I was invited to write an encyclopedia entry on Agatha Christie’s amateur detective, Miss Jane Marple — and, as a huge fan, I was thrilled. And . . . the encyclopedia project got canceled. So, I thought I would share what I wrote here, with sub-headlines added.
Jane Marple is a fictional character created by English mystery novelist Agatha Christie. She appears in twelve books and twenty short stories, starting in approximately 1926 and lasting through 1976; the last was published posthumously. Miss Marple, as she is generally called, is portrayed as an elderly spinster woman of Victorian sensibilities – typically one of the oldest characters in each story where she appears – who has lived her entire life in the small village of St. Mary Mead. She happens upon murder cases in each of the amateur detective stories and can solve them because of her close observation of human nature throughout her long life, outwitting characters much younger than herself.
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Miss Marple first appeared in a short story titled “The Tuesday Night Club.” Sources vary as to where it appeared (The Sketch and The Royal Magazine named) and when; dates given include 1926, 1927 and 1928. This story later became the opening chapter of The Thirteen Problems (1932). Although information is not consistent about the amateur detective’s first appearance in short story form, she first appeared in book form in 1930: The Murder at the Vicarage. Some Miss Marple mysteries were later produced as films or television shows.
She is described as “old” and even “elderly,” but her age is not frequently given nor, by contemporary standards, would she be considered elderly. A reference in At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) indicates that she was approximately 74 at the time while, in Nemesis (1971), the last novel to be written featuring Miss Marple, she is at least seventy, but perhaps nearer eighty. Her age sometimes causes her to need to pace herself and, in some instances, she is described as getting more feeble and forgetful, but she does not seem to become less perceptive.
Specifics about the character
In the novels, Miss Marple does not usually become part of the story until later in the book, after official murder investigations are already underway. Although some mysteries take place in St. Mary Mead, others occur when she travels to Brackhampton, London or the Caribbean. The stories usually present only a few suspects and provide only a handful of clues. Miss Marple engages potential suspects and witnesses in social conversations, often appearing flustered and even confused. Marple aficionados point out that, in earlier appearances, the character is less kind than she seems in later books, more prone to gossiping. She is often considered a busybody, a tabby, a snoop.
She is methodical and insightful, independent and even borderline ruthless, sometimes laying traps for those whom she suspects. Those she suspects are often the most obvious candidates, but they typically have iron-clad alibis that Miss Marple must shatter. When she needs an assistant, she often chooses another woman.
It can be difficult for readers to solve these mysteries because the point of illumination typically comes about when Miss Marple intuitively realizes that a character involved in the crime reminds her of someone from her past. In later books, she can be reluctant to name a killer because the crime involves elements of distaste to her, such as lesbianism or incest; it should be noted, though, that Miss Marple is not overly prudish about sex, overall. In general, she gets along well with official law enforcement, something not true of all amateur detectives in literature. These officials tend to be fairly unimaginative, many of whom know of Miss Marple by reputation before meeting her in person, and who are surprised by her spinsterish appearance and demeanor.
Physically, she is described as being tall and thin with white hair and faded blue eyes. Characteristics of Miss Marple include her wardrobe, which consists largely of tweed suits and eye-catching hats; her hobbies of knitting and birdwatching; her ability to pay attention to seemingly random comments and use them to solve mysteries; and her tendency to notice parallel traits in people involved in crimes and in people she has known. Her closest relative is her nephew, Raymond West, a well-known author (who is “modern” enough not to use capital letters in his poetry) who is married to Joan, an artist. Miss Marple often has a housemaid, many of whom she takes from an orphanage and trains before sending them on to better positions.
Although we know little of her background, Miss Marple is a well-educated woman, having a German governess and studying at an Italian finishing school. At one time, she had planned to nurse lepers. Inheriting a small fixed income, she never had to work for a living, although she is not wealthy and appreciates the financial support that her nephew generously shares with her. Two uncles served as canons, a great-uncle was an admiral, and her distant cousin Ethel was of the nobility. Passing references are made to two younger sisters and, although a long-ago beau is briefly mentioned, she found him to be dull. Overall, readers get the impression that she is of an upper middle class background and is class conscious.
What was Christie’s inspiration?
Multiple explanations for the creation of Miss Marple have been given. Christie was probably first exposed to the idea of an elderly female detective (Amelia Butterworth) when she read The Leavenworth Case (1878) by Anna Katharine Green. Before creating Miss Marple, Christie had created a similar character, Miss Amelia Viner, also of St. Mary Mead, who appeared in The Mystery of the Blue Train. She created another older spinster character, Caroline Sheppard, in The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd, and called Caroline her favorite character in the book, describing her as a curious all-knowing spinster.
In 2008, Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard found thirteen hours of tapes that the author had recorded in preparation for writing her autobiography. In them, she admitted that Miss Marple (called “Ms.” by Christie) insinuated herself so quietly into the author’s life that she barely noticed her arrival, adding that she was not initially created to be an ongoing character. She called Miss Marple more puffy and spinsterish than her [step] grandmother, more like her grandmother’s cronies. What the character had in common with her real-life relative: they were both cheerful but always expected the worst from others; with frightening accuracy, both were usually proved right. In the tapes, Christie acknowledged that fans wanted Miss Marple to meet her other famous fictional detective: Hercules Poirot. But, Christie dismissed the idea, saying that the characters would not like meeting one another.
How she chose the name of “Marple” was not addressed in the tapes, although it seems likely that it was taken from the Marple railway station in Stockport, a Cheshire town. The official version is that, at some point early in the twentieth century, Christie was delayed at this station long enough to note the name and then later use it. It is a logical explanation, given that Christie, when young, visited her married sister often in that region, with her sister’s husband encouraging her to write. In 1898, when Christie was eight, at least 109 trains stopped at Marple daily, making it extremely likely that she was familiar with the name. An alternate explanation is that she took the name from a family who lived near her sister’s house.
Miss Marple’s fictional village of St. Mary Mead is believed to be located in Surrey or Sussex, described as twenty-five miles southeast of London and twelve miles from the coast. Although her nephew sees the village as a stagnant pond, Miss Marple reminds him that nothing is as full of life under a microscope as a drop of stagnant water. The village is changing and becoming modernized, as people without previous ties to the community move in (including a film star), houses are sold, a jet flies overhead, a supermarket is built, and homes get modern plumbing. And yet, as Miss Marple shrewdly knows, people do not change, not really.
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Miss Marple novels, in chronological order, are: Murder at the Vicarage (1930); The Body in the Library (1942); The Moving Finger (1943); A Murder is Announced (1950); They Do it with Mirrors (1952); A Pocket Full of Rye (1953); 4.50 from Paddington (1957); The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962); A Caribbean Mystery (1964); A Bertram’s Hotel (1965); Nemesis (1971); and Sleeping Murder (1976).
Margaret Rutherford played Miss Marple in the following films: Murder She Said (1962), Murder at the Gallop (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964), Murder Ahoy! (1964), and The Alphabet Murders (1965). Other actresses who played Miss Marple in films and on television include Angela Lansbury, Helen Hayes, Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie.