I subscribe to a Google alert for “racism.” It was actually just a test run for my job– I hadn’t used Google alerts before so wanted to try it, and as far as buzz words go “racism” is the gift that keeps on giving– but anyway, it’s been like four months and I haven’t turned it off.
Yesterday, after four months of almost daily reminders of the ongoing debate in Europe over racism in football, this came up. I don’t know much about European football, so I couldn’t comment on it much before, but I DO know Agatha Christie.
I think it’s a really interesting point that John Barnes brings up. Britain’s imperial, racist history can be easily found in its rich body of literature, so much of which we still know and love today. It’s the same in American literature: I regularly encounter the N-word in the pre-1960 books I read (most recently, in Henry Miller and William Faulkner) and even when it’s used by black characters or used in what might be an “authentic” manner of capturing period dialogue, it’s really uncomfortable and a constant reminder of what used to be okay, what used to be normal. (Being white.)
Kipling and Christie, as Barnes points out, both make up part of the British cultural landscape which has been complicit in horrific imperial violence and possessing of uncouth racist attitudes. They both represent a complacency of white superiority, British global supremacy, cultural chauvinism. But in that, they aren’t always so different from other writers. And the two served very different functions in British culture.
Rudyard Kipling was the poet of empire, an Anglo-Indian who celebrated British imperialism, and a Nobel Prize winner. His writing—most obviously, “The White Man’s Burden,” the poster poem for the civilizing mission—was almost activist in its stance towards the Empire, actively pro-, practically propaganda.
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Oh-ho and that shit is just the first stanza. When I first came across this poem in an upper-division undergraduate class on the American Gilded Age (can’t remember, but was probably a tie-in to American empire), naïve and un-historically-informed as I was, I honestly assumed it was a work of satire, a criticism of empire as evidenced by its over-the-top, gushing profuseness. I was made to stand corrected. He’s serious as a heart attack. In effect, he’s saying, “God, it’s really hard being a white guy because we have to go all the way to these inhospitable tropical places, subdue the peoples, and then we have the responsibility to civilize them too! But in the end it’s okay, because we are so brave and selfless for doing it. Aaaaaaaand that’s the British Empire.” (musical tag!)
Agatha Christie, meanwhile, was not an active promoter of empire. Her treatment of race was more implicit—a complacent white superiority as well as a staunchly hobbit-like British xenophobia towards all non-British nationals—these attitudes formed the setting for her stories but were not the focus. People point most often to Ten Little N*****s, which was the original title for her famously creepy And Then There Were None. The titular minorities have no bearing on the story whatsoever except that whoever the killer is (no spoilers) keeps removing a single toy figure from the dining room each time someone else is knocked off—in the original story they were little black dolls, were then changed to Indians—the title was duly changed to Ten Little Indians (not quite as offensive) but eventually that was changed to its present And Then There Were None, the last line of the corresponding children’s poem about the N-words/Indians. (God, how disturbing would that be if there was an actual children’s poem of the N-word version! Don’t know if I want to find out.)
But it’s evident in a number of her other books as well (and she has a ridiculous catalogue which I have steadily devoured for the past 15 years but still haven’t even made a dent in). I remember a Greek character, married to a wallflower British sister, who, while charming and pleasant in speech, had a kind a furtiveness to his manner that marked him as permanently untrustworthy to the main characters (not to mention his swarthy complexion!). I can’t count how many times one of the regular witnesses who Poirot/Miss Marple/&tc interview says something to the effect of, “Well, he’s a foreigner, you know” to explain away some defect, some indefinable lack of character. And of course, there are those exotic journeys that form the basis for Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile which invariably have native servants as background characters, who are invariably not-quite-trustworthy, not-quite-human. (Of course, her portrayal of the British servant class isn’t all that much better—you can trust them, at least, but they’re really stupid.)
Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, as a whole, serves the function of what Edward Said describes in Culture and Imperialism: a complacent understanding of a world dominated by British imperialism, not unlike Fanny Price’s uncle and his Antiguan estate in Mansfield Park, which Said uses as evidence of empire as background, something taken for granted but simultaneously reinforced. Christie’s work also touches on empire, albeit much later in its lifetime; but, like so much literature, her work is racism as background, xenophobia as background. She wasn’t promoting it, per se, so much as refracting the cultural setting back into the mainstream and, thus, contributing to its longevity. Like most authors, really; she just wrote a whole damn lot. From short story “The Pearl of Price”:
“What is honesty?” demanded the Frenchman. “It is a nuance, a convention. In different countries it means different things. An Arab is not ashamed of stealing. He is not ashamed of lying. With him it is from whom he steals and to whom he lies that matters.”
“That is the point of view- yes,” agreed Carver.
“Which shows the superiority of the West over the East,” said Blundell. “When these poor creatures get education-“
So ultimately this all comes down to the age-old question of how much harm works of art and literature from different eras, eras with worldviews out-of-sync with our own to the point of offensiveness, can do to our present. I’m against the erasure of the past, so simply banning or limiting the circulation of important cultural works is out of the question. They just need to be accompanied by an education, an understanding of the historical context and how that has changed then to now. ‘Cause I swear, sometimes reading enough Agatha Christie, immersing myself in her universe, I’ll be nodding along, oh yes, he’s Turkish, he’s a scoundrel for sure.
You know who else Agatha Christie didn’t like? Hippies. But that’s another story for another time.
Here’s a good roundup of Agatha Christie moments, chiefly Orientalist. My lack of familiarity with the titles is further testament to her prolific-ness.