Conservatism and the Queer:
The Context of Family Values and Homosexuality in Agatha Christie’s ‘Post-War’
“Don’t you feel yourself that he’s a possibility? He’s the sort of person who might be lonely – and unhappy – and spiteful. Everyone, you see, rather laughs at him. Can’t you see him secretly hating all the normal happy people, and taking a queer, perverse, artistic pleasure in what he was doing?”1
‘Queer’ was a relatively nuanced but conveniently homonymic word which Agatha Christie relished in employing to identify male homosexual characters in her wartime novels. As the above except from her 1943 novel The Moving Finger attests, the queerness in Christie’s characters was often elucidated by presenting them as detached from the community, single and without familial ties. Mr Pye, who is the queer subject of this excerpt, was also characterised with intrinsically feminine traits:
‘Mr. Pye was an extremely ladylike plump little man, devoted to his petit point chairs, his Dresden shepherdesses and his collection of period furniture.’1
Described as ‘a misfit’, he had fled London to the parameters of provincial England due to his ‘cowardice’ in the face of the V1 or ‘doodlebug’ bombs.2 This ‘rootless’ characteristic, bestowed upon many of Christie’s queer characters, shares many similarities to the highly suspect ‘spinster’ characters that she created; subjects who chose to relocate to the seclusion of the provinces to attain anonymity during peacetime. Charlotte Blacklock of A Murder is Announced (1950), the definitive Dresden Shepherdess antiquarian ‘spinster’, used anonymity to murder three characters, including strangling lesbian character Miss Amy Murgatroyd. As Dennis Altman states, Christie’s novels ‘suggests another and less ordered world lying beneath conventional middle class English prejudices and class structures.’3
Christie’s ‘other’ world was, however, marked with it’s own clear distinctions between the genders of the homosexual characters. For example, lesbian characters, such as Miss Myrgatroyd, were presented by Christie as less intelligent than the average occupant of the village, often refereed to as ‘innocents’.5 Yet they were welcomed into society, unlike Mr Pye, and mourned for when murdered. These queer codes that Christie crafted were not unchanging during her career, alongside the codes that she established in presenting the heteronormative family. By the 1960s, her queer characters were openly acknowledged:
“He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean” He had paused, slightly embarrassed but surely even dear old Aunt Jane must have heard of queers.”6
Although candid, this direct acknowledgement of a homosexual character in A Caribbean Mystery (1963) is never developed. The house-sitting queer is only realised in a sentence, present yet invisible. Christie’s Miss Marple relied upon observing the intersection of new and old, perhaps more than Christie herself did. The changes in codes between texts that are observable, however, were subject to the cultural and political climate in which Christie was selling her novels, which shifted according to historical context. Moreover, the queer characters that Christie created have been re-interpreted, re-coded and are occasionally crafted into the text when adapted for television. These developments are an indication of shifts in the cultural and political understanding of homosexuality and its relationship to the nuclear family. The popularity of the BBC’s Miss Marple series, which ran from 1984 to 1992, owes as much to Thatcherism than to the specific form of conservatism that Christie drew upon. As Alison Light has surmised, ‘It may be precisely because she is not the comfortable high Tory for whom she has so often been mistaken, but a representative of a conservatism much closer to the bone of English life that she has remained both a literary embarrassment and continuously popular.‘7 ITV’s Marple, which began in 2003 with Geraldine McEwan, detached itself from this particular model of conservatism, was dubbed by The Telegraph as comparable to ‘how one envisaged one of Tony Blair’s audiences with the Queen: a meeting between pseudo-wisdom and the real thing’, before resurrecting certain tropes set by the BBC when Julia McKenzie was recast as Miss Marple in 2010.8
Despite Altman’s call for a queer reading of Christie’s works, the few scholarly endeavours that have addressed sexuality within her works have done so via the heteronormative codes that she used. This essay suggests that a queer reading of not only her queer characters, but of how they relate to their heteronormative community are important in understanding the social, political and cultural climate of homosexuality – particularly conservative ideals – at their time of production. My approach is drawn from the rich methodologies employed in both Richard Dyer and Andy Medhurst’s articles on Victim (1961), particularly Medhurst’s piece ‘Victim’: Text as Context (1984).9 My effort, to borrow Medhurt’s helpful phrase, also refuses ‘to jettison history from cultural analysis.’10I will relate the text of The Moving Finger, and its adaptations, to their cultural and political ‘queer’ climate, to explore the relationship between configurations of homosexuality, social context and shifting definitions of the conservative ideal of the heteronormative ‘nuclear’ family. I do so with Medhurst’s understanding that the the ‘text does not unproblematically ‘reflect’ the context’, and also with the belief that the ‘text and and contexts are indivisibly interrelated discourses’.11 Whilst I will use Christie’s The Moving Finger as my central text, other works or adaptations of Christie’s that share the use of the same use of codes will be drawn upon to further illustrate particular dominant ideas.
