Agatha Christie, Max Ernst, and Neo-Victorianism in the 1930s

Agatha Christie, Max Ernst, and Neo-Victorianism in the 1930s
© Photograph by Michał Piotrowski

This article offers a sketch of attitudes to Victorianism between the First and Second World Wars, in the form of a diptych. Specifically, it compares two superficially unconnected texts that appeared in 1934 — a year in which, as Samuel Hynes once put it, history “had taken on a new and terrible momentum” in the aftermath of Hitler’s accession to power the previous year (Hynes 140).

The article reconstructs a relationship between these books in order to demonstrate that, at this time, opposing variants of neo-Victorianism — variants that might be identified as the iconographic (or conservative) on the one hand and the iconoclastic or (avant-gardist) on the other — continued to be locked in a conflict, one enacted in the sphere of culture, about the ideological inheritance of the nineteenth-century. These texts are Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and Max Ernst’s ‘Une Semaine de bonté’.

Although Ernst and Christie were almost exact contemporaries — the latter was born in 1890 and the former in 1891 — they are at first sight implausible companions. Ernst, who was central to the development of both dadaism and surrealism, is a representative of the European avant-garde; and Christie, at least in the popular imagination, is the embodiment of a quintessentially English cultural conservatism. Furthermore, the texts on which I want to focus discussion exemplify distinct and even antagonistic artistic tendencies characteristic of the first half of the last century. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is of course a detective fiction produced for the expanding mass market in popular literature; and ‘Une Semaine de bonté’ is a collection of surrealist collages published in a series of five pamphlets each of less than one thousand copies.

It is too simplistic, though, to situate them on either side of that cultural chasm that Andreas Huyssen has characterised as the Great Divide. Ernst’s committed though resolutely critical engagement with the forms of mass culture is particularly apparent in ‘Une Semaine de bonté’, which collages illustrations taken from nineteenth-century romances and periodicals.

Indeed, this text is a characteristic product of the historical avant-garde, the aesthetic of which, as Huyssen argues, “aimed at developing an alternative relationship between high art and mass culture and thus should be distinguished from modernism, which for the most part insisted on the inherent hostility between high and low” (Huyssen x). At the same time, Christie cannot be dismissed as simply an unreflexive manufacturer of fiction for a mass readership.

On the one hand, the popular culture in which her novels participate is not often openly alluded to or admitted at the level of plot. The mansion house, as the locus classicus of detective fiction in the 1930s, generally precludes an interest in the cultural predilections of the metropolitan working class at this time. These were itemised by André Breton, in a Foreword that he wrote for one of Ernst’s other collage novels, ‘La Femme 100 têtes’ (1929), as “the massive shock of the sight of blood, the ceremonious blacks and white, […] the miracles found in trash, the popular songs” (Breton, “Foreword” 7).

On the other hand, as Alison Light has insisted, there is a sense in which Christie participates in “a modernist spirit”, and can even be characterised as “an iconoclast whose monitoring of the plots of family life aims to upset the Victorian image of home, sweet home” (Light 61). I suspect that this is an exaggerated claim, although I agree that Christie’s attempt to modernize the conventions of detective fiction is more sophisticated, and more self-reflexive, than literary critics have often admitted.

Ernst and Christie thus both have a more dialectical relationship to the complicated economy of elite and popular culture in the early twentieth century than can be inferred only from the conditions in which their texts were produced and consumed. And the relationship between ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Une Semaine de bonté’ that I propose in this article — an occult relationship no doubt — is not perhaps quite as arbitrary as the apparently irreducible formal and political differences between them indicate.

Both are species of detective fiction, a genre that has itself historically occupied some kind of intermediate space between high and low culture. Ernst’s book, to be sure, negates the logic of this form — by portraying almost two hundred separate crime scenes, in which unspeakable and inexplicable abuses are taking place, without at any point gratifying the reader’s desire to be given a solution to them. In the ‘Foreword to La Femme 100 têtes’, Breton compared the book’s illustrations to “the meticulous reconstruction of a crime witnessed in a dream”, one that at the same time does not make the reader “in the least concerned with the name or motives of the assassin” (Breton, “Foreword” 8). But ‘Une Semaine de bonté’ also self-evidently derives some of its techniques from detective fiction, including its use of clues, that is, objects used in everyday life that, displaced under certain particular conditions, suddenly acquire disproportionate, even monstrous significance.

