Friday, 3 July 2015

So, really, was Agatha Christie anti-Semitic?

Long, golden hair

Giant's Bread, by Agatha Christie, 1930
I came across a reference to a straight novel Agatha Christie had written with a Jewish musician as hero, so I bought it and read it. The uneappealing title is Giant’s Bread, and she published it in 1930 under the name of Mary Westmacott. A friend, Nan Kon, dropped a hint that she had guessed the book’s true author. Not surprising, since Christie used chunks of her own experience.

The central character, Vernon Deyre, does indeed become a composer, but his father is a decayed English gentleman who has married a button-shank heiress from Birmingham in order to hang onto his ancestral home, Abbots Puissants. Christie is good on the stifling boredom of childhood. Vernon is from a “privileged” background, all right, but he hardly ever sees his parents, or the rest of the enormous house. He spends most of his time in a small nursery with “Nurse”, or being led on sedate walks around the gardens or along the road. He develops a vivid imagination and many imaginary companions.

His life changes when his cousin Josephine comes to live with them. The two become great friends, and one day they meet the boy next door – Sebastian Levinne. He too becomes part of the gang, and another girl, the rather drippy Nell Vereker, is accepted on sufferance.

The book drags rather until the characters grow up. Vernon’s father dies in the Boer War and his mother moves back to Birmingham and lets the house. The Levinnes are portrayed sympathetically, but today we would not harp on Sebastian having a “yellow” face, or a slight lisp. Fortunately Christie stops indicating this, but poor Mrs Levinne is burdened with lines like “Teath ready, dearths”.

“Jet dangled and twinkled on her immense bust. A large black hat with feathers sat on top of her elaborately arranged coiffure.” Later Vernon reflects: “Funny, fat, old Mrs Levinne with her jet and her diamonds and her greasy black hair, managed to be more understanding than his own mother.” It’s rather hard to tell which year the story is set in, but we can work out that the young characters are the same age as Christie herself, who was born in 1890. In 1905 jet was old-fashioned, and diamonds during the day were a no-no, but would Mrs L really be wearing a feathered hat indoors at teatime? And would Sebastian really say “Personally I’m quite satisfied with Jehovah”? Later, they discuss a possible buyer for Abbots Puissant. Nobody wants “a vulgarian who will fill it with gilt and spurious old masters”.

The four young people throw themselves into Edwardian life, determined to be modern. Josephine (Joe) becomes a suffragette. Sebastian is in love with her, and becomes a theatrical producer. You long for Christie's usual satire, wit and snappy dialogue. Dramatic events happen offstage, and characters converse in long, stodgy speeches about their purpose in life. She’s even sometimes guilty of this kind of thing:

“‘You wouldn’t have him accept it?’ flamed out Joe.”

Vernon meets Nell Vereker again and finds that she has become exceptionally pretty. Her mother is launching her in society in the hope that she will make a “good marriage” – code for “marry a rich man”. They haven’t much to live on. “‘Someone devoted is always useful,’ said Mrs Vereker, reverting to her utilitarian standpoint. ‘He mustn’t, of course, spoil your chances with other men.’” Mrs V reflects on “The ease with which friends dropped you if you ‘couldn’t keep up with things’, the slights, the snubs – worse – the galling patronage!”

Christie is quite down-to-earth about the marriage market. Her own family lost most of its income through mismanagement and trusting the wrong people, and her father died when she was young. Her mother was nothing like the shallow, grasping Mrs Vereker, but Mrs Miller did not hide hard facts from her daughter. Christie also grew up in a beloved house with a big garden – not a “historic house” with ruins as in the book, but a  massive Victorian villa.

A fifth character joins the gang: singer Jane Harding. She has a light, lovely voice, but pushes herself to sing Wagner and Strauss. She says to Nell: ‘If you like to come round to my flat, I’ll try your voice, and I can tell you in two minutes just what your voice is good for.’ ‘Would you really? That’s awfully kind of you.’ ‘Oh, not at all. You can trust me. You can’t trust someone who makes their living by teaching to tell you the truth.’ (Good tip, by the way.)


Christie uses Jane’s character to relive her days as a student in Paris. I believe she desperately wanted to be a singer, though she was nervous of performing in public. Eventually she met the teacher honest enough to tell her the truth: that her voice just wasn’t good enough, and she’d never make it. (Later, she sought writing mentors with the same clear-sightedness.) She obviously loved the avant-garde composers of the day, and this book shows that she understood them thoroughly.

