Sometimes I get distracted by what the writer of a murder mystery takes for granted or assumes that their readers will take for granted.
At the moment, I’m reading the first Miss Marple book, “The Murder At The Vicarage”. As I read this story of murder amongst the rural middle class in 1930, I’ve found myself thinking about how the poor are seen and about what that means for the way our current Empire 2.0, No Deal loving leaders think about the rest of us.
The story contains a handsome, hapless, privileged young man who styles himself an artist, believes himself to be penniless and seems completely unaware of the privilege that supports him in taken-for-granted idleness.
He and the vicar are talking about how everyone in the village is so starved of stimulation that they feed their hunger by getting to know the fine details of other people’s lives. When he asks the vicar how people would know these details, the vicar names the woman who “does” for this young man who has no occupation but no time to clean up after himself. He replies:
‘That old crone? She’s practically a half-wit, as far as I can make out.’
He is not a young man that I can bring myself to like. Sadly, it seems he’s unlikely to be hanged in this book.
The vicar, who I like a little more, replies,
‘That’s merely the camouflage of the poor,’ I explained. ‘They take refuge behind a mask of stupidity. You’ll probably find that the old lady has all her wits about her.’
I wondered about that camouflage.
I have no doubt that the vicar is right. My father, who spoke as if he’d just gotten off the boat from Ireland, would sometimes talk of “putting my green jacket on” – thickening his accent and reducing his vocabulary – when he wanted the bosses to underestimate him.
It’s the need for camouflage that I found myself thinking about. What is being hidden and why?
Later, the artist arranges to meet Rose, a young maid who may have information he needs. He’s left alone with this young woman in the parlour and tries to persuade her to tell him things she has chosen not to tell the police. We are told at one point that:
“Rose’s demeanour was still that of the perfect servant, polite, anxious to assist, and completely uninterested.”
Why is this the perfect demeanour for a servant? Whose interest does it serve? What does it mean that such a young woman should wear this mask with such ease?
Later still, the artist finally meets the shy, nervous kitchen maid, someone normally kept well out of sight of people like him and whom he has to meet in the shrubbery rather than the parlour. He describes her as:
“more like a shivering rabbit than anything human.”
And there we have it, the need for this camouflage. This young man, educated, charming, handsome, a survivor of World War I, has difficulty seeing a young woman who is helping him at risk to herself as human.
I was too angry to continue reading.
I found myself thinking of Rees-Mogg and Gove and Johnson and how few of us they would grant the status of “human” to.
It seemed to me, in that angry moment, that murder amongst the middle classes might be something to be encouraged.
So why did the poor of 1930 wear camouflage? Because not being seen is better than being seen as not human.
I don’t want to go back to those days.