#100WomenNovelists: Agatha Christie

Blog Post 24: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)

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Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window. The window looked over her garden, once a source of pride to her. That was no longer so. Nowadays she looked out of the window and winced. Active gardening had been forbidden her for some time now.

Agatha Christie, author of 66 novels, hundreds of short stories and many plays, is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I read all of Christie’s crime novels as a child and teenager. My grandfather had the whole collection and I’d read one every time we went to stay at my grandparents’ house. After Grandpa died, he left me the books and I still have them all. They are classic whodunnits and after reading maybe half of them, I worked out the formula. And there is a formula. Which I won’t tell you. But this novel, along with ‘Death on the Nile’ and ‘Then There Were None’, is perhaps a bit different.

‘The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side’ is one of Agatha Christie’s later novels, written at a time when society was on the brink of great change in the early 60s. Miss Jane Marple, the spinster detective, is getting on in years and is largely housebound. Her nephew has employed a bossy Miss Knight to look after her and she is not happy about this. Miss Knight treats her like a child and gets on her nerves. Miss Marple has to send her on pointless errands just to get some peace and quiet. Her doctor recommends that she find a juicy murder to solve. And this is exactly what happens.

Miss Marple lives in a quintessential English village, St Mary Mead, but this too is changing with the building of the ‘Development’, a housing estate of semis bought and lived in by the upwardly mobile working class. Miss Marple is intrigued by the new people and goes exploring. After she has a fall on the pavement, she is taken into a house by one of the residents, Heather Badcock. Heather tells her about the film star, Marina Gregg, and her director husband who have moved into Gossington Hall, former home of Dolly Bantry and her late husband, Colonel Bantry (and the setting for the famous ‘body in the library’).

She never did mean harm, but there is no doubt that people like Heather Badcock are capable of doing a lot of harm because they lack – not kindness, they have kindness – but any real consideration for the way their actions may affect other people. She thought always of what an action meant to her, never sparing a thought to what it might mean to somebody else.

Marina Gregg, the film star, hosts a charity event in the gardens of her new home and receives selected guests into the Hall to meet her. This is when the murder of Heather Badcock takes place. In the film adaptation, Marina is played appropriately by Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, the plot of ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ was inspired by the real-life story of Hollywood actress Gene Tierney but I can’t say what that story was as it would be a massive spoiler.

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She had a great power of love and hate but no stability. That’s what’s so sad for anyone, to be born with no stability.

Miss Marple is an entirely different detective to Poirot who uses logic in order to solve murders. She is more interested in and driven by human nature. As an unmarried woman of a certain age, she is used to being an observer. Village life has given her the opportunity to see the world in a microcosm. And now there is another murder in St Mary Mead, who else could possibly work out whodunnit other than Miss Marple?

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,”

cried The Lady of Shalott.

N.B. Interesting fact: Agatha Christie was a shopgirl at a chemist’s in Torquay where she learnt all about poisons. The sweet shop where I used to live and the setting for The Generation Game is directly opposite where the chemist’s used to be.

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Sophie of the Hundred Blogs

Well, this is my one hundredth blog post. I have blogged on all sorts of stuff over the last year and a bit: writing, books, popular culture, the 70s and 80s, Feminism, my town. And often I just randomly mind-dump.

Today’s post has a little of most of these things.

I am waiting for my copy of Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the follow-up novel to the astounding Booker winning  Wolf Hall. Both novels deal with the story of Thomas Cromwell, aka Alistair Campbell with an Axe (I blogged about this some time ago.).

Wolf Hall finished with Anne Boleyn in the ascendancy at court; we all know what her fate will be in this second novel. Not good.

Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, must be one of the best known female historical figures, with so many films made and books written about her. She has intrigued and fascinated generations.

I was in London recently with my daughter for a hospital appointment. Afterwards, as a ‘treat’, I dragged her to the National Portrait Gallery, knowing she would eventually appreciate seeing the Tudor portraits. The iconic Anne Boleyn painting wasn’t there. It has been undergoing urgent restoration but the upshot of this is that it is now believed to have been painted shortly after Anne’s death, so is probably a good likeness.

As for Anne herself, she remains an enigma. She was undoubtedly charismatic, intelligent and ambitious with great faith and courage. But she was also fighting for her life, knowing she held a precarious position, used and manipulated by the men around her. It is remarkable that we are still intrigued with Anne Boleyn’s story hundreds of years later.  I can’t wait to read Mantel’s fictionalised version of events.

But for me, I will always think of her as she was in the film Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) which I saw as a child on the telly in the 70s. Richard Burton was a superb, yet obvious choice for King Henry, but I was really moved by Genevieve Bujold in the title role. I loved the premise – sadly untrue – that Anne made a last minute deal with Henry who came to visit her in the Tower: her life in exchange for her daughter Elizabeth to hold her claim to the throne. The tragic irony is that Henry’s overwhelming desire for a son was completely misplaced. His younger daughter Elizabeth was to become one of England’s greatest, longest-reigning monarchs.

If you watch this clip of the execution scene, you will notice her look at Cromwell (played by Greek-Canadian actor John Colicos of Star Trek fame), right before the French executioner does the bloody deed. And if you ever get the chance to watch the whole film, look out for Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited cameo…