Indeed, like ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, according to Walter Benjamin, Ernst’s collage novel combines a number of the archetypal detective fiction’s “decisive elements” — including the scene of the crime, the victim, the murderer, and the masses, although not, significantly, the detective — in the form of “disjecta membra” (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire 43). ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Une Semaine de bonté’ are both constructed as puzzles; they are cryptogrammatic.

More precisely, both of these detective fictions manifest an interest in the train compartment as the scene of a homicidal crime. From at least the 1860s, the decade in which the first murders to be committed on trains occurred, first in Paris and then in London, the compartment had functioned in literature, and crime fiction in particular, as an important symbolic space for dramatizing tensions that are central to the experience of modernity.

As I have argued in another context, the nineteenth-century train compartment, at the core of the so-called machine ensemble of the nineteenth-century railway, constitutes what might be called a “primal modern scene”. It is a commonplace enough locale in which conflicts between the private and the public, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the rational and the irrational, nonetheless seem to acquire mythical significance (Beaumont 125-53).

Like so many of their contemporaries, the childhood imaginations of both Ernst and Christie were deeply imprinted by the railway’s machine ensemble. In an autobiographical annotation, for instance, Ernst noted that “railway signalmen figure in almost all his drawings as a child” (Ernst, Max Ernst 36). And, in the first chapter of her autobiography, Christie recalled that her most elaborate imaginary games as a child involved the railway, adding that “trains have always been one of my favourite things” (Christie, Autobiography 58). For Ernst and for Christie, in 1934, the train compartment, as a peculiarly troubled and easily assailable type of bourgeois interior, operates as a privileged space for investigating the ideological legacy of their parents’ generation.

H.G. Wells announced in 1901 that “the nineteenth-century, when it takes its place with the other centuries in the chronological chart of the future, will, if it needs a symbol, almost inevitably have as that symbol a steam engine running upon a railway” (Wells 4). Throughout the first half of the twentieth-century, and in spite of the crucial role that it continued to play in European culture, it seems to have remained emblematic of the nineteenth-century. At this time, though, to the generation that succeeded the Victorians, it therefore signalled not the present and future so much as the past.

As Benjamin commented in an essay on surrealism in 1929, as he urged recognition of the iconoclastic value of reappropriating “outmoded” aspects of the past, “railways are beginning to age” (Benjamin, ‘Surrealism’ 229). ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Une Semaine de bonté’, from their countervailing political and artistic perspectives, both use the train compartment as the theatre of an autopsy on the social order associated with what was already, in the opening couple of decades of the twentieth-century, called “Victorianism”.

The OED indicates that, although it was used to refer to the fashionable styles of the nineteenth-century from at least the year after Victoria’s death, G.K. Chesterton was one of the first commentators to use the term “Victorianism” in an ideological sense, to mean a set of doctrines. In a discussion of William Morris in ‘The Victorian Age in Literature’ (1913), he referred to “the real revolts that broke up Victorianism at last”; and in a subsequent allusion to Morris he pointed out that “the Industrial System”, which he christens “another name for hell”, was “one of the primary beliefs of Victorianism” (Chesterton 196, 233).

Significantly, Chesterton himself exemplified the ideological tendencies of the nineteenth-century in terms of attitudes to the railway. He complained at one point in this book about the exaggerated rationalism and technologism that had deformed the ideals of the Victorians: “They could not or would not see that humanity repels or welcomes the railway-train, simply according to what people come by it. […] They really seem to have felt that the train could be a substitute for its passengers.” (Chesterton 211)

It is on the symbolic terrain of the train, the specific social dynamics of which both Ernst and Christie were acutely conscious, that their reappropriations of the Victorian past seem especially comparable. The former’s is iconoclastic, as I stated at the outset; the latter’s is iconographic. For if Christie finally uses the train compartment to embalm the Victorianism she identifies with her parents’ generation, Ernst uses the compartment to desecrate it, and leaves it in a state of shocking violation.

The knife with which he carefully constructed his collages, pieced together from remnants of nineteenth-century popular culture, is the instrument both of a surgical dissection of Victorian values and an act of violent, vengeful decimation.