maria vara

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Maria Vara studied English at Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece, where she is currently a PhD candidate and teaches fiction. She also holds an MA in 'Studies in Fiction' (1999) from University of East Anglia. Her publications and research interests include the novel - particularly women's fiction - and literary theory.


Forms of Agency in Women's Detective Fiction in the Seventies

Rereading P D James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970)

At the dawn of the consciousness-raising seventies, the issue of agency (that is female empowerment, acting and influencing events) took centre stage in women's writing. At the same time the rigid form of detective fiction - like many other forms of generic fiction - was infused with issues of gender turning into a plateau for experimentation from a more or less self-consciously feminist perspective. Written by authors who, if not hostile to feminism are surely not part of the 'movement' in the sense of political activity, both An Unsuitable Job for a Woman1 (1972) and The Driver's Seat2 (1970) took part in a political 'de-generation'3 of the detective genre. James' text served an overt political function when Cordelia's appropriation of the figure of the detective was celebrated as an icon of feminist independence.

In this paper I want to examine the ways in which Cordelia received a perhaps disproportionate amount of attention by critics as she displays only superficial agency, being finally pulled by the text's gravitational field into a conservative orbit. Spark's protagonist, Lise, on the other hand, moves on a slippery surface that repeatedly distorts and disrupts the active female heroine, a strategy which was deemed anti-feminist but which has offered a blueprint for an alternative, more subtle and profound formation of agency. Spark in the seventies was seen as a New Enemy, an enemy within; her novella has rarely been associated with detective fiction. I see it as an anti-detective novel, this newer 'highbrow relative'4 of the classical form, akin to those of Robbe-Grillet, Nabokov, Borges, Pynchon and Eco, that also bears resemblances to Joyce Carol Oates' and Diane Johnson's playful interactions with the genre5. By deflecting the adept configuration of agency in The Driver's Seat back on to James' more straightforward detective novel, this paper aims to highlight the emergence of diverse, complex and still very up-to-date feminisms from both inside, but most interestingly, outside the established early-seventies feminist canon.

An Unsuitable Job For a Woman

Carrying a heavy Shakespearean name and a heart of a lion (coeur de lion in French) Cordelia Gray is the first 'counter-traditional professional female private investigator' (Walton 1999:12)6. Alleged to be modelled on Sayer's Hariet Vane from Gaudy Night7, Cordelia flouts the Golden Age stereotype of the respectable asexual lady-detective (such as Christie's Miss Marple and Mitchell's Dame Bradley); she can then be seen to pave the way for younger sisters in British and American detective writing - the most well-known being Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone, Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski, Lisa Cody's Anna Lee, and Sue Grafton's Kinsley Millhone.

The 'gender' question is foregrounded in the novel's title, which, as Craig and Cadogan suggest 'plays on everyone's most conservative feelings about the business' (Craig 1986:241). In a strict sense this is surely an unsuitable title for the genre typology: it refuses to herald its nature as a detective-mystery novel by setting up an enigma (with words such as death, evil, murder, mystery, body, etc) that would initiate the reader's programmed hermeneutic process (acutely delineated by Roland Barthes in S/Z). The unconventional title raises specific reading expectations and as Nixon suggests, 'forms an ironic commentary on residual [Victorian] expectations of women' (Nixon in Irons 1995:32), predisposing for an adoption of a radical reading position towards gender8.

Of course, we should place this 'gender' question within the context of the seventies when it was deployed to highlight the mechanics of the naturalisation of patriarchal ideological formations, before the 'gender confusion' of the mid-eighties [as Nicole Jouve names it (Jouve 1998:9)], that emerged with the theoretical debates on the nature of its discursive qualities. The title of the novel was soon received as a straightforward textual gesture of alliance with the consciousness-raising seventies9 and in the years to come became an intertextual thread running through women's detective fiction10 and a locus of inspiration for puns in many titles of critical essays on the genre11. In James' novel, it pops up many times in a framing and downgrading throwaway nature - 'It isn't a suitable job for a woman' (12) - uttered by both male and female acquaintances to whom Cordelia appears to violate the boundaries allocated to her gender.