Agatha Christie’s Post-war?
‘I know they were crimes, but to what they were in the world, they were gentle…she had justice for everyone’.12
Christie is frequently cited as being the best selling British author during the Blitz – The Moving Finger was one of twelve written by Agatha Christie during the second world war.- and yet she chose not to situate any of her ‘Miss Marple’ novels within wartime Britain. Elaine Kidwell, a young air raid warden based in London during the Blitz, situated Christie’s novels as her key form of escapism during raids.13 Stating that she had ‘justice for everyone in her books’, Kidwell’s recollections provide us with a lucid indication as to their popularity during the conflict. They allowed a distance from the realities of war, with a close focus upon peacetime. Mass-Observation, an anthropological initiative running throughout the war that purported to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, located Christe’s novels as one of the most popular authors at ‘the time of investigation’ (1942).14 The organisation continually posited questions to its panel of respondents across Britain as to how peacetime was envisaged. Often the most prolific responses that Mass-Observation gleaned during the conflict were focused upon hopes and wants for peacetime, as exemplified by the increasingly prominent ‘housewife’ diarist, Nella Last:
“The thought that peace might soon be here, that mothers and wives could cease their constant worry, and anxiety, that people could begin to live their own lives again.”15
Although Miss Marple has become synonymous with post-war provincial England, it is important to acknowledge that a number of these books were not written as a reflection of the realities of post-war society, but were crafted from Christie’s own conception of what this period would be like. It is equally important to note that not only were producers of televised adaptations drawing upon Christie’s projected conception of peacetime, but narrowed the entirety of their own production to within its confines. The BBC’s Miss Marple series of the 1980s, as with contemporary adaptations of ‘Hercule Poirot’ novels, did not reflect the original chronological time-frame that Christie wrote through, but rather solidified them in an evocative, and perhaps ‘quintessential’ time in space.
Alison Light states that the characters that are of primary concern within the ‘essentially rootless and unsettled world she invents’ are ‘people who have very shallow lineages.’16 Christie’s queer males were without exception newcomers to the community, and as such were suspect and positioned outside of the family, both physically and socially. Published shortly after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised private sexual acts between consenting adult men over 21, Quentin Crisps sensational autobiography The Naked Civil Servant bought colour to the queer world in which Agatha Christie created such characterisations. Effeminacy and the illusion of excess were Crisps ticket to both identity as a queer man, and his salvation from the compulsory ‘call up’ to fight.17 Effeminacy had become a code closely associated with homosexuality, and the commodities associated with it, such as lipstick or powderpuff, were common items used as evidence to convict homosexuals throughout the mid-twentieth century. Matt Houlbrook has pertinently stated that material commodities such as the powder-puff “established the actuality of a man’s bodily transgression.”18Many of these contemporaneously understood codes were retained in this novels’ televised adaptations, however the additional codes that are evident are marked by their own contemporary attributions. These adaptations therefore not so much reflect the complexities of the codes which Christie addressed in her original novels, but rather indicate and elucidate the cultural and political concerns from the time in which they themselves were created.
