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Miss Climpson, Harley Quin, Joe Sixsmith, Montague Egg: if you’ve heard of these people you clearly have excellent taste.  If not, that’s hardly surprising as they’re all “minor” protagonists: their authors all wrote about other characters who became much more famous.  Dorothy L. Sayers created Miss Climpson and Montague Egg, but is more celebrated for Lord Peter Wimsey[1], whilst Joe Sixsmith appears in novels by Reginald Hill, who also invented Dalziel and Pascoe, and Mr. Harley Quinn is a stablemate of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s back catalogue.  I also prefer them to their better-known colleagues at times.  Partly literary hipsterism, I don’t doubt – the equivalent of liking bands that are more indie than anyone else – and partly a fondness for the more obscure corners of a subject which the need to find research topics might encourage…  But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the way “minor”, “lesser” or “peripheral” works affect our view of the more famous ones.

I recently read all the Montague Egg stories, mostly because I wanted a Sayers fix and her major novels were too fresh in my memory, but when I finished them and returned to the big books – Gaudy Night, Strong Poison, Murder Must Advertise – I found that I was reading them differently.  Montagu Egg is a commercial traveller, and the stories take place in small pubs and boarding houses. amongst characters much lower down the social scale than Lord Peter and his titled family.  The intricacies of this world are just as engrossing as the high society etiquette which people often praise in Sayers’ work, and more difficult to a reader who hadn’t encountered them before.  The distinction between a saloon bar and a public bar, or between the standing of a chemist’s assistant and the wife of a hotelier, were trickier to decode than the primogeniture malarkey that many of us are used to from P.G. Wodehouse or Downton Abbey.  When a landlady says she wasn’t brought up to the four-ale trade, is she suggesting she married a husband below her, or admitting she’s risen in the world?  After enjoying all the details of these social settings, I ran out of “minor” Sayers and went back to the Wimsey novels, expecting to be faintly bored with all the m’lording and London gentlemen’s clubs. Instead I found scenes I couldn’t remember having read before: of Bunter the valet taking tea with the cook, or Miss Climpson staying in a shabby boarding-house, surrounded by melancholy spinsters and retired majors on meagre pensions.  It seemed I’d totally misunderstood the Lord Peter books – instead of being about a brilliant aristocrat whose deductions imposed order on the world, they were about the awkward intrusion of the law into the dense system of lower middle class life.  I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.  Murder Must Advertise is an obvious example, but the same goes for Strong Poison and especially Unnatural Death.  Montagu Egg, bustling around the edges of Lord Peter’s existence as he tried to flatter the butler and charm the cook, had totally changed the way I saw Sayers’ fictional world.

A similar thing happened with Harley Quin.[2]  He appears in Agatha Christie short stories to help a solicitor called Mr. Satterthwaite solve crimes, often ones involving tangled emotional lives or stories from the past.  “Appears” is the word, since Mr. Quin tends to just arrive without warning and there are strong suggestions in the stories that he is somehow supernatural.  They’re not Christie’s finest works by any means, but they did make me more alert to certain elements in her more famous novels about Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.  For a start any mention of a Harlequin caught my eye, and there are a few of those.   Christie’s imagination seems to have been particularly taken by them.  The same went for anyone who arrived unexpectedly, and shook up groups of people who had something to hide.  And there’s the fact that Harlequin is from the commedia del’arte, an old Italian theatrical form which involves performers taking on stock roles such as the young lovers, the jealous old husband or the swaggering bully.  I started seeing patterns in Christie’s novels: not a rigid imposition of the commedia characters on her own, but a concern with how people’s actions – though they appear to be free – reproduce events from the past as if they’re locked into a role they didn’t choose.  If that sounds too fuzzy (and I don’t blame you if it does) then the appearance of a “definitely possibly” supernatural character threw attention back on Christie’s use of the uncanny and the spooky.  The times when an apparently supernatural event persists in the memory long after the ingeniously rational explanation has been laid out, or when a logical solution is presented but doesn’t seem to be the main focus of the story.  Both the Miss Marple and the Poirot novels seem at times far more interested in the uncanny effect than the actual crime which requires it, or the deductive processes which explain it.  Sleeping Murder is probably my favourite example at the moment.[3]

This idea that the “peripheral” or “minor” works shape our sense of an author’s whole output is a critical commonplace, and it works on more “high-brow” works as well.[4]  Hamlet, one of the most famous characters in Western literature, changed his appearance drastically for me a few years ago.  I’d been used to setting him in the great tragic canon, alongside Antigone, King Lear and Doctor Faustus.  He looked as if he spent his time concerned with the problems of human existence, the uncertainty of knowing about the afterlife and the emotional depths of family relationships.  Then I started reading Early Modern revenge tragedy: plays like The Spanish Tragedy, The Malcontent, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Tragedy of Hoffman, Antonio’s Revenge and The Duchess of Malfi.  Their reputation ranges from “significant non-Shakespearean work”, through “degenerate example of the form” all the way down to “utterly neglected, would make a good topic for your Master’s”.  After a while Hamlet looked more and more like one of the revengers who appear in a number of these plays: young, highly educated, dressed in fashionable black, sarcastic, violent, jumpy about women and convinced that the world has wronged him somehow.  What might have seemed incidental details in the past – Hamlet’s black cloak and his eagerness to get back to university at the beginning of the play – ceased to be contingent and came into focus as clues to his identity and meaning.  This doesn’t make his speeches any less profound or stop him being a tragic hero, but it completely changes the way I read the play when I’m not doing so for work purposes.  Though it does also affect my work: part of the research project I’m hoping to embark on soon involves investigating how the “peripheral” Shakespeare plays affected performances  and reviews of the “core” canon from the 1850s to the present day.  Once Measure For Measure and Titus Andronicus were part of the audience’s experience, how did that change their understanding of Macbeth or The Merchant of Venice?  I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts or examples in the comments below – how far do you think “minor” works can affect the “major” ones, and has it ever happened to you?


[1] I realise that Miss Climpson is possibly an odd one out here, since there are no actual “Chronicles of Miss Climpson”, and she only appears in Wimsey novels.  I think she still deserves a place in the list, as the rest of the piece will explain.

[2] No, not that Harley Quinn. I have had this misunderstanding before, and I do not intend to let it clog up the flow of this paragraph.  Carry on regardless.

[3] No prizes for guessing why that novel in particular appeals.

[4] M.J. Kidnie’s superb book Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation presents this idea in more depth as part of her argument about what we describe as a “production” and what as an “adaptation” of Shakespeare.

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