Why didn’t Agatha Christie
Posted by Kate Parker Aug 19 2013, 12:31 am
Why didn’t Agatha Christie write romances? Trick question. She did, six of them under the name Mary Westmacott. But there is more to this question than meets the eye.
I’ve been reading Bluestockings, The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, by Jane Robinson. By her reckoning, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham were in the second generation of women that had the possibility of a college education, if not a college degree. Colleges in Britain that allowed women students let them finish their courses, but many didn’t grant degrees until after World War I.
Sayers and Marsh received college educations. Christie and Allingham married early, the preferred status for young women. All four began writing and publishing after the First World War, and most tellingly, under their own names. No longer did female writers have to hide their gender.
These four are known collectively as the Queens of Mystery from the Golden Age of the detective novel, the 1920s and 1930s. Besides being wildly popular in these decades, Christie worked as an archeologist with her second husband, Sayers worked in advertising, creating among other campaigns Guinness ads I saw still in use in the 1990s in Ireland, Marsh was involved with the theater in England and her native New Zealand, and Allingham was a journalist.
These were serious, enterprising women at a time when women were not taken seriously. Between the two world wars, women were pushed back into their traditional roles of wife and homemaker to allow returning servicemen to fill any available jobs. The old notions that only single women should work and women with a college education were somehow damaged and shouldn’t marry were just beginning to die out. When these authors were babies, more than half of college educated women never married. Of these two college educated women, Marsh, in fact, never married.
I believe they wrote tightly plotted tales of murder and mayhem, full of twists and red herrings, because to show less mental prowess in their writing would have had them dismissed as fluff. Unworthy of consideration. There is little romance in these works and not much description or internal monologue by today’s standards. This was a world where women were still discouraged from going to college, and many fields were closed to them. Still, Christie was known for her social commentary and Sayers for writing the first “cause” mysteries, including PTSD and a defense of women’s education. Their stories reached the brain, rather than the heart. How much of that was because women were still thought of by society as not having brains?
They are our literary great-grandmothers. Today we can write stories full of emotion and love and character arcs because these women refused to leave the worlds of commerce and academics after World War I. Women are accepted today as writers of every type and style. We are free to write romance because women before us fought to go to college and then fought to get published as commercially viable writers under their own names. They succeeded because they wrote stories that would appeal to men as well as women. They wrote stories that showed they were equal to men in cleverness and intellect.
Today women’s fiction, including romance and cozy mysteries, are the biggest sellers, and we can thank a lot of historical forces for that. But we can also thank the Queens of Mystery, Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham, for standing tall in a time when women were confined to the kitchen and the nursery.
Which authors from a previous age have influenced you, or opened the path for your stories?
Kate Parker, free from the nursery if not the kitchen, is writing cozy mysteries with Agatha Christie sitting on her shoulder whispering “You need more red herrings.” The first in her Victorian Bookshop mysteries, The Vanishing Thief, will be released December 3rd.