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Friday, May 5, 2017

Jane Austen and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The parallels between Agatha Christie and Jane Austen are striking, leading one to wonder: could Jane Austen have been the famous crime writer's literary mentor?

Certain clues tantalize us and suggest yes. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie names a character Mrs. Ferrars. Like the Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, this Mrs. Ferrars is a wealthy widow. Christie, however, adds her own wicked twist: the new Mrs. Ferrars is widowed because she poisoned her abusive, alcoholic husband (though nobody knows it for sure but her blackmailer).

In another possible Austen parallel, Ursula Bourne, who comes to Roger Ackroyd's home as a parlor maid, is beautiful and elegant and from an impoverished family of Irish "gentlefolk." She is secretly married to Ralph Patton, both the stepson and "adopted" son of Roger Ackroyd. Like Frank Churchill, he is under the thumb of a frugal and controlling guardian, in this case Ackroyd. He dares not announce his marriage, despite Ursula's distress at the secrecy, for fear his stepfather will cut him off without a penny. He uses a pretend engagement to Flora, his pretty and wealthy step cousin, to cover up his marriage and get his debts paid. Flora doesn't know that Ralph, as unstable and charming as Frank Churchill, is married and simply using her, but she doesn't really care a fig for Ralph either. She is in love with an older man, Hector Blunt, who is around 45, who has all along secretly been in love with her, shades of Mr. Knightley.

The parallels to Emma seem almost too obvious to state: Flora is Emma, pretty, in love with an older man, and used by a capricious younger man who doesn't want his guardian to know of his involvement with a penniless lover for fear of losing his inheritance. Further, we're told explicitly that the penniless beauty Ursula could have become a governess--Jane Fairfax's threatened and dreaded fate-- and chose to be a parlor maid:
  Detemined to earn her living and not attracted to the idea of being a nursery governess - the one profession open to an untrained girl, Ursula preferred the job of parlourmaid. She scorned to label herself a 'lady parlourmaid.' ... At Fernly, despite an aloofness which, as has been seen, caused some comment, she was a success at her job - quick, competent, and thorough.
This sounds very much like Jane Fairfax, not only beautiful, but aloof and competent.

Of course, Christie has ratcheted up the stakes, perhaps reflecting a novel written in 1926 rather than 1816: Ursula and the happy-go-lucky Ralph are secretly married, not secretly engaged, but the point remains. (And who is to say that the wedding we never see at the end of Emma is a clue by omission that the two have been wed all along?)

Further, our first introduction to Flora has echoes of  Emma Woodhouse:
Quite a lot of people do not like Flora Ackroyd [as with Emma], but nobody can help admiring her. And to her friends she can be very charming. The first thing that strikes you about her is her extraordinary fairness. .... her skin is cream and roses. She has square, boyish shoulders and slight hips. And to a jaded medical man it is very refreshing to come across such perfect health.
Flora is blond and blue-eyed in contrast to Emma, but the similarities also pop out: not well liked but charming to her friends, good looking and radiating perfect health.

Roger Ackroyd picks up the small village setting of Emma and narrator James Sheppard's sister has some uncanny parallels to Miss Bates: they are both middle-aged spinsters who know everything that is going on in the village. And as in Austen's novels, characters get together to plays games, though in this case it is Mah Jong rather than whist or backgammon.

Thus, Christie points us towards Austen, via Mrs. Ferrars (who in Christie's novel has committed suicide at its opening so is never onstage)  as well as through the stories of Ralph and Ursula, Hector and Flora, and the small English village setting, complete with its own Miss Bates figure.

Language

To me, however, a more important parallel emerges from the way both writers tell a story through conscious omission, misdirection, euphemism, and understatement as well as the use of the throwaway comment. In Persuasion, for example,"about a week or ten days after the Croft's arrival [in Bath] it suited her [Anne] best to leave her friend, or her friend's carriage ... and return alone to Camden place." It's easy to skim over this sentence, but it indicates -- with the euphemism "it suited her"--that Anne doesn't just "accidentally" run into Admiral Croft a few minutes later: she has planned this. She is not without craftiness. And why a "week or ten days" when we know Austen kept careful story calendars? And why "her friend, or her friend's carriage:" was she in it alone that day? If so, where was Lady Russell?

