AGATHA CHRISTIE – A VERY ELUSIVE WOMAN

By Lucy Worsley

Hodder & Stoughton 2022

ISBN: 9781529303889

RRP: $34.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

 

Dr Lucy Worsley is joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces but best known as a presenter for BBC TV of a number of series on historical topics and in particular historical figures of note. What many of her TV fans may not realise is that she also is a recognised historian and author of several historical works including biographies of Jane Austen and the young Mary Tudor. Departing from these pre-modern themes, Worsley has now produced Agatha Christie – A Very Elusive Woman.

For readers of Christie’s famous and record breaking output of thrillers, detective novels and plays (80 books in all), Worsley’s intricate portrait of the iconic Agatha Christie does not disappoint. With something of a TV documentary’s sense of presentation, Worsley’s short chapters at the outset propel readers through Christie’s early life, the family’s wealthy prosperous household, her family’s loss of money, war work in World War I, development as a writer, her first marriage and birth of daughter Rosalind. Then comes Part Five simply titled “1926” – the year of Christie’s mysterious disappearance for ten days and the end of her first marriage.

How she recovered and prospered emotionally and professionally after 1926 had much to do with Agatha’s second husband Max, an archaeologist who was 14 years younger. With a companionate marriage, Christie wrote voraciously, amassing considerable wealth and financing her husband’s digs and career. Meanwhile, travel with Max fed her ideas for new plots and characters. Agatha Christie, as Lucy Worsley reveals, was not just a writer of detective novels, she also charted the world of the British middle classes and the decline of the Empire that had given them such leisure and wealth.

And, while a very private person and somewhat “elusive”, Christie was also a woman who pushed beyond boundaries in quite independent ways. In World War I, she concealed from her mother the ugly truth of the hospital wards where she nursed the wounded, all the while building her knowledge of drugs which in time fed her detective stories. She would mock the “Modern” movement in her writing as well as the “new woman”. For all that, she would design a lifestyle that was far ahead of its time for a woman.

Middle brow Christie might have been, and Worsley has a quiet poke at the clique of high brow authors who believed Mrs Christie was their inferior. But her reach and her insights, psychological and social, are timeless. It is Worsley’s achievement to get behind not just Christie’s characters and plots, but also the mind that created them, to discover why it is that Christie’s works have been remade, again and again, in film and television. Like Jane Austen, Christie had the gift for reproducing human behaviour in sharp relief, its foibles, its genius, its evil, its prejudices. She was fascinated by houses – buying quite a collection over her lifetime. But she also recognised that the charm and order of the middle class home could also be a sanctuary for the morally corrupt. And then there was the challenge of her plots – who was the killer? So that her books are more than a good read; they are also games with clues, red herrings and invariably solutions. Games of the mind in the best fashion.

Worsley captures the Christie phenomenon in her preface:

She was simply ubiquitous, especially in the post-war period when a “Christie for Christmas” became an annual ritual. Christie is the best selling author after Shakespeare and the Bible, so the cliché runs. What interests me, though, is the fact that not only does she hold that position but she holds it as a woman. And she wasn’t just a novelist either, she also remains history’s most performed female playwright. She was so successful people think of her as an institution not as a breaker of new ground. But she was both.

It is Worsley’s achievement to make Agatha’s life, experiences and personality central to this biography which could so easily have been captured instead by the fictional characters, plots and circumstances of Christie’s so well-known works, made even more so by television and movies. For the creator to be subsumed by the creations as she has been in her readers’ imaginations.

In fact, Mrs Christie was indeed a very elusive woman. Just a couple of anecdotes from her life illustrate how an icon’s public image can delude. Sitting in a train carriage, Christie overheard two women discussing her, each unaware the subject of their chatter was close by – one saying to the other, “I hear she drinks like a fish”. Christie was teetotal but the grapevine had decided otherwise.  On another occasion, arriving early for photographs at the Savoy for the 2239th performance of The Mousetrap, staff failed to recognise Christie and refused her entry. Instead of registering her annoyance at not being recognised, she sheepishly “slunk away” to wait until those she knew arrived and she would be allowed entry to her own celebration.

