I sometimes find writers lives more interesting than their books. Such is the case for me with Agatha Christie, whose autobiography I was inspired to order after reading The Christie Affair (see link – A Tale of Two Mysteries), a fictionalized account of her famous eleven-day disappearance in 1926. I wanted to know more about her life, and what an interesting life it was. I found her autobiography fascinating, both from a historical point of view (think Downton Abbey in print), and a literary one. It’s a long book at 532 pages so I’ll split this review into two posts, the first dealing with her life, and the second with some of her thoughts on writing.
Agatha Christie started working on her memoirs in 1950 when she was 60 years old and finished them in 1965 when she was 75. Although she had further successes after that, she felt that 75 was a good place to stop. She didn’t actually write, but dictated and then had a typist transcribe them. Her grandson found a box of the tapes when he was cleaning out her house Greenway, after his mother had died, but as she reused the tapes, they only pertain to the last quarter of the book. Only a handful of recordings of her voice exist, so the 2014 reissue of the autobiography contains a code to listen to a selection of excerpts from the tapes on Audible, in which she talks mainly about her life as a writer, which ironically is probably more of interest to the rest of us than it was to her. The link did not work for me, but there may be something similar online.
Agatha Christie was born in 1890, so she had a typical upper middle class Edwardian childhood, and a good third of the book deals with that. There is less about her older adult life, and even less about her writing, although bits and pieces are sprinkled through out the narrative.
Although she says they were not rich, they had cooks and maids and nannies, and a big house named Ashfield. She was educated at home, and later there was a succession of finishing schools. She showed an interest in music and took voice lessons with the aim of becoming a professional singer, but realized she did not have the temperament for it. She considered herself shy.
Her father, to whom she was close, did not work and eventually lost the family fortune, and after a period of ill health, died when she was 11, leaving her mother in much reduced circumstances. She considered this the end of what had been a happy childhood.
I found her opinions on working women of interest, but perhaps they reflected what was commonly thought at the time, such as this excerpt.
“There seems to be an odd assumption that there is something meritorious about working……The position of women over the years has definitely changed for the worse. We have clamoured to be allowed to work as men work. Men, not being fools, have taken kindly to the idea. Why support a wife? She wants to do it….she can go on doing it…….You’ve got to hand it to Victorian women – they got their menfolk where they wanted them. They established their frailty, delicacy, sensibility – their constant need of being protected and cherished…..all of my grandmother’s friends seem to me in retrospect to be resilient, and almost invariably successful in getting their own way. They were tough, self-willed and remarkably well-read and well-informed……Mind you they admired their men enormously – they genuinely thought men were very splendid fellows – dashing, inclined to be wicked, easily lead astray. In daily life a woman got her own way whilst paying lip service to male superiority, so that her husband should not lose face.”
Of course, this reflects her privileged upbringing – I’m sure the scullery maids did not share the same point of view on the necessity of work – but it’s also interesting, considering the profits of her publishing paid for many of the perks in her married life, as neither of her husbands were particularly well off. She considered her writing as a fun thing to do, despite its periods of drudgery and commitment, so perhaps she didn’t regard it as work.
Her main aim, like most women of her generation, was to marry.
“In fact, I only contemplated one thing – a happy marriage. About that I had complete self-assurance – as all my friends did. We were conscious of all the happiness that awaited us. We looked forward to love, to being looked after, cherished and admired, and we intended to get our own way in the things which mattered to us, while at the same time putting our husband’s life, career and success before all, as was our proud duty. We had our own personal disappointments – moments of unhappiness, but on the whole life was FUN. Perhaps it is fun for girls nowadays – but they certainly don’t look as if it is.”
After this section, she goes on to discuss how modern-day anxiety, and anxiety about education have strangled hope, including the bizarre statement that some people enjoy being the drama of being melancholy. I seem to recall it being a characteristic of the young to be optimistic and hopeful, and maybe that is somewhat missing now, even more so than in the 1960’s when she was writing this, but perhaps it would be best to conclude that she was lucky to be possessed of a happy disposition, a fact she admits, for she had a great sense of enjoyment of life. In the preface by her long-time publisher, he wrote that few people have extracted more intense or more varied fun from life and that she was a testament to the joy of living.
