Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Emily Brent

Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Miss Emily Brent in the 1987 adaptation Desyat Negrityat
Patrick: I am a Catholic and my faith is important to me— wait, don’t turn that dial! Religion plays a major part in my reasons for disliking the character of Emily Brent. Miss Brent was likely not a Catholic—the odds are that, like Agatha Christie, she was Anglican. (Why do I say this? Well, we’re in 1930s England. I have a feeling she wasn’t Baptist.) And yet Miss Brent manages to get her faith so completely and entirely wrong. Emily Brent embodies everything people dislike about religion— she loves her Bible and quotes from it as though she were shellin’ peas. When Mr. Owen’s voice accuses her of bringing about the death of one Beatrice Taylor, she says nothing until everyone falls silent, waiting for her to speak out.

“Are you waiting for me to say something? I have nothing to say.”
The judge said, “Nothing, Miss Brent?”
“Nothing.” Her lips closed tightly. … “There is no question of defense. I have always acted in accordance with the dictates of my conscience. I have nothing with which to reproach myself.”

That right there is Miss Brent in a nutshell, and it is scary. Now, as a Catholic, I hold the belief that the Bible is inspired by God— and yes, I have seen Penn and Teller challenge that claim (IMO, they miss the whole point, but let’s not turn this into a theological seminar). And yet the Bible, a book with such great wisdom and beauty, has been used many times to justify the most horrid things. Miss Brent manages to do just that.

Oh, to be sure, these quotes are in the Bible; it’s not like Miss Brent makes them up. But she never seems to understand their meaning, and to be honest, we could all selectively quote the Bible until the cows came home. For instance, I’ve heard the death penalty justified by quoting Jesus’ words to Peter: “all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword”. Such interpretations miss the whole point of the passage— it is part of Jesus’ message to Peter that no, violence is not the answer, and that he should put the sword away.

Miss Brent in the 1945 film adaptation
But I digress. Let’s get back to Miss Brent—she loves quoting her Bible, and she tends to love the doom-and-gloom imagery: “The heathen are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken. The Lord is known by the judgment which he executeth: the wicket is snared in the work of his own hands. The wicked shall be turned into hell.” Doesn’t that make for cheerful reading before dinner on the first night?

But she’s not done there; after Mrs. Rogers dies in her sleep, Miss Brent is quick to give the Hand of God credit:

One word fell from Emily Brent. It fell hard and clear into the listening group. “Conscience!” she said. … “You all heard [the accusation]. … I think that that accusation was true. You all saw her last night. She broke down completely and fainted. The shock of having her wickedness brought home to her was too much for her. She literally died of fear.”

How can this woman be so callous over the death of Mrs. Rogers… and yet when Phillip Lombard cheerfully admits his responsibility in the deaths of 21 Africans, she “glanced at him in sharp distaste” and later confides to Vera that “Black or white, they are our brothers.”

While Lombard’s crime is the most sickening in the entire book, Miss Brent’s is a close second. The scary thing is that she genuinely feels no remorse for her actions—to her, she acted strictly in accordance with her Bible and so she has no reason to feel guilt. Beatrice Taylor, we learn, was a servant in her employ, who made some bad decisions and wound up pregnant. Miss Brent threw her out of the house: “No one shall ever say that I condoned immorality.” Beatrice Taylor’s story ends in tragedy: “The abandoned creature, not content with having one sin on her conscience, committed a still graver sin. She took her own life. … Yes, she threw herself into the river.”

Miss Brent reveals the nature of her crime to Vera Claythorne, who is understandably horrified (and it’s possible that her horror is compounded by the fact that drowning was involved—a sort of subconscious act of self-hatred for her own crime):

“What did you feel like when you knew she’d done that? Weren’t you sorry? Didn’t you blame yourself?”
Emily Brent drew herself up. “I? I had nothing with which to reproach myself.”
Vera said, “But if your—hardness—drove her to it.”
Emily Brent said sharply, “Her own action—her own sin—that was what drove her to it. If she had behaved like a decent modest young woman none of this would have happened.”
She turned her face to Vera. There was no self-reproach, no uneasiness in those eyes. They were hard and self-righteous. Emily Brent sat on the summit of Indian Island, encased in her own armour of virtue. The little elderly spinster was no longer slightly ridiculous to Vera. Suddenly—she was terrible.

