Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman, by Lucy Worsley, Hodder & Stoughton, 432 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1529303872
“There have been the wildest and most ridiculous rumours suggesting that important evidence was suppressed and other nonsense of that kind.” When you read this statement on the opening page of Agatha Christie’s 1936 novel Murder in Mesopotamia, you can’t help feeling the author was thinking back to an actual spate of wild and ridiculous rumours which had swirled about her own affronted person. Something had happened in the middle of her otherwise orderly life which turned her into an object of egregious speculation in the press and elsewhere. Her disappearance from her home, The Styles, at Sunningdale in December 1926 caused a tremendous brouhaha, and conferred notoriety on someone who’d always shied away from personal disclosure. The whole thing amounted to an out-of-character hiatus. The mysterious affair at Harrogate, as it might be described, represents, however you look at it, an instance of utterly unaccountable behaviour on the part of the detective novelist.
The story is well-known. Agatha Christie, thirty-six-year-old wife and mother of seven-year-old Rosalind, learns that her husband, Archie, is about to leave her for a younger woman called Nancy Neale. The stricken wife, wearing a grey knitted skirt, a green jersey, a cardigan and a small velour hat, promptly takes off in her “beloved little Morris car” for an unknown destination. Some time later, the car is found abandoned, damaged and jammed in a hedge in the Surrey Hills. But where is Agatha? The lady has vanished. It will later emerge that Christie has somehow got herself to London and onto a train for the spa town of Harrogate in Yorkshire, where she registers as a guest at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel under the name of Mrs Teresa Neale. The unfortunate author is clearly undergoing an emotional disturbance – but unlike the carefully contrived denouements of her most intricate works of fiction, this episode has never received a satisfactory explanation.
In the meantime, vast numbers of police officers and civilian volunteers (including Christie’s fellow novelist Dorothy L Sayers) are combing the woods and fields of Surrey in a search for the corpse of the missing author. Suicide has been mooted, and so has murder or mishap. Soon the papers are having a field day. A “baffling mystery” exclaims the Daily Mail, adding excitedly that “six bloodhounds were used”. But it isn’t long before the tone changes, as the idea of a publicity stunt takes hold. Is the whole thing a gigantic hoax to boost the sale of her books? When the author is found alive and well, attending tea dances and shopping for a new wardrobe in Harrogate, indignation rises to fever pitch.
However, it is clear that Agatha Christie was not herself. (Indeed, she was Mrs Teresa Neale.) Amnesia, a concussion following the car accident, or acute mental breakdown: you can take your pick. It’s impossible to know what was going through her head at the time, though a terrible sense of betrayal by her adulterous husband, Archie, no doubt came into it, along with the wish, whether conscious or subconscious, to get back at him. For the rest of her life she remained fairly tight-lipped about the whole distressful business. She does, however, in her Mary Westmacott persona, present some distraught females in the throes of a psychological disturbance – even, in one instance, to the point of attempted suicide.
Agatha Christie – née Miller – was born in 1890 at Ashfield, a substantial Victorian villa on a hill overlooking the sedate coastal town of Torquay in Devon. Her parents were an American businessman called Frederick Mille, and his English wife, Clara, who was also his stepmother’s niece. (We might think here of the complicated families of Agatha’s later fiction.) She was the third child and second daughter. Of her much older siblings, one – practical, confident Madge – was a good companion and lifelong friend, while the other – ghastly, ineffectual Monty – became an opium addict in early adulthood and thereafter a sore trial to his sisters. Frederick Miller died when his younger daughter was just eleven, and with her brother and sister away at school for much of the time, young Agatha enjoyed the undivided attention of her mother, her nanny, governess, cook, housemaids, outdoor staff and all. It was an exceptionally happy childhood, and having a happy childhood, she said, was “one of the luckiest things that can happen to you”.
However, her father’s improvidence meant that the family was left slightly impoverished after his death, if not, as the child Agatha claimed, completely ruined. (An instinct for drama manifested itself early.) It was all comparative. Ashfield didn’t have to be sold, and money was found for a lengthy trip abroad when Agatha was seventeen. “I was a lovely girl,” she wrote in her autobiography –surprising news for those for whom the elderly author has been fixed irrevocably in a stout and matronly guise – and suitors abounded. But then came the war, with the future novelist working as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse ‑ “washing up 648 plates every day” ‑ before graduating to the hospital pharmacy and gaining that familiarity with drugs and poisons which would stand the detective novelist in good stead. (“I had worked in a Hospital dispensary during the war … and had become acquainted with various nauseous drugs,” says the heroine of The Man in the Brown Suit, in 1924.) She was also, at this time, engaged to a young flying officer named Archibald Christie (they were married at the end of December,1914), and becoming more and more drawn to the idea of composing a murder mystery. She thought she could do it, and so she did. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring an unusual detective named Hercule Poirot, was published by John Lane in 1920.
