Sylvia A. Pamboukian
Moon Township, Pennsylvania, United States
Common Tansy, Niagara Botanical Garden, Niagara Falls, Canada. Photograph by author.
It is a truth rarely acknowledged that an Agatha Christie village is a Jane Austen village gone wrong. Village spinsters still talk scandal over cozied tea pots, and plump vicars still carve Sunday roast with ecclesiastical dignity. So far, so good. However, in a Christie village, the tea-table offers far more menace than a mere lovelorn lieutenant or penniless curate.1 In a Christie village, a chocolate cake presages delicious death. A steaming bowl of porridge exhales funereal yew. A lump of sugar sweetens a lump of arsenic. The Christie novels set in and around the village of St. Mary Mead highlight the symbolic power of food and of food-related rituals to thicken (or to dilute) a community’s relationships.2 Here, food is the thermometer that takes the temperature of village life, from metaphorically “dead” dinner parties to fatal poisoning. This essay will explore food and food rituals in Agatha Christie’s village novels without offering any spoilers, either culinary or literary.
“There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.” – Miss Marple
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in 1890 in a well-appointed home in Torquay on the south coast of England. In her memoir, An Autobiography, food and food rituals communicate to readers a sense of the placid order of late-Victorian childhood: “Tea-time in the kitchen was often a social reunion. Jane [the cook] had innumerable friends, and one or two of them dropped in nearly every day. Trays of hot rock cakes came out of the oven. Never since have I tasted rock cakes like Jane’s. They were crisp and flat and full of currants and eaten hot they were Heaven” (31). These rock cakes communicate to readers that not just Jane but the whole community were following the social recipe correctly, each adding the proper ingredient at the proper time and in the proper manner. This recipe was exacting. One always left food on the plate for Lady Manners, she recalls, and one never drank with one’s mouth full. Junior servants never rose from the tea-table before senior members of staff (31). In this world of five-course dinners upstairs and scrumptious teas downstairs, food and food rituals represent trust, security, and harmony. However, for young Agatha, as for so many, this harmony came to an end in the hospitals of the First World War, when she served in a Voluntary Aid Detachment, married aviator Archie Christie, and became a novelist.
Christie did her bit first as a nurse then as a dispensary assistant. If rock cakes capture the flavor of pre-war life, pharmaceuticals expose the bitterness of wartime. Christie writes feelingly about making up reeking batches of Bip’s paste (bismuth, iodoform, and paraffin): on Bip’s paste days, she was not welcome in the dining room and had to eat alone in the pantry (249). Cut off from family dinners, Christie spends her days compounding cocoa butter suppositories with supervising pharmacist, Mr. P., who once made a ten-fold error in dosage. Quick-witted Agatha handily dropped the tray and stepped on all the suppositories to make sure they did not reach patients (252). In addition to patting female assistants inappropriately, Mr. P. habitually carried curare in his pocket because it made him feel “powerful” (254). Mr. P’s behavior so disturbed Christie that she called him “a dangerous man” and later featured him in a novel (254). She comments on this experience: “Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected” (254). More than this, Christie knew that poisoning was a particularly “intime” crime, a crime of treachery and deceit because it was “all in the family” (254). It is in her later village novels that Christie successfully folds together these different experiences, mixing her delight in food and pleasure in food rituals with her knowledge of poisons and keen sense of potential danger.
“Villages change so much there is always something new to observe.” – Elizabeth Bennett
Death may come to Pemberley, but it lives in St. Mary Mead. Through food and food rituals, the first Miss Marple novel, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), displays the tensions hidden within the supposedly harmonious village even before the actual murder. Annoyed at his cook’s shortcomings, the vicar announces while carving an ill-prepared dinner that killing his overbearing churchwarden, Col. Protheroe, would be a service to humanity. The dinner-table jibe comes true shortly afterward when Protheroe is murdered in the vicar’s own study. As if to underscore the connection between violated food rituals and social disorder, the vicar’s mischievous wife, Griselda, shocks the parishioners at their tea party by hinting that she is having an affair with a local artist. It is merely a lark to mock the widows’ and spinsters’ love of talking scandal over their teacups, but Miss Marple warns Griselda that it will not go over well. The novel’s series of dysfunctional meals culminates in the poisoning of another villager.3 In Murder at the Vicarage, disrupted meals communicate to readers that beneath the idyllic façade of village life there are wicked energies lurking: anger, adultery, revenge, and murder.