Vernon becomes a composer, intending to remake music entirely. He writes an opera based on a fairy story (I skipped a lot of this bit), and Jane stars in it, losing her voice as a result. Yes, the plot is preposterous and beyond melodramatic. I also skipped quite a lot about a modernist setting of the Peer Gynt story. “Great art” crops up now and then in Christie’s writing, and usually sounds dire – like sculptor Henrietta’s output in The Hollow. But I admire her for taking it on. Would we appreciate Vernon's masterpiece: a musique concrète depiction of the mechanisation of man? I think I would.

The war hasn’t even started yet, but “free love” is talked of, people “defy convention” and live together, or become “that kind of woman”. Sebastian has a futuristic moment: ‘I don’t think it’s got anything to do with ideals. It’s probably a question of transport. Once you get flying going on a commercial scale and you fuse countries together. Air charabancs to the Sahara, Wednesdays and Saturdays. That kind of thing. Countries getting mixed up and matey. Trade revolutionized. For all practical purposes, you make the world smaller. You reduce it in time to the level of a nation with counties in it. I don’t think what’s always alluded to as the Brotherhood of Man will ever develop from fine ideas – it will be a simple matter of common sense.’

War breaks out, and Vernon and Nell get married and live in furnished rooms while he trains for the army. He is sent to the front, and Nell becomes a nurse. Suddenly we’re back with the witty, observant writer we know and love: “Mrs Curtis was benign and affable. She was enjoying her importance and was convinced that she was a born organizer.”

We learn some details about Christie’s life as a nurse that didn’t make it into her autobiography. The volunteers disregard their backgrounds, usually so inescapable, and all muck in together, calling each other by their surnames. The professional sisters, however, are desperately trying to be genteel: “‘I only passed the remark, so to speak.’ ‘Pushing herself forward. Always the same thing.’ ‘Would you believe it, she forgot to hold the towel for the doctor’s hands.’ ‘I said to Doctor this morning …’ ‘I passed the remark to Nurse …’” I’d have liked to hear more about the “feuds, the jealousies, the cabals”. Entertainment is laid on for the wounded, and Christie gets in a dig at the untalented: ‘Anybody who thinks they can sing, but has never been allowed to by their families, has got their chance now!’

From this point on, the narrative revs up, and Christie casts her usual page-turning spell despite the crazy plot. Sebastian continues to be a good egg, though there are occasional lines like this: “A sudden quick suspicion came into his shrewd Jewish mind,” and “It was a feeling peculiarly and exclusively Jewish. The undying gratitude of the Jew who never forgets a benefit conferred. As a child he had been an outcast and Joe had stood by him – she had been willing to defy her world.”

Though the book lacks Christie’s usual beady eye for fashion and décor, at one point Nell looks at herself in the mirror: “She saw the waved and shingled hair, the manicured hands, the foamy negligee of soft lace, the cobweb silk stockings and little embroidered mules. She saw the hard cold beauty of the rose-coloured diamond.” And an ill Joe manages to parody Victorian literature: “This reminds me of the books one reads as a child. Edifying death-bed scenes. Friends and relations gathering round. Wan smiles of heroine.” (This paragraph is for Clothes in Books.)

Read it yourself if you want to find out what happens and who ends up with whom. It’s a romance, but there are no Mary Sue characters – everybody is flawed. Nell herself appears as a heroine out of Sir Walter Scott, with her slender shape and long, golden hair. Along with the Wagner-loving Jane, she also is Christie’s avatar: she had a moment as a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and strings of admirers, some of whom offered “safety”. She chucked them to marry Archie Christie, one of the first RAF pilots. And thereby hangs a tale.

More on Christie's alleged racism here, and links to the rest.
More Christie reviews here.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the tipoff Lucy - I did read this book but can only remember an extraordinarily melodramatic ending. I definitely should do an entry on the foamy negligee....

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  2. There is not enough about clothes, though Joe comes back from Paris wearing (gasp) - makeup! Forgot to mention that if Nell makes a "good" marriage Mrs V will be in clover and vice versa.

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  3. Update: According to NGram, the word "anti-Semitism" became current during World War II, and more used in the 70s.

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