Rape Apologia in Agatha Christie’s Nemesis

It’s that time o’ year again when seasonal depression settles over me like the thick gray clouds of a Seattle winter, and for some reason, this causes an irresistible urge to read old British detective fiction. There’s nothing more comforting than to curl up in bed with a warm, purring kitty and revisit these familiar tales. Every time, I notice a detail I missed in the other ten thousand readings.

Of course, now that I’ve become one of the dreaded Social Justice Warriors™, I also notice problematic elements that escaped me during prior, rather more unenlightened, readings. There’s a lot of casual racism, xenophobia, classism, and sexism infesting these stories, although their authors often weren’t as obnoxious about it as some of their contemporaries. Still. They’re definitely a product of their times, and their times saw nothing wrong with many of the things that horrify us today.

I’m in the midst of Nemesis, one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels. She’s often rather hard on women, a tendency I suspect comes from being a public woman in a man’s world, in addition to the intense cultural sexism. Nemesis reflects an elderly woman’s view of changing times, when younger women were freeing themselves from certain shackles and beginning to explore things like having careers and enjoying casual sex. I’m not expert enough in Agatha Christie’s personal biography to discern how much of the attitudes within the book stem from her own views, and how much is her being faithful to the character. So we’ll just treat the character as a reflection of cultural attitudes and leave the author’s deeply-held convictions for another day.

A paragraph leapt out at me, one which had escaped my notice during other readings. One gets immersed in the story world, and takes certain things for granted, quite often awful things (such as the many things we’ll forgive in the protagonists that we’d abhor in the villains). Characters can say things we’d find outrageous in our normal settings, but which fit with the time and mores of their story so well that they don’t stand out particularly, especially not when we’re reading for the mystery. But when the mystery’s solved, and we’re familiar with the characters and the world the author’s placed them in, and when we’re a little older and possibly wiser and have lots more practice seeing certain patterns, aspects pop suddenly, garish and unavoidable.

I hadn’t seen all the rape culture apologia when I first read this book, but now, it’s unmistakable. See, for instance, this paragraph, as Professor Wanstead is telling Miss Marple why he thinks a man imprisoned for murder isn’t the killer, despite the fact he’s a rapist:

“That told against him, of course. Not in the jury’s mind, because of course they did not hear about that until after the judge’s summing up, but certainly in the judge’s mind. It told against him, but I made a few enquiries myself afterwards. He had assaulted a girl. He had conceivably raped her, but he had not attempted to strangle her and in my opinion–I have seen a great many cases which come before the Assizes–it seemed to me highly unlikely that there was a very definite case of rape. Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape. The girl in question had had several boyfriends who had gone further than friendship. I did not think it counted very greatly as evidence against him.” [emphasis mine]

Here we have rape culture in action in what I’m assuming is roughly mid-20th century Britain. There’s the idea that if a woman enjoys sex, you can’t rape her. There’s the insistence that rape is really just regretted sex. There’s the idea that most reports of rape are false, and that consensual sex is reported as rape just to get the woman out of trouble. Throughout the book, rape is treated as a myth, a tale told by girls to get boys in trouble.

Image is a cover of Nemesis with the words RAPE CULTURE INSIDE imprinted in red.

It’s not jarring to me to run into that attitude in a book from the perspective of an elderly person during the sexual revolution, written by a woman who was elderly herself. I expect that sort of thing, and I’m willing to put up with it in older stories. What dismays me is that attitudes haven’t substantially changed. We still hear the same fucking apologia for rapists. We still hear the same slut-shaming shit. We’re still told there’s real rape, which is a terrible crime that is done to virgins mostly by strangers and involves force, but most things ladies call “rape” is just self-serving lies told by total sluts in order to destroy men. A woman’s sexual history is still considered relevant in rape cases. We’re nearly half a century on from when this book was published, and yet we haven’t significantly advanced the mainstream cultural conversation around rape.

I hope, by the time I’m an old woman boring people with back in my day stories, these attitudes about rape will be considered just as horrifying to mainstream folk as casual denigrations of Jews is. I want us to cringe in horror and embarrassment over these rape culture mores, just as much as we wince in disgust every time the n-word pops up in our turn-of-the-last-century fiction. I want people to struggle to get past the casual sexism and misogyny, have a very hard time overlooking the anti-woman attitudes even in fiction written by a woman, rather than blithely accept it or barely notice it because, really, it’s not all that different from the way things are now.

And I think we’ll get there, despite all the menz screaming about feminazis and manginas. Feminism is here to stay, and will eventually get through enough of the thick skulls to allow the revolutionary idea that all rape is wrong, no matter the victim’s sexual history or fashion choices or state of intoxication or any other favorite excuse of rapists and their allies, to go mainstream. It’s just that I wish we’d got there a lot bloody sooner.

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Rape Apologia in Agatha Christie’s Nemesis
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7 thoughts on “Rape Apologia in Agatha Christie’s Nemesis

  1. 1

    I hope, by the time I’m an old woman boring people with back in my day stories, these attitudes about rape will be considered just as horrifying to mainstream folk as casual denigrations of Jews is. I want us to cringe in horror and embarrassment over these rape culture mores, just as much as we wince in disgust every time the n-word pops up in our turn-of-the-last-century fiction. I want people to struggle to get past the casual sexism and misogyny, have a very hard time overlooking the anti-woman attitudes even in fiction written by a woman, rather than blithely accept it or barely notice it because, really, it’s not all that different from the way things are now.

    Oh, so much this. I wonder if I’ll live to see this …

  2. rq
    2

    Got a similar kick just yesterday – I was reading Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and the main character has to go see a ghost about a warrant for a revenant, who has, via the body of a live person, killed a woman and a baby. So the main character explains that he needs a warrant, that the revenant has killed his wife and baby. The ghost judge writing the warrant first asks, “Was she a shrew?” and proceeds to write a warrant that, while a woman-who-is-a-shrew may set off her husband’s temper and deserve her death (more or less, I’m paraphrasing), the babe was innocent, therefore the revenant should be arrested. The judge’s ghost is from the 19th century or earlier (can’t remember right now). Anyway, it was a nice kick to the gut to think that people actually used to believe that – and that so many still believe it today.
    But the bit opposablethumbs quoted, yes, that. That would be awesome.

  3. 3

    I’ve noticed similar things in other popular fiction. Rape culture, domestic violence, child abuse, and casual racism abound. I’d like to think that sensibilities have changed, but I’m not sure.

  4. 4

    I was rereading some of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories and noted the quite casual racism and sexism. I already knew about the classicism, since the protagonist is the younger brother of a duke and literally lords it over the unwashed hoi polloi.

  5. 5

    Count me among the recently-jarred. I happened to catch a rerun of the 80s movie Revenge Of the Nerds and was taken aback by two scenes. First, the protagonists gain some of the titular revenge by planting cameras in a sorority house that let them secretly watch the women undressing and showering. Later, one of the main characters commits an on-screen rape-by-impersonation.

    Of course, it’s all in good fun, and the victims totally deserved it… *gag*

  6. 6

    Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be.

    And, of course, the apologia is pretty much the same today as it was then. I’m sure people on Fox News and whatnot have uttered near identical statements to this.

  7. 7

    In Christie’s defense, she was in her dotage when that novel was written (and Miss Marple, of course, was about 150 years old.) Fox News has no such excuse.

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