Thursday, February 02, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Mrs. [Ethel] Rogers

Warning: This article may contain spoilers about the book And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.

Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were Eight

“It’s awful, but I never really look at them properly, do you?”
—Virginia Revel on “governesses and companions and people one sits opposite to on trains” in Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

The Rogers in 1987's Desyat Negrityat
Curt: Without doubt to my mind, Christie triumphantly portrays at least one companion, Miss Gilchrist, in After the Funeral (1953).  As for governesses, there is Vera Claythorne herself, of the novel under discussion, And Then There Were None (1939).  Surely Miss Claythorne is one of Christie's greatest creations. 

Yet generally speaking, in my view, the depiction of servants and other lower-class characters is not one of Christie’s strong points as a writer.  Concerning maids and girl shop assistants I remember mostly a succession of rather dim Alices and Gladyses and Ednas (“Edna sniffed” is the ostensibly humorous refrain in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, 1952, when Poirot questions the seriously sub-intelligent, adenoidal girl concerning a matter related to a murder).  We learn a little bit of the inner life—such as it is--of the very silly maid Gladys in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), but it’s more pathetic than rounded.


Which brings me to Mrs. and Mr. Rogers, the servant murder victims in And Then There Were None.  I would say these are without a doubt the least interesting characters in the book (even speed-crazy Anthony Marston, as Patrick, has pointed out, has points of interest).  Certainly this is true of Mrs. Rogers.

Mrs. Rogers in the 1945 film
Mrs. Rogers is seen by Vera Claythone as “a white bloodless ghost of a woman.”  She is “very respectable looking,” as one would hope to find with a cook/housekeeper, but as she converses with Vera her “queer light eyes” shift “the whole time from place to place.”  “Ghostlike” is the main word we come to associate with Mrs. Rogers: a woman that seems like an automaton, half-dead already, before she hears the damning words of U. N. Owen....

When Mrs. Rogers and her husband are accused of the crime of murder by “The Voice” (only then do we learn that their names are Thomas and Ethel), Mrs. Rogers screams and faints.  After she wakes, she gasps out, before drinking  a medicinal brandy, “It was the voice—that awful voice—like a judgment—.”  Then she is carried to her room and medicated by Dr. Armstrong.  Her husband finds her dead in bed the next day. 

Did Ethel Rogers die of fear, as Emily Brent declares?  Did her heart give out?  Did she commit suicide?  Did Rogers kill her to keep her quiet about this murder business?  No, she was poisoned with Chloral Hydrate by U. N. Owen (he slipped it in that brandy).

While she may not have done away with herself, Ethel Rogers very much was a woman who lived her days shrouded in fear and guilt.  It seems quite likely that as U. N. Owen asserts she, acting under the influence of her husband, helped bring about “the death of Jennifer Brady,” their mistress, by the withholding of a restorative drug the woman needed to have administered (the Rogers couple benefitted substantially by their mistresses’ death).

Mrs. Rogers in the computer game adaptation
These, then, are the qualities that define Mrs. Rogers as a character: fear and guilt.  Do we feel any sympathy for her in her obvious pain and distress (brought about by her own culpability in a grave misdeed)?  I think so, though admittedly she has such a small role in the novel it is hard to hold much of an impression of her after her death.  She is indeed “ghostlike” and, like a ghost, she fades. 

Ethel Rogers is mainly noticeable in her absence, because now some of the other guests in Indian Island have to so some kitchen work for themselves.  Even before the death of Mrs. Rogers, Vera frowns in consternation when she realizes that there are “eight people in the house...and only one married couple to do for them.”  Even when people are dropping like flies in the house on Indian Island, concern over the “servant problem” remains!

***

Patrick: The 1965 film adaptation, Ten Little Indians, had a tagline on the VHS that captured this attitude perfectly. It went something like “Heavens! Someone’s murdered the cook! Who will serve breakfast now?”
Elsa Grohmann (Mrs. Rogers) in the 1965 film
(centre), trying to get Fabian to stop embarrassing
himself and just die already.
You are right to point out that Christie’s servant characters are among her weakest, but I’d argue this is all for the better. Christie was best when she was writing about things she knew about, such as the country house in After the Funeral as opposed to criminal psychosis in Endless Night. She could have gone ahead and made a butler her series detective, but she wouldn’t have known the first thing about the way butlers acted in their time off, etc. As an author, you can go ahead and bluff your way through such scenes anyhow, but we’ve seen how disastrous that can turn out in Gilbert Adair’s The Act of Roger Murgatroyd.

