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Monday 13 October 2014

Miss Marple and Miss Silver—a comparison

Detectives of the Golden Age
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 Jane Marple and Miss Maud Silver are two elderly, gentlewoman detectives who appear in print at the end of the 1920s. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple makes her first appearance in 1926, in a short story entitled The Tuesday Night Club that later became the first chapter in the linked short stories in the book The Thirteen Problems. However, the first Miss Marple novel, The Murder At the Vicarage did not appear until 1930. In the meantime, Patricia Wentworth's first Miss Silver novel, Grey Mask, was published in 1928. Whether Christie or Wentworth was the forerunner, it is a fact that two elderly, female sleuths came into being within two years of each other.

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.

They are both gentlewomen, with knowledge of the code of conduct and manners expected of them. They are both spinsters and little information is offered about any past romances by Christie or Wentworth (although some television adaptations have indulged in romantic flights of fantasy regarding Miss Marple's past.) However, Christie does have Miss Marple recalling that, as a young girl, she had longed for romance. 'Jane Marple, that pink and white eager young girl... Such a silly girl in so many ways... now who was that very unsuitable young man whose name – oh dear, she couldn't even remember it now! How wise her mother had been to nip that friendship so firmly in the bud. She had come across him years later and really he was quite dreadful! At the time she had cried herself to sleep for at least a week!' (At Bertram's Hotel, 1965.) On the other hand, Wentworth  states that, while Miss Silver had very kind feelings to young people in love, she had never wished to enter the matrimonial state herself.

The two ladies both dress in a restrained way that is suitable to their modest incomes, age and station in life and show preferences for the fashions of their youth. Miss Silver tends to wear high necked dresses in dull shades such as snuff and sage and for a while wore a dress made from an unfortunate material that featured dots and dashes, not unlike Morse Code. Her outdoor clothes vary little, although she does re-trim her hats and has a different style of hat in winter and summer. 'She wore a serviceable black cloth coat which had only done two winters, and a little yellow fur tippet of uncertain ancestry. Her hat, which had been new in the autumn, was of the kind which looks the same for about ten years and then falls to pieces. It was made of black felt with a purple velvet starfish in front and a niggle of black and purple ribbon running all round the crown.' (Spotlight, 1949.) The fur tippet appears so frequently in Miss Silver's adventures that it takes on a character of its own. Certainly it does not always arouse admiration in the people she is visiting. 'Miss Silver was sitting upon the couch. There was a bright wood fire and the room was warm. She removed her yellow tippet and laid it beside her. In some purely feminine manner this small incident stirred Catherine's temper. In her own mind she stigmatised the tippet as a mangy cat and resented its contact with her sofa. That a woman who wore a thing like that should thrust herself into her house and cross-examine her about a private conversation was the ultimate limit.' (Miss Silver Comes to Stay, 1951.)

Miss Marple is a private lady rather than a businesswoman and she adopts a rather different style: 'Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair... Her faded blue eyes, benignant and kindly, surveyed her nephew and her nephew's guests with gentle pleasure.' (The Tuesday Night Club, 1926. Later published as the first chapter of The Thirteen Problems, 1932.)

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.

The two ladies' homes reflect not just their personal taste but their respect for the past; much of their furniture has been inherited. Miss Marple lives in her cottage in the village of St Mary Mead. As the Chief Constable, Colonel Melchett observes her drawing room is 'a bit crowded... but plenty of good stuff. A ladies' room.' (The Body In The Library, 1928.) 'The room was an old one with broad black beams across the ceiling and it was furnished with good old furniture that belonged to it.' (The Tuesday Night Club, 1926.) As Miss Marple's nephew, Raymond West, condescendingly remarks, she is 'a perfect Period Piece. Victorian to the core. All her dressing tables have their legs swathed in chintz.' (Sleeping Murder, 1976.)

Miss Silver lives in a flat in Montague Mansions, and remains living in London throughout the Second World War. She favours bright colours and her curtains are of blue plush, which tone well with her brightly patterned Brussels carpet and her floral wallpaper. On the walls she has framed engravings of famous pictures, Monarch of the Glen, Bubbles, The Soul's Awakening and The Black Brunswicker. Her chairs, inherited from an earlier generation have curving walnut legs, Victorian waists, and wide, well-padded laps. Sincerely religious, Miss Silver never ceases to be grateful to the Providence that allowed her to turn from her original employment as a governess to her present more lucrative work as a private investigator. 'A comfortable and tasteful room in a comfortable and tasteful flat. During the years when she had worked as a governess for the meagre salary which was then all that a governess could command she had never had any grounds for hoping that such comfort would be hers. If she had remained a governess, there would have been no plush curtains, no Brussels carpet, no steel engravings, no easy chairs upholstered in blue and green tapestry...' (Miss Silver Intervenes, 1944.)

