Monday 3 October 2011

Agatha Christie and Burne-Jones

It’s a little known fact, unless you have the misfortune to either live or work with me, that in times of crisis I turn to Joan Hickson. There is no voice in the world that has the ability to calm me and set me straight like that of Joan, the definitive Miss Marple. She reminds me a lot of my maiden Aunt who bought me the Millais jogsaw for Christmas and who was also called Joan, so I tend to think of Joan Hickson as being ‘Auntie Joan’. Anyway, for reasons I will not bore you with, I am stressed at present. Not pleasantly stressed, not ‘publishing my second edition is a lot of work’ stressed, but nasty stressed, where no good will come of it. I have been listening, almost non-stop, to my assorted Agatha Christie CDs, unabridged and read by Joan Hickson and it was while I was listening to my favourite, A Murder is Announced, that I realised that one of the characters says something very odd. The scene is between Edmund, an earnest young man, and Phillipa, a young widow with a secret and a job as a gardener...

‘It’s frightfully easy to be clever about how miserable everybody is. And it’s all a habit really. Yes, I’ve suddenly become convinced of that. After reading a life of Burne Jones.’
Phillipa had stopped pricking out. She was staring at him with a puzzled frown.
‘What has Burne Jones got to do with it?’
‘Everything. When you’ve read all about the Pre-Raphaelites you realise just what fashion is. They were all terrifically hearty and slangy and jolly, and laughed and joked, and everything was fine and wonderful. That was fashion, too. They weren’t any happier or heartier than we are. And we’re not any more miserable than they were…’ (page 180 in my edition) (and Agatha Christie left out BJ's hyphen)

Published in 1950, A Murder is Announced is around the fifth Marple to have been published. I must have read and listened to the book countless times and never clocked that passage before, but it made me stare with a puzzled frown, much like Phillipa. Jolly? Really?

In a way, this is much like the lovely red Pre-Raphaelite book I spoke about a while back. It is again a reflection of mid-century attitudes to the Pre-Raphaelites. Christie was writing around a hundred years after the formation of the original Brotherhood, and unless it is a comment on the character, then in post-war Britain the PRB were seen as jolly, slangy young chaps. Wow. Mind you, if we don’t see them as such now, why is that any better?

Edmund is a strange young man in the novel. He lives with his mother and has the misfortune of being the only Socialist in the village. Despite some humour being found at his reading the Daily Worker at the breakfast table, even though as his mother points out, he isn’t a worker, Edmund is a fairly sensible character who acknowledges his shortcomings and paradoxes. It’s unlikely he is wilfully mistaking the characters of the PRB, so why would he think they were jolly?

William Gaunt didn’t think so. When he published his book about them in 1942 it was entitled The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, but then had to be changed to The Pre-Raphaelite Dream in 1943 as the original title was seen as too depressing for Wartime Britain. He doesn’t see anything jolly in the story; at best it is a story of dreams, but then all of the dreams were crushed to greater or lesser degrees. The Brotherhood couldn’t stay together, their values became repugnant to each other and for all Morris’ revolutionary zeal, the world went on as before. God, I feel depressed just reading that book. The only thing that cheers me up is that the illustration of Ophelia says it is by Rossetti.

Going back a little further, I have a rather lovely book from 1920, called Three Great Modern Painters: Leighton, Burne-Jones and Whistler, which is the binding together of three ‘Masterpieces in Colour’ volumes, which explains why it is such a rum selection of artists. Reading through the portion of the book on Burne-Jones, it’s hard to see any sort of jollity apart from the description of the painting The Depths of the Sea. It is described as being ‘unusual’ in its humour, however grim, as the rest of Burne-Jones work is seen as wistful and medieval.
Oh Ned, you do make me laugh...

So turning again to Robin Ironside’s Pre-Raphaelite Painters, I tried to work out what Edmund had read that would give the impression of the lighter side of Pre-Raphaelitism. Contemporary with Christie’s novel, Ironside’s book is the closest thing I can get to Edmund’s knowledge. In the introduction I can find only references to love and death, sorrow and hope, sex and mystery, but not a damn chuckle between them. The only source of humour I can possible scrape is lovely William Morris. There is a fond humour in the recounting of his exploits, in his passion and joy in creation of the medieval world, but he represents the only jollity and it isn’t much.

