Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Miss Marple and the Case of the Superfluous Lesbians

This is something I've been mulling over for a few weeks, but I was prodded into writing by seeing Steven Riddle address the same issue (hat tip: Happy Catholic).

Mystery, the ever-popular series on PBS, recently ran a set of four new Miss Marple mysteries, all based on books that I'd read years ago. (I went through an Agatha Christie kick in my early teen years and churned through most of her works.) The four mysteries were Murder at the Vicarage, A Murder is Announced, What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw, and The Body in the Library. Murder at the Vicarage (barring the odd flashback sequences) and What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw were substantially the same tales I remembered. A Murder is Announced had some slight differences, and the denoument to The Body in the Library was so drastically unlike anything Dame Christie wrote as to send me out to the library searching for the original.

(I am sorry if I throw out any spoilers discussing the mysteries.)

The producers of Mystery have decided to spice up the Miss Marple cases by throwing in a few pairs of lesbians -- a move that is definitely unsubstantiated by the originals. In A Murder is Announced, there are a pair of spinsters who feature in the story -- Murgatroyd and Hinchliffe. In the book they are a dowdy old pair of friends, with nary a whiff of sexuality about them. Hinchliffe is indeed a mannish creature (Christie's description) and has nothing to do with men, but Murgatroyd is simply a frazzled, middle-aged bag of kindly fluff. They are housemates, an arrangement which is not commented on in the book. You'd think in a mystery set in the 1950s in which everyone's background is dug up, a lesbian pairing would be remarked upon openly, if it exists.

Not so in the tv series. Murgatroyd (what a name) is a slim and pretty young thing starting a lesbian relationship with the more masculine Hinchliffe (though they're trying to keep it a secret). She's a bit fluffy, but otherwise bears little resemblance to the woman in the book. And by making her Miss Marple's connection in the town, the movie eliminated the character of the vicar's wife, who was far more charming and interesting.

Still, perhaps I'd simply missed these sordid undercurrents as a twelve-year-old. But The Body in the Library made me cough on my iced tea in sheer confusion. You see, the producers had changed the identity of one of the murderers to create a lesbian couple killing in order to finance their escape from it all. Whoa, nelly! Not only was this far removed from anything I remembered of the original, but there were no clues leading up to this bizarre denoument (to guide us amateur sleuths in the viewing audience). Why go to such trouble to alter an already tightly-plotted mystery? It certainly wasn't flattering to the idea of lesbianism. Perhaps, as Dr. Johnson said, the wonder is not that it was done well, but that it was done at all. Maybe some liberal scriptwriter wanted to add more suspense to the tale and put in an "Aha! You're so close-minded you didn't even suspect this!" twist.

I did enjoy Geraldine McEwan's performance as Miss Marple, though. Re-reading the books, she's not exactly like the character Christie drew, but neither were these programs, so it doesn't really matter in the end, now does it?


Anonymous said...

The Joan Hickson versions were quite faithful to the books and a pleasure to watch. I watched a little bit of one of the new ones, and turned off the TV (permanently, as it happened) in disgust.

The new ones have a sly transgressive edge I suppose was thought to be better marketing to the young. Degrading trash imo, as well as not missing a beat for anti-American asides. I'm over-and-out, after a lifetime of enjoying the BBC.

Darwin said...

I agree it's sad what's been happening to BBC imports over the last 5-10 years. They used to almost always have really solid acting and writing, though the production values could be pretty bad. These days the production values are superb, but there's a creaping tendency towards revisionism in a lot of their work.

I think I only ever read one Agatha Christie mystery (I'm a big Sayers fan, though) but there were parts of the Miss Marple series that anyone could tell didn't fit, not just the lesbian thread, but also the inserted past for Miss Marple (she's had an affair with a married man before WWI, but realized she was wrong and broke it off right before he went off to war and died) which just didn't fit AT ALL with the classic mystery genre.

Inspector Lindley is definately their most "modern" series (and thus often least satisfying). I do rather enjoy Foyle's War, though my Pater finds the "not your parents WWII" angle hard to take at times. I try to assure myself that they're not so much suggesting all Brits on the home front were scabs, but rather that Foyle as a policeman mostly has to deal with those types. (And I really enjoy his drive, Sam.)

Anonymous said...

Mrs Darwin, you say that the lesbian couples are unsubstantiated by the originals. I agree about this in "The body in the library", but not in "A murder is announced".

In fact, I think that miss Hinchliffe and miss Murgatroyd, in the original novel by Christie, are lesbians, but that Agatha Christie was unaware of that!

What do I mean with this? The ladies were invented by Agatha Christie, so how can she be unaware of what her own characters are like?

Well, what I mean is that Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd were modelled upon real persons Agatha Christie knew of, and that these real persons were lesbians, without Agatha realizing that.

I got this idea when I learned from TV (or radio?) that there are couples of old ladies living together on the countryside (in this case it was in northern Sweden) who are lesbians, but because of prejudice they never revealed the true nature of their relationship to their neighbours. I don't think that Sweden and England are very different in this respect, and that such a secrecy must have been much more necessary decades ago when Agatha Christie wrote her novels. So I think that miss Hinchliffe and miss Murgatroyd were modelled upon such sectretly lesbian couples.