Lucy Worsley makes large claims for her subject’s attractiveness (“a total man-magnet” is how she describes the young Agatha Christie), which I suppose we can just about swallow, and for her modernist credentials, at which we will have to draw the line. Christie’s latest biographer is well known as a wayward but engaging and knowledgeable presenter of television programmes which examine certain historical figures or events from an unexpected angle of vision. Her objective is to subtly overturn the ways in which “history” has become fixed or its courses are taken for granted, and she goes about it by proffering alternative interpretations of the facts, often framed in accordance with a feminist agenda.
All this is fine and entertaining, but when it comes to assessing Agatha Christie, it really isn’t sensible to place her alongside the luminaries of the Modern movement, or even to add her name to the avant garde list. Christie was not “an unrecognized modernist” as the critic Alison Light asserted and Worsley quotes. And really, there is no need to try to elevate her accomplishment. Her novels and stories have their own logic and momentum, and are perfectly adapted to enthral their extensive readership. Christie herself was not deluded about the nature of her achievement. “She thought the detective stories she wrote were quite good of their kind,” says the author’s alter ego Mrs Ariadne Oliver in a late novel, Elephants Can Remember (1971). She goes on: “She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read.”
This is putting it too modestly of course, and there’s an element of tongue-in-cheek about it. What is true to say is that Agatha Christie took the orthodox detective story as it existed during the First World War and earlier and raised it to a new level of playfulness and intrigue. As everyone who writes about her work points out, murder in the Christie novels is treated as a game – board game, jigsaw, crossword, Snakes and Ladders, Hide and Seek – magnified to the point of narrative plenitude, and often garnished with a decorative and macabre overlay borrowed from a pertinent nursery rhyme (One Two, Buckle My Shoe, A Pocket Full of Rye etc) or remembered schoolroom verse (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, The Moving Finger and so on). Like Ivy Compton-Burnett in Brigid Brophy’s view, Agatha Christie was “the inventor of a wholly original species of puzzle” – a puzzle which, through all its reworkings, kept her readers engrossed throughout the thirty- or forty-year period of her ascendancy in the genre (over the last terrible novels it’s as well to draw a veil). There were variations in theme and construction of course: during the early years, for example, the straight detective novels were interspersed with exuberant thrillers centred on international cabals and conspiracies. Christie also brought out collections of short stories featuring her “Young Adventurers” duo, Hercule Poirot and others.
Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman is not a literary biography. It is rather an attempt to place the subject at a slightly askew angle to the times she’d lived through ‑ but also to indicate the extent to which her outlook was shaped and entrenched by the conventions of the day. It puts Lucy Worsley in a somewhat paradoxical position. Christie was never a rebel or a pioneer. She wasn’t a social commentator but rather an author who was thoroughly au fait with the social arrangements and niceties of the time and used them to good effect in her books. Neither was a feminist ethic, either overt or “covert” (as Worsley suggests), a motivating factor for her. She never got into a rage about the supposed superiority of the male intellect, and when asked to list her profession on her passport she called herself a housewife. Her greatest contribution to the feminist movement, perhaps, resides in her creation of a string of irrepressible and intrepid young women who take blows on the head, imprisonment in attics and confrontations with killers in their stride. (They have a lot in common with the daring young detectives and go-getting girl reporters of the mid-twentieth-century schoolgirl story papers.) I’m not forgetting Miss Marple – but as women detectives go, Jane Marple lags behind Gladys Mitchell’s outlandish Dame Beatrice Bradley, and even Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver (both of whom were paid for their efforts in relation to the clearing-up of crime). Miss Marple simpers, flutters, flatters, dithers, and is subject to apparently meaningless digressions in conversation. Christie has it both ways – Miss Marple is sharp and fluffy, intelligent and muddle-headed, timid and resolute, self-effacing and bold, unworldly and cynical; and the astute author makes us, the readers, relish the contradictions as her unlikely sleuth keeps turning up trumps. Christie had a soft spot for her old-lady-detective: she never felt herself to be lumbered with Marple, as she did with Poirot, whose foibles and mannerisms seemed increasingly ill-adjusted to the postwar world. But for practical and commercial reasons she couldn’t quite ditch the bothersome Belgian, so she found a way to channel her frustration with her first and most notable creation. She invented a counterpart for Poirot in the Finnish-detective-millstone – surely the shadowiest Finn in fiction – round her own fictional counterpart Mrs Oliver’s neck ‑ Mrs Oliver, alas, whose would-be-endearing inconsequentiality has turned to piffle by the time we reach Elephants … As a detective writer, Agatha Christie’s strengths included a willingness to poke fun at herself, along with her amazing aptitude for convolution and obfuscation, her occasional dry aside and constant light touch – if not quite the “light and heartless hand” specified by Muriel Spark as a way of delineating serious or tragic events.
