I am continuing to work my way through the Bodies From The Library conference speakers’ recommendations. Thanks to the continuing wonder of the library service, I am able to get hold of all but the more obscure titles (sorry Martin Edwards – that means several of your recommendations!)
Without going into the plots – so no spoiler alert required – the historian in me has been piqued by the possibilities for studying the society which produced the Golden Age of Detective Fiction: Britain (for the most part) between the wars. What evidence do these novels, products of popular culture, written with no real thought for posterity but simply as entertainment, offer about the people, society and culture of those times?
Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, Unnatural Death, and Have His Carcase, Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding and G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown, I am struck by the concern to avoid scandal and the inherent deference in the culture. Both Sayers’ and Crispin’s plots feature academic institutions – an Oxford College and a private school – whose primary concern when faced with crimes on their premises is to avoid the embarrassment of publicity rather than catching the perpetrator. The distinctly proletarian police seem more than willing to go along with this prioritisation by these upper-middle class establishments.
Indeed the class deference is taken further with the working-class police even allowing the aristocratic amateur Lord Peter Wimsey and the intellectual-elite Professor Gervase Fen not only to take an active part in the criminal investigation but at times to lead it.
That such plot devices were accepted without comment by the contemporary readers is indicative of a vastly more class-hierarchical society than modern Britain. It might be argued that readers then were less sophisticated than the modern reader and were more ready to suspend dis-belief in the interests of allowing the author to further the plot in a way that a modern audience would not because the modern audience requires the author to maintain precise accuracy in their adherence to procedures to establish their verisimilitude.
However, I suspect that such a line does a dis-service to contemporary readers between the wars. There is no reason to suppose that they were less demanding than readers now and a more plausible explanation is that the contemporary reader would find nothing comment-worthy in the deference to the elite because it reflected their own expectations of the society in which they lived.
The same could be said of the casual racism and anti-Semitism that pervades many of the novels. That a plot could hinge on a person being blackmailed over mixed-race parentage in their family, or that the idea of a white woman being abducted is more horrific because the abductor is believed to be black, indicates a level of racism inherent in the society that would be intolerable today. Indeed, notoriously, Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Niggers is now bowdlerised as And Then There Were None to reflect changing sensitivity in the use of the word, which is now treated by society as deeply offensive. Yet, the use of “nigger” occurs many times in books of this era, both in the speech of characters and, perhaps more tellingly, in the author’s own voice as narrator, without arousing comment at the time of publication.
The same can be said of the treatment of Jewish characters. Often they are portrayed stereotypically, as avaricious or money-grabbing. Characters are sometimes described as being a Jew without further elaboration, as if that suffices to portray them in the reader’s mind. This cannot be put down to lazy writing on the part of the authors. For them to use this form of shorthand, the readers must have had a common understanding and set of beliefs which to the modern audience appears disturbing.
It is not, I must stress, that the authors were themselves specifically racist or anti-Semitic. It is rather that they reflect the deep-rooted racism and anti-Semitism of their times in their writing.
I must, however, single out G.K. Chesterton for a specific prejudice which says more about him than about the society in which he lived. When reading his short stories about the Roman Catholic priest cum detective Father Brown, it soon becomes apparent that if a person is described as “atheist”, “Presbyterian” or “Calvinist” then you can safely assume that the character will be irrational, arrogant, stupid, or unhappy, and is likely to be involved in the crime as either the killer or his victim.
His conversion to Roman Catholicism is eminently predictable as a result,
I’m sorry, Christie and Sayers were specifically anti-semitic, and in Christies case, racist. Unlike, say, Christina Brand, Ngaio Marsh, or Nicholas Blake, who actively resisted these stereotypes in their fiction, Christie, Sayers, Tey did not just “reflect” the deep-rooted racism and anti -semitism of their times, they helped create it lovingly nurtured it.
Of course we’re all swimming in our own cultural sea without realizing we’re wet. Looking back over my past 70 years, I held and uttered views I would find appalling today, and I quake to think how my “enlightened” views may look two generations hence.
But I distinguish simple lack of self-awareness and active cruelty. It seems never even to have occurred to Christie or Sayers that Jews, Indians, or Africans might read their works. And that casual dehuminization is the more exculpatory explanation.
Thanks for your thoughts on the attitudes some of the Golden Age Detective Fiction writers displayed in their novels. You’re quite right that what passed without comment even a few years ago would now be rejected as outrageous.
I do think that Christie and Sayers reflected the attitudes of the Society in which they lived and can see how, by their popularity, they would perpetuate stereotypes that now are abhorant. However, I think it would be unfair to suggest that they helped to create those racist or anti-semitic attitudes. These were endemic in the culture and society of England long before Christie or Sayers were active. And I think when they were writing they were primarily thinking of an English readership, rightly or wrongly.
I am encouraged to hear that other writers took a more counter-cultural stance in these areas – I don’t have sufficient knowledge of the works of Brand, for example, though to be able to compare her work with that of Christie or Sayers in this respect.
It is also perhaps significant that of the writers mentioned, Christie and Sayers were the oldest and were writing at the start of the 1920s whereas the others didn’t being publishing detective fiction until at least a decade later (and in Brand’s case not until the 1940s). It would be interesting to compare how far attitudes on these areas had shifted during that period. Was Brand, for example, a product of a more enlightened time? I don’t know the answer to that one.