Maybe Christie was referring to Phillip Burne-Jones? Mind you, he was a member of ‘The Souls’ and by all accounts they were no more jolly that the PRB. Maybe what Edmund meant was sexual shenanigans? Well…I guess the rumours about Rossetti’s behaviour would have been known, and the Ruskin-Millais case, and possibly Burne-Jones and Maria Zambaco business, but Edmund goes on to say that sex was fashionable after the Second World War, but now everyone is miserable and that’s just fashion too. It’s such an odd thing to say, that the Pre-Raphaelites are a bowl of happiness with a cherry on top. I can only think of a couple of reasonable explanations: Firstly, it’s meant to show that Edmund isn’t as smart as he likes to think, or that he lies, possibly to throw suspicion on him in the book. The only other thing I can think of is that maybe Christie herself wasn’t very conversant with the output of the Pre-Raphaelites beyond a few pictures. Maybe if you have only seen The Pretty Baa-Lambs, King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid and April Love, possibly you would think they were a giggle-factory too. It leads me to consider why we think of the Pre-Raphaelites in entirely another way?

One of the complaints I have about Desperate Romantics is that it was all drinking, nudity and histrionics. Now, not even my life is like that all the time (I have every third weekend off), so why do we imagine that PRB is all sex, death and laudanum? Isn’t that as odd an opinion as Edmund’s? It is my humble opinion that the modern view of Pre-Raphaelitism is still influenced by the 1960s, and it is no coincidence that two of the three PRB ‘films’ we have occurred in and around this period. Ken Russell made Rossetti into a Rock God in an era where such men burnt out and died rapidly. The Love School attempted to redress the balance, but still we have Lizzie’s death as the ‘point’ of the story. Mr Walker refers to Lizzie as the Marianne Faithful of PRB-ness, and I think that is quite telling. Desperate Romantics added nothing more to the sex-and-drugs-and-oil paint story and again Lizzie’s death is the ‘point’. We see nothing of Hughes, Burne-Jones, Morris, Solomon, Waterhouse and so on and so on because all the people who write the story of Pre-Raphaelite art want to show us is Lizzie Siddal dying in a very 1960s way. Rock and Roll.

As I’m a bit cross now, I’ve decided it’s time for cake. The glorious thing about A Murder is Announced is not only the Pre-Raphaelite references but also the cake called ‘Delicious Death’. I should add at this point that when I’m stressed I also bake, so I baked Delicious Death last week in preparation for this post. I was thinking of you when I ate it, I promise…

If you too would like some Delicious Death, the recipe can be found here.


  1. I think I remember Alma-Tadema being mentioned briefly in a Miss Marple story, too. But I'm not sure which one. Just a brief mention.
    If you read Three Blind Mice, there's a passage where the character Christopher Wren talks about deserting the Army. I'm thoroughly convinced that when Christie wrote this, she was actually speaking of the her own mother's death, her husband Archie wanting a divorce, and her own 11 day disappearance.

  2. Wait. I should reword that. I don't think she was speaking directly about of the her mother's death, her husband Archie wanting a divorce, and her own 11 day disappearance. I think she was speaking about that time period in her life and her emotional state. Gives us an insight into her turmoil and why she broke down.

  3. I remember the Alma-Tadema reference too. Obviously there is the Lady of Shalott business in The Mirror Crack'd, but I think there is probably more. I know what you mean about the use of personal turmoil. The quantity and quality of her work is a delight, plus some of it is really scary!

  4. Perhaps the early days at Red House were only an interlude in all the misery, but they stand out and stick in the memory all the more as a result. ‘O the joy of those Saturdays to Mondays at Red House!’ remembered Georgie years later, ‘the getting out at Abbey Wood Station and smelling the sweet air, and then the scrambling, swinging drive of three miles or so to the house; and the beautiful roomy place where we seemed to be coming home just as much as when we returned to our own rooms. No protestations – only certainty of contentment in each other’s society. We laughed because we were happy’.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx