Was Miss Marple born in Cheshire?
11:44 15 September 2010
SHE was one of the most characterful and enduringly popular sleuths in the history of detective fiction. But she owes her name to an untimely delay at a Cheshire railway station. Miss Jane Marple, created by the high priestess of the murder mystery story, Agatha Christie, appeared in 20 of the legendary novelist's books and a dozen more short stories.
The elderly spinster with powers of deduction rivalling those of Sherlock Holmes and Christie's other great detective creation, Hercule Poirot, has also been a regular in countless films and television episodes played by some of the best-known actresses of the last half century or more.
Miss Marple's first published appearance was in issue 350 of The Royal Magazine of December 1927 and she made her debut in a full-length novel in Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage of 1930. But where did she come from, this old lady in tweeds and fancy hats with her razor sharp ability to unravel the twists and turns of plots swimming with red herrings?
She lives in the fictional village of St Mary Mead, generally thought to be in a twee part of Surrey or Sussex. But she was conceived, if not exactly born, at Marple, where some time in the early 20th Century, Christie was delayed on a train long enough to make a mental note of the station sign. At least that's more or less the authorised version, though nailing down hard proof is a little trickier.
Nonetheless there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Miss Marple the character was inspired by Marple the Cheshire town. The world is full of odd associations. The great poet and author Rudyard Kipling was named after Rudyard Lake on the Cheshire-Staffordshire border where his parents spent time courting. And the railway station at Widnes, of all places, inspired New Yorker Paul Simon to write his haunting song Homeward Bound. But there's much more to the Marple connection than that.
Though Agatha Christie was born in Torquay and lived in a splendid house overlooking the River Dart, she was a regular visitor to Cheshire from an early age. Her sister Margaret married James Watts of Abney Hall, Cheadle, in 1902 when Christie was twelve and she spent many of her childhood and adult years there. Watts encouraged her to write and Abney Hall provided the inspiration for many a country house setting for her books.
So it is highly probable that Christie was a frequent passenger on trains running through Marple, on the Hope Valley line between Manchester and Sheffield with access to the Midland Railway's main line to London St Pancras.
In 1898 no less that 109 trains a day called at Marple and though that was reduced to 87 with the construction of the Midland's 'cutoff' via the Disley tunnel, it remained an important station and several London trains continued to use it. Perhaps it's possible to speculate further.
On December 8th 1926, while living in Sunningdale in Berkshire, Agatha Christie disappeared for ten days. Her car was found in a chalk pit in Newland's Corner, Surrey. She was eventually found staying at the Swan Hydro (now the Old Swan hotel) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, under the name of the woman with whom her husband had recently admitted to having an affair.
She claimed to have suffered a nervous breakdown and a fugue state caused by the death of her mother and her husband's infidelity. Opinions are still divided as to whether this was a publicity stunt, but its also postulated that she spent some of the 'missing' time hidden away at Abney Hall.
Did she pass through Marple then, for Miss Marple appeared for the first time one year later? Here is another mystery, not so much a whodunit? But a wherewasit? Miss Marple's second adventure on the big screen, Murder at the Gallop, was released by MGM in 1963 with the irrepressible Margaret Rutherford in the starring role.
The film was based loosely on the novel After the Funeral, which Christie had written at Abney Hall, and was published in 1953, just six years before the hall was sold to become Cheadle and Gatley town hall.
Curiously the original novel featured Hercule Poirot as the main character, changed by the filmmakers to Miss Marple to provide a vehicle for Rutherford in what was to become a quartet of 1960s movies that featured her. And, according to several film buffs websites, it is claimed that the world premire of Murder at the Gallop 'took place at a church garden party in rural Cheshire, England'. Sixty-five years on this year, does any reader know where?
Since that time the role of Miss Marple on the big screen passed on to Hollywood's legendary silent screen star Helen Hayes and Angela Lansbury and on television to the great Joan Hickson and most lately to Geraldine McEwan. June Whitfield played the role on radio. Perhaps strangest of all is that fact that Miss Marple's first ever appearance on screen was in an American television adaptation of A Murder is Announced in 1956 when she was played by none other than Rochdale's Gracie Fields with Jessica Tandy and Roger Moore in supporting roles. Miss Marple certainly put Marple on the map.