In the second Miss Marple novel, The Moving Finger (1942), a wounded aviator, Jerry, arrives in the nearby village of Lymstock to recuperate from his wounds. As poison pen letters fly wildly about the village, awkward Megan Hunter commits the faux pas of inviting herself to lunch with Jerry and his sister Joanna, then tactlessly calls the cook’s beef stew “dogs’ dinner” (1942, 34). Even when invited properly, Megan causes a domestic crisis: Jerry and Joanna neglected to tell their cook, the very aggravated Mrs. Partridge, about the invitation, and there are but two cups of custard among three diners. The series of awkward meals comes to a happy conclusion when Jerry takes Megan to a restaurant in London and feels for the first time a “thrill of idiotic pride” as the now-graceful Megan follows the waiter to their table (161).
In one of the later village novels, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), Miss Marple decides to explore the dreaded “Development” which has sprung up on the outskirts of St. Mary Mead to the annoyance of the older residents. People from the Development buy food in “packets” in the new supermarket rather than cooking “a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs” (1962, 4). During her expedition, Miss Marple falls on a gravel walk and is offered tea by resident Heather Badcock. Heather forces tea loaded with sugar on a protesting Miss Marple, who prefers without, and enthuses at length over the upcoming village fete at Gossington Hall. Local landmark Gossington Hall has recently changed hands from longtime village residents to an American film star. Unsurprisingly, the fete goes awry when a newfangled cocktail is spiked with American barbiturates. The prepackaged supermarket food and Development tea anticipate the tragedy, for, as Miss Marple says, they expose the truth of modern life: who knows who anyone really is, and whether anyone’s account of herself is to be trusted?
“I have got an old recipe of my grandmother for tansy tea that is worth any amount of your drugs.” – Miss Marple
In Agatha Christie’s villages, food is an expressive medium capable of revealing the hidden conflicts and frustrated desires bubbling beneath the calm surface of the ordinary. More than mere puzzle plots, these novels reveal the primacy of food and food-related rituals in forming and sustaining communities and the potentially fatal vulnerability at the core of all relationships. Sociologists Beardsworth and Keil describe this situation as the omnivore’s paradox. For all of us, the knowledge that food is required for life and health wrestles with the knowledge that food can bring sickness and death (1997, 152).4 Beardsworth and Keil posit that traditional food rituals assuage our fears by setting forth rules for how to eat, what to eat, and when to eat, thereby offering diners the comforting illusion of safety and control (154). Even Miss Marple is lulled into a false sense of security by her grandmother’s tansy tea, for it offers the elderly sleuth an illusion of familiarity not available from anonymous supermarket goods or mass-produced pharmaceuticals. As Christie was well aware, tansy is many things: a flavoring, a home remedy, and a potential poison. In her village novels, Agatha Christie reminds us that the items in our medicine cabinets and in our cupboards have many faces, as do those with whom we break bread. These people literally have our lives in their hands, and it is impossible to know fully their motives and intentions, even for students of human nature as astute and perceptive as Jane Marple or Jane Austen.
- Stuart Barnett reads Christie in the great English country house tradition.
- The village novels that are the focus of this essay include Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942), The Moving Finger (1943), A Murder is Announced (1950), A Pocketful of Rye (1953), and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962).
- Angelica Michelis explores the relationship between food and crime, since food is the foundation for society. Literary critic, Julie E. Fromer suggests that teatime carries symbolic value in English novels: a proper tea reinforces social connection and intimacy, while dysfunctional teas imply social disarray
- Morton Satin describes the thrill of knowingly eating poisoned food such as fugu.
Barnett, Stuart. 2016. “A Fitting End: the Country House, Agatha Christie, and Dead Man’s Folly.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 34, no. 1 (Spring): 63-71.
Beardsworth, Alan, and Teresa Keil. 1997. Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society. London: Routledge.
Christie, Agatha. 1977. An Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins.
Christie, Agatha. 2007. The Murder at the Vicarage. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal.
Christie, Agatha. 2007. The Moving Finger. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal.
Christie, Agatha. 2011. The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. New York: HarperCollins.
Fromer, Julie E. 2008. A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Michelis, Angelica. 2010. “Food and Crime: What’s Eating the Crime Novel?” European Journal of English Studies 14, no. 2 (April): 143-157. PDF. DOI: 10.1080/13825577.2010.481461
Satin, Morton. 2007. Death in the Pot. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
SYLVIA A. PAMBOUKIAN, Ph.D. is a professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle as well as recent articles on anesthesia in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne,” girl poisoners in children’s literature, and medicinal herbs in Agatha Christie’s work.