It is only her dead mother that calls it 'an entirely suitable job for a woman' (19), an expression that points towards the superficially feminist impulse of the novel, manifested in both its form12 and content. After the suicide of Bernie, who was her partner, Cordelia, an inexperienced, orphaned woman of twenty-two undertakes an assignment originally intended for him. Her task, to reveal the motives that led Mark a 21-year-old Cambridge dropout, to commit suicide, is allocated to her by Mark's father, Sir Ronald Callender, who is a prominent scientist and environmentalist. As the plot thickens, Cordelia identifies with Mark and becomes his avenger, a surely disruptive bend of the classical formula where emotional detachment is required. Upon closure the novel asserts the suitability of the detective profession for women since Cordelia manages to solve the mystery and to keep her office open.

The construction of a new gender identity within the detective genre culminates in the final plot twist. Discovering that the actual murderer of Mark was his father, later in his turn murdered by his secretary who is also Mark's real mother, Cordelia resolves to conspire with her, conceal the fact from the police and thus become an accessory: 'They had nothing in common except their sex, although Cordelia had realised during the days following Ronald Callender's murder the strength of that female allegiance' (203), the narrative voice explains - a strong statement in the spirit of the feminist seventies. Cordelia breaks the strict formulaic demands of the genre as her role is characterised by elasticity traversing many separate spheres, with her being victim - when she is in danger - detective and criminal all at once; the geometric architecture of the whodunit is disturbed by gender, albeit superficially, since everything is undercut by a subplot which shadows the main one and is dramatically externalised at the end with the salient involvement of Adam Dagliesh, the moody, book-loving police detective and poet featuring in most of James' novels.

The narrative structure comprises various planes of agency slyly intricated. Bernie, her dead partner, is constantly at the back of Cordelia's mind, a ventriloquist offering a philosophy of survival, pieces of wisdom, mottos and maxims such as 'never theorize in advance of your facts' (29) or 'Never destroy the evidence', remnants of his brief apprenticeship next to the arch-detective, Adam Dagliesh. Through her activity Cordelia has carved out a space of her own in the novel which is, however, constantly impinged upon by Adam's platitudes. He holds the narrative agency of the text and propels the story forward by being the motive force behind Cordelia's action. Everything fits into a larger pattern made visible when Adam makes an actual appearance in the last pages of the novel in order to interrogate Cordelia and thus reveal the inexorable effect of the quotations infesting her mind. The final scene is presented in an apocalyptic mode when Cordelia confronts the male authority and acknowledges his influence over her. This is her train of thought when they encounter each other:

Cordelia didn't reply. A silence fell on the room but it seemed to her a companionable not an accusing silence…Most of all she wished that she had someone to talk to about Ronald Callender's murder. Bernie wouldn't have been any help here. …But the Superintendent [Dagliesh] might have understood. She could imagine herself talking to him. …She wished that she could ask him. This, she recognised was her real danger- not the temptation to confess but the longing to confide. Did he know how she felt? Was this, too, part of his technique? (216)

The point to note here is this slippage in authority as Adam is revealed to hold the controlling perspective of the text. Cordelia's obsession with bringing order to disorder compounds the damaging effect.

In classical detective novels the reading practice is propelled forward by a future vantage point of omniscience where everything 'will make sense'. We reach catharsis though the detective's eyes when, at the end, everything meshes into a hermeneutic pattern; the murderer is identified and punished, order is re-established and ideology is rendered invisible. Unlike the traditional detective13, Cordelia might finally have concealed the perpetrator, which breaks the strict formulaic demands of the genre but she still acts as a typical offspring of the Golden Age detective, bringing order into her universe which the reader can clearly identify. 'At present the facts were disordered; there was no clear pattern, no theory' (136), she contemplates. Later, however, she manages to make everything fit into a teleological, coherent pattern. At another point she reflects: 'But there were still relevant facts to be discovered', and later: 'It was irritating to have to spend a day in town when the heart of the mystery so obviously lay in Cambridgeshire' (149). Here the reasoning is traditional, reminiscent of the Golden Age formula of the 1920s, whereby old myths hold strong in the writing of a scenario where the world portrayed is of fixed cultural quantities, ordered beauty and meanings to be revealed to a powerful deductive mind.