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.

Although Miss Marple and Miss Silver seem to be so alike, within their similarities lie deep, fundamental differences. At a first glance their family circumstances look like mirror images: spinster ladies, apparently the last of their generation within the family (no living siblings are ever mentioned), with nieces and nephews, and great-nieces and great-nephews, with whom they are on affectionate terms. However the family dynamics are very
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.
'”You could ask your bank manager's advice, you know, Miss Marple. It really is – one never knows when one wants something for a rainy day.”
“The only thing I shall want for a rainy day will be my umbrella,” said Miss Marple... “I'm going to spend it you know. I'm going to have some fun with it.”' (Nemesis, 1971.)
There speaks a woman who has never feared old-age in a shabby bed-sittingroom.

On the contrary, Miss Silver's family offer her no financial support but they do respect her and ask her advice. Her relationship with her niece Ethel is particularly warm, although Ethel's flighty sister, Joyce, often requires a firm word to steer her into wiser behaviour. Neither Miss Silver nor her family are wealthy and she considers carefully before buying items such as a new carpet to replace her worn one. Miss Silver is a more controlled character than Miss Marple, possibly because she has had to depend on herself throughout her adult life.

Miss Marple and Miss Silver have a great advantage over the police because they can become friendly with the
suspects, often entering their family circle, and speak to them informally. Neither of them possess the sort of
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.)

Miss Silver, while equally obstinate, has a very different style of inserting herself where she wishes to be. She calls upon her experience as a governess to quell impertinence, as when a self-important shop manager doubts her word regarding the innocence of a girl accused of shoplifting.
'”Very convenient for the young woman, I am sure. Quite a good idea, if you're going shoplifting, to have someone handy to swear you couldn't have done it.”
Miss Silver turned upon him the look before which the hardiest of her pupils had been wont to quail. It was a look that had daunted the evil-doer on many an occasion. Since then Chief Inspector Lamb himself had been halted by it and brought to unwilling apology. It went straight through the manager's self-esteem and stripped him to his bare bones...
I beg your pardon,” said Miss Maud Silver.
The manager found himself apologising. She had spoken quite quietly and he knew now that she was neither an eccentric duchess nor any lesser member of the aristocracy. But the authority in that quiet tone had him rattled. He paused in his not very well chosen phrases and discovered that he was being addressed. He had the quite unwarranted feeling that he was being addressed from a platform. He had the unusual feeling of being something rather lowly in the scale of creation.
Miss Silver treated this frame of mind with firmness. “You would, perhaps, care for me to furnish you with proofs of my credibility as a witness. This is my business card.”' (Spotlight, 1949.)
Miss Silver's certainly a lady who takes no prisoners, but, on occasion, Miss Marple can be equally terrifying. '”That old lady gives me the creeps,” said Sir Andrew McNeil, when he had said goodbye and thanks to Miss Marple.
So gentle – and so ruthless,” said the Assistant Commissioner.
Professor Wanstead took Miss Marple down to his car which was waiting and returned for a few final words. “What do you think of her, Edmund?”
The most frightening woman I ever met,” said the Home Secretary.' (Nemesis, 1971.)

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.)

It is one of the great mysteries of the Golden Age that Miss Marple should have attained everlasting fame and Miss Silver, although far from forgotten, has never reached the heights of popularity. It's hard to tell why. Was there room in the market for only one super-star, gentlewoman sleuth and Christie was already famous for her Poirot books? Were the Miss Silver books too heavy on the romantic diversions that occurred alongside the investigation? Did the coincidences that happen in several books and Miss Silver's willingness to put herself in harm's way make her less believable? Or were the reading public uncomfortable with an elderly female detective who was prim and dowdy but also fiercely intelligent and totally independent? Miss Marple is always with us but perhaps the time is overdue for a revival of Miss Silver as the most bizarre feminist icon of the last century.

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

The Body In the Teashop

Custom in the teashop was brisk. The proprietress, standing by the cash desk, where she could greet her customers and keep a watchful eye upon the waitresses, was aware of a feeling of modest triumph. The woman she'd employed as cook made excellent cakes despite the lingering curse of rationing. It had been a wise move to employ her, even though she'd failed to supply proper references. The teashop had survived the War, although half the shops in the High Street had succumbed to German bombs, and its owner was determined that it would also
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.
“A most respectable establishment,” commented the gentle-looking, white-haired lady, who was dressed in a tweed suit and a blue jumper knitted in an intricate feather stitch. She wore a string of pearls around her neck and on her head a small velvet toque. She was very much the country gentlewoman of modest means taking tea with an acquaintance.
“Yes indeed.” Although they were much the same age, her companion's hair had not turned grey. It was mouse-coloured and worn in a style that had been fashionable in Edwardian times, with a fringe in front and a tightly bound plait behind, confined by a hairnet. She was dressed in a garment of sage green, a shade that did not become her pale complexion. The dress was fastened at the neck with a heavy gold brooch which, as she would explain to anybody who enquired, contained locks of her late parents' hair. She looked every inch the governess she had once been.

