Let’s Get Married*

Arranged MarriagesIn Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, to help his friend, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver. She’s at Nasse House on commission from its owner Sir George Stubbs; her task is to create a Murder Hunt as a part of the festivities for an upcoming fête. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that there’s more going on at Nasse House than preparations for the event. Poirot has agreed to look into the matter with her. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, actually is killed. Poirot and Inspector Bland investigate to find out who was responsible. As a part of that investigation, Poirot wants to get to know the members of the household as well as possible. So he has a conversation with Amy Folliat, whose family used to own Nasse House, and who’s lived in the area all her life. In fact, Sir George married her ward Harriet ‘Hattie’.  Here’s what she and Poirot have to say about that marriage:

‘‘…I admit that I deliberately influenced her to accept him. If it had turned out badly –’ her voice faltered a little, ‘– it would have been my fault for urging her to marry a man so many years older than herself.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Poirot approvingly, ‘that you made there a most prudent arrangement for her… To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’’

Many modern people, especially members of Western cultures, might bristle at the idea of arranged marriages. But marriage arrangements are still common in many parts of the world. In those cultures, there’s logic to that. It’s believed that parents have their children’s best interests in mind, and are more mature. Who better to guide the choice of marriage partner?

Of course, not all parents do have their children’s best interests at heart, and they aren’t always mature. Still, as Poirot points out, there’s more to a good marriage than just emotions and romance (not, of course, that they don’t matter). So even in cultures where marriages aren’t formally arranged by the families, parents often weigh in on their children’s choices of partner. Caring parents want their children to make wise choices.

Arranged marriages have been a part of many societies for a long time, too, and certainly a part of crime fiction. For example, Robert van Gulik’s sleuth is Dee Jen-djieh, usually known as Judge Dee, who serves as Magistrate for the district of Lan-Fang, in the northwest of China. Judge Dee has three wives, a not-uncommon practice during the Tang Dynasty in which he lives. His marriage to his first (senior) wife was arranged by their families. He’s chosen his other two wives. And the custom of families arranging marriages is woven throughout the Judge Dee stories. It’s sometimes a very elaborate process, with ritual visits and gifts and planning.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box, Inspector Hannah Goldsmith is faced with a difficult case. She’s been assigned to find out the truth about sixteen-year-old Tamima Rahman, whose parents are recent émigrés from Pakistan. It’s suspected that Tamima was coerced into a marriage against her will – a marriage arranged by her family. On the one hand, Goldsmith is not alone in her belief that sixteen-year-olds are too young to marry, whether or not it’s their choice. On the other hand, as the Rahman family reminds her, every culture is different, and it’s risky to make judgements about other belief systems. As Goldsmith works to find Tamima and sort out the truth about this marriage, she also has to confront her own assumptions.

That’s also the case in Rhys Bowen’s Evanly Bodies. In one plot thread, Constable Evan Evans has to deal with greatly increased tensions in the town of Llanfair. The Khan family moved there not long ago and no-one is really comfortable about it. The Khans are Pakistani, and the locals are not accustomed to their traditions. For their part, the Khans have been treated with enough bigotry that they don’t trust anyone. One day though, sixteen-year-old Jamila Khan helps Evans’ wife Bronwen with groceries, and the two strike up a friendship. So when Jamila disappears, Bronwen is especially worried, and urges her husband to look into the matter. It’s believed that the girl went into hiding to avoid being sent back to Pakistan for an arranged wedding. At first, the Khan family blames Bronwen for interfering and accuses her of shielding Jamila. And even after it becomes clear that Bronwen had nothing to do with the girl’s disappearance, the Khans still believe that their customs and traditions are being disregarded. To them, there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that Jamila will have a solid marriage to someone of their own culture. There’s of course more to this mystery than that question, but it forms an interesting thread throughout the novel.

Arranged marriages are also a part of modern life in India. A former colleague told me that, in her experience, it’s not that today’s young people have absolutely no say in their partners. But parents often do guide their choices. For example, parents may consult astrologists to find out the best sort of match for their child. They also put out personal advertisements in papers, and participate in ‘vetting’ marriage candidates. They get involved in other ways too. Once the spouse-to-be is chosen, both families make arrangements for the wedding. We see this process in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, which introduces Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. His ‘bread and butter’ is background checks on future spouses. Families pay his agency to find out everything possible about a likely marriage candidate before the final wedding agreement is made. In this novel, Puri’s involved in a few such background checks, and they lead to some interesting findings.

Arranged marriages may seem coercive or worse. Certainly people from Western backgrounds, who likely chose their own partners, may see the custom as wrong. Speaking strictly for my family, I’m quite sure my daughter wouldn’t have gone along with an arranged marriage; nor would I. But not everyone sees it that way, and the tradition has a long history in society – and in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Proclaimers.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Rhys Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall

21 responses to “Let’s Get Married*

  1. Your post reminded me of an encounter one of my close friends and I had with two fellows from India. We’d met them coming back from a trip to England and they were coming to our city for a conference hosted by a good friend of mine. We met up for a drink and began sharing cultural stories. My friend and I had racked up a few husbands and partners over tne years -these guys were in firmly traditional arranged marriages. We looked upon each other’s lives as crazy but then realized that truly we couldn’t say one was better than the other. When you are in it there is a singular lack of perspective. Life, neh!