‘Quintessential’ Miss Marple in Thatcher’s Britain
Plate 1: Richard Pearson as Mr Pie in BBC’s 1985 The Moving Finger
Joan Hickson, who had starred in many of the British Carry-On films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, was Christie’s own choice for Miss Marple. She was no stranger to Christie’s works, starring in MGM’s Murder, She Said (1961) alongside Margaret Rutherford as a robust Miss Marple, and was cast in the 1945 London stage premier of Appointment with Death. Christie was so taken by her performance that she wrote to her stating that “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.“19 This widely known endorsement of Hickson by the author has been used to uphold an idea that the BBC’s 1980s adaptations of Christie’s novels are faithful representations. There are, however, clear and time-specific differences that illuminate the cultural climate within in which they were produced that are distinct from those of the 1940s.
As my introduction demonstrates, Christie differentiated between the codes she used to suggest male homosexuals and those she used to write lesbians. Although many of these distinctions were retained when adapted for television, additions were also made to them. Mr Pie isn’t addressed in either sense of the word queer in the BBC’s 1986 adaptation of The Moving Finger, but rather it is the musical score that acts as a mouthpiece for the codes that define both definitions of it. When Miss Marple asks if Mr Pie has received a poison pen letter – one of the central plots to the novel – he replies:
Mr Pie: “Me? Whatever have I to hide that might interest the writer?”
Miss Marple: “Oh, I’m sure I don’t know, Mr Pie.”20
The introduction of a gently staccato flute line of the title theme at the end of Miss Marple’s knowing answer is intended to provide the audience with the knowledge that she is fully aware of his sexuality. The revised spelling of the characters name is significant. He is not afforded the Latin spelling of the surname that Christie endowed him with, but is renamed Mr Pie, the Old French variation. Deriving therefore from the ‘magpie’, the ‘talkative, thievish and solitary’ connotations that the name holds exemplify the newly coded character. This subtle spelling change clinches important differences that the BBC made to his character. Mr Pie is far wealthier than the novel suggested, and his wealth is not inherited but is defined as ‘new’.21 Although still comparable in codes of femininity to the ‘spinster’ characters of Lymmington, Mr Pie’s ostentation is considered crass, and his house exemplifies this detachment from the community. Christie’s original character is described only as living in a ‘lodge’ house, which was ‘hardly a man’s.’22 Upgraded by the BBC to a manor house, Mr Pie’s lifestyle is conspicuously plentiful in an era marked by austerity and rationing (see plate 1).23 When Hickson’s Miss Marple enquires about Mr Pie’s flight from the ‘doodlebugs’, suggesting that we are in the immediate post-war, he replies that he has found ‘sanctuary within this house, and not with the neighbours:’24
Miss Marple: ‘Oh? Don’t you find that a little limiting?’
Mr Pie: ‘Not if you have a passion for fine things. Do you not think that a house can be passionate?’25
Mr Pie is presented as content to live a solitary life amongst his Dresden Shepherdesses, but is critical of women for sharing this ‘unnatural’ lifestyle, describing Emily Barton’s house, a local spinster, as a ‘monument to her mother’s perversions.’26 Alison Light locates the borgeousification of the 1980s BBC series as a close indicator of a shift in conservative values that are quite distinct from Christie’s original conceptions.27 And yet the queer character, and his isolation, evoked in this adaptation is perhaps the most vivid indication of this shift.
