February 6, 2019
artin Seymour-Smith’s Guide to Modern World Literature is an exhaustive, 1000-page tome that nevertheless omits from its pages some writers whose works are among the most liked and well-regarded of their respective genres. It’s inevitable that any compilation will exclude many talented writers due to space constraints, but too often writers are shunned because the criteria used by critics and academics to judge their literature differs from that commonly used by other writers. Critics and academics view literature from the perspective of ethics, philosophy, psychology, religion, and political and social criticism, and assume that writers primarily intend—or should primarily intend—their work to be a tool to address such topics. Genre writers, in contrast, usually view literature as a rhetorical art. Does the author draw interesting and dynamic characters? Does he tell a good story? It is not uncommon, therefore, to find writers who are esteemed by their colleagues but dismissed by critics and academics.
Agatha Christie’s works fall into this category. Laura Thompson’s Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life shows that despite their escapist nature, Christie’s books showcase her considerable literary skill and insight into the high-minded, serious topics preferred by critics and academics. But Christie is often overlooked in studies of “serious” literature because she wrote genre fiction and because she used her insight into high-minded subjects as material in the construction of a literary edifice, rather than using a literary edifice as a vehicle for addressing such subjects. Her restraint is to her credit. In the same way that painters must have a detailed knowledge of human anatomy to depict it convincingly on canvas, good genre writers must understand human psychology. Genre writers paint a verbal picture with the aim of revealing the human soul, not to be the co-authors in a psychological study.
Shakespeare provides the best examples of a properly artistic use of “serious” subject matter. His plays were written for mass appeal, often built around plots as implausibly escapist as any mystery investigated by Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. His subplots—often seemingly tangential and superfluous—were a late Renaissance exercise in making his works marketable. They drew the less educated, less cultured Englishmen to the theater, often seemingly detracting from a play’s artistic quality, combining “entertainment” with “art.” This combination is not unusual. Agatha Christie chose to write “entertainment” exclusively, not because she was a literary lightweight, but because she had the talent to hide seriousness inside entertainment.
Christie’s books demonstrate more than her literary skill and understanding of human personalities: they reveal that she had definite views on the social and political issues of her time. It was rare for her to address such issues in her fiction or in her other public utterances—a character’s offhand statement, an aside here, an answer to an interviewers question there—but occasionally she was more direct. In Death on the Nile the socialist Mr. Ferguson bluntly embodies socialism’s preposterousness. Despite his opposition to marriage as an institution on the grounds of his radical doctrines, he proposes to Cornelia Robson—then assumes his proposal was rejected because she saw him as a member of the working class, not because of his boorish pontificating about his political views and his gleefulness when witnessing the affluent hit by hard luck. Christie shows her irony when it is discovered that in reality Mr. Ferguson is an English lord who conceals his despised origins.
But Christie’s satirizing of socialism should not be mistaken as an attack on strong political commitments generally. She defended the legitimacy, for example, of the inherited wealth which renders working superfluous. She thought nonsensical that one might reject its responsibilities and privileges in favor of a putative independence, especially since that independence left one working jobs under an employer’s control and often materially worse off. She was critical of the mid-twentieth century trend towards casual clothing. And in the late 1960s, she signed a letter to Pope Paul VI asking him to make some provision to continue the ancient form of the Roman Mass. Christie’s statement on feminism was even more definitive:
…the foolishness of women in relinquishing their position of privilege obtained after many centuries of civilization. Primitive women toil incessantly. We seem determined to return to that state voluntarily.
Such opinions were part of Christie’s non-political, non-ideological conservatism. She preferred to avoid engagement with the world of public affairs and was disinclined to philosophical reflection on it, but she was not truly apolitical or indifferent. Her positions were basically traditionalist: she believed in generic Christianity and supported the social order grounded in it, she embraced cultural continuity and national and ethnic identities, and affirmed private property, limited government, localism, social hierarchy and the institution of the family. Her early years were spent in a world in which it was possible to take such institutions for granted, despite the fact that they were already under widespread attack. Socialism, progressivism, secularism and empiricism were already making disturbing advances into the political and cultural landscape. “Tory Democracy” was already pinning a conservative sounding label on a left-wing reality. But her world remained a society in which enough of the population’s basic assumptions were sufficiently grounded in the western tradition that radicals were forced to conclude that attaining their ends was impossible unless they first launched a cultural revolution. Christie recognized that revolution as being more sinister than any of her plots.