Old Sins Have Long Shadows: Childhood and A Pocket Full of Rye

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood. I had a very happy childhood.’

These are the opening lines of Agatha Christie’s Autobiography.  General consensus has it that Agatha Christie did not reveal much of herself in her crime novels, but I think that this particular opinion comes through loud and clear in her 1953 novel A Pocket Full of Rye. 

In the middle period of her writing (1940-1955), there were many books with titles taken straight from the nursery – One, Two Buckle My ShoeHickory Dickory Dock, Five Little Pigs and so on. None of them had dealt directly with childhood as a subject, but the concept of a happy childhood, or the lack of one, informs much of the characterisation in this book.

YEWTREE LODGE

Most of the action takes place at Yewtree Lodge, a dark mansion that is home to the dysfunctional Fortescue family. It is owned by the rich swindler Rex Fortescue, and it houses various members of his unhappy family: his much younger second wife Adele, his sister-in-law, his elder son and daughter-in-law, and his daughter. The household is presided over by a housekeeper who has no time for any of them.  

When Rex is poisoned, his Prodigal second Son stages a surprise visit, resulting in the immediate death of the maid, Gladys.

Gladys had been an orphan, trained in domestic service by Miss Jane Marple. When Miss Marple hears of her death, she travels to Yewtree Lodge to see if she can get justice for Gladys.

OLD SINS HAVE LONG SHADOWS

Many of Agatha Christie’s later stories quote this proverb, which I believe is originally Danish.  In those books, the crimes of the past very much influence events in the present.

In A Pocket Full of Rye, it is a comment made by Rex’s sister-in-law Miss Ramsbottom to Inspector Neele, hinting that Rex’s past unscrupulousness was the motive for his death. 

The housekeeper at Yewtree Lodge, Mary Dove, describes the members of the household thus: ‘They are all quite odious.’  One of the reasons why this may be is that, in the case of members of the household of Yewtree Lodge, many of the ‘old sins’ were perpetrated on them, rather than by them. 

For example, Percival, Lance and Elaine Fortescue had been ‘brought up’ by an unscrupulous, humiliating bully of a father and a self-proclaimed invalid mother, who had little time for them when alive and died when they were young.

Lance explains to his wife Pat what it was like:

‘She wore lots of clinking things and lay on a sofa and used to read me stories about knights and ladies which bored me stiff. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. I suppose I was fond of her … She was very – colourless, you know. I realise that, looking back.’
‘You don’t seem to have been particularly fond of anybody,’ said Pat, disapprovingly.

Each of the children was named after characters in the same Tennyson poem. After his wife’s death, Rex washed his hands of his children and handed over their care to her sister – the fire-and-brimstone breathing Miss Ramsbottom.

Neither their father nor their mother was remotely interested in the children. No wonder Lance doesn’t seem ‘particularly fond of anybody’.

Ruby MacKenzie had also lost a parent when she was young. She was seven when her father died, possibly as a result of skullduggery by Rex Fortescue.  To make things worse, her mother was driven out of her already-feeble mind by this. Every night, she would make her children swear that they would murder Rex when they grew up.

Ruby changed her name to Jennifer1. Having nursed Percival back to health, she married him; her mother never spoke to her again as a result. Jennifer was profoundly unhappy ever after.

The maid at Yewtree Lodge, Gladys Martin, did not even have the dubious privilege of parents such as these:

‘She hadn’t got any relations. She came to me from the orphanage, St Faith’s …’
‘I never even saw her,’ said Pat. ‘Was she a pretty girl?’
‘Oh, no,’ said Miss Marple, ‘not at all. Adenoids, and a good many spots. She was rather pathetically stupid, too … She was very keen on men, poor girl. But men didn’t take much notice of her and other girls rather made use of her.’
‘It sounds rather cruel,’ said Pat.
‘Yes, my dear,’ said Miss Marple, ‘life is cruel, I’m afraid. One doesn’t really know what to do with the Gladyses …’

No matter what the best intentions of the orphanage or Miss Marple might have been, Gladys emerged from their care without family or friends. She was thus easy meat for the murderer, who knew exactly what he could do with the ‘Gladyses of this world’.

Mary Dove, the (blackmailing) housekeeper who looks on the rest of the household (and the world) with amused contempt, was also herself an orphan.

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

Contrast those characters from within the household with those of two from outside it.  First, let us consider Inspector Neele. Unusually, we are given some detail about the Inspector’s upbringing (imagine a similar paragraph about, say, Inspector Slack):

Call it a lodge indeed! Yewtree Lodge! The affectation of these rich people! The house was what he, Inspector Neele, would call a mansion. He knew what a lodge was. He’d been brought up in one! … The lodge had been small and attractive from the outside, and had been damp, uncomfortable and devoid of anything but the most primitive form of sanitation within. Fortunately these facts had been accepted as quite proper and fitting by Inspector Neele’s parents … Mrs Neele had never discovered the pleasures of electric irons, slow combustion stoves, airing cupboards, hot and cold water from taps, and the switching on of light by a mere flick of a finger.  In winter the Neeles had an oil lamp and in summer they went to bed when it got dark. They were a healthy family and a happy one, all thoroughly behind the times.

From out of this happy childhood has emerged a confident, able man who has no need to prove himself to anybody else. As Miss Marple says: ‘You’re a very, very clever man, Inspector Neele. I’ve seen that from the first.’

You would not be likely to hear her pay such a compliment to Inspector Slack.

Then there is the thrice-married Pat Fortescue, ill-favoured by fortune, but the most sympathetic character in the book. Pat shares Agatha Christie’s sentiments about the importance of a happy childhood in building resilience against fortune’s slings and arrows. As she tells Miss Marple:

Miss Marple said gently:
‘You’ve had a good deal of unhappiness, haven’t you, my dear?’
‘Oh, I’ve had some very good times, too. I had a lovely childhood in Ireland, riding, hunting, and a great big, bare draughty house with lots and lots of sun in it. If you’ve had a happy childhood, nobody can take that away from you, can they?’

After an idyllic childhood, Pat has to cope with troubles a-plenty as an adult: her fighter pilot husband shot down soon after they were married, her second husband blowing his brains out to avoid a betting scandal – and now she is married to Lance Fortescue …

Pat thinks she’s unlucky; Miss Marple knows that, at least in one crucial way – the happiness of her upbringing – she is not. She cannot bring herself to tell Pat what further misfortune she is about to face, but is quietly convinced that Pat will have the character to bounce back from it in a way that, say, Jennifer and Miss Dove would not.

For, as her creator saw it, a child who grew up in a happy and caring home would be better able to cope with the problems of adulthood than one who did not.

And she should know. Twenty or so years earlier, in 1926, Agatha Christie had certainly had more than her own fair share of setbacks: her beloved mother dying, her husband leaving her, a single parent with a six-year-old daughter, followed by her own breakdown and disappearance.

She bounced right back, to become the most successful writer ever, and, soon afterwards, one with a happy family home to boot.

NOTES

1 Another Idylls of the King reference: Jennifer is a form of the name Guinevere, King Arthur’s Queen (and Lancelot’s lover …!).

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