Singleness was an increasingly detrimental position in financial and political terms under Thatcher in the 1980s. The Children Act (1989) and the Child Support Act (1991) identified the main beneficiaries to welfare as those within a heterosexual marriage.28 Moreover, AIDS located homosexual men firmly outside of the heteronormative sphere of the nuclear family. As Lucy Robinson argues, the ‘assumed correlation between homosexuality and paedophilia’ and the ‘wider context of fear of AIDS transmission’ increased a shared sense that ‘education was one of the key areas where children needed to be protected from homosexuality.’29 This tension, between the public reality of AIDS and its perceived threat to the increasingly privatised family, culminated in the Local Government Act of spring 1988, or Clause 28, which was seen by many ‘as a wholesale attack’ at any ‘discussion of homosexuality at a time when the emergence of AIDS called for precisely more education and openness’.30 Despite the borgeousification of Mr Pie, the depiction of this character is fairly in keeping with how Christie crafted him: at the parameters of society and forgotten half way through the drama. Reviewed alongside a televised 1985 re-release of The Naked Civil Servant (originally broadcast in 1975), Gay Times lambasted bothadaptations for their ‘constricting characterisations’ of queer characters.31 Crisp, once an iconic beacon against the hostility and brutality of queer life in the 1930s and 40s, became an alienating presence within it, with Gay News stating that his autobiography should have been published posthumously as ‘a literary way of saying, ‘Drop dead.’’32 Conversely, publications such as Gay Times and Gay News were symbols of a new queer culture, of a hyper-masculine aesthetic and of its increasingly commercial as much as political nature – a landscape in which the figures of Mr Pie/ Pye and Quentin Crisp, for some, was quite obsolete. They were as equally problematic portrayals as those which Joshua Gamson describes as the similarly ‘stereotypical conceptualisations of AIDS that vilify gays and legitimate homophobia.’33Akin to the levels of homosexual coding that ITV used to adapt their equally quintessential Brideshead Revisited (1981), it was assumed that many of the original codes that Christie relied upon in the 1940s, such as feminine tropes and antiquarian habits, were appropriate in illuminating Pie’s sexuality in the 1980s, but that his incongruence within the heteronormative sphere could be strengthened by emphasising the excess within which he lived his life.
The Moving Queers
Plate 2: John Sessions as Cardew Pye in ITV’s 2006 The Moving Finger
Mr Pye regains his original name spelling when he appears in the 2006 ITV adaptation of The Moving Finger. He is also given a first name not afforded by Christie, Cardew. The addition of a specific name again is coloured by John Sessions portrayal of the character, ‘spiky’ and gossiping. Her is also far more candid about his own sexuality in this adaptation:
Cardew Pye: “I tend toward the Greek. Mr Burton, what is your inclination?
Joannah Burton: “Head over the handlebars eh Jerry?
Cardew Pye: “Oh! I say! A tongue with a tang!”34
Sessions is far more ‘camp’ than the ‘ladylike’ attributions that Christie coded for Mr Pye, and his frankness about his sexuality is a common feature of numerous additional scenes that he is written into. His delivery of the Shakespeare quote – ‘a tongue with a tang’ – is afforded all of the rhythmic colour found in the Polari patter made popular by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick’s Julian & Sandy in BBC’s Round the Horne (1965 – 1968). This character development, the proclivity to converse in an relatively inaccessible language, is central in understanding the period in which the producers are drawing upon for this adaptation. With wider production of docu-drama’s focused upon the anniversary of post-war homosexual law reform, such as A Very British Sex Scandal (C4 2006) and Consenting Adults (BBC 2007), the publication of widely received academic books such as Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London (2005), and the broader media focus upon the 1950s during Queen’s Golden Jubilee (2002), this adaptation is very much set in the very heart of a conception of mid-1950s Britain, rather than the immediate post-war. It has been re-imagined through a specific lens, conjuring the psychologically evocative aesthetic of Hitchcock, with bold primary lighting, disjointed camera angles and montage cutting. The producers drew upon a genre created in Britain during the inter-war era and popularised in the United States in the post-war.In keeping with the BBC, Cardew Pye’s house is far larger than Christie suggested, and is decorated with all the gaudy excess of Buckingham Palace, with ornamental gilt cherubs adorning his lavishly appointed rooms (see plate 2). With far more interaction with the community in this portrayal, Cardew Pye is a regular at tittle-tattle dinner parties and frequents the position of organ master and singing teacher to two young sons of Mr Symington, described themselves as ‘cherubs’.35Far more suspect a character in this version, the drama’s Inspector Graves provides us with a glimpse into a corner of Pye’s life:
Inspector Graves: “Very strange man, Mr Pye. Made a few enquiries, found that he’d come to the attention of my colleagues in the West Country.
