Miss Marple and Miss Silver—a comparison
By Carol Westron
Two years ago when I started writing Golden Age articles for Mystery People, Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie were among the first authors I tackled and, since that time, I have wanted to write about Miss Silver and Miss Marple: their similarities and their differences.
Miss Marple and Miss Silver have a lot in common. In the first books about them they are both elderly women, although Miss Silver is already an established detective while Miss Marple is making a smooth transition from village busybody to solver of murders. They were both born and brought up in the reign of Queen Victoria, when the British Empire was at its peak and the thought of women's suffrage was still regarded by both Queen and Establishment as outrageous. Thus, by the time the lady sleuths appeared in print, they have lived through times of great change and the national tragedy of the First World War.
Despite their own restraint, not to say dowdiness, both ladies have a keen eye for fashion in others and can deduce a great deal about the characters of people around them by what they wear. The most important thing about both Miss Silver and Miss Marple is that they do not look like the shrewd, intelligent women that they actually are. This illusion of elderly harmlessness is helped by the fact that they are both constant and expert knitters and the reader follows the progress of their knitting in tandem with their progress in investigating the crime.
Miss Marple is an integral part of her village, St Mary Mead. She knows everything that goes on there and is continually solving mysteries by discovering village parallels. Miss Silver lives in London. She has many friends and many sources of information but not that close village community. To keep abreast of events in the wider world both ladies take The Times every day as well as a more sensational newspaper.
Miss Silver is on excellent terms with the police: one of her former pupils, Randal March, is Chief Constable of Ledshire, the fictional county where many of Miss Silver's investigations occur, and at Scotland Yard she has the respect and co-operation of Detective Superintendent Lamb and Detective Sergeant (later Detective Inspector) Frank Abbott. Abbott's relationship with Miss Silver develops over the years and soon she treats him like a favourite nephew. Behind her back, Abbott sometimes refers to Miss Silver as Maudie the Mascot, because when she enters a case the police always come out of it well; but more often he calls her Revered Preceptress.
Miss Marple is on good terms with Sir Henry Clithering, former Commissioner of Scotland Yard and has known Detective Chief Inspector Dermot Craddock since he was a child. However both ladies succeed in irritating local police officers, even those that admire them, by overthrowing their neat cases against obvious suspects. On the whole Miss Marple causes greater annoyance, possibly because she has no official status.
different. Miss Marple's nephew, Raymond, is kind to her but always in a patronising way. It is impossible to
imagine him asking her advice or accepting it if it was offered. Miss Marple is dependant upon Raymond and his wife, Joan, for little treats that she cannot afford. She holds a standard Victorian/Edwardian role in her family and is not a breadwinner. Only once does she undertake paid investigative work and, even then, financial gain is only part of her motive for agreeing to discover the truth, although when she earns a substantial sum of money she has firm views about what she wishes to do with it.
Miss Marple and Miss Silver have a great advantage over the police because they can become friendly with the
appearance that immediately commands respect from policemen or other people they wish to question but they have different ways of dealing with this. Miss Marple acts like a dithery old lady but, at the same time, she keeps inserting herself into the crime and putting forward her observations with incredible obstinacy. 'The door opened and Miss Marple walked into the room. She was pink and somewhat flustered, and seemed to realise our condition of bewilderment. “So sorry – so very sorry – to intrude...”' After which, of course, she proceeds to set the official investigators right. (The Murder at the Vicarage, 1930) And, a few years later, when she is a more experienced investigator: '”There's an old dame downstairs,” said the doctor; “looks about a hundred. Wants to see you. Won't take no and says she'll wait. She'll wait till this afternoon, I gather, or she'll wait till this evening and she's quite capable, I should say, of spending the night here. She's got something she badly wants to say to you. I'd see her if I was you.”' (The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, 1962.)
Throughout the books that feature her, Miss Marple progresses from a village busybody to an agent of justice. For Miss Silver the reason behind her actions remains constant. She is a paid investigator, albeit somebody who will only accept a case to find out the truth. This leads to one of the greatest differences between them: only once does Miss Marple place herself in physical danger and even then safeguards are in place. Miss Silver tries not to put herself in harm's way but if she thinks it necessary she will act, even against the advice of the police. 'Detective Inspector Abbott stood in the dark and listened. He would not have admitted it to anyone else – he barely admitted it to himself – but he was just about as nervous as a cat on hot bricks... He ought never to have consented to it. That had been his original standpoint, and he ought to have stuck to it. And so what? If he could stick to a plan, why, so could she. And not only could, but would. He had known his Miss Silver for a good many years now, and he was perfectly well aware that when she had made up her mind to a course of action then she would pursue it. All that he could do was to remonstrate, which he had done this afternoon, and remonstrance having failed, take what precautions he could to ensure her safety.' (The Watersplash, 1954.)
At this point, instead of a book review, I thought it would be fun to bring the two sleuths together in a couple of pages that describe the first time Miss Silver and Miss Marple meet and collaborate on a case. (Please note that it's just the first 1300 words, not a complete short story.) Of course, Miss Marple and Miss Silver never met, certainly they never worked together on a case, but in this beginning of an imaginary collaboration I have tried to highlight many of the likenesses, clichés and some of the differences between them
survive the Peace.
She looked with approval at the two elderly ladies who were sitting at a small table, sharing a pot of tea and plate of scones. They took her back to a time before the War. She had heard them admiring the tablecloth, which was snowy white and beautifully ironed. They had even approved the fact that it had been darned in several places; after all good table linen should not be wantonly discarded. In their laps rested their handbags, both of fine quality leather and both a trifle worn. Beneath the table, close to their owners' sensible, low-heeled shoes, sat two brocade knitting bags. With their muted colours they looked rather like two pet cats, assessing each other before deciding whether to hiss or purr.
The teashop owner smiled graciously at these most appropriate customers and glided towards the kitchen to warn the cook that more sandwiches would soon be required.
The ladies sat with straight backs, as they had been trained in their Victorian childhood. Their demeanour formed a contrast to several of the younger patrons of the teashop, who were slouching in their chairs in a way that was both unbecoming and unmannerly. The one-time governess sighed; such poor posture should have been dealt with in the schoolroom. She met her companion's eyes and saw her own displeasure mirrored there. “It is sometimes hard to believe that many of these young men must have worn the King's uniform until quite recently,” she observed.
The ex-governess gave a small, deprecating cough. “I fear my taste runs more to authors of an earlier age. Dear Lord Tennyson. I often quote his wise words to my clients: 'Oh trust me all in all or not at all.' Such beautiful words and so appropriate.” She feigned ignorance of Raymond West's literary works. It would be uncivil to admit that she had once taken out one of his novels and found the first few pages so unpleasant that she'd returned it to the lending library unread. Her companion's smile made her wonder if she had guessed her thoughts and her words confirmed this suspicion.
parlour game. She changed the subject. “Another scone, Miss Marple?”
eager. “How very dreadful!” she broke off as the waitress deposited the teapot on the table. “Oh thank you.” The girl left and she continued. “A crime you say? How exci – I mean how shocking. Now tell me all about it.” She darted anxious glances around the room, wondering where, in this crowded teashop, a body could be concealed.
Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.