Yesterday the journal Shakespeare published an article entitled “Three Ordinary, Normal Old Women: Agatha Christie’s Uses of Shakespeare”. The reason I’m mentioning this, aside from the fact that it’s an interesting topic, is that I wrote the article. It’s the first piece published from my research project into Agatha Christie’s work, and into midcentury detective fiction more broadly. I thought it might be of interest to some of you, and if I’m reading the publishing licence correctly then I am permitted to post the version of the article which Shakespeare accepted for publication, so here it is as a downloadable PDF.
The article is part of a larger investigation of Agatha Christie’s allusions and engagements with other texts. As well as Shakespeare, I’ve been examining her allusions to the Bible, to the visual arts, to Dorothy L. Sayers and to witchcraft texts. Christie has had an odd critical history. She has often been dismissed as a hack or a writer of formulaic reactionary nonsense. As a female writer of popular fiction she has been subject to an awful lot of unthinking scorn, rooted in sexism and a simplistic view of literature. She also appears to have suffered from scorn from readers and critics who consider themselves too radical to take an old woman from the midcentury seriously.
However, it is not only the scorn of critics which damaged Christie’s reputation, but their praise as well. Those who liked her novels often praised them in rather patronising ways, emphasizing what they saw as her robust lack of pretension and her cheerful simplicity. (Infuriatingly, Christie and Sayers are often played off each other by critics, who either praise Sayers by calling Christie a cookie-cutter hack, or praise Christie by calling Sayers a pretentious bluestocking.) In both the praise and the scorn something seems to have been lost: that Christie as a talented novelist who reflected on the nature of her craft, experimented with the possibilities of the detective novel, and was still expanding her technique long after reviewers had moved their attention elsewhere.
There are shrewd and intriguing readings of her work from critics in the last few decades: Alison Light has focussed on her as a “conservative modernist”, Nicola Humble has grouped her in the “feminine middlebrow” and Susan Rowland has examined her as part of a deliberate tradition of female crime writers which ran “From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell”. In more recent years, Jamie Bernthal-Hooker has discussed her works in the context of queer theory, and there has been a general interest in how feminist and post-colonial theory might continue to illuminate her novels.
My own work is rather more old-fashioned and less theoretical: in studying her engagement with other texts and with the cultural ideas of her (changing) time I hope to do some of the literary criticism which Christie’s work has frequently been denied. I think it has been neglected because either her novels were not considered significant enough, or because it seemed obvious what a mid-century woman like Christie would have meant. I beg to differ. From her references to Yazidi theology to her allusions to Italian renaissance painting, and from her reading of The Golden Bough to her postcolonial rewriting of Jane Eyre, I have found Christie an absorbing and surprising subject for literary criticism. Here’s the abstract from my article:
This article draws on recent scholarship on Shakespearean allusions and crime fiction to develop an in-depth exploration of Agatha Christie’s quotations from the playwright. These quotations do not tend to point to the murderer or give clues to the plot, but fall into three major categories. In some novels she uses them to interpolate the reader within the layers of intertextuality within crime fiction, aligning them with the author and with the detective rather than other characters. In other novels she uses discussions of Shakespeare to position her characters in the mid-century “feminine middlebrow” mode of novels identified by Nicola Humble. In a trio of late novels, her characters use reflections on how Macbeth should be staged to gain insights about the dangerous worlds they inhabit. The article examines how the novels engage with the Shakespearean text, but also with the shifting conceptions of Shakespeare which developed during the twentieth century. It reveals a sophisticated set of textual strategies within Christie’s novels, which debate the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays, and stage controversies over the ways in which those meanings should be accessed and reproduced.