Jerry Burton: “In relation to what?
Inspector Graves: “Matters of a hardly savoury nature.”36
Plate 3: John Sessions as Cardew Pye in ITV’s The Moving Finger (2006)
The additional plot line that ITV crafted shares many of the same ingredients found in the mid-1950s Newspaper coverage of the cause célèbre cases of John Gielgud and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who were publicly convicted for homosexual offences between 1953 and 1954. Before his sensational trial of 1954, that has been widely cited as influential in instigating the ‘Wolfenden’ committee that recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual offences, Lord Montagu had been tried for homosexual offences against two young boy-scouts. The charge levied against Montagu bore no mention of paedophilia, a term not used until the 1980s, but instead, like similar contemporary cases, were fundamentally ‘homosexual’ in terms of their illegality. Indeed, the Church of England strengthened its stance concerning homosexuality at this time, with the Bishop of Rochester stating publicly that he found himself ‘personally feeling more sympathy with a curate or scoutmaster who has offended with a boy than with two grown men misbehaving together’.37 Although homosexuality and sex with children were in effect conceived of as indistinct in legal terms, it was homosexuality that bore the legal penalties. The decision to add a connection between Cardew Pye and the Symington children is an important one. The manner in which Pye bends the two young boys over into a reluctant bow after a musical performance draws closely upon both historically specific connotations between homosexuality and paedophilia, and presents them to an audience at a time when the figure of the paedophile had become ‘one of the most terrifying folk-devils imagined in recent British history’ (see plate 3).38 The widely publicised deaths of Sarah Payne (2000), Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (2002), the News of the World campaign to ‘name and shame’ paedophiles, and revisions made to the Sexual Offences Act (2003) had all elevated the ‘paedophile’ as a ‘blanket term to cover all forms of child sexual abuse and all types of child sexual abusers.’39ITV had made good use of this connection between homosexuality and paedophilia when revising Christie’s novels for adaptation. In their version of A Body in the Library (2004) the murders of the drama were changed from a heterosexual couple to lesbians, and one of their victims, Pamela Reeves, had her age revised from 16 to 15. Coinciding with further tabloid revelations that ‘Moors Murderer’ Myra Hindley had numerous lesbian affairs during her prison sentence for killing five children in the 1960s, and an ITV drama See No Evil (2004) depicting the events, the aesthetic of the ‘grooming’ scene draws heavily upon Hindley’s blonde bombshell look, and makes other parallels, such as picking Reeves up in a car, that are similar to this culturally prominent event (see plate 4). Indeed the only ‘Marple’ novel where lesbianism was originally suggested as a motive for murder – Nemesis (1971) – was re-imagined by ITV into a religious narrative, with a Nun taking the role of lesbian killer of a young Sister rather than an obsessive spinster. Just as the gild cherubs act as codes for sexual perversion in Cardew Pye’s mansion, the increased exposure of child abuse under the auspices of religious institutions during these adaptations productions is worked into their narratives.