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.
“Indeed,” agreed her companion. “Even one's own young relatives...”
“How true.” She recalled one of her most frequent visitors, a young detective inspector whom she regarded with the indulgence she'd offer a favourite nephew. Frank Abbott was inclined to sprawl in her Victorian tapestry chairs when she invited him to tea. She did not reprove his casual behaviour, regarding it as a tribute to his affection for her, but at least dear Frank would never lounge in public.
“My nephew, Raymond,” murmured the other lady. “Such a clever boy, at least, not really a boy now, but to me... Well Raymond says that I am sadly old-fashioned. Sometimes I feel quite hurt but I know he does not mean to be unkind. He is so very generous to me. Of course, to him my life in a small village must seem so very dull. He writes such clever, modern books.”

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.
“I have often remarked to Raymond that people are not usually so nasty as he makes them out to be. So many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply you know, very silly.”
“I agree with you, of course, but gentleman so often feel that they know best. When one is no longer young and has not been married, so many gentlemen feel that one is foolish and naïve. When the truth is, of course, most gentlemen get in the way when there is serious business to see to its conclusion.”
“You may be right. Gentlemen do like to have their own way, but some can be quite generous with their praise. Some years ago some friends and I used to gather and exchange stories about crime and mysterious happenings. Amongst our number was Sir Henry Clithering, who was once the Commissioner of Scotland Yard. He was kind enough to say my little efforts at detection were not to be despised. Of course there were a lot of clever gentlemen present and I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St Mary Mead does give an insight into human nature. Living in the country has much to recommend it. Don't you agree, Miss Silver?”

In Miss Silver's view the countryside was frequently damp and draughty and she never ventured there without packing her snug fur tippet to guard against cold breezes. Nor could she approve of using violent crime as a
parlour game. She changed the subject. “Another scone, Miss Marple?”
“Thank you.” Miss Marple took one from the proffered plate, slit it open and spread it thinly with butter. “I have been trying to teach Annie, my little maid to cook and she is shaping nicely but her baking is still far from the standard I would like. I take girls from the orphanage, you know, and train them how to hold a place in good service.”
“A worthy occupation.” Miss Silver was quite sincere in her praise but, at the same time, she felt grateful for her faithful Emma, her devoted cook-housekeeper. A professional enquiry agent could not afford to be continually distracted by domestic crises. The thought came to her that things could have been so different. If she had remained a governess she would not have her comfortable flat in Montague Mansions and Emma to take such good care of her. It was different for Miss Marple, who owned her cottage in St Mary Mead and had always had sufficient income to live comfortably, if not in luxury. Everything that Miss Silver had she had worked for, and she was profoundly grateful to the Providence that had allowed her to escape a life of drudgery and a penurious old age.
“Perhaps we could indulge in another pot of tea, Miss Marple? Such an excellent blend, almost pre-war quality.”
“That would be very pleasant. And then, perhaps, you could tell me why you asked for this meeting?”
Miss Silver summoned a waitress and ordered the tea, then she said quietly, “We are here to prevent a crime.”
“Goodness me!” Despite her excitement Miss Marple did not raise her voice. She leaned closer, flushed and
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.

I have taken two short quotes from Christie's The Thirteen Problems. ('So many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply you know, very silly.' 'I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St Mary Mead does give an insight into human nature.')
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013.
Her second book
About the Children was published in May 2014.



  1. Fun post! I thoroughly enjoyed this visit with Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Patricia Wentworth's books have been among my favorite comfort reads for many years. On evenings when I'm too tired to think, I can let Miss Silver do the thinking. :)

  2. Delightful! I must try some Miss Silver books.. somehow I missed her.

  3. Thank you for this. Great fun about two great ladies!

  4. Dear Ms Westron, thank you for your elucidating comparison. The question about the reason behind/for Christie's far greater success - with her Marple novels - may also be answered in yet other ways. Christie herself was definitely beter connected, socially, than "Wentworth", which always helps... She also created herself as a mysterious woman quite early in het career, which always helps as well. And her style, or what may go by that nane, was simpler than W's, which, again, helps. W is 't exactly high-brow, but she does have a larger vocabulary. Last but not least: W delves just a tiny bit deeper in the psychology of her characters, rather than relying only on a clever plot. In other words:she demands just a bit more if her readers than C did.