07 September 2020

Did Wodehouse Influence Christie?

The Mysterious Affair at Styles made me wonder if Agatha Christie’s portrayal of the relationship between Capt. Arthur Hastings and Hercule Poirot might have been influenced by P. G. Wodehouse’s stories of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

In both cases, the narrator is a young upper-class Englishman with no professional responsibilities, affable manners, a weakness for pretty ladies, and modest intellectual ambitions that nonetheless exceed his capacities. This narrator describes how a punctilious man from a lower social class uses his brilliant mind to deduce solutions and put things right. Hastings and Bertie admire Poirot and Jeeves, but they also resent being pulled along, which produces some of the stories’ entertainment.

On the question of influence, the first factor I examined was when Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She reported writing the first draft in 1916, taking two weeks off work to check into a Torquay hotel to finish.

But then, I presume, Christie revised the manuscript. One strong indication of that is how subsequent Poirot stories (“The Affair at the Victory Ball,” The Murder on the Links) make clear that the action of the novel starts in July 1917 after Hastings has spent “some months” recuperating from being wounded in the Battle of the Somme, which took place in late 1916. Christie thus came to conceive of her first novel as taking place months after she had written her first draft.

It also took Christie years to find a publisher. When John Lane agreed to issue the book at the Bodley Head press, he insisted that Poirot reveal the murderer by gathering all the suspects in the drawing room, a device that had already become standard in murder mysteries. (Christie originally had Poirot share his revelations in court.) The book thus went through a final revision stage before it was published in 1920.

Therefore, we can date Christie’s creation of the full text of The Mysterious Affair at Styles to the period from 1916 to 1920. But we don’t know when in that period she cemented the characterization of Hastings and Poirot. Did she start with the characters and find a mystery for them, or start with the plot and develop the characters around it?

The next question is whether Agatha Christie read P. G. Wodehouse. Decades later, when they were both internationally bestselling authors, the two became friendly correspondents. In her first letter to Wodehouse, Christie said she enjoyed his 1913 novel The Little Nugget, which involves kidnappers, an upper-class hero at loose ends, and a Pinkerton detective working as a butler. But there’s no way to know when she read that book—as early as 1913 or just a few years before her letter. We also have no indication of whether Christie read the short stories Wodehouse sold to British magazines in the 1910s, which are the crucial texts in this question.

P. G. Wodehouse spent most of that decade in New York City, enjoying the excitement of America and the rewards of selling the same work to both American and British publishers. Many of his tales involved Englishmen in America, and among those was a series of short stories about a young gentleman named Bertie and his gentleman’s gentleman.

Those characters made their first appearance in the story “Extricating Young Gussie,” published in America’s Saturday Evening Post in September 1915 and in Britain’s The Strand Magazine in January 1916 (and of course it’s the latter date that pertains to the Christie question). At that point, Bertie didn’t have a last name, though he already had an Aunt Agatha. Jeeves was simply a generic valet. With “The Artistic Career of Corky”/“Leave It to Jeeves” (The Strand, June 1916), Wodehouse hit on the idea of Jeeves being a problem-solving genius.

Finally, Wodehouse started to explore the frictions between Bertie and Jeeves in “The Aunt and the Sluggard” (The Strand, August 1916) and “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest” (The Strand, March 1917). He also wrote “Jeeves Takes Charge,” providing an origin story for the team, but that wasn’t published in Britain until 1923. In these tales we see Bertie pushing back against Jeeves’s sartorial advice, resenting his silences, and finally coming around to realizing his brilliance.

That’s the same dynamic I see in Capt. Hastings and Poirot, already fully realized in the published text of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Comparing the dates show it was possible Christie was inspired by Wodehouse’s magazine stories as she developed her novel, particularly after the first draft. But there’s no conclusive clue about influence. The similarity might simply be the result of similar ideas occurring to two authors around the same time, like two separate characters out to snatch the same diamond necklace or handwritten will.

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