Plate 4: Mary Stockley and Tara Fitzgerarld In ITV’s The Body in the Library (2004)
Stuart Hall stated that ‘representation’ cannot possibly be a fixed, unchangeable notion. While culture and language evolve and grow with human society, the same must therefore be said of the perceptions of ‘representation’.40It would be entirely inaccurate, therefore, to state that these adaptations became the dominant incarnation of Christie’s text. As Mass-Observation had found in their wartime survey of book reading, film adaptations promoted the sales of books: ‘Having seen a film, people like to keep it in some permanent form by buying the book.’41 The same can be said for televised versions at their point in time, with high sales of new editions of Christie’s books with the current actresses photos donning the front covers.42 Indeed, often the variations from novel to screen were a source of outrage, most noticeably with their insertion of overt homosexual characters. The Telegraph bemoaned that ITV’s Marple had ‘plundered our shared perceptions of what her world looks like, creating a post-modern image of 1950s England’, and the BBC capitalised on this disdain for the modified ITV plot-lines by releasing the Hickson versions on DVD in 2005: “Fans of a good murder mystery without extra lesbianism will be thrilled to hear that the BBC’s own version of Miss Marple is coming to DVD at long, long last” (see plate 5).43 This criticism of additional queer characters and its capitalisation of a ‘purist’ market overlooks the modifications that the 1980s itself made to Christie’s existing queer characters, and as such reflects a desire for a concept of the past that is and of itself a re-conceptualised one.
Plate 5: BBC advert for Miss Marple DVD’s (2005)
Shifting new and old ‘perversion’
As Cathy Cohen states, the queer lens can not only make central ‘the socially constructed nature of sexuality and sexual categories, but also the varying degrees of multiple sites of power distributed within all categories of sexuality, including the normative category of heterosexuality.’44 The power to propagate the notion that homosexuality and paedophilia are not only detached from the heteronormative sphere, but are essentially of the same identity, is bound within categories and codes of permissive heterosexual behaviour that have been constructed within these portrayals. The heterosexual love story that threads through The Moving Finger is pure Pygmailion, with Shaw’s Doolittle realised in Megan Hunter, who Christie described as an ‘awkward girl …although actually
twenty, she looked more like a schoolgirl.’45 Jerry Burton is, however, a placid Higgins, a recovering airman, injured in combat, who pampers the child-like Megan into stylised womanhood. This classically inspired heteronormative scenario relies upon an understanding of romanticism attached to the codes of youth and innocence and the transformative capability of love. For Christie, however, love itself was not exclusively the stabilising root of the pillar of ‘family values’, but could often be closer to its Achilles heel: ‘Love is a very terrible thing. It is alive to evil, it can be one of the most evil things….’46This clear tension between the centrality of love within marriage and its potentially destructive nature, which Claire Langhamer states as ultimately ‘carrying the seeds of its own destruction’, is reinterpreted against the dominant contemporary concerns at the time of these adaptations.47 Moreover, these modifications relating to these heteronormative codes have pivotal implications for those used to code homosexuality.
When Jerry Barton firsts meets Megan in Christie’s text, we are directed to understand that he believes she is of school age and that there are no signs of sexual interest on Barton’s part. When Megan’s family’s maid is brutally murdered, Jerry invites her to reside with him and his Sister, Joanna. It is the physical transformation that she undergoes in a trip to London that turns her from a ‘troubled’ child into a woman. These transformative narratives concerning to the cusp of womanhood were commonplace in early twentieth-century novels, such as Daphne DuMurier’s Rebecca (1938).48 The impropriety of this transformative process, when girlhood is cajoled by the heterosexual man into a sexual woman, is not found within the act of doing so, but in the revelation that the love by which it was transformed had been tainted by adulterous or murderous actions beforehand. It has been noted by Chia-ying Wuthat Christie’s own experiences of divorce in 1928, after her husband’s affair and her much publicised ‘disappearance’, shaped her characterisations of love and its instability.49 As Claire Langhamer’s study of adultery establishes, as love and sex became central to the heterosexual institution of marriage in Britain in the twentieth-century ‘that very same emphasis encouraged a hardening of attitudes towards extra-marital sex even as it became more common.’50 The concept of a ‘golden age’ of’ marriage, as the mid twentieth-century has been problematically termed, played a central role within stabilising the ‘model’ heteronormative family and its values, and consequently shaped conceptions of those outside its confines.51
Plate 6: (from left to right) Megan’s transformation into ‘womanhood’, BBC’s The Moving Finger (1985)
The BBC’s 1985 adaptation of this love narrative couldn’t be closer to the ‘stuff of which fairy tales are made’ that was referenced by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Wedding of Diana and Charles in 1981.52 Megan’s transformation scene is accomplished through a photographic still montage of the couple in Fortnum & Mason, where her darned, child-like socks are slowly removed before fine silk stockings complete her reshaped her image, culminating in ‘Princess Di’ flicked hair do for tea at the Ritz (see plate 6). The Pygmailion similarities are made explicit in this adaptation, unlike the book, when Jerry states that he is ‘going to play Professor Higgins’ with Megan. The ostentation with which he does so is exhaustively 1980s and far from the more modest makeover at a dressmakers that Christie afforded.53 Similarly to how this adaptation both retained and added to the codes with which Christie conveyed homosexuality, the most notable addition to Christie’s conception of idealised heteronormative love comes in the form of luxury and excess. These heteronormative excesses are, however, sold to the audience as the romantic and economic gains of love rather than the discrepant lubricants of vice.
