Friday Hoyden: Miss Jane Marple

The epitome of hidden depths: superficially a frail old lady with no special qualities, fundamentally a preternaturally observant Nemesis of those with murderous secrets.

graphic of the various English-speaking actresses who have played the part of Miss Jane Marple - Margaret Rutherford, Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury, Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, Julia McKenzie

Margaret Rutherford, Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury, Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, Julia McKenzie have all played Marple on screen

The various adaptations over the years have showcased different interpretations of Marple’s character – it’s only recently that the scripts have permitted her a certain degree of wryness as she dissects the bloody businesses before her (although Margaret Rutherford’s Marple in the 1950’s managed to display a lovely background level of wry cynicism despite it not existing in the scripts). Disregarding how Christie wrote the character of Marple, on screen the first adaptations tended to have her just tripping over things that others had missed, instead of revealing how she seeks out opportunities to exercise her superior observational skills. That aspect is something I’ve enjoyed particularly in the Hickson/McEwan iterations of the role (I’ve yet to catch a McKenzie version), and perhaps ties into being less nervous about Marple’s archetypal Crone attributes.

It’s easy (and fashionable) to decry the skills of Christie in crafting her mystery novels, and criticisms of her as a fairly ordinary prose wrangler are valid, but those who decry her plots as formulaic are (a) overlooking that she’s the one who refined that particular formula; and (b) utterly missing that what really makes her novels special is not simply where she chooses to lay out her red herrings but how she builds and reveals aspects of her characters as part of an ensemble cast of suspects. The depths plumbed as the motivations of the characters unfold are truly extraordinary.

Poirot, by Christie’s own admission, had many ridiculous elements and while easy to admire is difficult to love because of his detachment from other people. Marple, by contrast, never resiles from being very warmly human even when she is at her most pitiless – perhaps the very best sort of Mary Sue.

Agatha Christie’s novels were some of the earliest where I ever felt the need to read everything that the author had written. I’ve moved past reading them now, and enjoy dramatisations instead (where I can judge the skill of the adaptation to a new medium). It’s still the characters that reign supreme (although the costume departments in recent adapations deserve special reference for the delight and delicacy they take in their task), and Christie always gives the deceased some dignity (and her characters are furious if others try to rob them of it).

I understand why Russell Davies devoted an entire episode of an otherwise rather silly story to exploring the allure of Agatha Christie. She’s worth it.

Categories: arts & entertainment, relationships, violence

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6 replies

  1. Poirot, by Christie’s own admission, had many ridiculous elements and while easy to admire is difficult to love because of his detachment from other people.
    Oh, I’m gonna have to disagree. I have absolutely *no* difficulty loving Poirot. I don’t really admire him, though I do like smart men, I just find him such a deliciously rich character. So much going on with him, and so utterly different to all those around him.
    I didn’t mind the Marple books, I preferred Poirot, but I deeply appreciated the innovation in having a woman detective type in a murder-mystery novel.
    I’m a huge Christie fan, though, and have a big heavy box in my room to the brim with Christie novels. I also watch Poirot on ABC whenever it’s on, whether I’ve seen the episode or not. But that may be my sweet spot for David Suchet. I always do adore a man with brown eyes.
    My favourite Marple is the newest. She brings such a warmth and depth to a character I have always had a lot of problems getting to like.

  2. I’m definitely on Team Joan Hickson when it comes to evaluating different Miss Marples.
    Unless you include Team Agatha Christie, I guess, but that’s sort of an auto-winner.

  3. I love Miss Marple. LOVE.

  4. What I liked most about Joan Hickson was that she let the deep cynicism of the written Miss Marple show through even though most screen plays had her as a loving granny with smarts. It’s been years since I read any of the early Marple stories, but I remember being startled at how jaundiced was her view of people, and how her “bird-watching” let her keep a fairly constant eye on her neighborhood. She knew people saw her as the “fluffy granny” and used it to her advantage. Even her warmth and sympathy could have an agenda, while still being genuine. Most of the portrayals have deleted or de-emphasized a lot of her suspicion and cynicism. Which is what I adored about her and what I adored about Joan Hickson

  5. My grandmother has almost all the Christie books, and I myself have a volume of her collected plays (she was actually a really fine dramatist). I enjoyed the Rutherford Marple. I haven’t seen any McEwan Marple, though I really want to. My grandmother doesn’t like McEwan because she’s too “nasty” (read: cynical, which is part of what I like so much ABOUT Marple!). My grandmother also objects to the McEwan adaptation of “A Murder Is Announced” because it’s suggested two characters might be ZOMG QUEER, which, as everyone knows, just Didn’t Happen in Agatha Christie’s day.
    But yeah, Marple is marvellous.

  6. @OlderThanDirt: Very well put; I spent a while trying to work out how to describe that, and gave up.

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