I've read most of Agatha Christies novels, and I can't recall that homosexuality is ever mentioned in any of them. It's certainly not mentioned in "A murder is announced". This makes me believe that homosexuality never existed in the thoughts of Agatha. Although she certainly did know it existed, she probably thought it only existed among odd and fringe people, and she probably never even got the idea that nice old ladies on the countryside could be lesbians. (Btw. the couple in the McEwan TV version is a lot younger than I got the impression that the couple in the original novel was.)

Recently, I found on the net that homosexuality is actually mentioned in some novel of Christie, but that's certainly exceptional, and I think my hypothesis is still valid...

Anonymous said...

I think that what Christie, in the novel, basically refers to, is the old custom of more or less man-hating spinsters living together in non-sexual, but very affectionate partnerships. This kinds of arrangements might be connected (and is connected by modern scholars) to early Feminist ideology, where the despise of men were paired with despise of sexuality (seen as a male and thus bestial phenomenon, opposed to the spiritual nature of women).

When people today tend to se such relationships as 'lesbian', that is 'sexual', it's very much a result of projecting our own world views on times and people who had radically different views. These women were not sexually involved, simply because they denied and despised sex.

But in this case (A Murder is Announced) I think Christie indicates a rather modern view of these kinds of relationships (that were rather old-fashioned in her day), and hints, ironically, at an unconscious, sexual basis for such relationships.

The clue here is no less that the name Murgatroyd. In Dorothy L. Sayers' Unnatural Death (1927), Miss Murgatroyd is an old spinster who, without knowing it, feeds the detectives with information leading to the solution of a cleverly conceiled murder. The social conditions of unmarried women is a strong side-motif in this novel -- and a young girl being attracted to (and badly abused by) another woman, dreaming about a life of chicken farming with her heroine, is a part of the plot. Here this kind of allegedly non-sexual attractions between women is obviously seen as a result of frustrated sexuality.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention, that the chicken farm stuff is a kind of debased reflection of a similar story two generations earlier (that would be, in the Victorian heyday of ideological spinsterdom) -- where the ladies in question (that is, the dominant one) were successfully into horse breeding.

Thete said...

I have to admit that I too am a bit amazed at how many lesbian murders there are in the new series of Miss Marple (from ITV, not BBC (as are most of the shows you are upset about) - hence the slightly different tone generally [so the person above need not worry about BBCs output]). But I would also agree that the couple in A Murder is Announced are indeed Lesbian (indeed, even the Joan Hickson version suggests this, just look at how Hinchcliffe reacts to Miss Blacklock at the end, that was not the reaction of just a friend, a series which tended to step away from the emotions of those left after the deaths shows, quite marvelously, a very true and real emotion). Christie may have even been aware of what the characters were (blatantly calling them lesbians in the book would have been a scandal at the time, and so she would have stayed away from such an act). But the contrast between a true hetrosexual female partnership, Miss Blacklock and Dora Bunner, and that of Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd is very clear. I'm sure this adventure could be analysed into it's very own thesis, but I would always imagine the same theory would be the outcome for our ill fated couple (ill fated due to the death of Murgatroyd, not due to their love for each other.

Oh, I would also disagree that the obsession with looking at the physical sexual act is important. How many times have people been physically attracted to each other without entering the sexual act? Either because it was immoral to their own beliefs (such as an affair) or just because they disagreed with or could not perform the sexual act. It does not change the sexuality? Although I'm not saying our lesbian duo were not sexual themselves, just that whether they were or not is unimportant.

Finally, who else thinks that the new version lacks a similar scene to the newly found out Miss Blacklock drowning her servant, Mitzi? This scared the living daylights of of me and my sister when we were kids, and was a wonderful scene!

Thete said...

I forgot to ask, if there such a big problem with ITV readapting the books incorrectly, what on earth people think of Margret Rutherfords portrayal and her scripts? Surely far worse to the books (Christie is reported to have disliked the movies) than the adventures ITV has created (and in a way which means even the most hardened Christie fan has a challenge now, as the murder may well not be who they think it is)? Now don't get me wrong, I'm a Hickson fan through and throuhg, but it's pause for thought, surely?

Anonymous said...

Whether the Misses Murgatroyd and Hinchliffe were involved in a physical relationship or not, what matters is that they meant a great deal to each other. They may have been lovers; they may have been two spinsters who set up housekeeping together for the companionship, safety, and economy of such an arrangement. Such households were not uncommon on either side of the Atlantic in the early 20th century. For a somewhat more recent mystery novel spin on such a relationship, consider Joyce Porter's Hon. Con (the Honorable Constance something) books. Constance, a mannish woman who lives with a more feminine friend named Alice (yes, I'm sure the resemblance is intentional) is evidently lesbian without knowing it.

Anonymous said...

A couple of additional scraps of thought: The plan of two women setting up a farm together calls to mind D. H. Lawrence's The Fox. Then, as for Dame Agatha's opinion of Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple, it's worth noting that one of her late Miss Marple books is dedicated "To Margaret Rutherford, in admiration."

Rabitos Perdidos said...

I also coughed up my tea and ran to fetch the book... this wasn't the ending I remembered!!
Is it legal to change an author's ending??