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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Murder at the Vicarage through the metafictional lens of Pride & Prejudice

In another online discussion of my recent post regarding the many parallels between Pride & Prejudice (P&P) and Murder at the Vicarage (MATV), one participant commented that she could see no parallels between Griselda in MATV and Charlotte Lucas in P&P, nor between the two vicars. She saw the characters, relationships and situations as totally different, aside from their being two examples of younger women marrying clergymen. I responded as follows:

Re the vicars and wives in the two novels--yes, it is certainly true that there are significant differences between the vicars and their wives in the two novels. However there are also significant parallels between their situations in certain nontrivial ways, which I will now expand upon.

It was the clear and striking echoing of the verbiage used by Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas in P&P, and by Len Clement in MATV, both speaking about the VERY specific topic of the pros and cons of country clergymen getting married, that got me thinking about P&P as a source for MATV in the first place.

And that makes sense—if Christie wanted a reader to think of P&P, without being heavy handed and explicit about it, what better way to covertly plant the idea of such an allusion in the head of the reader, than to create a subliminal echo of the language of the earlier novel?! That way, the reader (in this case, me) will experience what I call a “Trojan Horse Moment”---it will seem to the reader that he has thought of this parallel on his own, but then, upon reflection, he realizes how the idea had slipped into his mind having been prompted very slyly by the author, in this case, Christie. And the reader will be prompted to test the hypothesis, to see if the rest of the text supports it or not.

I developed that term “Trojan Horse Moment” ten years ago, because of my literary sleuthing into Jane Austen’s novels, where there are literally a THOUSAND of them scattered through her six novels—the densest and largest collection being--where else?---in Emma. The first one I ever saw, in July 2002, was when the idea popped into my head while reading early in Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, that Willoughby did not accidentally come upon Marianne Dashwood with her famous twisted ankle in the rain, but that he had been stalking her.

And it was not until 2009 that I first had an even more outside the box thought—i.e., that Willoughby may have been stalking Marianne, but SHE was aware of his stalking, and therefore she deliberately fell when he was close by, precisely so that he would rescue her. So who was the hunter, and who was the prey? Wheels within wheels, hidden just beneath the surface of Austen’s first published novel.

But back to MATV and P&P. To me, the most interesting and significant parallel between the two vicars in MATV and P&P is that each is under the thumb of a local tyrant who micromanages their every move as a cleric. That is VERY specific, and not a coincidence, especially when aligned with the other parallels.

Yet these two vicars’s reactions to their subjugation seem to be opposite-- i.e., Mr. Collins is an ultimate toady visavis Lady Catherine, anticipating her every command, and eagerly performing them without a trace of apparent resentment. Whereas Len Clement is very passive aggressive about Colonel Protheroe's oppression, clearly boiling with resentment, so much so that he lets slip in family chatter early in the novel that someone should kill Protheroe.

And the murder is, of course, the heart of MATV - it’s the whodunit, and right from the start, the vicar is in the middle of it, both as narrator and also as the first character to express a desire that Protheroe be dead. So the connection to P&P could not be more material to the plot of MATV. Perhaps P&P therefore, in some way, might provide other clues to the mystery in MATV? I’m letting that possibility brew in my mind, hoping I’ll wake up one day with a further inspiration in that regard, courtesy of my subconscious.

In the meanwhile, thinking about Mr. Collins and Len Clement prompted the somewhat humorous notion in my mind of what P&P would have been like, had it been narrated from MR. COLLINS’s point of view! And I think that was part of Christie’s intention. Maybe she's suggesting that even Mr. Collins, for all his overt sucking up, curses Lady C when he retires for the night, and dreams of being liberated from her tyranny. In P&P we’re NEVER in his head, so we can’t really know for sure, we only know for sure what Eliza Bennet sees and thinks, with only a few exceptions. But in MATV, we are ONLY in the vicar’s head, as far as I can recall, we NEVER get a chance to know what any other character is REALLY thinking even for a second.

This analysis alerts you that both Christie and Austen, the one using first person narration, the other third person, were masters of manipulation of a highly restricted point of view. It allows for a great deal of concealment of material facts in plain sight, if the reader can only find a way to see what the narrator is NOT telling you directly! 