    • Life, indeed, Jan! What a fascinating conversation that must have been, too. I honestly don’t know if you can really say that one way of living life is ‘the right way.’ And all of you learned a lot about other ways of looking at relationships, I’m sure. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. When I was about 18, I was friends through work with an Asian girl whose parents were in the process of arranging her marriage. At the time, it seemed so alien to me I couldn’t accept it, although she was perfectly happy about the pricess, and as you mention in your post was being given a say and could have refused if she chose to. But time and experience make me think differently now – I still wouldn’t do it, but I can see that in some circumstances there could be advantages. It’s not so much different to when communities were small and everyone knew everyone else, I suppose. But I still really hate when girls are packed off to what to them is a foreign country to marry a complete stranger and live with his family.

    • I honestly don’t like that idea either, FictionFan. For myself or my daughter, I wouldn’t want an arranged marriage. But I think you have a point about the cultural aspect of that opinion. There are some situations (such as your work friend) where I can see some logic to it, but with my cultural lens, I’d have to be persuaded. Of course, to me, a lot depends on how much say the young people involved have. Forced marriage – where the young person has absolutely no say – upset me. But from what I’ve learned (never experienced one myself!) not all arranged marriages are forced.

  3. Margot: Sister Joanna Stafford, in The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau, becomes a nun partly to control her own life. In the 1500’s no well born woman decided her spouse. Becoming a nun was a means to avoid an arranged marriage.

  4. I have several friends whose marriages were arranged by their parents (although in some cases it was the 4-5th person they met, after refusing all the previous ones) and they pointed out that more research is being done into background, character, family etc. than what we normally see or do when we fall in love. Their marriages are all very strong. So under those circumstances it certainly works.

    In Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird we also meet a detective, Anna Fekete, who is forced to confront her own prejudices and assumptions when she suspects a Kurdish family of forcing their daughter to marry. Is she as guity of stereotyping them as she is being stereotyped herself at work (an immigrant in Finnish society)?

    • You make an interesting point, Marina Sofia, about the background research. You do get to know a lot more about a potential partner when the marriage is arranged. And as you say, your friends had their say in the matter too, so it wasn’t a question of being forced to marry one particular person.
      Thanks too for mentioning The Hummingbird. It’s a great example of ‘culture clash’ in this issue of arranged marriage. We all see life through our own cultural lenses, and it’s hard not to let that impact our judgement.

  5. Col

    I haven’t crossed paths with it in my reading, and only on the odd occasion in real-life. My kids can make their own choices later in life. Hopefully I’ll approve but….

    • My daughter made her own choice, too, Col – turns out she made a good one. And I honestly couldn’t see her letting her father and me make those arrangements.

  6. I never knew that about arranged marriages. I thought the intended spouse was always a man of means, or perhaps a family friend. Interesting stuff, Margot!

    • I’ve read about those arranged marriages with people of means, too, Sue, and they certainly have taken place. Still do, I’d guess. I think it’s really interesting how often cultures have chosen that approach to getting married. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. Reblogged this on liveinlibrary and commented:
    Christie, as a woman, has a unique view experience writing in the mid-1900s. It seems ironic for example, when in the Murder on the Links, she creates a narrator that “prefers traditional women.” This post also shows how Christie discusses other antiquated traditions with gendered issues, like arranged marriages, and navigates them deftly.

  8. A genuinely tough topic – great to hear about so many fictional presentations of it in the genre – thanks Margot.

    • It is a difficult topic, Sergio. I think that’s partly because it’s culturally contextual. And I agree that it’s good to see it discussed in the genre. When a topic is open to discussion, it’s also called to readers’ attention, and that, to me, is a good thing.

  9. As you say, important to distinguish between forced and arranged marriages. And I think in all cultures and times there were some marriages at least semi-arranged – from princesses with political marriages down. The children of neighbouring landowners or business partners, or keeping it in the family…. they were expected to marry to suit the family.

    • That’s quite true, Moira. And as you say, it’s been a part of many, many cultures at different times. I think that distinction between forced and arranged marriages is important to keep in mind. There’s some logic, so say a lot of people, to arranged marriages. I don’t think the same is said about forced marriages.

  10. Very interesting post, Margot. I can see how there can be a lot of conflict arising from forced and even arranged marriages.

  11. The idea of arranged marriages is hard for me to imagine (from a personal standpoint), although who is to say that they don’t work as well or better? I have always thought that marriage is a gamble no matter how long a couple has to get to know each other. That aside, I found The Monster in the Box very interesting in that aspect and I am sure I would enjoy the others also.

    • Interesting point, Tracy. Marriage really is a gamble isn’t it? The most unlikely matches seem to work, and the most seemingly suitable ones…don’t always work. Like you, I wouldn’t want an arranged marriage, but lots of people swear by them. And I agree that Rendell handled the issue effectively in Monster….

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