Tuesday Night Bloggers: The hollow in ‘The Hollow’

So, JJ over at The Invisible Event has decided to re-establish a version of the ‘Tuesday Night Bloggers’ – all explained here.

Though far too new a blogger to have been involved in the previous undertaking, JJ’s knowledge and enthusiasm are always inspiring and I’ve decided to try to join in, at least for this month (next month I’m washing my hair, the dog ate my blogposts and I have a very convincing selection of doctor’s notes).

I have opted for rereads as my chosen theme, partly because it’s highly flexible, partly because, having cleared out a few boxes recently, I have rediscovered some books I’d rather like to read again and partly because Brad, at ahsweetmysteryblog, is also a very persuasive gentleman and this recent post inspired me to reread and reassess Christie’s The Hollow, having not much recollection of it except a vague dissatisfaction with the characters. (Go read it if you haven’t already).

Therefore, my aim is to reread a few books with an eye to looking a little deeper this time around and then waffle on about bits of them here.

And in rereading The Hollow I certainly found that there was a lot more to it than I remembered, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Warnings: Take note that: –

A : The following post is chock-full of spoilers for The Hollow so avoid it if you haven’t read the book, unless you really don’t mind knowing who did it and sundry other details.

B: It’s really quite long. Feel free to get up and stretch your legs and grab a choc ice at the interval

The hollow in ‘The Hollow’

‘The Hollow’ of the title is, of course, the home of Lucy and Henry Angkatell and the setting of the most of the action, including the murder itself. But, as so often with titles, there is a double meaning – or rather, the name of the Angkatell’s home is ‘The Hollow’ because it fits Christie’s intentions for the book.

So who, or what, is hollow in The Hollow?

  1. Ainswick and the Family Angkatell

Somewhere mid-book, Poirot quotes from Tennyson’s Maud:

“I HATE the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribb’d ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death.”

This, besides being rather creepy, allows Henrietta Savernake to state out loud the idea – previously hinted at – that ‘The Hollow’ itself is just an echo of Ainswick: the much beloved family home, now occupied solely by Edward Angkatell. She extends the idea to the Angkatells as a family, seeing them all, including herself, as echoes – with only John having been truly ‘real’.

So, how true is it?

Midge Hardcastle: As Midge is only half an Angkatell, earning a not-very-comfortable wage and, worst of all, hailing from the grimness of Up North, she may be allowed the status of genuinely ‘real’ (and indeed, Henrietta later affirms Midge ‘salt of the earth’ quality and her reality and warmth, into which she has yanked Edward, direct from the gas oven, with her impressively strong young arms).

Henry Angkatell: He is definitely set apart a little from real life, being surrounded by servants who live only to save his wife Lucy from trouble and distress – and woe betide any kitchen maid who believes in honesty over unthinking protection – and to a lesser extent, himself.

Henry is therefore insulated from most problems aside from Lucy herself (who is, however, quite strain enough, for more reasons than one.) But Henry, while not very prominent in the narrative, seems like an actual person and his motivations throughout are the very real ones of love and fear.

Lucy Angkatell: To call Lucy an echo is laughable. She is an original; a force of nature both perceptive and corrective, despite her eccentricities of speech and behaviour and habit of slaughtering innocent kettles. In fact, she’s an almost hyper-real character, who seems capable of bending the universe to her will or at least talking the hind legs off it. And she’s possibly the most enjoyable character in the book.

However, she does have one, tiny little, hole in her: she’s lacking a little something in the whole ‘respect for human life’ department. John Christow threatened the future of Ainswick, so it would be nicely expedient if John Christow were to have an accident, however dreadfully sorry it would make her. To Lucy – charming, scatterbrained, anything-but-fluffy Lucy – her own plans come before other people’s need to sleep or to breathe: before more or less everything, in fact, except etiquette.

But, even though hospitality requires that she can’t ultimately pull the trigger, there is a suggestion that her universe-bending powers may have been at work:

“It reminds me,” said Lady Angkatell reminiscently, “of that man in Bombay who was so frightfully rude to me. He was run over by a tram three days later.’

David Angkatell: David is not so much a person as an embodiment of youthful angst: angry, frustrated, aggressively shy and not yet capable of separating out what he really feels from what his friends, and the current ideology that he is surrounded by, suggest that he ought to feel. He may be the hollowest character in the book, whether intentionally – as Christie’s commentary on the post-war generation – or simply through lack of development.

Perhaps he was added originally to increase the suspect pool by providing a ‘left field’ candidate (his mother was mad – maybe’s he’s mad too!) as well as to strengthen Lucy’s motive and/or make a satirical point, but then just got put aside to make room for more and better Lucy.

However, his current state may be resolved by time, self-confidence and maturity – there’s room for David to grow a centre, at least if he finds a book in which his services are better required.

Edward Angkatell: As the incumbent of that holy ground Ainswick, Edward ought to be correspondingly real. But he is portrayed throughout as a slightly stooped shadow. A non-doer; a potterer; a man who is less than he could be.

