The first novel Miss Marple appeared in was Murder in the Vicarage published in 1930. However the first description of her is in a short story published in 1927 titled the Tuesday Night Club later published in a book called The Thirteen Problems in 1932. She was to appear in 12 novels and 20 short stories (Poirot was 33 novels and 50 short stories). Here is Agatha Christie’s first ever description of her.
“Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in about the waist. Mechlin lace (excuse me, what?) was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, (mittens?)and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting (knitting with mittens? Now there’s a thing.)- something white and soft and fleecy (her own hair perhaps?).”
In Murder in the Vicarage the vicar’s wife is not at all taken with Miss Marple describing her as ‘the worst cat in the village’ which makes her sound weirdly funky. The vicar himself, as he should be, is somewhat more charitable describing her as, ‘A white haired old lady with a gentle and appealing manner.’ This last description is the one Christie seems to have settled on for the future books although the cat description is not ditched entirely. Sergeant Hay describes her as ‘an old tabby,’ in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953).
Here’s Miss Marple arriving at Yewtree Lodge in A Pocket Full of Rye.
“So charming, so innocent, such a fluffy and pink and white old lady was Miss Marple that she gained admittance to what was now practically a fortress … far more easily than can have been thought possible.”
And here she is on the same page.
“Crump saw a tall, elderly lady wearing a old fashioned tweed coat, a couple of scarves and a small felt hat with a bird’s wing. The old lady carried a capacious handbag and an aged but good quality suitcase reposed at her feet.”
This is the way she is portrayed in the many TV and film versions. If Christie’s physical descriptions of her vary the knitting remains constant.
Here she is waking up in At Bertram’s Hotel (1965).
“Miss Marple got back into bed, plumped her pillows up, glanced at her clock, half past seven … Then she picked up her knitting and began to knit, slowly at first, since her fingers were stiff and rheumatic when she first awoke, but very soon her pace grew faster, and her fingers lost their painful stiffness.”
And here she is in A Mirror Cracked from Side to Side (1962).
“Miss Marple uttered a sharp exclamation of annoyance. She’d dropped a stitch again. Not only that, she must have dropped it some time ago. Not until now, when she had to decrease for the neck and count the stitches had she realised the fact. She took up a spare pin, held the knitting sideways to the light and peered anxiously.”
Throughout all the books she appears in she is depicted knitting, dropping her knitting, dropping and counting stitches, pushing her knitting away from her, sending people knitted items: Thank you so much for the pullover, it’s just what I wanted etc. There is even in 4.50 from Paddington a description of her being ‘particularly woolly and fluffy – a picture of a sweet old lady.’ It could make you long for Madame Defarge.
I like this exchange between Pat and Miss Marple in A Pocket Full of Rye:
“What are you knitting?”
“Oh, just a little matinée coat, dear. For a baby you know. I always say young mothers can’t have too many matinée coats for their babies. It’s the second size. I always knit the second size. Babies so soon grow out of the first size.”
Pat stretched out long legs towards the fire.
“It’s nice in here today,” she said. ‘With the fire and the lamps and you knitting things for babies. It all seems cosy and homely and like England ought to be.”
“It’s like England is,” said Miss Marple…
Although, as we know, Miss Marple’s England is far from cosy and homely. It is a place riddled with appalling people committing terrible crimes and no amount of stuffing wool in the ears or pulling woolly hats over the eyes can hide that. However by the end of each book Miss Marple has solved the crime and returned us temporarily to that cosy and homely place where we can draw breath and doze by the fire to the comforting clacking of her knitting needles before the next shocking eruption of violence occurs.
In Nemesis (1971) the final novel that Miss Marple appears in, Jason Rafiel writes to her (from beyond the grave) in the following terms inviting her to solve an unspecified crime:
“I envisage you knitting more jackets, head scarves and a good many other things of which I do not know the name. If you prefer to continue knitting, that is your decision. If you prefer to serve the cause of justice, I hope you may at least find it interesting.”
As any knitter will tell you, Jason has got it all wrong. Although he’s dead so we can’t tell him. Miss Marple serves the cause of justice by knitting. It helps her think. It helps her unravel what is going on. It helps her solve the crimes. She follows the patterns of human behaviour just as she follows a pattern for a baby’s jacket. She serves the cause of justice by knitting not by setting it to one side. I suppose in that respect she could be seen as being similar to Madame Defarge whose death register of a scarf she also sees as serving the cause of justice.
Finally, a very important question. Have you ever tried knitting in mittens and how did it go? Oh dear, I fear that won’t get the comments flowing so how about another one. Who would you prefer to knit you a scarf Miss Marple or Madame Defarge? That should get the little grey cells hopping about.