Plate 7: Megan’s bedroom, ITV’s The Moving Finger (2006)
ITV’s offering of this heteronormative love story focuses more acutely upon the age difference between Megan and Jerry. When he calls to collect Megan from her home, he finds her in her bedroom, which is still decorated like an infants nursery. Puppets line the walls, with a large wooden rocking horse foregrounding the shot (see plate 7). Megan slumps to her knees for Jerry’s help, and sobs into his crotch, gripping his waist. He appears shocked at both her innocence and this realisation of her as a sexual being. It is interesting, therefore, that this Jerry is not responsible for Megan’s transformation into womanhood, but only facilitates it. Megan blossoms into womanhood in Jerry’s garden in this version, with the makeover organised by his sister, Joanna. It is important that the duty to transform Megan into womanhood has been transferred to a woman in this adaptation, when her youth has also been so carefully emphasised. Particularly so when this versions ‘Cardew’ Pye has been so conspicuously adorned with ‘cherubs’. The screenwriters have also been careful to avoid using any of the original plot lines concerning Megan and Jerry that could seem contemporaneously problematic, such as Jerry dragging Megan into his empty train carriage to London for her transformation. The politics and cultural climate surrounding paedophilia, and in particular the concept of ‘grooming’ in light of the cases of Sarah Payne (2000) and Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (2002), have shaped the lines by which codes are distributed. Here, the heterosexual man is allowed to indulge in youthful innocence when it has been conditioned and presented safely by another woman, without the connotations of impropriety so effortlessly levied upon a homosexual character. The coding between the permissive and the perverted is afforded all of the classic pendulumic balance of 1940s Hollywood that Vito Russo disclosed in The Celluloid Closet (1981). Reiterated in the film version of Russo’s work of the same name, Hitchcock’s direction of Rebecca (1940) emphasised the ‘girl’ like innocence of the ‘Second’ Mrs. DeWinter by counterbalancing it against the knicker-draw rifling Mrs. Danvers.54 This transference of perversion from the heterosexual sphere to that of the ‘queer’ is again realised in the ITV adaptation of The Body in the Library (2004), when Lesbianism becomes the central reason for child murder instead of the originally penned motive of heterosexual greed. Ruby Keen and Pamela Reeves are killed not simply for money in this version, but also for the autonomy and anonymity with which money could facilitate a queer relationship in a specifically conceptualised queer climate.