But at this point, you may say, WHY would Christie want a reader to rely on being reminded of P&P while reading MATV, as a prompt to delve deeply into the meaning of such parallel? To answer that question, I call upon my star witness, Miss Jane Marple herself, discussing the murder case with the vicar and his wife in MATV:

“I found my wife and Miss Marple with their heads together.
"We've been discussing all sorts of possibilities," said Griselda. "I wish you'd solve the case, Miss Marple, like you did the way Miss Wetherby's gill of picked shrimps disappeared. And ALL BECAUSE IT REMINDED YOU OF SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT about a sack of coals."
"You're laughing, my dear," said Miss Marple, "but after all, THAT IS A VERY SOUND WAY OF ARRIVING AT THE TRUTH. It's really what people call intuition and make such a fuss about. Intuition is like reading a word without have to spell it out. A child can't do that because it has had so little experience. But a grown-up person knows the word because THEY’VE SEEN IT OFTEN BEFORE. You catch my meaning, vicar?"
"Yes," I said slowly, "I think I do. You mean that if a thing reminds you of something else - well, IT’S PROBABLY THE SAME KIND OF THING."
"And what precisely does the murder of Colonel Protheroe remind you of?"
Miss Marple sighed.
"That is just the difficulty. SO MANY PARALLELS COME TO THE MIND. For instance, there was Major Hargraves, a churchwarden and a man highly respected in every way. And all the time he was keeping a separate second establishment - a former housemaid, just think of it! And FIVE CHILDREN - actually FIVE CHILDREN - a terrible shock to his wife and daughter……Yes, this case makes one think so many things - too many. IT’S VERY HARD TO ARRIVE AT THE TRUTH."

When I perused that passage for the first time, I knew immediately from all my research on Jane Austen that this was exactly the same sort of METAfictional hint that Jane Austen gave her readers in many places in her novels — Miss Marple’s sound advice about how to solve a murder NOT COINCIDENTALLY also turns out to be very sound advice for how to solve a LITERARY puzzle---in this case, the detection and analysis of the literary allusion to P&P hidden in plain sight in MATV.

But that’s not all the metafictional winking that I see Agatha Christie doing with her Miss Marple stories in particular (and recall that I mentioned earlier that I see Miss Marple, AKA “Aunt Jane” as Christie’s VERY affectionate and admiring  portrait of Jane Austen herself!).

MATV is the first Marple novel, written in 1930, when Jane Austen's novels were still not even taught in most literature courses, because they were not deemed as deep and significant as George Eliot, Henry James, or James Joyce—all the more reason for Christie, at that moment in literary history, to depict Jane Austen as Miss Marple, the brilliant country spinster who never quite receives the respect she deserves, especially from the male authorities around her—in other words, Jane Austen to a T!

Nemesis was the last Marple novel to be written, more than forty years after MATV. But it too contains valuable metafictional advice to Christie’s readers, which shows that her literary goals remained consistent throughout Miss Marple’s 4-decade career—to train her readers to think outside the box!.

The advice to the reader that I see hidden in plain sight in Nemesis is the presentation of a DOUBLE riddle to solve. In Nemesis, the dying millionaire Rafiel sets Miss Marple the double task of FIRST identifying the mystery he wants her to solve, and then SECOND the task of achieving justice (as the mythological Nemesis would do) with respect to that mystery, once identified.

So too, I claim, did Agatha Christie set her readers the double task in MATV of first recognizing P&P as a key allusive source to MATV, and then figuring out what she meant by it.

And I claim that I've performed part one, because I've identified P&P as a key source. As to part two, I throw out to you all this question: if I am correct, then what do YOU think Christie meant by this? 

I know for sure that part of it is as follows: in real life, we all crave certainty, we all want to be told  what is important, and to have a tidy cozy summing up of causes and effects of everything important that occurs in our lives. So we often wind up deceiving ourselves, because objective omniscience is not part of the human condition, and never will be. What is human is to have incomplete, partially correct understanding of what happens, and the wiser we become, the more we realize how little we really are sure of. And we recognize the crucial importance of reading between the lines, and of being suspicious of appearances.

And here's what Jane Austen's narrator said on this topic in Emma, which is exactly the same sort of METAfictional advice that Christie gave via Miss Marple:   "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken"

So, to me, a key part of why Agatha Christie would have alluded to Pride & Prejudice in her first Miss Marple story, would have been to alert her readers that REAL LIFE is a detective story WITHOUT a clear resolution, and that reading Jane Austen’s novels is one really good way to get better at that vital skill, and reading Christie's novels through the lens of Austen's novels is even better! Otherwise, you will not  catch the evildoer, and you will be a pretty poor Nemesis!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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