Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Agatha Christie and Jane Austen: the problem of setting

I have written about Agatha Christie and Jane Austen on this blog in the past (http://janeaustenandotherwriters.blogspot.com/2017/05/the-murder-of-roger-ackroyd-and-jane.html), and now find myself revisiting  the two authors.

Who would put Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, and Jane Austen, "great English author," together? They seem an unlikely pairing. And yet I have more than once had the nagging sensation, as I occasionally revisit a Christie mystery, of her affinities with Jane Austen.

In my earlier blog post, I compared sleight-of-hand omissions in Persuasion and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Lately, I have been rereading, for the first time since my teen years, The Mysterious Mr. Quin, a volume of short stories that Christie points to in her memoir as important to her.

The cover of the first edition, 1930

A characteristic of Christie's writing is her tendency to be disembodied in terms of setting. She doesn't give the reader much, if any, sense of surroundings. This  aspect of her prose can easily be overlooked, because, when it comes to a murder scene or a locked room, the details then flood in. But the idea of describing setting if it doesn't pertain directly to the mystery at hand apparently seems superfluous to her.

For example, I shook my head in surprise while reading the second story in the Quin collection, "The Shadow on the Glass." The mystery-solving protagonist of all the tales, Mr. Satterthwaite, is in conversation with a Lady Cynthia. Because she is reading aloud from a journal and then "casting away the paper," I assumed the twosome sat inside. Yet there is absolutely no indication of setting until half down the third page of the story, when Lady Cynthia bids Jimmy Allenson to sit. He drops down on "the turf beside her." Turf! Are they outside? There has been a clue: Lady Cynthia, we are told at the end of the fourth paragraph, has a parasol laid "rakishly" across her knee. But could that not means she is planning to go outside shortly? Or would a lady in the 1920s not place a parasol across her knees inside?

And then came the nagging feeling. Who else leaves out settings? Jane Austen, of course, in the oddly disembodied opening chapters of Pride and Prejudice, where we are given only the scantiest idea of places, and no description of them.

Illustrator Brock uses his imagination to fill in what the library where Mr. and Mrs. Bennet confer in chapter 1 might look like. Austen does not provide these visual details 

Both authors are far more focused on the conversation between the characters than the visual surround. Why?

Doing my own "sleuthing," it occurred to me that both Austen and Christie were highly musical: both played the piano and Christie had studied to be an opera singer.  If for both sound was the primary sense they relied on, it would make sense that they would emphasize dialogue over settings. We remember that one of Austen's first pieces of juvenilia was a play about overhearing a conversation to which the audience is not privy. Could it be that both, in their privileging of speech, were showing their love of music but were out of sync with our largely visual culture(s)?

One might argue that the lack of setting in the opening of Pride and Prejudice reflects the epistolary style of the earlier drafts. This may be--though the opening chapters read more like a stage play--but Austen is known for her meticulous editing and rewriting. We don't have her first drafts (except for a chapter of Persuasion), but we believe Austen worked and reworked her writing to achieve her polished prose. Certainly, if she had wished to, or thought it was important, she could have added descriptive details.

Both authors were interested puzzles: the puzzle of what is really going on beneath the facade of everyday life, and both were interested in romance. Christie foregrounded puzzles and backgrounded romance, while Austen did the opposite, but the interests in both cases are similar.

My Jane Austen sleuthing partner-in-crime, Arnie Perlstien has had the same odd sensation of affinity, only centered around character. He believes Miss Bates in Emma is Christie's model for Miss Marple.

Austen's Emma has been called the first mystery, and as we possibly connect her more closely with the queen of crime, the appellation seems all the more apt.


  1. Interesting post, Diane. I've never really noticed the lack of setting in either author, though perhaps I would today. Your blog reminds me of an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel I once read and hated - it seemed nothing but dialogue. Neither Christie or Austen have that fault thankfully and I do enjoy them both.

  2. Thanks Tyler--and both writers are fully capable of description when they want.

  3. Excellent post, Diane! Here's what I just wrote in Janeites in reply to you:

    Thanks for your post about Christie and Austen, a topic that has been of great interest to me since 2005 -- I've long felt that Christie was an avid, albeit secret, Janeite -- there is a reason why the message in a bottle set floating by the murderer at the end of And Then There Were None is retrieved by a vessel named .....the Emma Jane! And also why Miss Marple is called "Aunt Jane", who is the world's greatest expert in human nature.

    I love your observation as to the paucity of visual description in both Christie and Austen, and I do also believe, at least in Austen's case, it is because Austen was more auditory than visual -- in part, perhaps, as I blogged 3 years ago, she (like her heroine Anne Elliot) had partially impaired vision.

    But...I also believe both Austen and Christie would have given a minimum of visual description precisely because it allowed both of them to sustain ambiguity as to many aspects of what was going on in a given scene --- in a sense, their readers are all eavesdroppers, like Anne Elliot listening to Wentworth and Louisa behind the hedgerow --we can't see what the characters are DOING while they speak!

    Cheers, ARNIE