In a time when we all need comfort, publishers roll out The Complete Miss Marple — and the stealth sage of St. Mary Mead gets her due.
Miss Marple was reportedly Agatha Christie's favorite creation — based partially upon her grandmother - and it's said that the author conjured her iconic gentlewoman detective when a director changed a character in a Christie adaptation from a genteel spinster to a beautiful young ingenue. Christie clearly wanted someone different to get her due — and made sure that she did, in twelve novels over 40 years. Miss Marple made her debut in a 1927 issue of The Royal Magazine , and in 1930 got her first starring vehicle with Murder at the Vicarage.
Jane Marple is, to the casual observer, the prototypical British spinster, a tweed-sporting, genteel old lady who's spent her life in the village of St. Mary Mead, devoting herself to her garden, her knitting, and local gossip. And that's the whole point of the character: she is destined to be underestimated. What people dismiss as a tiresome busybody (in early incarnations) and, later, as a muddle-headed woman past her prime, is in fact sharp and intuitive, unafraid of violence and uncowed by authority figures. What people dismiss as a limited life experience in a small village has in fact given Miss Marple an unusual insight into the human condition, and her long memory for village trivia often provides invaluable in cracking cases that baffle the pros.
Writes Kate Mosse on the character's appeal,
Educated and knowledgeable, moral and clear-sighted, Jane Marple is solitary but happy in her own company; she is independent but with a circle of devoted admirers - her nephew, Raymond West, and his wife; old friends such as Dolly Bantry; in later years, grateful clients and, first introduced in The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side, a live-in companion, Cherry. Miss Marple is a certain sort of English Everywoman, enduring and timeless.
While Marple's status in pop-culture is unquestioned (just check out Facebook) and her many dramatic incarnations have won even more fans, the character is also of literary significance: not only was she a benchmark in mystery fiction - the Underestimated Amateur, if you will — but she was an interesting flip of the familiar gentleman detective trope. The appeal of the novels is obvious, and there's nothing more comforting than returning to the timeless Saint Mary Mead — but as much as anything, Miss Marple is
a testament to the importance of never underestimating — and how useful it can be when people do.
Dial M for Marple [TimesUK]