Saturday, May 17, 2014

At Bertram's Hotel

Towards the end of her long reign as England's Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie wrote a book which seems, at first, to be an exercise in pure nostalgia: At Bertram's Hotel

Miss Marple, the village detective whom Agatha Christie introduced more than thirty years before in Murder at the Vicarage, is now old and frail, and the apparently immutable background of her life - with its minor gentry, its middle-class gossip, and indeed its Vicarage - has gone down like hay before the scythe.  By courtesy of her nephew she spends a couple of weeks in London at Bertram's Hotel, where it seems that the social certainties still hold in full force: felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world.  You were in Edwardian England once more.
At Bertram's, seed cake is still served for tea, sundry aristocrats and clerics populate the dining room, and breakfast is delivered by "a real chambermaid looking unreal... a smiling, rosy, countrified face.  Where did they find these people?"  The reader, lulled into an indulgent sympathy with the author who seems to be allowing her alter ego to enjoy they pleasures of a vanished age one last time,   misses the insistent sounding of the note of unreality.  What was once (in Miss Marple's youth) the ordinary way that her world operated has been simulated, by artifice and at considerable cost.  By the end of the book we understand that Bertram's is a facade for an elaborate conspiracy: a work of art, but, as Miss Marple remarks, "it is sad when a work of art has to be destroyed".

I was enjoying the book again just a few days ago when it occurred to me what a clear-eyed view of a certain temptation the book presents.  Within the world of the novel, we don't presume to question the lifestyle of Miss Marple's youth.  But she is sensitive enough to realize  that, whatever its past, it cannot be continued into the present without one's becoming an accomplice, even if unwittingly, in an extractive criminal enterprise.  Bertram's Hotel can serve as a metaphor for other unreal facades powered by extraction.  We may expect to see more of them.


The video above is of the incomparable Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the BBC adaptation of At Bertram's Hotel.

IMO, the best critical analysis of Agatha Christie's novels is Robert Barnard's A Talent to Deceive.  As Barnard points out, there are other novels in which Christie enlists the reader's sympathy for social stability as a device to mislead, most notably The Patriotic Murders (=One, Two, Buckle My Shoe in UK).

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