Mrs. Rogers has always been an interesting figure for me. I genuinely felt sorry for her— she seems to have been part of an unhappy marriage where she was bullied by her dominating husband. In general, marriages throughout Christie’s work are far more complex than they are in, say, John Dickson Carr’s books or the Had-I-But-Known school, where the perfect ending involves multiple marriages, which are of course perfect because the author says so.

In Christie’s world, marriages can be very happy and fulfilling… but marriage and love can also lead to much emotional pain (and sometimes murder!). Think of Death on the Nile, where Linnet Ridgeway backstabs her best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort, and runs off with Jackie’s beau, Simon Doyle. Death on the Nile is one of Christie’s longer books, and in my 420-page copy, murder doesn’t even occur until page 189. (This is another misconception about the Golden Age; everyone who has never read the books insists that murder took place before the 20th page as a matter of course.) The tensions slowly rise as Jackie stalks the newlyweds, her love turned to bitter hatred. In another book, Evil Under the Sun, a young newlywed couple’s happiness is threatened when Arlena Stuart charms Patrick Redford, leaving his wife Christine seething in silence, feeling completely betrayed by the man who so recently said “yes” to “till death do us part”.  There’s also Sad Cypress, where Elinor Carlisle and Roddy Welman are happily engaged… until Roddy begins to fall for Mary Gerrard. Eventually Mary is murdered, and Elinor is the top suspect.

The happy couple (again) from 1987's Desyat Negrityat
I think the effect of Christie’s unhappy marriage to Archibald Christie has to be taken into account here. Christie experienced first-hand the pain of divorce, and as a devout Anglican, she was tormented by this even more. The pain really makes it through into her books, and for every happy marriage or romantic interest, there is one that ends in tragedy.

This is the case with Mrs. Rogers, who is so dominated by her husband that the only thing anyone remembers about her is that she was a good cook. Not even Mr. Rogers, who never reminisces about “poor Ethel” or about that time on their honeymoon or anything of the sort. She just fades away from the narrative.

I also think that Mrs. Rogers’ guilt was the least out of all the people on the island. Married to a bully of a husband (he is irrationally angry at her when she faints at the sound of “The Voice”), she was probably quite easily convinced to co-operate in bringing about her employer’s death. It’s even possible that her husband acted with her as an unwitting accomplice and then forced her to keep quiet by telling her she would hang as an accessory.

Then again, I could be entirely wrong because we know so little about Mrs. Rogers. She could very well have been like Lady Macbeth, pushing her husband to commit murder and then, once the deed was done, found herself unable to cope with the guilt. Maybe that’s how the trouble in their marriage started and why she became such a ghost of a woman—haunted by guilt, withdrawing more and more into herself, easy for her husband to control.

But all this remains speculation: after all, Mrs. Rogers spends most of her time alive in a state of unconsciousness. That really doesn’t allow for much character development.

9 comments:

  1. Firstly, may I suggest a stealth edit. In para 5 you refer to Mrs Rogers as Mrs Owen. That misleading the book is not.

    Secondly, I fully agree that Christie's experience of her first marriage affected her view of the institution, though the second one seems to have been very happy. But have you noticed that in at least two books the heroine is rescued by an archaeologist from either a multiple murderer or a complete power maniac? Poor old Archie Christie really paid for his sin.

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  2. Helen, thanks for spotting that! It's been corrected.

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  3. Helen, Archie Christie's middle name didn't start with a "B" did it?

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  4. I am not very sure that Mr. Rogers was such a bully of a husband as you have pointed out. His behaviour at her fainting is not irrational, he was afraid of what might be revealed by that. And, of course, he was the perfect butler, he must not have liked the glass/ china being broken to pieces...

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  5. My take on Mr. Rogers coming soon!

    You know, this whole exercise raises an interesting question: how credible were U. N. Owen's judgments about the victims? Raymond Chandler complained that the evidence in a lot of cases was weak. What if Owen got it wrong in some cases? Or did he care?

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  6. You know it's time to re-read a classic, when other fans bring up scenes or even characters that are completely expunged from your memory.

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  7. The Passing Tramp, I had exactly the same concerns. In pretty much every case save Marston's, the culprit's guilt is determined because one person believed that the person was guilty of a crime, although Owen did do follow-up research. In Christie's play version, one character professes innocence, but Owen decides that person must die anyway because the rhyme needs to be finished.

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  8. As far as I can see, the characters were meant to be guilty. The book is satisfying because we never feel that evil has triumphed at the end (something that I feel would not sit well with Christie). Since none of the characters are innocent,we can enjoying watching the carefully constructed plot unfold. The theatre and film versions are enormously enjoyable, but lack that quality.

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  9. While it has little to do with And Then There Were None, I recommend the movie Gosford Park in that in this mystery, the focus is on the servants and the other characters are in the background.

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