Saturday, May 9, 2015

And Then There Was No One Offended

Over the years I have had several runs at Agatha Christie. I've never taken to Miss Marple, written or dramatized. I've enjoyed some of the dramatizations of Hercule Poirot but not the books. Some months or years ago I picked up And Then There Were None (1939) and it recently resurfaced in my library. Excellent! I really enjoyed this one as a gripping and challenging puzzler right to the end. I had not realized that this was considered her masterpiece.

It was only after I started reading it that I began to recollect the controversy over the books some years ago. When the book first came out in 1939, it was titled Ten Little Niggers from a line in a British music hall song of the period. I certainly understand why it was released in the US market as And Then There Were None (again from a line in the music hall song.) Even at that time, the N-word was considered sufficiently beyond the pale here in the US.

But it doesn't stop there. The music hall song in the story provides a structure to the mystery. In the original version, the rhyme referenced N..... At some point in its publishing history, it was recognized even in Britain that this was sufficiently offensive so that the song was rewritten in what was then thought as a less offensive form.
Ten little Indian Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Indian Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Indian Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Indian Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

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

Five little Indian Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Indian Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Indian Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Indian Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Indian Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
That version then ran in to trouble because the current American version is rendered with "soldier boys" replacing "Indian Boys". The book was obviously ill-starred in the sensitivity department for a good long while.

I am strongly opposed to the bowdlerization of older books in order to soothe contemporary sensibilities. Things were the way they were and we ought not try to airbrush the past is my general philosophy. In this case, I can't help but feel that it was warranted to retitle the book in the American edition as they did.

What is interesting to me though, is where do you draw the line? That original title wasn't the only thing offensive in the book, reflecting language and usages of the time. Here is a passage in which one of the characters, Captain Lombard, recollects an earlier interview.
What exactly was up, he wondered? That little Jew had been damned mysterious.

"Take it or leave it, Captain Lombard."

He had said thoughtfully:

"A hundred guineas, eh?"

He had said it in a casual way as though a hundred guineas was nothing to him. A hundred guineas when he was literally down to his last square meal! He had fancied, though, that the little Jew had not been deceived - that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn't deceive them about money - they knew!

He had said in the same casual tone:

"And you can't give me any further information?"

Mr. Isaac Morris had shaken his little bald head very positively.

"No, Captain Lombard, the matter rests there. It is understood by my client that your reputation is that of a good man in a tight place. I am empowered to hand you one hundred guineas in return for which you will travel to Sticklehaven, Devon. The nearest station is Oakbridge, you will be met there and motored to Sticklehaven where a motor launch will convey you to Indian Island. There you will hold yourself at the disposal of my client."

Lombard had said abruptly:

"For how long?"

"Not longer than a week at most."

Fingering his small moustache, Captain Lombard said:

"You understand I can't undertake anything - illegal?"

He had darted a very sharp glance at the other as he had spoken. There had been a very faint smile on the thick Semitic lips of Mr. Morris as he answered gravely:

"If anything illegal is proposed, you will, of course, be at perfect liberty to withdraw."

Damn the smooth little brute, he had smiled! It was as though he knew very well that in Lombard's past actions legality had not always been a sine qua non...

Lombard's own lips parted in a grin.

By Jove, he'd sailed pretty near the wind once or twice! But he'd always got away with it! There wasn't much he drew the line at really...
Can't get much more casually anti-semitic than that. I would have put that one right up there after the N-word and before the Little Indians in the blatantly offensive category.

There are other passages elsewhere.
"That's not quite true. As a matter of fact was approached by a little Jewboy - Morris his name was. He offered me a hundred guineas to come down here and keep my eyes open - said I'd got a reputation for being a good man in a tight place
Racist language, anti-semitic dialogue.

Later, when the two servants are killed (classism), the two women immediately undertake to prepare the meals (sexism).

A very enjoyable book and one that is very much a period piece. As I say, my strong inclination is to leave everything as is and not bow to changing tastes. But if you are going to make a change for modern sensibilities, like changing Little Indians to little soldiers, why not address the anti-semitic comments? And if you are going to change the anti-semitic comments, why not address the sexism? It is a slippery slope.

I still think that things were the way they were and it is best that we remember them that way.

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