Miss Brent tragically gets the crux of her faith wrong—her faith is built on the doom-and-gloom imagery, fuelled by a fear of winding up in Hell if she as much touches sin with a yardstick. That is why the concept of showing mercy to a sinner seems to surprise her so. Why should she have been nice to poor Beatrice and support her? If she did so, then that would mean she condoned Beatrice’s immorality, and that would mean she’d go straight to Hell in a handbasket! But when Jesus walked the earth, didn’t he say: “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s ironic; when Miss Brent is confronted with the possibility that she poisoned Mrs. Rogers, she replies indignantly: “Is common humanity a criminal offense?”

There are undoubtedly many people out there who share Miss Brent’s firm conviction that no matter what, it’s the girl’s fault and she should go straight to Hell. But I must emphasize that this is not the message of Catholicism or Christianity in general. We don’t go to church on Sundays to get a kick out of condemning homosexuals to burn in Hell. We admit that we sin and we ask God to forgive us and give us strength to repent and not sin any more. It’s not about pointing out the weakness of others and then painting a lovely picture of ourselves— it’s about presenting ourselves to God the way we are. (Some people come strictly for the bake sales, but that’s another story.)

Beatrice Taylor begins to haunt Miss Brent's nightmares
The point is, Emily Brent takes a religion of love, tolerance, and mercy and she twists it into a weapon. Self-righteous to the extreme, she manages to be the embodiment of all the stereotypes people associate with Christianity. And yet… Miss Brent is not conscience-less like Anthony Marston. She begins to go crazy when Mr. Owen decides to bump her off, writing in her journal that “THE MURDERER’S NAME IS BEATRICE TAYLOR.” When she helps out at breakfast, she recalls a terrible dream she had: “Last night she had dreamed of Beatrice—dreamt that she was outside pressing her face against the window and moaning, asking to be let in. But Emily Brent hadn’t wanted to let her in. Because, if she did, something terrible would happen…”

The 1987 Russian adaptation of the book, Desyat Negrityat, brings this dream to life but changes it into a hallucination. Miss Brent, while getting ready to fall asleep, sees Beatrice Taylor at her window, and in a frenzy she finally throws her Bible through the window before declaring that “the murderer’s name is Beatrice Taylor”. The scene is extremely intense and part of the superbly-crafted atmosphere… it is also part of the only adaptation that gets the character right to my mind. All her life, Miss Brent’s faith has been based on the kind of preaching that Wallace Shawn’s character used in the film Heaven Help Us: a whole list of threats of what will happen to her in the afterlife if she so much as permits the presence of sin near her. This causes her to retreat behind her Bible and she does something terrible because of it. But she’s human after all. She may have convinced herself that she did nothing wrong, but she really does know she is to blame. The realization that she was indeed wrong to do what she did makes her toss the Bible through the window in fury and in doubt… While Emily Brent does not throw her Bible through a window in the novel, I feel that in the book, uncertainty begins gnawing at her mind: “Did I really do the right thing? Is this really the kind of faith God asks of me?” And just before Mr. Owen murders her, Miss Brent has one final vision of Beatrice Taylor, risen from the river and dripping wet, slowly approaching her. Does she know she will be murdered? Does she accept this as her punishment? The bee stings her before we can get a clear answer…

***

Curt: On rereading And Then There Were None I found Emily Brent one of Christie’s best-realized characters.

But then she should be.  She’s Miss Marple gone wrong!

Take away the humanity and genuine compassion under Miss Marple’s restrained and ladylike Victorian demeanor and you are left with acidulated Emily Brent, in whom genuine Christian charity has withered (if it ever existed).

Throughout the four-and-a-half decades that Miss Maple appears in Christie novels, the great spinster detective kindly and conscientiously trains an endless series of ignorant lower class girls into responsible and competent members of society.  We may or may not think this is rather a self-serving way to look at it (she is getting service from them after all), but there seems no doubt to me that the way Christie presents these girls to us, they would be in sad shape without Miss Marple to look out for them.

