Voices of Commonsense: Mrs. Christie and Mrs. Bradstreet

The ebullient Mrs. Bantry asking to look at the Rudds'
bathrooms--because frankly that's the kind of
thing people really care about.
I recently finished Laura Thompson's biography of Agatha Christie. Although too long in places (Thompson tackles anything that was ever said about Christie, good and bad), Thompson's analysis, especially of Christie's work, is insightful.

Better than any biographer I've encountered, she pinpoints that Christie the mystery writer is not simply a puzzle-maker. Clever plots would not explain why the books remain on library shelves--why they are read and reread.

While acknowledging that Christie's plots are often implausible (so many of Christie's murders would fall to pieces if a normal person walked in at the wrong moment rather than a character who  attempts blackmail, only to be killed off three chapters later), she points out that human nature lies at the center of all Christie's books:
When she is working at her best . . . the satisfaction of the solution is intense and profound,  because it solves the puzzle and resolves the human dynamic . . . These characters may not be deep, but they are there: vivid as a splash of color (my emphasis).
Christie's Poirot defends the surly Frank
because he, Poirot, is "not concerned with
nations . . . [but with] the lives of private
Perhaps not everyone could become a murderer, as Poirot and other Christie detectives claim, but everyone does carry a share of jealousy, lust, rage, hope, greed, love, and desperation in their natures. The humanness of Christie's characters rings true. She understands what makes people tick.

Thompson touches on another aspect of Christie's writing that I consider fundamental: her views of people and institutions are grounded in commonsense. Although she comprehends human nature writ large, she tackles it through individuals writ small, precisely because trying to figure things out by principle (how society and people ought to behave) is a waste of time. There is little to gain from trying to remake the world; there is also little to gain from protesting the functional trappings and institutions of civilized society. Christie was no party member; she was also no rebel.

In many ways, I consider Christie another Anne Bradstreet. Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan woman, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, the Puritan leader of Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was a gifted poet, luckily encouraged by both husband and father to publish her pieces. She was also close friends with intellectual (male) Puritan leaders: she was able--despite her time-consuming roles as wife and mother--to read, explore, and discuss everything from Pilgrim's Progress to Milton and the latest political discourse. Yet she made sure to emphasize and defend her traditional roles in letters and forwards.

From one viewpoint, Bradstreet would appear to be the quintessential upholder of the status quo--she was no Anne Hutchinson (whom Bradstreet knew), challenging Puritan leaders, then stepping even further over the line to defend her individuality. From a modern perspective, it is easy to see Anne Hutchinson as "advanced" while representing Anne Bradstreet as bowing to male authority, the exigencies of her age.

And yet Bradstreet got her poems published, poems that still live in anthologies today. Bradstreet, not Hutchinson (and more than Rowlandson), left a legacy of female thought, reminding us that Puritan women lived and loved and pondered and struggled, even if they weren't making intentional waves. Bradstreet reminds us that well-behaved women make history, especially if they are clever and tough and understand their society all the way from its supposed shallowness to its profound heights.

Like Christie, Bradstreet trend a line between idealism and conventionality. It is on that line, in that space, that reality resides.

Here they are, reflecting on everyday life:

From Christie:
 "Does one really care about being comfortable?" David asked scornfully.
 "There are times," said Midge, "when I feel I don't care about anything else."
 "The pampered attitude to life," said David. "If you were a worker--"
Midge interrupted him.
 "I am a worker. That's just why being comfortable is so attractive. Box beds, down pillows, early morning tea softly deposited  beside the bed--a porcelain bath with lashings of hot water--and delicious bath salts. The kind of easy chair you really sink into--"
 Midge paused in her catalogue.
 "The workers," said David, "should have all these things."
 But he was a little doubtful about the softly deposited early morning tea which sounded impossibly sybaritic for an earnestly organized world.
 "I couldn't agree with you more," said Midge heartily.
                               --from The Hollow
From Bradstreet:
My head, my heart, mine eyes, my life, nay, more,
My joy, my magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever,
If but a neck, soon should we be together.
I like the Earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,
Whom whilst I 'joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father's face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till nature's sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet but both one.
                             --from A Letter to Her [Absent] Husband

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