I find the above statements difficult to juxtaposition with my feminist image of her, for she lived a very adventurous life – and no, flappers were not mentioned, not even once, but it was an era of rapid progress, and much had changed since her sheltered childhood. She went on an early airplane ride (with her mother’s approval) in the infancy of flight, describes the thrill of riding in a car for the first time, then buying her own car and learning to drive it. She loved to travel and went on a ten month around the world trip with her husband – they went surfing in Hawaii. She also traveled by herself frequently, including to the Middle East after the break-up of her first marriage. Perhaps the world was a safer place then.
Egypt was a regular tourist destination for wealthy Britons, and she went to Cairo with her mother when she was 17, “Cairo, from the point of view of a girl, was a dream of delight. We spent three months there, and I went to five dances every week.” There were regiments stationed there, and polo, and lovely inexpensive hotels. When they returned to London, she went for weekends at country houses, riding horses during the hunt, side saddle of course which was “wonderfully safe.” She was a slim pretty girl and there were many flirtations, as well as an engagement to someone older, a major away for 2 years, when she met Archie Christie. She broke off the engagement and after an on-off relationship they married in 1914 during WW1. She wrote her first novel, the Mysterious Affair at Styles, while Archie was off at war, and she was working at a hospital dispensary to help out, her evenings being free.
After the war, her only child Rosalind was born. She was worried about keeping her childhood home, Ashfield (her mother was still living there), so Archie suggested she write another book.
Archie took a new job which required travelling around the world, so she went with him, leaving her young child in the care of her sister. A wife’s first duty was to her husband, and her daughter seemed to prefer her favorite aunt. (This reminded me of Downton Abbey where the parent saw their children at least one hour a day for afternoon tea.)
She started making money from her books, and bought her own car, a gray Morris Cowley, a suggestion made by Archie, although she says they were not rich in those post-war years.
“We were prepared to have a nurse and a servant as a necessary extravagance, but would never have dreamed of having a car. If we went to theatres it would to the pit. I would have one evening dress and that a black one so as to not show the dirt. We would never take a taxi anywhere. There is a fashion in the way you spend your money – it made for less luxury, plainer food, clothes and all those things. On the other hand, in those days you had more leisure, to think to read, and to indulge in hobbies and pursuits. I think I am glad I was young in those times. There was a great deal of freedom in life, and much less hurry and worry.”
Celebrities did not write tell-all biographies back in the 1960’s. It was not the fashion it is now to be too revealing and people in general were more reserved, so the next chapter of her life is summed up by a single sentence, “The next year of my life is one I hate recalling.”
Her mother had died, and as Archie was in Spain she had to deal with the funeral alone. “Archie, I had always realized that he had a violent dislike of illness, death and trouble of any kind.” He left her to clear up Ashfield by herself, deal with her mother’s and grandmother’s things, as well as the leaky roof and general state of disrepair. He finally returned but stayed in London and when she suggested he come down for the weekend, he made excuses – she suspected he did not want to miss his Sunday golf game, although they made plans to go to Italy later. So, there was grief and sorrow over losing her mother, until her sister, who was dealing with her own matters, eventually joined her. When Archie finally arrived, he asked for a divorce. He had fallen in love with a colleague’s secretary. “With those words that part of my life – my happy, successful, confident life – ended.” “Archie said, I can’t stand not having what I want, and I can’t stand not being happy. Everybody can’t be happy – somebody has got to be unhappy.” My mother had always said he was ruthless. He was ruthless because he was fighting for his happiness.” Agatha had previously admired his ruthlessness as it was offset by his many acts of kindness, but this was a total shock.
Of her mysterious eleven day disappearance there is no direct mention, although she does allude to her fragile state while cleaning out her mother’s house. She was ill, lonely, not sleeping or eating, subject to crying spells, feeling confused, muddled and suffering from poor memory – all signs of a nervous breakdown. There was speculation that she had suffered an episode of amnesia and could not recall how she ended up staying at a hotel registered under the name of her husband’s mistress. She said later that she was unaware how a period of unhappiness, worry and overwork could affect your physical health.