He is the character set up most obviously to be an echo of John: as the would-be lover of Henrietta, bluntly – and uncharacteristically cruelly – stated by her to be ‘inadequate’ in her grief at John’s death.  He fades in John’s company, while John burns more brightly by comparison. Edward, in fact, feels himself to be hollow and lacking and lives in a dream of the past when he was happy and Henrietta was different and might have loved him.

But in Edward’s case, reality is gifted to him in the ironic form of a sort of fairy tale: the revelation of a true love – nearly too late – fills the hollow inside him and saves him from despair and an unfortunate guest appearance in The News of the World.

Henrietta Savernake: Henrietta includes herself in the people who are less alive than John and she is a generally thoughtful woman of considerable intelligence. However, in this instance, the evidence is against her.

Henrietta is a strong, independent, successful and creative woman. She suggests at one point that:

“people of my kind, who make things, are quite incapable of taking life”

This is nonsense – Caravaggio and Cellini are just two examples of artists who have killed others, let alone the numbers who have killed themselves – but it is, arguably, more true to say that a creator must have life in order to give it.

Henrietta is also empathic towards and considerate of others – seen in, for example, how she treats Gerda – and this, too, is a very warm and living quality.

So why does she think herself as less real than she actually is?

When Poirot suggests that she has integrity:

“She was startled – almost, he thought, dismayed.”

“ ‘Integrity,’ Henrietta repeated thoughtfully. ‘I wonder what that word really means.’”

The dictionary suggests that what it really means is:

1: The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

2: The state of being whole and undivided.

3: The condition of being unified or sound in construction.

4: Internal consistency or lack of corruption in electronic data.

Ignoring the last definition, on the assumption that Henrietta is not secretly an android (a twist that I don’t recall ever coming up in Christie) she seems to qualify on the other counts with the exception of being strictly honest (though, I believe that the moral principles apply, even if they are non-standard at times).

But Henrietta’s question implies that she has doubts and this is clarified near the end, when she begins to picture the figure of grief that she will eventually sculpt, then revolts against what she thinks this says about her.

“I,” she thought, “am not a whole person…I cannot grieve for my dead.”

But she is already grieving and she has put her whole self into trying to fulfil John’s last wishes. That she can pour her grief into a figure and use it for an act of creation does not, to me, make her less whole or less sincere. Though she sometimes feels her art as some external, nagging force, it is really a part of her; and we all get through grief using whatever tools we have. It can be seen, not as detaching her grief but managing it.

She may also be affected by John’s dissatisfaction with their relationship. But the fact that she did not worship John and abnegate her own work and self to devote herself to him does not mean that she didn’t love him properly: just that she did so healthily.

Henrietta, in short, is no echo but a clear and distinctive shout.

Ainswick: The old family home is very vividly present to the Angkatells.

Midge thinks of it, with joy and pain, as ‘heaven’; a childhood escape from her gritty upbringing and, most of all, the place where Edward is. Lucy thinks enough of it to consider disposing of John Christow in the hopes that this will, indirectly, keep Ainswick from going to David, which is not in her game plan. Henrietta remembers it with pleasure, fondness and a pang for her own lost innocence. And, as The Hollow is evidently a very similar, if smaller, type of place, it brings Ainswick constantly to mind, while being only, to the family, a shade of the real thing.

But for the reader, it is Ainswick which is the unreal place and The Hollow, reality.

The Hollow is where most of the story takes place, including the murder itself and so we get to know it intimately: we walk across its grounds, wander through the bedrooms at unseemly hours and ponder on the yearly cost of replacement kettles.

Ainswick, on the other hand, is never seen, only mentioned: and rarely as a solid reality so much as a memory; a longing; an ideal. Even Edward’s own notion of the place seems to be permanently rooted in the past, so that he lives more in the dream than the reality.

And then there is the added note of the fantastical through Henrietta’s favourite oak tree ‘Ygdrasil’. This – along with her frequently doodled sort-of-palm-with-a-slice-of-banana-tree – is presumably named after the world tree of Norse mythology: the centre of the cosmos, meeting place of nine worlds and possibly the tree upon which Odin sacrificed himself (the name, according to Wikipedia, is usually interpreted as ‘Odin’s horse’ – with an association of gallows – which gives a possible alternate explanation for Henrietta’s choice of a somewhat unhorsely horse for stashing the murder weapon).

It all adds to the notion of Ainswick as a place so sacred and mystical that it could barely exist.

But perhaps, at the end of the book, with Ygdrasil destroyed by huffy lightning gods and Edward and Midge settled down finally in a contented present,  Ainswick might shed the past and become fully real once more.

  1. Veronica Cray

Veronica Cray is very definitely hollow. She is not so much a person as a plot device in furs (and later, quite emphatically out of them). She is drawn by John Christow’s magnetism, but her own ego and absolute selfishness prevents her from seeing him as a human being, so much as a prize.

Her purpose is to be rejected by John – leaving him with a few, gnawing issues and propelling him unwisely into Gerda’s arms –  and then to track him down and pick him up again at precisely the correct emotional point.

But she could never have been the murderer. Such flimsiness of character would have collapsed instantly under the weight of a gun.

