Christie and Read convey this with power and precision, perhaps because they were of that generation, and it’s a rare and welcome alternative view of the so-called swinging ’60s that we don’t often encounter.
Agatha Christie uses the massive social upheavals of the ’60s as a handy plot device – people aren’t always who they seem, so many records were destroyed during the war that a young woman turning up in a village with a small child can say she’s a widow who’s husband died in battle – but is she? Equally, that cantankerous old colonel tells a convincingly tedious tale of his years in India, but is he the real deal?
Without the system of recommendation that used to be the glue that held society together – a letter from an aunt to the local vicar, someone’s godfather vouching for a young man’s credentials etc – identity becomes a slippery concept and one that can be used and abused.
The traditional English village that defines the Miss Marple stories is intact, but there’s a council estate on its outskirts and young girls in mini skirts pushing prams jostle the old maids on the pavements. Teddy boys loiter on corners and there’s a pervasive sense of anxiety, of connections being broken and histories lost.
There’s a definite sense of ambivalence in Agatha Christie’s writing when confronting the modern age. She mourns the passing of old structures and systems and the comforting familiarity they offered – swept away with the enthusiasm of zealous youth and replaced with… what exactly? In Christie’s mind, a vacuum is a dangerous thing.
But Miss Read (or Dora Saint as she was in real life) is more pragmatic about change. Her Fairacre and Thrush Green novels also chart the passing of life in quiet rural communities and again the massive social upheavals of the ’60s make themselves felt. The traditions of the country calendar continue – harvest festival, the annual village outing to the seaside, the WI’s summer fete – but advances in agriculture mean the young men of the area no longer work for the farmer, but travel to the nearby nuclear power plant everyday instead.
She is a realist, not overly sentimental about the vanishing past. She points out that the children no longer arrive at the village school with Victorian ailments such as chilblains and mumps – their diets are better, their homes have central heating and indoor plumbing, they are stronger and healthier. Those olde worlde thatched cottages might look picturesque but they too often concealed damp, bad sanitation and serious deprivation and hunger.
My love of these novels feeds into a greater passion for the work of women writers of the twentieth century. Domestic fiction (sneering phrase) doesn’t get much credit but in my opinion if you want a real insight into the soul of a period and its people you’ll read the stuff written by women about everyday life.
It’s human sized. They notice stuff, like the difference between veg in a new suburb (small, pale, withered) compared to what you find in a country village, or how unbelievably difficult it was for a lone teacher to manage a class of 50 or even 60 children. It’s these tiny domestic details – seemingly unimportant ‘wallpaper’ that is far from being trivial, but reveals so much.
Oh and finally, these two writers are also good for showing that spinsterhood need not be regarded as a lonely, frustrating fate worse than death, but rather as a liberating, fulfilling state. So THERE!
Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.