Similarly, Roger Ackroyd hinges on the reader skimming over certain words. The novel's twist is that its narrator, Dr. James Sheppard, tells the story accurately and in first person, even though he himself is the murderer! This works because the reader will slide over his careful euphemisms. He praises himself at the end for his "neat" phraseology, as he stated the facts of the case in his narrative but passed over the crucial detail that between twenty to nine and ten to nine on the day in question, he murdered Roger Ackroyd:
'The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread."
The moral issues of are of different magnitudes, but the technique of euphemism is the same.

Likewise, omitted thefts. In Emma, during Mr. Elton's courtship of Emma, which is supposed to be (in Emma's mind) a courtship of Harriet, Harriet steals several worthless remembrances of Mr. Elton's, such as a bit of lead pencil and a bit of plaster. However, these thefts are omitted from the narrative at the time of the courtship, presumably because Emma, whose point of view we follow, never notices them. We learn later, after Mr. Elton has married and long since ceased to visit Emma, that Harriet had previously purloined these items when she reveals them to Emma. A small detail, but it serves to raise questions: what else hasn't Emma seen? What else might Harriet have stolen?

In Roger Ackroyd, Sheppard describes looking through an unlocked curio table:
Then my eye was caught by what, I believe, is called a silver table, the lid of which lifts, and through the glass of which you can see the contents. I crossed over to it, studying the contents. There were one or two pieces of old silver, a baby shoe belonging to King Charles the First, some Chinese jade figures, and quite a number of African implements and curios. Wanting to examine one of the jade figures more closely, I lifted the lid. It slipped through my fingers and fell. At once I recognized the sound I had heard. It was this same table lid being shut down gently and carefully. I repeated the action once or twice for my own satisfaction. Then I lifted the lid to scrutinize the contents more closely. I was still bending over the open silver table when Flora Ackroyd came into the room.
Sheppard omits to mention that he steals a knife from this table to murder Roger Ackroyd. Again, the moral magnitude of stealing a murder weapon is far greater than stealing a pencil nub, but the technique is the same: not until the end of the mystery do we find out that in this table Sheppard found his murder weapon.

Sheppard crows too about his careful wording:
Then later, when the body was discovered, and I sent Parker to telephone for the police, what a judicious use of words: 'I did what little had to be done!' It was quite little just to shove the dictaphone into my bag and push back the chair against the wall in its proper place [covering up his crime].
As easily as the reader slides over Sheppard's initial words about doing what had to be done, so a reader might, in Emma, slide over the incident in which Mrs. Martin, Robert Martin's mother, happy with Harriet as a potential daughter-in-law and obviously meaning to please her, sends a "Mrs. Goddard a beautiful goose ....  Mrs. Goddard had it dressed on a Sunday and invited all the three teachers, Miss Nash, and Miss Prince, and Miss Richardson, to sup with her." But Harriet isn't invited to the party. If Harriet hopes Emma might note the unfairness, she never does, nor do most readers. Nevertheless, such an aside is hardly in the text by accident, any more than is Sheppard's "I did what little had to be done," and an astute reader might begin to suspect that the prerogatives of power might overrun fairness in Highbury Village.

At the end of Roger Ackroyd, Christie points explicitly to Sheppard's word choice, so that the reader can't miss what he has been doing. Austen, on the other hand, never loses her cool, slips her mask or blinks an eye. Christie is by far the less skillful writer, if far more successful in her day, but it may take someone like her to loop us back to what Austen herself was doing.









3 comments:

  1. Very interesting post, Diane. I wonder whether Christie ever mentions reading Austen - do you think this is proof that she did? I wouldn't be surprised if she borrowed plots from other writers. She was one who often quoted other authors, Tennyson, Shakespeare etc. I think Agatha Christie one of the most interesting authors of the 20th century and love her books, though The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was actually one of my least favorites. You make me want to go back and reread her now.

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  2. Tyler,
    I did love Christie when I was a teen. A biography of hers I glanced through mentioned that she read Austen. Like Woolf, she was home educated and apparently read everything. I thought Roger Ackroyd held up very well on this reread--it is not great writing, but a well-plotted story.

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  3. Bravo, Diane! I've responded to you in Janeites & Austen-L.

    ARNIE

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