But what does Miss Emily Brent do when her servant, Beatrice Taylor, “gets into trouble”?  Does Miss Brent show compassion and help her?  No!  Rather, she casts Beatrice out, precipitating her suicide.

When Miss Brent learns of the alleged crime of the Indian Island servant couple, the Rogers, she is horrified:

“You all heard.  She was accused, together with her husband, of having deliberately murdered her former employer—an old lady.”

A bumblebee stung one... (image from 1945 film)
For Miss Brent this hits right at home.  Servants must at all costs be made to keep their divinely allotted place in the social order.

Miss Brent is the daughter of “a Colonel of the old school,” Christie satirically notes, who “had been particular about deportment.”  Her father’s daughter, Miss Brent always sits bolt upright; she does “not approve of lounging.”

As Patrick notes, Miss Brent thinks of herself as quite religious, but it is a religion of form—of deportment—over substance (genuine charity).  Miss Brent will never bend her principles to help someone.  Form always comes first.

And here Christie once again challenges those who insist she is an uninterestingly conformist and invariably conservative writer.  She has taken a traditionally sympathetic (if sometimes gently mocked) character in fiction of this era—the prim spinster who knows her duty—and made her into a quite unsympathetic person with a cold, cold soul.

15 comments:

  1. I thought the computer game also did a fair job of capturing the character... for most of the game. Also, it's interesting that three of the movies turned her into a glamorous actress who had her husband or lover (once a lesbian lover) killed. And since the production code of 1945 wouldn't allow for the story of a girl getting pregnant out of wedlock, they changed the death to her mentally unstable nephew. Apparently multiple murders were O.K., though. However, while we're talking about sickening crimes, I think that causing the death of a child under one's care is pretty darned sickening.

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  2. I like the computer game but the animation is atrocious and the lip-syncing is just terrible. Consequently, the characters from it haunt my nightmares.

    Miss Brent is one of those characters that people keep changing, like Lombard, Vera, the Rogers couple and Marston. To be frank, apart from the two Brents that appear here, I could never stand any of her equivalents in any of the other movies (although the 1989 film is so laughably bad that I can't take it seriously enough to hate her).

    Regarding sickening crimes, I quite agree with you. In fact, when I first read the book, I was so outraged at Vera's crime that I considered her Evil Incarnate. Over time, though, I got to appreciate just how nasty Lombard with his wolf's face was, and the cold cruelty of Emily Brent does rather strike home.

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  3. There is no real evidence either way but I rather doubt that Mis Brent is actually Anglican. Her attitude is more likely to be one of what one might call the extreme or hell-and-damnation Protestant sects. I think (though I have not checked back) she tends to refer to the Old Testament and never to the New. That would make sense if she belonged to ... oh I don't know .. the Wee Frees though she is not a Scot, as far as I can make out.

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  4. Maybe she was low-church Anglican! Freeman Wills Crofts was Anglican but his faith actually quite resembled the sort of thing people associate with American evangelicalism (although he was a much kinder person than Emily Brent).

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  5. By the way, it's interesting that they changed the character so much in the films. I think they wanted to sex up the female cast, evidently.

    Judith Anderson made a good a Emily Brent, but the stupid Film Code censorship undermined the character.

    Going over all this it does remind me how utterly off P.D. James is when she says Christie books never deal with anything real, like sin and sex. Of the Crime Queens Christie I think portrays sin and human evil the most seriously and frequently.

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  6. Judith Anderson seemed to be calling on her previous portrayal of a similarly obsessed and rigid character - Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) filmed five years before And Then There Were None. She did those uptight, tart tongued, and often viciously cruel characters so well. Her role in Laura is also slightly similar psychologically to Miss Brent and Mrs. Danvers. Great dissection of this character from both of you.

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  7. I've always considered each character in "And Then There Were None" to be examples of motives to murder, character traits that may drive someone to take another's life.
    Emily Brent is the killer (or indirect killer, if you will) who does so with a sense of religious right. Miss Brent has nothing on her conscience because she considers her actions justified by her interpretation of The Bible. In effect, she acted rightly within her conscience - what Beatrice Taylor does with herself after that is not of Miss Brent's concern.
    The character isn't a critique on the religion - any religion - but an observation of some people who are willing to override basic humanity in the certainty of their interpretation of religious teachings.

