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Agatha Christie and the N-word

While Agatha Christie wrote her first Hercule Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916, it was published in 1920 (NY) and 1921 (UK). I imagine the gap was because the war years interfered with an earlier date. During the war, she worked as a nurse and in a hospital pharmacy, which features in the mystery.

She was 26 when she wrote it, 30 when the book was published. It’s a short novel but one that re-set the detective story. The Times Literary Supplement said “The only fault this story has is that it is almost too ingenious.” The NYT Book Review said “you will be kept guessing at its solution and will most certainly never lay down this most entertaining book.”

Quite true, and I was reading along, thoroughly enjoying myself until Chapter 8. That was where the N-word appeared, in passing, while describing the young adults’ habit of amusing themselves by wearing costumes assembled from a dressing box, sometimes using cork on their skin (to darken it).

I tensed, I felt uncomfortable at this easy insertion of such a loaded word. Yes in Mark Twain’s work, I expect it, because of its time, mid 19th c, and its setting, the American south, and the characters who speak as they would have spoken then, and with the author’s awareness of the word and what it meant, of slavery and racism. (Though even expected, there isn’t any one good way to deal with it.)

Agatha Christie is the most successful author ever. Only sales of the bible surpass the 4 billion copies of her books sold. And all unawares, the n-word is tossed off, never expunged, never mentioned in anything I have ever read about her or this book.

So I was tense, too, when I came across her description of a “Polish Jew” who is somehow, at the same time German. I feared as evidence piled up, that he would turn out to be the villain (because he was Jewish). Just as much, I was afraid that I might find a casual antisemitic remark and then I would have to pause in my enjoyment of the book, just as I’d paused at the N-word to think about its presence, to feel a pang and a pain.

The last Hercule Poirot book was published in 1976, the manuscript having been written decades before. The most recently written one came out in 1972 when she was in her 80’s. By then the civil rights movement was afoot. Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead for 4 years.

So I wonder why Dame Agatha Christie never thought to revise that first book just a bit, or why her publishers never approached her about it while she was still alive, asking her to edit the book so that it wouldn’t have to cause any reader a personal jab of pain and unexpected consternation, or any reader’s parent.

I think that Hercule Poirot, with his understanding of human beings and his sympathy for human feeling, would have favoured that edit.

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18 thoughts on “Agatha Christie and the N-word”

  1. It’s always an interesting question whether to retrospectively change the language. I do wonder about the timelines, I’m not sure whether that word was considered so unacceptable in the UK even in the 70s, I certainly heard it sometimes growing up in the 80s. I might look up the history now…

  2. She died in 1976, long before political correctness in language was born. Really, it’s such a recent thing, readers all forget (wikipedia suggests it was the 1990s before attention to certain pejorative terms took on the force of regulation). Her publishers changed the title of one of her books to And Then There Were None, but probably felt that a passing reference within the pages of a novel might be attributed to the era in which it was written. You could always write to them and suggest a change, Lilian.

  3. This question of retrospective editing is a difficult one…and although on a much smaller scale, it is a little like creating a modern version of an ancient text…how much should be changed to allow the modern reader to read smoothly, how much should be left as is and footnoted or commented on to give the reader the background to understand it. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I’m glad that writers and readers an editors engage in these kinds of discussions.

  4. What surprises me so much is that nobody ever has mentioned it. I have read in her other books descriptions verging on antisemitism, which have made me uncomfortable, and I see that’s addressed at Wikipedia:

    Others have criticized Christie on political grounds, particularly with respect to her conversations about and portrayals of Jews. Christopher Hitchens, in his autobiography, describes a dinner with Christie and her husband, Professor Sir Max Mallowan, which became increasingly uncomfortable as the night wore on, and where “The anti-Jewish flavour of the talk was not to be ignored or overlooked, or put down to heavy humour or generational prejudice. It was vividly unpleasant…”[33]

  5. The title change to And Then There Were None dates to 1940 (Dodd Mead and Company), which predates the concept of political correctness by some decades. That wasn’t only a title change, but also a change in text, the rhyme changed to “Ten little soldiers” as in “Ten little Soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.”

  6. Then There Were None was published in the US as Ten Little Indians – one culture’s romantic hero is another’s savage I suppose. I have always adored Christie; when I was working for Pan Publishing and spending all those hours commuting from Raynes Park to Soho and back I read everything she wrote. I don’t think I was as sensitive in those days to the contempt endemic in society with respect to class, race and ethnic differences and in part it was Christie that taught me that I was going to have to figure out a way to manage my feelings about it. I remember being enraptured by the casual way that some people had of just creating their world as they liked it despite the sometimes horrifying consequences to those around them (i.e. murderers in the books and racists, homophobes etc in society – they are to me equivalent in their virulence), and the choices people had who were designated potential victims (in society, women, Jews, Indians, Blacks, homosexuals etc). Christie taught me that those who needed the world to be homogeneous and ordered with their needs at its center, could not be reasoned with but that one still didn’t have to become a victim. One could, for example, outsmart them as did Poirot.)

    Since I am (to some degree) a Jungian, I see Poirot as a “shadow” of Christie; one that knew what rejection by ethnicity (in his case) was like, and disapproved. The fact that her ego couldn’t get there seemed to me understandable since her class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation had a lot to lose by acknowledging their Poirotian shadow side.) Still, the older I get, the more tired I get of having to fend off this kind of ego and dig for the shadow I know must be there. I mean, really, get over it I want to yell. The world is full of people not at all like you. Back then, I just used Christie to figure out what to do about the presence of “murderers” that saw me as a potential victim.

  7. She did. I was a street kid from inner city USA (where I, as a “white” girl, was in a distinct minority) gone to a UK boarding school with kids (every last one of them white) who’d never been hungry although they’d been ignored and all but abandoned emotionally. Christie was my plank across the chasm.

  8. I got interested in the history of this and looked it up – you’re right, the original title of And Then There Were None didn’t in fact make it to the States at all – serialisation and book came out under the less inflammatory title. But it lasted in Britain until 1985. And in fact, the novel remains known under the original title in Hungary, Romania, Italy, Spain, France, Holland and Bulgaria (this is all according to good old wikipedia). However, I guess we have to account for what happens in translation. The French word ‘negre’ is not considered such a bad word (or at least it wasn’t when I lived there and I still see it in novels without the suggestion that it’s horribly pejorative, but maybe others have more recent information for me on this one). It always used to be the way that little children in France could say ‘merde!’ without it causing their mothers to faint in horror, because although it was a direct translation of s**t, it was somehow understood to be much milder as an expletive. I’m really sorry to hear the anecdote you mention about anti-semitism, and can only hope that for some reason, Hitchens had his own axe to grind.

  9. That’s such a tough issue. I don’t believe in making changes without the author’s agreement, but it would have been great if she had changed it within her lifetime, as you say. Racism and sexism can really change the experience of reading a book. Well, I suppose I think changes to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys make sense because those are targeted to young people. So complicated.

    1. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are different too because those have always been franchises with many authors writing under the pen-name, so there aren’t the same creative proprietary rights.

  10. I have recently become a a small time book collector and seller and just found an early copy of “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”-when I went to my usual source for pricing Abe Books I found the most expensive available was a 1924 edition listed at $3000.00 . The seller stated that had it been a 1920 edition with jacket it would bring $50,000 +-I assume to make his 1924 seem like a steal.
    When I examined my copy, to my surprise, it was a 1920 edition with very good jacket.But I have had no luck finding any information on comparable pricing. I would appreciate any assistance/suggestions in finding reliable information. Thank you

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