  1. John Christow

John Christow is at the centre of the book: the constant touchstone to which all the characters refer and whose perceived wishes motivate them, even after his death. He was passionate about his work and is referred to, very often, as the most alive person of the lot of them.

But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a hole in him as big as a world tree.

Christow once loved Veronica Cray – beautiful, intelligent but entirely devoted to herself – then left her because he, quite reasonably, did not want to subdue all his interests to hers. He married Gerda, not because he loved her, but because she was the exact opposite of Veronica – plain, stupid and entirely devoted to him – and this was either what he wanted at the time or what he told himself that he wanted, in order to persuade himself that he had done the right thing.

But he is subconsciously haunted by the possibility that he was weak, that he ‘ran away’ from Veronica: a possibility that has been wearing away at him, increasingly, for fifteen years. And Christow does not like weakness. He is bored by most of his patients, he is dismissive of illness in his own children, he despises Gerda’s complete subjugation to his will and he is lacking in empathy for, or true understanding of, them all:

“He had not very much pity for weakness, but he had for suffering, for it was, he knew, the strong who suffered.”

Yet he is incapable of really seeing how Gerda, for example, suffers from his impatience, his imperiousness; how the constant worry that she might be letting him down or making him angry is destroying her ability to make simple decisions – the lamb, for example: should it stay or should it go? – and how much she hates the visits to the Angkatells, where she feels as out of place and inadequate as a hippo at the ballet.

Henrietta believes that he loved Gerda more than he realised, but he shows no real sign of it (his dying message may have meant ‘Henrietta, protect Gerda’ but it may equally have meant ‘Henrietta, I love you’ or ‘help me’ or ‘see that she hangs for this, damn her eyes!’).

John sees Gerda only in relation to himself, not as a person in her own right and he seems to think in a similar way of his children – dismissing Zena because she bores him and only noticing Terence when he sees something of himself in him – and of the majority of his patients (they pay him, but weary him – they are simply a means to an end). Mrs Crabtree he likes, but then her condition is interesting, her vitality is helping his research and she is pleasingly forgiving when his experiments don’t quite work and she suffers for it. His main goal in tackling Ridgeway Disease is his own fascination with the subject, the challenge and the possibility of making medical history, rather than the saving of lives:

“You mean that there will be a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease? That people won’t die?”

“That, incidentally.”

It is strongly implied that he has had numerous affairs –another weakness – although Henrietta seems to be one of the few people he does see mostly for herself. Even then, he resents her a little for the way she refuses to devote herself to him.

In fact, John Christow is nearly as selfish as Veronica Cray. But it is by his selfishness in giving in to his passion for Veronica that he is able to confront his past, which has been wearing such a hole in him, and finally dismiss it and begin to take steps to heal and become, perhaps, a better person (though still one unfaithful to Gerda, just a bit nicer to her).

It’s rather a shame that it also leads to his death and the acquisition of a rather more literal and terminal hole.

  1. Gerda Christow

Gerda has had the misfortune of being neither pretty nor intelligent, a combination which has generally led to people being impatient with her or rather conspicuously and humiliatingly kind. She is capable of understanding, if given time and patience, and has large reserves of love to offer, but she seldom gets the patience and lacks self-esteem.

And then John Christow comes to her,“as though he were God.”

He promises to take care of her and she, in return, gives herself completely to him. But just as John cannot see her for what she actually is, so Gerda cannot truly see John. As she says herself, and as Henrietta perceives in her own portrayal, she worships him. She builds in her head a completely false picture of his perfection and when she is finally and explicitly confronted with his feet of clay (amorously entangled with the feet of Cray) she is left with her whole notion of both John and herself completely destroyed: hollowed out as thoroughly as if she had swallowed a pound of metaphorical Semtex.

And so, having been destroyed, she becomes the destroyer.

  1. Poirot

Well, of course Poirot is real, as real as Sherlock Holmes. But then, he is only really passing through and not required to be thematically relevant or to do much at all. Poirot is there to muse, to perceive, and to extract, on the reader’s behalf, the truth. To prevent Henrietta’s untimely end, while carefully not preventing Gerda’s. To attract the readership who is waiting, less for the next Christie than the next Hercule Poirot.

So he may not be strictly essential to the plot. But then: could the case have really been resolved satisfactorily by an Inspector with a pessimistic moustache?

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3 thoughts on “Tuesday Night Bloggers: The hollow in ‘The Hollow’

  1. I recall only the general details of this — the setup, the murder, the eventual solution, something about Poirot staying at a nearby house — and so don’t really feel qualified to comment in any great degree. I like the theme you’ve developed here and certainly none of it collides with my recollection of the book overall…but you really need Brad when you’ve gone into this much detail… 🙂

    Great to have you inviolved, though, and thanks for the kind words. Also, I’m very excited to see that you haven’t yet read the Christie where the killer turns out to be an android from the future. Man, that surprise is going to blow you mind.

    Oh, wait…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, it’s Electric Sheep Can Remember…though there’s an argument that there she’s just lazily repeating the plot of Sparkling Cyborgnide; don’t see it myself…

      Liked by 1 person

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