When Lucy Worsley attributes to Agatha Christie “a dark and troubling view of the world”, she has in mind the sudden eruption of violence, in book after book, into a previously well-regulated household or community. The point is the author’s perception that murderous impulses can exist anywhere, not just among the criminally insane. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie writes about a nursery bogeyman who frightened the life out of her when she was two or three. She called him the Gun Man, and the worst thing of all was when he’d suddenly appear in the form of her beloved mother or sister. The childhood fear – “the murderer on the nursery ceiling” in Louis MacNeice’s phrase – perhaps inspired the adult novelist’s unmasking of some family member as the killer: a typical Christie device, and part of her unique capacity for misdirection. The reader is constantly directed to find some character in the books attractive and likeable, before having to reverse that judgement in a hurry. (A case in point is Lance Fortescue in A Pocket Full of Rye.) The central aim is to amuse, of course, and whatever is dark and troubling in the author’s consciousness is worked out on a very superficial plane.
Lucy Worsley’s biography takes us through the major events of a long and industrious life. The tone is upbeat and the atmosphere mellow: Worsley clearly likes and admires her subject, and she’s determined to rescue Christie from whatever ill-considered judgements have clung to her reputation. She doesn’t believe the Harrogate episode had anything to do with publicity or pique. She applauds Christie’s stamina and resilience, and her ability to earn a lot of money by her own efforts and hold on to much of it despite the attentions of the Inland Revenue. (At one point she owned eight houses, all crammed to the rafters with furniture and fittings.) Christie pulled herself together in the period following Archie’s infidelity and the couple’s subsequent divorce – she had, after all, an inestimable resource in her writing career. In 1930 she married an archaeologist named Max Mallowan, who was fourteen years her junior, and proved all the doubters wrong when the marriage thrived and consolidated her place in the world. She was a conscientious rather than an affectionate mother, whose daughter Rosalind was almost totally effaced by her formidable parent. Lucy Worsley quotes Rosalind’s housemistress at boarding-school, who described the girl as having “no personality”. You feel this was true, at least until Rosalind became a wife and mother herself, and gained some kudos thereby.
Some things, though, are bound to get up the liberal biographer’s nose. Christie’s almost instinctive antisemitism is a worry for Worsley; she can’t explain or condone it, other than by citing the prevailing orthodoxy (“a nasty 1920s British convention”). Other prejudices of the era are also conspicuously present in the Christie oeuvre: class, of course, with distinct characteristics and speech-patterns ascribed to servants; impatience with opponents of capital punishment; and aversion to new-fangled social measures such as rehabilitation centres for delinquents. What’s rarely noticed is that atrocious activities such as tiger-shooting or big-game hunting are tacitly endorsed as well – indeed, they are treated in the books almost as an indicator of manliness.
Towards Agatha Christie’s minor personal quirks and traits Lucy Worsley adopts an indulgent attitude. She understands her subject’s addiction to shopping, to eating lavish meals and drinking enormous cups of cream. She implies that Christie was at liberty to put on a lot of weight if she chose to do so – and as long as Max maintained his wife was his favourite size, “and always will be, whether expanding or contracting”. This was reassuring. Still, Christie waited until she was in America to shop for outsize knickers, and deplored the behaviour of celebrity hunters during a beach holiday who managed to sneak a snapshot of the famous author’s big behind in a bathing costume.
Agatha Christie lived through two world wars and was actively employed in both. In the 1940s she took on war work in a couple of hospital pharmacies, in Torquay and in London. Between dispensing and writing, she was kept exceptionally busy, which suited her temperament. She experienced the Blitz at first hand and merely turned over in bed while the bombs rained down, showing characteristic sang froid. Before the war, and for some years after it, she served her time as an archaeological wife, accompanying her husband on trips to the Middle East (where she garnered the material for a number of story-lines). The novels continued to appear throughout the 1940s and ’50s with no diminution of ingenuity; and so did the stage and film adaptations of various Christie titles, with greater or lesser fidelity to the originals. Through it all, Christie did her best to keep out of the limelight, but it wasn’t easy, especially as her celebrity took on a universal aspect. (She was made a Dame in 1971.)
Lucy Worsley, right at the end of her high-spirited if moderately low-pressure undertaking, credits her subject with broadening the definition of what an author should be like, the detective writer (she says) having displaced the stock image of “a grand old man with a beard”. I don’t think many people would have harboured that image to the exclusion of all others during the twentieth century, but it’s true that Christie broke the mould in more ways than one. The detective formula in the hands of a practitioner as adroit and inventive as she was accommodates everything from absurdity of situation to inadequacy of motivation, and makes the whole of it wonderfully plausible and diverting for the duration of the story. Many of the Christie novels are supreme examples of the kind of “entertainment” WH Auden had in mind when he wrote: “All goes to plan, both lying and confession / Down to the thrilling final chase, the kill.”
Patricia Craig’s most recent book was Kilclief & Other Essays. It was published by Irish Pages and was reviewed by Eve Patten in the September 2021 issue of the Dublin Review of Books.
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