I suggest that the conservatism that has been attributed to Agatha Christie has been shaped not by the Burkean influences that wrought her own projection of post-war family life, but has been skewed by the lenses with which specific institutions have adapted her ideals into their particular cultural and political climate. The emotive potency and danger of love, as it centralised itself at the heart of marriage during the mid-twentieth-century, was often the ‘why’ of Agatha’s whodunit. The singleness of Miss Marple herself is key to understanding this culturally specific concern to the mid-twentieth century conservative ideal of marriage. Whilst reflecting upon her own life At Bertrum’s Hotel (1965), Miss Marple remembers a ‘very unsuitable young man’ with whom she had once loved:
‘How wise her mother had been to nip that friendship so firmly in the bud. She had come across him years later—and really he was quite dreadful! At the time she had cried herself to sleep for at least a week! Nowadays, of course–she considered nowadays. . . . These poor young things. Some of them had mothers, but never mothers who seemed to be any good–mothers who were quite incapable of protecting their daughters from silly affairs, illegitimate babies, and early and unfortunate marriages. It was all very sad.55
Christie’s Miss Marple is in essence a detective of love and its destructive potential toward the conservative institution of the family and its constructive values. Love’s centrality, in her vision, has weakened the family unit as much as greed had. Her positioning of queer characters within communities were gender specific, with queer men festering at the fringes of heteronormativity. The BBC‘s changes to these codes in Thatcher’s Britain, with luxury both upholding the virtues of love and vice of homosexuality, were reflections of the inconstancies that conflicted with Thatcherism’s ‘family values’ ideology. Crucially, they also reverberated against the crisis of queer identity at a time when AIDS and Clause 28 became political levers to destabilise and redefine queerness. The Gay Times rejection of the BBC‘s ‘Quentin Crisp’ stylisation of ‘Mr Pie’, and of Crisp himself, is a symptom of this historically specific discord. Conversely, the Princess Di stylisation of the heteronormative love affair is a reflection of the romanticism espoused at the heart of heteronormative matrimony at the cusp of its very public destruction and dramatic decline. By 2006, ITV’sadaptation could only present a heteronormative – and safely fetishised – depiction of love between a child-like character and an adult man by projecting contemporary concerns about paedophilia away from heteronormativity and onto a queer characterisation. With its long cultural, social and political history of identification alongside paedophilia, queer characterisation has been far more easily coded as padeophilic than heteronormative ones. This is largely due to the fact that the codes that are used to ‘other’ homosexuality are often inseparable from those used to account for paedophilia. There has been what can only be termed as a collective heteronormative denial of paedophilic activity within the idealised nuclear family across the twentieth-century, particularly within legislative term. This has often been facilitated by suggesting that it is ‘essentially’ queer. Despite rejecting these Essentialist ideologies, queer theory itself has been criticised for not only failing to address the construction of this inseparability notion, but also by not addressing ‘the relationship between child sexual abuse and the gay community as a whole, a matter that gay rights activists and queer theorists in various ways have routinely bracketed out.’56
Fundamentally, this essay suggests that an understanding of the cultural, social and political context within which queer codes are employed can disclose not only the climate of homosexual identity, but also that which it is so often defined against – heteronormativity. If these codes are read in isolation from that with which they are conceived and subsequently counterbalanced against, they remain only partial accounts. Agatha Christie’s queers of the 1940s, and their adaptations over the late twentieth-century, speak to their own specific time and place, just as contemporary consumers reactions to and against them are a reflection of current political and social discourse in relation to concepts of the past.
Crisp, Q, The Naked Civil Servant. 2nd ed. (Jonathan Cape, 1968)
Crisp, Q. ‘Foreword’, in Glassner, L. and Harris, B. Dime-Store Days. 1st ed, (Viking Press, 1981)
Christie, A , At Bertrum’s Hotel, 1st ed. (Collins Crime Club, 1965)
Christie, A, A Caribbean Mystery, 1st ed. (Collins Crime Club, 1964)
Christie, A, A Murder is Announced, 1st ed. (Collins Crime Club, 1950)
Christie, A, Nemesis, 1st ed. (Collins Crime Club, 1971)
Christie, A, The Moving Finger, 1st ed. (Collins Crime Club, 1943)
The Daily Telegraph, January 01, 2005
Gay Times, Issue 11, March 1985
MOA: FR 1332 Report on Book and the Public, July 42
Agatha Christie: Crime Does Pay, David Spires, BBC, 1990.
The Mystery of Agatha Christie, Dir. Clare Lewins, Perf. David Suchet, ITV, 2012.
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