    I'd suggest that Emily Brent's "conviction" for murder is the shakiest of the ten. She didn't intend the death, she didn't gain from it (unless a sense of moral superiority) and her actions weren't directly the cause of death. Not that I liked her anyway ...

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  8. Thanks John. Another Judith Anderson character of this sort was the horrible, hateful rich spinster in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

    Alan, yes, you're right. Legally, Miss Brent was guilty of nothing at all. Mr. Owen kills on moral grounds, ostensibly. But as contemptible as Miss Brent's action is, did it merit a death sentence?

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  9. Probably not Anglican/Episcopalian. Not so big on the Bible, more about The Book of Common Prayer. :<)

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  10. @The Passing Tramp

    From both a Christian and humanistic point of view, nobody on Indian Island deserved death. But Owen's real goal isn't justice---it's sadism. They want to kill real people just as they killed spiders and wasps in their youth and the ten guests on Indian Island have done something to deserve punishment.

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  11. I'll say what I've said before: Emily Brent was actually my favorite character. No, I don't think she's likeable but I think she's fascinating and like the article said, one of the most fully realized characters in a Christie book.

    If I HAD to sympathize with a character from the book it probably would've been her because I truly think she was a victim of her own generation (maybe the fact that I'm 23 years old, makes me give a free pass to anyone whose generation is too distant for me to understand...who knows...).

    Her head and God's words tell her she did the right thing but her heart, I believe, says otherwise. That's why her actions come back to haunt her because despite her values she feels extremely guilty.

    The crimes can certainly be divided by "head" and "heart"- "logic" and "emotion". Most of the characters did crimes that they knew were wrong but their emotions got the better of them. Lombard and Brent were the only ones that committed their crimes because of what made sense to them. The difference was that Brent thought she was doing the right thing (probably because of her upbringing/life), whereas Lombard knew he was doing the wrong thing but didn't care.

    What should also be noted is that Emily Brent's death is one of the four deaths to be described rather than happen "off-screen". Vera's, Lombard's and Marston's death made sense to be described seeing as there weren't any other places the narrative could focus on. But why Miss Brent when other things were happening at the same time? Marston was the inciting incident and Lombard and Vera were the climax. But why Miss Brent? (sorry for the repetition. I'm just THAT curious)

    Overall, I have very rarely seen a supporting character have such an intense but subtly described internal conflict.

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  12. I can understand why Emily Brent was indirectly responsible for Beatrice Taylor's death if the latter had no family to turn to in her time of need. But if Beatrice did have family, why didn't she turn to them? Why didn't she turn to the father of her unborn child? Or did they reject her as well? And if so, doesn't that mean Miss Brent was not solely responsible for Beatrice's death?

    Emily Brent might be unpleasant and a religious fanatic, but I do not judge her crime to be the second worst. Not by a long shot.

    How can this woman be so callous over the death of Mrs. Rogers… and yet when Phillip Lombard cheerfully admits his responsibility in the deaths of 21 Africans, she “glanced at him in sharp distaste” and later confides to Vera that “Black or white, they are our brothers.”


    Miss Brent thought Mrs. Rogers was guilty of helping Mr. Roger kill an old woman. On the other hand, she does not believe that those 21 East African men did not deserve to be so callously murdered by Lombard, because the latter had dismissed their worth, based upon their race.

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  13. For a mock trial in my English class, I have to prove Emily Brent as guilty. This article was helpful, but is there any other evidence you can supply to help me? You did a great job, also, at capturing what a true Christian should be. We are to love and "care for orphans and widows in there distress," not mock them for their indiscretions

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    1. It has been a very long time, I'm afraid I can't add any specifics off the top of my head. I know that the video game adaptation changed the ending in order to make Brent the killer, which might prove helpful to you in some ways, but full warning, they changed quite a bit of the story to make that work. The best place to look is in the text itself. Good luck!

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    2. Thank you for putting for your help!

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