Agatha Christie as a Critic of Nostalgia
By Erika Ruonakoski | Image Pauliina Mäkelä
The good old times – many of us long for them, but did they ever really exist? What is our longing for the past or nostalgia all about? Agatha Christie’s works are often thought to be conservative and to idealise the British class society, but in At Bertram’s Hotel Miss Marple states that life is a one-way street – you just can’t go back in time.
The text includes spoilers from several Miss Marple stories,
At Bertram’s Hotel in particular.
In the Miss Marple story published in 1965, At Bertram’s Hotel, Christie describes the actual protagonist, the “authentically English” hotel in London in the following manner: “Inside, if this was the first time you had visited Bertram’s, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world. Time had gone back. You were in Edwardian England once more.”
When visiting London, Miss Marple also stays at Bertram’s hotel, which she has last visited as a teenage girl. Most of the hotel’s clientele consists of elderly British people and American tourists. The behaviour of the staff, the interior decoration, the available dishes, including kipper – everything is designed to satisfy completely nostalgists such as Marple as well as the tourists. Later Miss Marple describes her first impression of the hotel as follows: “It seemed wonderful at first – unchanged you know – like stepping back into the past – to that one loved and enjoyed.”
A comment like this can be expected from an elderly lady like Miss Marple, whose character was inspired by Christie’s grandmother and her friends. Very often the function of Miss Marple is to deftly convey a subtle resistance to change and a longing for “the good old times”. In the stories written in the 1940s and 1950s, in particular, she has a bitter attitude towards social change whether it manifests itself as a misguided fuss over criminals or sloppy gardening.
To experience nostalgia, one need not be elderly. Since it began, the war in Ukraine has rekindled nostalgia for the time when the threat of nuclear strikes and wars on European soil seemed like things of the past. During the most critical moments of the COVID-19 pandemic many of us longed for the time before it broke out, when shaking hands with someone or giving them a hug did not imply a threat of contracting or transmitting a potentially lethal disease. Other objects of longing include the time prior to the fragmentation of media realities and the time in which climate change seemed to belong to a far-off future. Some reminisce wistfully about the agrarian society, or the time when “girls were girls and boys were boys”. We may also recall the carefree moment of togetherness when a child of ours was a baby, a moment when time seemed to stop.
‘‘Yet it can be asked if that idea of “simplicity” stands for the simplification of a complex reality? Is change always, at least in part, linked to the articulation of long-existing ambiguities and tensions?’’
Nostalgia is often related to important moments and memories, which evoke feelings of longing precisely because those moments are gone forever: our now grown-up children will never again be babies, nor should they become ones. It can be problematic, however, if the nostalgist returns only to that part of the past that can be remembered or imagined positively, but generalises the positive emotion to cover the past more broadly. This is how the idea of “the good old times” or of “a state of greatness” is born. In the dreams, a close-knit community is achieved without its downsides, such as power struggles between the generations who live under the same roof, or the control exercised over young adults. An ancient superpower, which was held together only by a machinery of violence, is seen as a land of milk and honey, where everybody pulled together and culture thrived. All in all, we may long for a “simpler time”, in which we did not have to question our basic assumptions or to learn new ways of interpreting the world. Yet it can be asked if that idea of “simplicity” stands for the simplification of a complex reality? Is change always, at least in part, linked to the articulation of long-existing ambiguities and tensions?
The Miss Marple stories of the 1960s and 1970s continue to discuss the changing of the world, but now Miss Marple seems more tolerant towards change. Clinging to the past, on the other hand, is presented as something that can drive a person to desperate acts and even murder. In Nemesis (1971), it is precisely the inability to accept change that brings about evil. In The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), the killer, despite their modern manners, is inwardly stuck in the past, which ultimately motivates the murder. In A Caribbean Mystery (1964) the relationship to change is described in a lighter manner: Miss Marple, who is spending time in a luxurious hotel, protests the modern ways of dancing, as people fling “themselves about, seeming quite contorted”. Even so, she ends up wishing that there were more young people enjoying themselves at the hotel – for, in reality, only the middle-aged and the old can afford its prices.
In another hotel story, published a year later, that is, in At Bertram’s Hotel, the hotel itself functions as the symbol of the “fake old world”. While pretending to be the epitome of the traditional English way of life, it is merely a set, a centre of crime, in which actors play the roles of traditional Englishwomen and men. The perceptive Miss Marple then has to ascertain that what is presented as authentic and traditional is less authentic than that which attaches itself transparently to the present.
Should we then think of nostalgia as necessarily characterised by a degree of bad faith, a willingness to remember a thing as more perfect than it can ever have been in reality or than it can ever become when detached from its background? And if this is the case, does that bad faith differ in any way from the bad faith that may characterise our dreams of the future? Where is the line between bad faith and the phantasy that drives life forward?
In the latter part of the story, Miss Marple adopts a realistic attitude and states that “one can never go back”, that “the essence of life is going forward” and that life is “really a One Way Street”. You can’t stop the changing of the world even if you don’t like the change. Here Miss Marple ends up in the tracks of Heraclitus, an ancient philosopher, who emphasised the continuity of change: “Everything flows and nothing stays.”
My research article “Innocence, Deception, and Incarnate Evil in Agatha Christie’s They Do It with Mirrors” (Literature and Aesthetics 2020, vol. 30, no 2, 55–70) also approaches Agatha Christie’s thought from a philosophical perspective. The article includes spoilers from Christie’s novels.
Christie, Agatha. 1965. At Bertram’s Hotel. London: Collins.
— 1962. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. London: Collins.
— 1964. A Caribbean Mystery. London: Collins.
— 1971. Nemesis. London: Collins.
— 1977. An Autobiography. London: Collins.