Friday, October 15, 2010

Of Country Cottages?


I, too, have had Miss Marple much on my mind, although my consideration of spinsterhood has tended to focus not so much on age as on one of the mixed blessings age seems to confer upon women—let’s call it invisibility. We spoke of the perversely privileged position Miss Marple seems to occupy as she “gathers evidence” in the wake of a crime—if people take any notice of Miss Marple, which they often fail to do, they write her off as a harmless old woman, perhaps a bit nosy, but certainly nothing to be concerned with. They assume that she could not possibly matter, in any appreciable way, to their lives. Of course, as novel after novel (and Dame Christie was nothing if not prolific) proves, fatal consequences follow from this failure to appreciate the old woman.

What is it, really, that keeps us from seeing older women? I imagine one could venture a number of explanations for why a woman’s visibility tends to decrease as she ages. I wonder, though, if at the center of these explanations we wouldn’t find one common cause: the older a woman is, the harder it is to conceive of her primarily in terms of her sexuality.

I’ve got to say, there’s something appealing about the idea of being outside the economy of sex. Let’s set aside for a moment my sneaking suspicion that there is no such thing as being outside the economy of sex. Permit me to indulge in an investigation of a particular fantasy of mine, which I think helps define invisibility more clearly by indicating what it is not. I’ve been thinking much, as you know, about making a move to the country when I’ve finished my program. The dream right now is to find a job at a college located in a college-town, someplace mid-sized and somewhat cozy. I’ll rent a little house a mile or two out of town where I’ll live with my dog, who we both know could use a break from the city. Oed will frolic in the woods on our morning hikes, and I’ll take up gardening. This is a nice dream, and I have no real reservations about the desires that motivate it. I do best when I can find (and embrace) a certain degree of solitude. But this would be a different kind of dream altogether if it grew only out of a desire to cut myself off entirely from the world. And on bad days that desire motivates the dream. Still, I suppose this desire isn’t really a desire for invisibility so much as it is a desire to cease to exist. Because that’s the thing about invisibility—it doesn’t make you not exist.

Miss Marple may not be visible while she tends the garden of her country cottage—at least not to those who aren’t looking for her. But she continues to matter. And it’s in that context that invisibility confers a certain subversive power. This is not to suggest that there is no problem with the fact that our culture renders women invisible after a certain age. But let’s save that issue for another day. What I really think matters here, and what I really think is important about Miss Marple, is that she doesn’t take the fact of her invisibility as an excuse to check out of life entirely. Rather, she turns the very problematic fact that women are less visible as they age to her advantage, using it as a tool in what can only be seen as one woman’s ongoing search for justice. And justice, I should note, continues to matter to her, even though she is altogether too aware of the inevitable recurrence of evil in the world and its relationship to the unconquerable frailty of human nature. She might be just a feminist hero for this moment.