‘There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.’
Even before Coronavirus stopped the world, I had begun re-reading my Miss Marple collection. I always find Marple a tonic in tough times, and her shrewd no-nonsense appraisal of people a great comfort.
I began in January with the first Marple novel, The Murder At The Vicarage (1930). The elderly spinster first appeared in short stories, later collated into The Thirteen Problems (1932). Miss Marple obviously wasn’t content with just being in short stories, and thankfully for those of us who love her, managed to break through into a full-length novel.
‘Nothing, I believe, is so full of life under the microscope as a drop of water from a stagnant pool.’
The Murder At The Vicarage introduces us to the world of St Mary Mead, an idyllic, seemingly sleepy English village in south-east England. It has a pub, vicarage, shops and Gossington Hall Estate. Miss Marple’s cottage is Danemead Cottage in Old Pasture Lane.
Colonel Lucius Protheroe, the much disliked church warden, is found shot through the head in the vicarage study. Everybody believes they know who’s responsible, including Miss Marple, one of the ‘old cats’ of the village, who sees everything, hears everything and knows everything! Miss Marple goes as far to declare there are at least 7 suspects who would want the Colonel out of the way.
Just before the unfortunate man’s death, Leonard Clement, the local vicar who narrates the story – and is one of the Seven Suspects – makes the tactless remark that ‘anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service’.
Some of the other suspects include the vicar’s wife, Griselda, a flamboyant character who is a lot of fun. She reminds me of Tuppence Beresfold. I suspect Christie enjoys these young and spirited characters – perhaps reflecting her young and spirited side. She was, after all, one of the first British women to surf standing up in Australia during her Grand Tour in 1924.
Agatha must have been fond of Leonard and Griselda as they also appear in The Body In The Library (1942) and 4.50 From Paddington ( 1957).
The Colonel’s second wife, Anne and her seemingly scatty daughter, Lettice.
Mr Dawes, the new rector under suspicion of stealing from the church collection plate.
Lawrence Redding, the rakish artist and ex-war veteran.
The mysterious Mrs Lestrange, a newcomer to the village.
‘Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.’
The Murder At The Vicarage is filled with red herrings and twists. It also has a lot of humour and some really fun characters and observations on village life. Even in my Australian Blue Mountains village so many decades later, I can recognise some of the personalities Christie has so much fun with. A Miss Hartnell is described as ‘weatherbeaten and jolly and much dreaded by the poor.’ Agatha can sum up so much in so few words.
Inspirations for Miss Marple included the spinster sister, Caroline Sheppard from The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. Her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends.
I love Miss Marple because I appreciate that an elderly woman is given such power. Dismissed and overlooked by so many to their cost, Miss Marple is always observing and noticing. Nothing appears to unduly shock her.
‘At my time of life, one knows the worst is usually true.’ – Miss Marple
I enjoyed revisiting The Murder At The Vicarage. I love Vicar Leonard and Griselda and of course, I will always love Miss Marple. The plot is slightly convoluted and it’s not my favourite of Agatha’s books but it’s a classic Agatha mystery. I am now about to re-read The Thirteen Problems where Miss Marple first appeared in short story form.
Agatha Christie, reflecting on The Murder At The Vicarage, found it sound but thought it was filled with too many characters and sub-plots.
Scottish crime writer, Val McDermid has cited The Murder At The Vicarage as being the novel that inspired her to write detective novels.
Dorothy L. Sayers was so taken by The Murder At the Vicarage and Miss Marple, she wrote the following to Agatha Christie:
‘Dear Old Tabbies are the only possible right kind of female detective and Miss M is lovely… I think this is the best you have done – almost.’
Walking through the gate in the dry stone wall, I sensed the enchantment that had lured me and countless other artistic people over the years. Whenever I sight Norman Lindsay’s romantic-looking sandstone house and the first standing nude statue flanked by lavender, I feel as if I’m entering a bohemian, magical world.
Today, I wasn’t here to look at Norman’s artworks, or wander around the gardens as I did many times planning scenes for my gothic mystery, Currawong Manor. Instead I’d come with photographer Nicole Wells, her daughter Jennifer and my own daughter, Daisy, to shoot scenes inspired by Currawong Manor.
Nicole, a confirmed bibliophile, has been involved in a project photographing Australian authors dressed as their characters. When she first approached me two years ago, I instantly thought I’d like to portray feisty, flamboyant Ginger Lawson, one of the book’s ‘Flowers’ (life-models for artist Rupert Partridge). Her personality is vastly different to my more introverted character. Ginger has remained with me throughout the years. I often find myself asking in difficult situations – what would Ginger do?
Rupert – the tempestuous, notorious artist of Currawong Manor – is a synthesis of Albert Tucker, Norman Lindsay, Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. My life models Ginger, Kitty and Wanda, were all inspired by Norman’s life models, especially Pearl Goldman and Rose Lindsay, his wife.
An added bonus with this shoot is that Nicole and I have daughters the same age and the right appearance to play Dolly and Shalimar from the book.
Although it took two years for Nicole and I to finally collaborate on our shared vision due to work, family and my own tree-change to the mountains, I always knew we would meet and make the ‘magic happen.’
Except – disaster first struck when my 1940s outfit, ordered from Etsy, became lost in the mail. It is apparently still heading back and forth between America and Austria (!). But the show had to go on, as Nicole had booked a family break in the mountains, so I improvised with what I could throw together.
After many dry months in the mountains, the longed-for storm-clouds arrived on the week of our meeting. A soft misty rain fell throughout the day of the shoot. The numerous statutes on the grounds watched over us as we re-created the eerie world of Currawong Manor. It felt as if the story’s pages had sprung to life.
It was a unique experience to bring a character from a world you have created into three-dimensional being, to be a small part of the fantastical world of Magic Puddings, Sirens, art and bohemia.
I watched ‘Dolly’ and ‘Shalimar’ running over the grounds, their white dresses glimpsed through the trees. The world felt tilted, as if from any moment along the bush tracks, a centaur, a fairy woman, or Norman himself would go rushing past us, hurrying to his studio.
When posing on the verandah of the house in Ginger mode, a volunteer came to watch. ‘My god, it’s like watching Rose Lindsay come to life,’ she said.
I can still smell the fragrant odours of the bush after the rain, and the velvet air of gentle sensuality and bohemian inspiration that ripples throughout the grounds. My legs ached for days with the high heels I wore, stumbling over the uneven ground of the bush where we shot the swimming pool. Some of you may recall the swimming pool from the movie Sirens. The misty rain added its own radiant light. The eucalyptus trees that laced the sky were the only witnesses to the story being re-enacted. I felt the whispers of my own characters in my ears as Ginger rose within me, with a pout, a snarl, determined to tell her story and strut her vibrant being.
Some days, from trees, leaves, and bark, we weave the magic. Some days, the sky and earth echo the timeless truth how stories matter. Art ignites, a character can change the destiny of the reader – or, the writer.
You can read more about the house and grounds of the Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum HERE. Thank you to all the staff who were so helpful and friendly throughout the day.
You can see more of Nicole Well’s work HERE.