If narrative 'conventions are a kind of cultural shorthand', as K Dilley suggests, (Dilley 1998:144), then Cordelia's reissuing of the highly formalized character of the classical detective formula as a weaver of coherence encodes a very conformist depiction of the world that could be seen to serve as a comforting mechanism warding-off of post-war anxieties. Feminist criticism of the time, anxious to construct and celebrate a coherent subject position, read into this novel a progressive, autonomous, unified self, similar, if I can hazard the parallel, to that issued by Erica Jong14 for example, but Cordelia does not instigate any radical feminist epistemological debate on the subject. The subject she portrays is only epidermically redefined, a mere reversal of the unified masculine self of liberal humanism and traditional realism (Waugh 1989:30). Through the gender icon Cordelia brings forth, she is unable to elucidate the sly ideological formations woven into traditional genre conventions. Of course, the text's political contribution to the recasting of the female detective mould should be once more stressed. With the women detectives that followed, the narrative strategies employed - such as adoption of multiple narrative voices, parody, excess, comic elements15 - have undermined the detective contract all the more successfully.

The Driver's Seat

By craftily reshuffling the detective formula, The Driver's Seat comes to desecrate the stock depiction of women characters within the feminist seventies. The story opens with Lise preparing for a holiday in the South, and follows her adventures during no more than forty-eight hours. Her incomprehensible behaviour - like when she becomes enraged with a salesgirl who recommends a dress that 'doesn't stain', or when she plants her passport in a taxi - fits into her plan to make her appearance registered and commit a public sensation over her deliberate death. Lise, in a parody of the cliché romance plot, seeks murder, not sex, even though she is finally raped by her murderer, which both disturbs her plan, and on a broader level makes her narrative highly problematic within the spirit of the seventies: she was seen to act out the very non-feminist stereotype of passivity and female neurosis which culminates in sexual murder16. Later criticism on the text has been mixed17. I will attempt to show that Spark's sharp feminist gestures are intricately intertwined in the narrative structure of the detective genre she so problematically evokes.

On the few occasions when the novella has been associated with the detective genre, it has been characterized18 (together with Not To Disturb, written in 1971) as a classical, albeit reversed, detective novel: everything that seems arbitrary and trivial on a first reading appears in retrospect to fit perfectly into a well-crafted, Aristotelian pattern. It has also been read as a mischievous adaptation of the nouveau roman's narrative practices19. I wish to argue that even if we become aware of the text's backward nature we still cannot grasp the function of all the scattered details, since the text frustrates any attempt at a linear reading, in a manner that actually converges with the nouveau roman's ludic handling of the detective form20.

The scandalous situation presented by Spark is one where Lise, the apparent victim, plays the role of the detective while searching for a person to kill her. As time passes at alarming speed, she collects clues so as to match her type of a murderer. The narrator cannot penetrate her mind, nor can the reader; the clues that we gather only give us an illusory adherence to the traditional detective novel. All that is permitted us is an external perception of a series of actions through the prism of the detached narration that overtly denies us any interpretation of the odd happenings21. We gather all the dispersed evidence - her weird facial expressions, her vivid clothes, her misplaced passport and keys - and strive, ultimately unsuccessfully, to conjecture the reason behind her absurd line of action. There are also many scenes in this very economically structured novella (the sheikh scene for instance, where for a whole page a group of Arabs descending the steps of a hotel is described in excessive detail) that do not serve the plot or propel it forward, a gratuitousness which upsets the reading practice even more. We are never allowed to build up a coherent understanding of her universe, never to decipher the message, never to reach the heart of the mystery, since there is no mystery to solve and no resolution. In this way, the sense of order is removed from the centre of the novella and a vertical axis of surplus, excessive meaning is opened where 'pity and fear', the very last words of the novella, give their place to cool meditation and sarcasm. To appropriate Rachel Duplessis's title, Spark is 'writing beyond the ending', with the aid of the extreme dislocation of temporal order. The constant proleptic narrative leaps that break up linearity also break up causality.

Early in the novella the revelation of the ending denaturalises the whole detective formula:

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a man's necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at gate 14. (25)

Being forced to see things from the end deprives us of the opportunity to treat the protagonist as ethical adventurer, emissary of human freedom. That is, Lise, unlike Cordelia, is not in the process of finding out the limits of her powers; neither she nor we are in the dark as to the outcome, so that the glory of the detective as the grand riddle-solver is denied her. As a criminal victim-detective, an active participant in her own death, who pulls the strings of her own murder and murderer, Lise comes to erase all the cathartic emotions normally aroused in detective fiction. She is the narrative agent of the novella in a new and outrageous sense, in that she is the one that upsets all expectations of closure and cohesion, linearity and order.

