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Miss Marple: a Life and Times

Another entry from the file of “Things Kept!” Here’s another college term paper of interest to mystery readers. This one was for an introductory course, Anthropology 101.  You know, one of those courses where you attend the large lecture hall with the ant-like professor lecturing at the front of the auditorium and then further discussion would occur in a smaller classroom with a handful of students and the TA (ours was Faith Warner).

The topic for the term paper was to write an ethnography. We didn’t have to go far, though. No tramping to an exotic locale to observe the “natives” and report on their culture. The modern ethnography opened up other avenues as you shall see.

Here’s my 1992 paper, “A Modern Ethnography.” Unlike my previously released term paper (see here), I’ve edited this one slightly due to length.


In ANT 101, an introductory course to the study of anthropology, the comparative study of human societies and cultures (Nanda 1991:5), we learned about the use of ethnographies, written accounts of the lives of people in a particular society (Nanda 1991:11).  Anthropologists travel to various societies and cultures throughout the world.  They spend a great deal of their lives study all aspects of a culture.  Upon their return, they often write an account of their experiences and what they observed.

The first ethnographies were written in a detached, authoritative third-person perspective and were often cold and impersonal.  Since the 1960’s, however, ethnographies have taken on a new and challenging form.  Authors began writing from firsthand experience in a first-person reflexive voice; they added elements of humor, dialogue, and personal opinions to their narrative.  Even more recent, anthropologists have begun to look at fictional works of literature for ethnographic details of a society or culture.  Thus one might read The Great Gatsby for an idea of what life was like in the New York City area during the 1920’s among the social elite.

Book by Anne Hart

For this particular ethnography, I shall review a fictional work for ethnographic details of English village life from about 1930 to 1975.  Anne Hart’s book, The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple: a Delightful Biography of Agatha Christie’s Most Beloved Detective—though primarily a biography of a fictional person—is a perfect example of this new type of literary anthropology, a relative new interdisciplinary field.

As part of a “new” ethnography, it is important to know something about its author.  My passion in life is writing mysteries, which reflects in my everyday life as well as the choice of ethnography.  I first began to read avidly when I was twelve; my preferred choice was an Agatha Christie.  The study of Human Nature, as Miss Marple was inclined to be a professor of, became a sort of foundation for my endeavors.  The complexities of society, and those around me, interested me greatly.

It’s only natural that I would write about such experiences.  Owing, perhaps, to an author’s mind, I look at the world with an eye for plots, characters, and motives.  I ask questions people never think of in a lifetime.  Why might such and such person be at such and such place at such a particular time?  Would he or she make a good character?  Victim?  Murderer?  Would that work as a legitimate cause of death?  What motivates that person?  Why is he or she acting so suspiciously?  What secrets are they hiding?  These questions and other like them commonly cross my mind in daily life.

I’ve found I have much in common with Christie’s characters: I am a generally stickler for order and efficiency like Hercule Poirot; an amateur philosopher of human nature like Miss Marple, and a concerned, anxious novelist like Agatha’s self-parody character Ariadne Oliver.  So I was overjoyed one day when I walked into Waldenbooks in ShoppingTown Mall and saw Anne Hart’s Miss Marple book sitting on the shelves.  An autobiography on my favorite sleuth!  Right then and there I bought the novel and soon read it within the week.  Now looking back on it and reviewing it for this paper, I find it as enjoyable now as I did then.

Ostensibly, the book is an overview of Miss Marple’s career as a detective, but there is so much more to it than that.  We are first inducted into the biography, of a woman who seems as real to many readers as the author herself, with an intimate look at the village of St. Mary Mead.  As Anne Hart deftly puts it:  “It is impossible, indeed, to imagine St. Mary Mead without Miss Marple or Miss Marple without St. Mary Mead; it was the archetypal English village created just for her (Hart 1985:1-2).”  An archetype is considered an original model after which other similar things are patterned.  We all have a picture of what an English village is like in our minds.  Agatha Christie used that image to create St. Mary Mead.

The next chapter deals with Miss Marple’s earlier life.  After all, Agatha Christie introduced the old dear at age sixty-five or around that.  Anne Hart tells us, however, informs us that “it is possible to piece together something of her [Miss Marple’s] childhood and girlhood from clues she occasionally dropped in conversation during her extraordinarily long old age (Hart 1985:25-26).”  An example of this would be: “I’ve always remembered the mauve irises on my nursery walls and yet I believe it was re-papered when I was only three (Hart 1985:26; however this is cited most likely from the novel Sleeping Murder, Christie:1976).”

We continue to learn certain details we might have overlooked while trying to solve the mystery at hand.  Details such as Miss Marple’s sister Joan West.  The fact that she had a German governess who taught her the language of flowers.  That she might be considered the daughter of a dean or canon of a cathedral.  Her large family reunions.  At age sixteen, she went to a school in Florence, where she met two American girls: Ruth and Carrie Louise Martin, whom we meet in Murder With Mirrors.  From a stray phrase, “Long experience of nursing made Miss Marple,” (Hart 1985:32) and the fact that she was used to sick people suggested to Anne Hart and suggests to us that she spent much of her life possibly nursing her aging parents?  Though there are many questions to her earlier life, we certainly know a great deal of her old age.

