits in with the rest of the eating schedule I never did pin down.

I’ve read a little bit about the series and about Christie (though I haven’t read her autobiography) and nothing of what I read mentions that she had any particularly strong agenda. I think I might have to read her autobiography, just to see if it does go into more detail. I did read that an elderly lady character appeared in a novel, which was then written for stage and that in doing so they changed the character to a young woman. This appears to be the reason for the birth of Miss Marple: to give a voice to elderly spinsters.

That is what I mean by agenda. There was a reason for writing this type of character. In her novels there are many young, middle-aged and older single women. It seems to me that the First World War caused a distinct lack in eligible bachelors and many women had to cope with the fact that there weren’t enough men to go around. Women’s liberation got a boost after the Second World War; that’s when the sentiment really took root that women didn’t exactly nee a man in order to survive. But, before that, and after the First, women were in rather a different situation. This seems to be evident in the novels, and it makes me wonder if somebody in the year 2010 reading them would understand this. It makes me wonder if Christie wrote so that people 50 to 100 years later would get an idea what life was like in England and in general during that time, would get an idea of some of the residual consequences of war.

There is also the issue of maids and servants. It is an issue written about directly in the novel, The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, but it is addressed more subtly in the Miss Marple books. Early in the series she has a maid, as does every household it seems. Many had several servants, depending on the size of the property and the ability of the estate to afford it. In The Mirror Crack’d (from Side to Side), a later novel, they talk casually about how things used to be when one had a parlor maid. Something had shifted and that wasn’t the norm any more. Was it because the people who had been in those positions had new opportunities for lives of their own? Was it because WWII consumed the money from the estates and people couldn’t afford those luxuries any more? Or because it had consumed the lives of those who would have been in those positions? A common complain in the later novels is the difficulty in finding a reliable gardener. In The Mirror Crack’d Miss Marple considers a woman who is hired to help clean for her. She contemplates that this new class of woman was educated, but that she lacked the skills that her previous maids had had – how to wash a delicate tea set and how to scrub a floor. She doesn’t, as far as I can tell, lament this change; she simply notices it.

But, that’s not why I read them on the weekends sitting in a coffee shop when I should be cleaning my home. No. First of all, the avoidance of cleaning is an end unto itself. But, aside from that it makes me feel good to read these novels and stories. Of course murder is not a nice topic, but Christie approaches it in such a delicate way. One is not overwhelmed by graphic detail of decaying corpses and blood splatter. Miss Marple’s expertise is human nature and it seems to me that we could all use a lesson in that. America’s love affair with sociopaths should only strengthen that point of view. And, I just love to read about an older, Victorian lady, people drinking tea and all of those quaint things that I should probably be rolling my eyes at. I have faith that Christie knew what she was talking about and described them accurately. Of course it’s more of the privileged class that we read about and it might not be quite as nice if one were to consider the “other classes” who live at the periphery of the plots. I, myself, certainly would not be on par socially with Miss Marple. But, maybe that’s why I’m so in love with her; it’s so very different to me. I don’t really need to read about struggling with finances and the frustration of working with people that one would rather not work with; I live that every day. Miss Marple provides a nice escape from that reality. When I finished the series I felt the same way as I did when I finished the novel The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Though the ending is obviously why we read novels, I was very sad to have come to it.

By the end of the series the irony of a fluffy old lady being such a shrewd, unshakable sleuth gets a little tired, but a writer can never assume that the reader of the tenth novel in a series has read the other nine. Reading them in order was especially nice. Of course, I had read most of them previously when I was much younger, but many of them I truly did not remember that well and reading them in the suggested order I was able to see how an older lady who loved to work in her garden adapted to not being able to do so and to the shifting social paradigm. It’s definitely worth the effort to do so, but don’t rely on the publication dates. At least one of the novels written during WWII was published in the 70’s and would be noticeably out of sequence if it were read at the end of the series.

Now I can watch the movies. Many actresses have played the part of Miss Marple, but I seem to be drawn to Joan Hickson. And Julia McKenzie did a very good job as well, though I don’t feel that she came off as scattered or fluffy as she should have.

If you are interested in reading these mystery novels in the officially suggested reading order I would direct you to an Agatha Christie web site:, or you could go straight here ( and save a pdf. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

e A r n i e