She hoped the affair would blow over, and finding life in England unbearable, departed to the Canary Islands with Rosaland and the governess who was also a friend. She dated her revulsion with the press, her dislike of journalists and crowds from that period. “I felt like a fox hunted….but I came back to England myself again.”
After agreeing to the divorce, fate intervened. She sat beside someone at dinner one night who was talking about Baghdad and the Persian Gulf and how nice it was. He suggested she go by train via the Orient Express, something she had always wanted to do. So she changed her travel plans from the West Indies and Jamaica and booked the Orient Express to Istanbul, Damascus, and then across the desert to Baghdad. “Trains have always been one of my favorite things.”
She mentions taking the Orient Express so many times back and forth to digs in Syria and Iraq that I lost count. It was cheaper then but no wonder she set one of her most famous books on it. (Just once I would like to take the Orient Express – see link for prices most for only one night)
“Not until you travel by yourself do you realize how much the outside world will protect and befriend you – not always quite to one’s own satisfaction.” She suffered the good intentions and advice of fellow travelers, you must see this and that, or don’t stay there it is too dangerous, as there were friends of friends and British everywhere. So travelling all by herself to the Middle East may not have been as adventurous as it seems.
In Iraq, she met archeologist Leonard Woolley and his wife, and then when she returned the following year, she met Max, his assistant. A quiet young man, they set off sight-seeing, staying in some rather rough conditions. He decided right then that she would make an excellent wife for him – “there was no fuss, you didn’t complain. You took things in stride, not getting in a state.” They were comfortable together.
She had a hard time deciding whether to marry him or not when he proposed back in England. She was 13 years older, a huge difference back then. “We were friends, close friends….If I had considered Max a possible husband when I first met him, I should have been on guard, I should never have slipped into this easy, happy relationship.” Her young daughter approved, and soon she felt it was the only thing to do. They married in 1930 and the last quarter of the book deals with her life with Max, their travels and life on archaeological digs in Iraq and Syria. She later wrote the book, Come, Tell Me How You Live, about those years. (I read this many years ago, but don’t recall much about it.)
By the time she remarried in 1930 Agatha Christie had written ten books. But writing wasn’t her only source of income. She loved old houses and decorating and at one time had bought and renovated 8 of them – ”broken down slummy houses in London, renovating, decorating and furnishing them.” WW2 came and they were separated for a time. She updated her skills and went back to work in the hospital dispensary, finding more bottles ready made this time.
After the war she settled comfortably into middle age. I always thought of Agatha Christie as the stout grandmotherly person she was in her old age, not the slim stylishly dressed girl in the photos so I enjoyed seeing the photos in the book, although I think the photo on the book cover is not a flattering one.
“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming that comes when you finish the life of the emotions and of personal relations, and suddenly find, at the age of fifty say, that a whole new life has opened before you, filled with things you can think about, study or read about. You find that you like going to picture exhibitions, concerts and the operas, with the same enthusiasm as when you went at 20 or 25. For a period, your personal life has absorbed all your energies, but now you are free again to look around you. You can enjoy leisure, you can enjoy things. You are still young enough to enjoy going to foreign places. It is as if a fresh sap of ideas and thoughts was rising in you. With it of course, goes the penalty of increasing old age – the discovery that your body is always hurting somewhere…..these things happen and have to be endured. But one’s thankfulness for the gift of life is I think stronger and more vital during those years than it ever has been before.”
I enjoyed reading this book, but I didn’t get a real sense of what she was like as a person, as it’s not a revealing kind of autobiography, full of feelings and emotion, but more of a factual record of a very interesting life. It was written when she was older and looking back on what was for the most part a happy and comfortable life. She took great pleasure in reliving her memories She started it in Nimrud, Iraq while on a dig with Max. Not hurrying herself, writing a few pages from time to time – a task which will she predicted would go on for years….and it did – fifteen. She died in 1976, and it was not published until the following year. Her husband Max died a year later.
“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly just to be alive is a grand thing.”
“I have been singularly fortunate. I have with me my husband, my daughter, my grandson, my kind SIL, the people who make up my world.”
“What can I say at 75. Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me.”
See next week for Part Two – some of her thoughts on writing.