The next four chapters deal with Miss Marple’s career as a detective.  From prior to 1930 until her final case: Nemesis in 1971, Miss Marple uses her skills and knowledge of human nature to solve nefarious murders.  She hardly ages at all during her sleuthing career, but in her last four novels: The Mirror Crack’d, A Caribbean Mystery, At Bertram’s Hotel, and Nemesis…they “tell us much about the difficulties and frustrations of old age, Miss Marple’s ever-increasing frailty does not prevent her from enjoying herself [though] (Hart 1985:64).”

After the overview of cases, Miss Hart gives us an insight into what Miss Marple looked like and what her personality was like.  This chapter is followed by a visit to Miss Marple’s home in St. Mary Mead.  We then learn how she lived and what her daily life was like.  We also learn about the type of books she read, most prominently were Mark Twain and Dashiell Hammett books, but she did pick up Movie News and Amongst the Stars, as research for her then current case, The Mirror Crack’d (Hart 1985:97-98).  Chapter Ten shows us Miss Marple on her various excursions outside of her village such as her trip to Clipping Cleghorn where she solved A Murder Is Announced or to the Caribbean for a mystery.

Chapter Eleven show us Miss Marple’s relations with her nephew, the author, and other relatives as well as her neighbours.  This is followed by the chapter on her parlourmaids.  Who could forget the poor Gladys Martin who met her Waterloo in A Pocketful of Rye?  Or Lucy Eyelesbarrow who was hired by Miss Marple to work in someone else’s home in 4:50 from Paddington?  Or how about Miss Marple’s final parlourmaid Cherry Baker?  Cherry was considered “a triumph in the domestic arena [for Miss Marple] (Hart 1985:132).”  “Together they pulled of a great coup–they got rid of Miss Knight, who threatened to linger on indefinitely…and the prospect of a future of nurse companions was averted by Cherry’s unexpected proposal that she and her husband…come and live permanently with Miss Marple…the bargain was struck and…nine years later…Cherry and her husband are still in residence…Thus,…Miss Marple cleverly achieved…the servant who suited her perfectly (Hart 1985:133-134).”

The final chapter of this intriguing biography is a retrospective of Miss Marple’s sleuthing abilities.  Thus, we are given a clear view of English village life as well as a biographical account of village spinster.  Thus through a search of Marpelian literature we find that “over a period of some forty years, there occurred in St. Mary Mead a total of sixteen murders–five by poisoning, two by shooting, two by drowning, and five by unidentified means–plus four attempts at murder by poisoning, smothering, and bashing on the head.  Moreover, in that same period there also occurred five robberies, eight embezzlements, two series of blackmailing, several illegal impersonations, a case or two of poaching, and a number of crank phone calls, poison-pen letters, and criminal libels.  Faced with these statistics, one cannot help but count St. Mary Mead fortunate in having had, in the same period of time, a resident sleuth of the stature of Miss Marple…(Hart 1985:0).”

This literary ethnography of a village and a village spinster, despite the unusually high number of crimes committed gives a startling look into actual village life.  Numbered among the village happenings are the natural gossiping and business transactions with the fishmonger or grocer, activities centered around church fund raisers and village fetes.

Critically thinking about Anne Hart’s novel, I must count myself biased in favor of the novel as it is about a subject I deeply care for and which makes up values I use in everyday life.  But then there is no such thing as a detached, uninvolved participant.  Every anthropologist uses participant observation in their fieldwork for gathering information.  Anne Hart successfully read in between the lines of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels for detailed information pertaining to Miss Marple’s life and St. Mary Mead.  She presented us with an easily readable and enjoyable biography that employs humor, quotes, and dialogue.

This “new” ethnography in design is personal and involved with both the reader and the material it is relating to.  As if conversing with an old friend, reminiscing about old times, the book is like a fireside chat about past happenings in the village of St. Mary Mead.  Remember old Miss Wetherby?  Remember that dreadful murder at the vicarage?  How awful!  The colonel was killed by his own wife!  This intimate atmosphere is what emanates from the pages of Miss Hart’s book.

Everything was well represented in this book, except for possibly the look at St. Mary Mead and its villagers.  The book naturally focused on Miss Marple, as it is a biography.  But I did not feel one chapter was enough to deal with all of Miss Marple’s relations and friends.  That chapter barely touched the surface.  Otherwise, Miss Hart performed an excellent job.  As she clearly states in her preface, she did not unearth new material.  “Everything we know about Miss Marple is contained in the twelve books and twenty short stories devoted to her remarkable sleuthing.  To search through these books and stories [Marpelian literature], not for murderers but for clues to Miss Marple herself, is the aim of this book.”  This aim is exactly what Miss Hart achieves deftly.  She stuck to the facts contained in the Miss Marple books and did not make unfounded suppositions.  Suppositions she did make, such as Miss Marple nursing her parents, were clearly stated as such.

Though it is a univocal book, it quotes excerpts from Miss Marple novels and stories, inciting their humor as well as adding further anecdotes to the biographies witty insights.  Through the attention to details, it was clearly obvious that Miss Hart knew her material and knew it extremely well.  Despite my devotion and love of Agatha Christie books, I, as an author, could never have done the justice to them as Miss Hart has done in her book, The Life And Times of Miss Marple.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a past life. I suppose it’s an illuminating paper in many respects, though not likely to win any awards! Alas, Anne Hart’s book does not appear readily available today, except from used book stores and libraries. If you do come across a copy, I encourage you to snap it up. It is an insightful look at Miss Marple for any Christie fan. As an aside, Anne Hart also wrote a separate volume giving the same treatment to Christie’s other well-known sleuth, Hercule Poirot.

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