The girl/woman/author/wife/lover/icon that emerges from Lucy Worsley’s biography is at times a curious mixture of temperament and ability while at others the very recognisable twentieth century affluent Briton enjoying life and its pleasures and, as a woman, its new freedoms. For Christie, freedom lay side by side with the money to enjoy it. Forced into straitened financial circumstances – albeit never entirely without a reasonable amount of money – the young Miss Agatha Miller had spent time living with her mother in hotels, even coming out as a debutant in Egypt where it could be done more cheaply. Her somewhat older sister Madge – also an accomplished writer – married into landed gentry so that experience of life among the wealthy and well connected never disappeared for Agatha.

Her sister’s marriage, however, with its large estate, manor houses and husband to cater for, was also a caution that marriage for security was not conducive to the life of a female writer of Christie’s desire. Christie’s inspiration for her works over the decades quite clearly came with not just the diversity of her life choices and travel experiences, but from periods of stress such as separations from her husbands in the years of both World Wars and, from that significant time in her life, her strange disappearance over ten days in 1926.

There was a lot going on in Agatha Christie’s life by 1926 – the year her mother died and the year she published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, recognised as her masterpiece and regarded as “a perfectly constructed piece of deception”. Ironically, it was also the year she discovered her husband Archie Christie was having an affair with a younger woman, a woman she herself was acquainted with. On Friday 3 December that year, as Archie went off for an adulterous weekend, Agatha left her young daughter with the live-in staff and disappeared.

Worsley both retells and analyses the ten days that followed, back and forth from what happened to Christie that is known and what seemed to happen as told in the press. Did she attempt suicide or have a genuine car accident? Was there loss of memory or did she partly reconstruct an identity from the personal crisis she had run from? There are misreportings in the press, prejudicial accounts that are just wrong, tittle tattle about the famous woman, suggestions she is playing a game for publicity and a general muddle in the search between two territorial sections of the police.

Worsley gets close to a reasonable explanation of events, of Christie’s possible state of psychological collapse but there are still a number of unsolved pieces of the puzzle which remain and add to the drama. It is not simply a closed case like one of Christie’s detective stories. But, like a Christie story, it is layered with human frailty and misbehaviour. Husband Archie is shown to be the nasty piece of work he was and the twists and turns of the denouement are as good as any fictional Christie. Out of it emerged a convalescing Agatha, ready to re-evaluate her life. Within a couple of years, she had turned to the east, met Max, and taken to the archaeological world with gusto while expanding her range of detective works. She even found that archaeology and detective stories had a lot in common in digging for the truth.

It is a huge project to get behind the woman known as Agatha Christie. Already Worsley has put together a television series on Christie following this biography which has benefitted from invaluable collections of letters (especially those between Agatha and Max) and personal effects which are the property of the Christie Archive Trust. Worsley delves into the processes Christie developed in her writing. She would jot down ideas and pieces of information at random into her notebooks making a hotchpotch for anyone who tried to make sense of them. She thought up ideas at any moment of the day – in a bath, eating apples, drinking tea but with lots of paper around. She seemed to make the most of any spaces suitable for writing wherever she was and only built herself a workroom in Baghdad long after her fame had become global as if it was a special treat.

More than anything, Worsley has put Christie on the map as a serious literary phenomenon. Whatever middle brow might have meant, Christie has taken it to new heights with the ongoing interest in Christie’s works, style and output. Her plays alone have produced classics like The Mousetrap and Witness for The Prosecution. Her ability to “skilfully, with a tiny number of brushstrokes, depict two completely contrasting sides to one single character” is without parallel. Whatever locked in time peculiarities her post World War I Belgium detective Poirot may have had in her novels, his personality has not stopped acclaimed reinterpretations over decades, in movies and television. Christie’s creation of a spinster detective in Miss Marple was not only ahead of its time but gave way to the portrayal of psychological detection through the mind of the old and wise, taking Poirot’s “little grey cells” into new places. The little old lady, scoffed at by the real professionals, being the one with the answers.

Indeed, if you are still looking to buy, Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie – A Very Elusive Woman is the Christie for this Christmas.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.