Lise, who was propelled relentlessly along the tracks of her fate, has a need to enact control over her life, even if this means enacting agency against herself whereby the personal becomes political. The whole novella in a sense mocks the studies of victimology, which is a branch of criminology, flourishing in the 1970s that focused on the victims' role in their own victimization: victim precipitation means putting the blame on the victim when a criminal act occurs. The term was developed by Von Hentig22 who first spoke about 'the contribution of the victim to the genesis of crime' reducing to individual pathology any deviant attutude towards crime:

In a sense the victim shapes and moulds the criminal [. . .] Although it looks one-sided as far as the final outcome goes, it is not a totally unilateral form of relationship. They work upon each other profoundly and continually, even before the moment of disaster…Often victims seem to be born. Often they are society made.
(Hentig 1948:384-85)

The hermeneutic frame of second-generation victimology reached its peak in the 1970s together with a series of feminist counter-arguments which specifically challenged the victim precipitation view of crime with respect to rape. Cameron and Frazer, in The Lust to Kill, discuss the persistence of the way legal argumentation in the 1970s treated women as biologically determined to be victimised, especially in cases of rape:

Considering the importance of the cultural perception that some people 'ask for it', (one work in the field is actually titled They asked for Death) the literature of victimology is surprisingly small. The idea behind it has had tremendous impact on the institutions of criminal control and justice. [. . .] There is a tendency to be very uncritical about what constitutes provocation; in practice it can be constituted by a woman accepting a lift from a man [. . .] or in the case of murder, working as a prostitute, which is construed…as openly 'asking for' violent death.
(Cameron 1987:109)

To find the victim guilty was seen by feminists as a way to hand over a negative agency to women, so as to normalize and control female sexuality.

Taken at face value the following extract from The Driver's Seat, (where Lise, having cornered her unwilling prospective murderer, gives him instructions for the killing) seems very disturbing within the above legal frame of the seventies feminism:

She says, 'I'm going to lie down here. Then you tie my hands with my scarf; I'll put one wrist over the other, it's the proper way. Then you'll tie my ankles together with your necktie. Then you strike'. She points first to her throat. 'First here,' she says. Then, pointing to a place beneath each breast, she says,' Then here and here. Then anywhere you like.' I don't want to do it,' he says staring at her.' I didn't mean this to happen. I planned everything to be different. Let me go.'(105-106)

Despite initial appearances it is fascinating to perceive how it actually converges with the polemical, legal and social feminist discourse of the 1970s. Lise takes up this idea of victim precipitation and expands it to grotesque proportions. She 'asks for it' in a way that becomes monstrously literal. She is deliberately, consciously guilty and rehearses with precision the overt provocation of her murderer so as to mock normative femininity and a comfortable complicity with all kinds of disciplinary processes. On her way to her death, briefly occupying 'the driver's seat' of the social inscriptions imposed on her body, Lise could be seen to anticipate Toril Moi's recent theoretical position in What is a Woman? And Other Essays where Moi - another so called 'enemy within' - brings back the issue of agency, by discerning a '"doer behind the deed" an agent who actually makes choices'(Moi 1999:6) behind Butler's 'gender performativity'.

Where Cordelia has initiated an overtly linear development towards all the more self-conscious and independent women detectives, Lise, with hindsight, has launched a vertical axis in feminism, where discourses on agency mesh in an elastic, transparent palimpsest. It needs to be stressed again that both texts have contaminated the detective genre with fresh gender inscriptions, and thus both claim a place in the feminist political agenda. However, The Driver's Seat works on a lateral level too, as it vividly illustrates that what is now seen as the established early-seventies feminist canon can be opened up to comprise diverse, stimulating and very up-to-date feminisms that were initially rejected. This is of course tied up with the fact that we now reread the Feminist Seventies having first taken a detour though recent literary criticism and thus being able to perceive agency (and the formation of subjectivity in general) as multidimensional, dispersed, and proliferating. That we can still unpack wonderful surprises whenever we attempt to revisit and redefine the feminist seventies is what I have tried to illustrate throughout this paper. This is definitely not to say that the set, the canonical 'seventies' texts, seem now somewhat passé; it is rather to argue that the feminisms emerging from the seventies are more versatile and volatile than we had initially acknowledged.