“There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people. Though she expected the worst, she often accepted people kindly in spite of what they were.“ Agatha Christie – An Autobiography
Miss Jane Marple doesn’t look like your average detective. Quite frankly, she doesn’t look like a detective at all. But looks can be deceiving... For a woman who has spent her life in the small village of St Mary Mead, Miss Marple is surprisingly worldly. She has every opportunity to observe human nature – as she often points out, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.”
Agatha Christie attributed the inspiration for Miss Marple to a number of sources: Miss Marple was “the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother’s Ealing cronies – old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl”. Christie also used material from her fictional creation, spinster Caroline Sheppard, who appeared in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. When Michael Morton adapted Roger Ackroyd for the stage, he removed the character of Caroline replacing her with a young girl. This change saddened Christie and she determined to give old maids a voice: Miss Marple was born.
Miss Marple made her first appearance in The Tuesday Night Club – a short story published in The Sketch magazine in 1926. Here she is described as a Victorian relic of a bygone era, with a black brocade dress, very much pinched in around the waist. “Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled up masses of her snowy hair.” She appears in a total of 12 novels and 20 short stories.
From picturesque rural England in The Body in the Library, to the glamour of London’s Bertram’s Hotel and to an exotic island in A Caribbean Mystery, Miss Marple proves herself the match of every murderer she meets. Christie never expected Miss Marple to rival Poirot in the public’s affections but since the publication of in The Murder at the Vicarage, her first full length novel, we couldn’t get enough.
Many great actresses have played the amateur detective: Gracie Fields, the legendary British actress, was the first actress to play Miss Marple on screen. She appeared in a television adaptation of A Murder is Announced in 1956. Margaret Rutherford, a friend of the Christie family, played Miss Marple in four MGM films loosely based on Christie’s work. Rutherford also appeared briefly as Miss Marple in The Alphabet Murders alongside Tony Randall as Poirot. Helen Hayes, a two time Academy Award winning actress, played Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery (1983) and Murder with Mirrors (1984). Joan Hickson played Miss Marple in the BBC adaptations of the 1990’s. By coincidence she once played a maid in Murder, She Said which starred Rutherford as Miss Marple. Hickson appeared in the stage production of Appointment with Death and it is there that Christie saw her perform and told her, "I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple." Geraldine McEwan reprised the role for the ITV adaptations in 2004 with Julia McKenzie taking over in 2009.
The fictional village of St Mary Mead is about 25 miles from London and 12 miles from the coast. The main train station is in “Much Benham” two miles away. Although Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first novel set in St Mary Mead, the village itself was mentioned several times in her Poirot novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928); in chapter seven a letter addressed to the heroine Katherine Grey at Little Crampton, St Mary Mead, Kent.
Miss Marple was apt to say on many occasions, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.” And St Mary Mead was frequently a fertile field of wickedness – from scandal to murder, it was the location of many of Christie's Miss Marple stories: The Murder at the Vicarage, The Thirteen Problems, The Body in the Library and The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side
Regularly spotted inhabitants include Colonel Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Reverend Leonrad and Griselda Clement and Dr. Haydock - Miss Marple's own doctor and the local police surgeon.
The actual location of St Mary Mead is unknown!
Masthead Photography: Joan Hickson image © BBC
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