I’m not a big fan of country music or bluegrass, but this song has been stuck in my brain since I heard it on Classic Hit Parade a few weeks ago, not only for it’s catchy melody but for the imagery of the lyrics which are an ode to a porch on a summer afternoon. It might also have something to do with the crickets and fireflies which always herald August to me and the waning days of summer when evening shadows fall.
Although the lyrics are lovely, I find myself focusing on the instrumentals the more I listen, but just for fun I’ve set the lyrics to pictures.
My Tennessee Mountain Home was written and recorded by Dolly Parton in 1973 as a tribute to her childhood memories of growing up in rural Tennessee, but I much prefer Maria Muldaur’s version. Maria Muldaur was an American folk/blues/country singer, best known for her quirky 1973 hit “Midnight at the Oasis.” I remember listening to her in my dorm room and fellow boomers may recognize the album cover. So pour yourself a glass of iced tea or lemonade, pull up a chair and have a listen to the best fiddle/banjo chorus ever.
Here are the lyrics.
Sittin’on the front porch on a summer afternoon
In a straight-back chair on two legs leaned against the wall
Watch the kids a-playin’ with june bugs on the string
And catch the glowin’firelies when evening shadows fall
ln my Tennessee mountain home
Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh
In my Tennessee mountain home
Crickets singing in the fields nearby
Honeysuckle vines cling to the fences along the lane
Their fragrance makes the summer wind so sweet
And on a distant hilltop an eagle spreads its wings
And a songbird on a fence post sings a melody
Instrumental toe-tapping Chorus – makes you want to square dance!
Walkin’ home from church on Sunday with the one you love
Just laughin,’ talkin’ makin’ future plans
And when the folks ain’t lookin’ you might steal a kiss or two
Just sittin’ in the porch swing holdin’ hands
Due to the perennial popularity of Jane Austen, An Interview with Jane Austen, remains my most read post to date, but the topic of today’s blog is her much neglected sister, Cassandra Austen – keeper of the flame or literary arsonist, depending on your point of view.
While Jane Austen died relatively young (age 41 – 1817) after enjoying a few years of moderate publishing success, her sister Cassandra lived until old age, (age 72 -1845), long enough to know that Jane’s fame would long outlive her. Cassandra died a decade before her nephew James wrote his famous biography about his aunt which served to revive her popularity but also enshrined her reputation as a sweet and pleasant old maid. Jane’s letters told another story – witty and often full of satire and snark, they revealed a side of Jane’s personality that Cassandra felt was best forgotten….and so she destroyed 400 of them in the years before her death. One can assume that Cassandra thought she was doing the right thing in preserving Jane’s legacy, but what Janeite scholars wouldn’t give for those letters! Only 160 survive and they provide the most revealing glimpses into her personality.
But what do we know about Cassandra? Separated by two years, Cassandra was the responsible older sister, to Jane’s more sparkling and clever personality. They were close, the only girls in a large family, with her mother famously remarking that if Cassandra decided to cut her head off, Jane would too. Their father believed in education, and they spent time away in boarding schools, as well as learning at home where he ran a boy’s boarding school to supplement his vicar’s income. It was here that Cassandra met her future fiance, the young reverend Tom Fowle of KINTBURY. They were considered an ideal match, but as he was in need of money for the marriage, he signed on as a ship’s chaplain on a voyage to the West Indies and died there of yellow fever. Cassandra was heartbroken and like Jane, never married, sharing a household with her sister and parents for the remainder of her life, first in Bath and then later after their father’s death, at Chawton Cottage.
Cassandra spent a considerable amount of time at her brother’s houses assisting with childbirth (two of her SIL’s had eleven children), so the letters flew back and forth between the sisters and other family members. Cassandra was the quiet capable one. It was commonly acknowledged that she ran the Chawton household, which allowed Jane the time to write in her later years. She was also the prettier of the two (the old pretty vs smart debate), and as a watercolorist, her two drawings of Jane provide the only evidence we have of her appearance.
As for Cassandra herself, there is only a black and white silhouette, as seen in this Ten Things to Know About Cassandra article. (link)
These are the bare facts of Cassandra’s life and about all you will get in most biographies of Jane Austen, but doesn’t it leave you curious about Cassandra? Although history relegates her to a shadowy supporting figure, did she have her own story to tell, as Gill Hornby, the author of Miss Austen, writes.
Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?
England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?
Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.
About the Author: Gill Hornby is the author of two novels, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England with her husband and children.
After noting that the author lived in Kintbury, I was inspired to find out more about her and found this fascinating article about how the book came to be. (link) After moving to the village she discovered that she lived on the site of the old Fowle vicarage, the home of Cassandra’s fiance. In a bit of serendipity, she was asked to write a book about Jane Austen for young readers and was drawn into Cassandra’s story. Enjoying the same scenery that Cassandra had once viewed, the author found she began to haunt her mind – perhaps her ghost was lingering about the place, asking for her story to be told, longing for a bit of notoriety for herself.
As a fan familiar with all things Austen, I found this book intriguing. Of course, it’s historical fiction, an imagining of someone’s life, but it was surprisingly well researched and well done, which made it a believable read.
The story is told from the point of view of Cassandra in her old age, re-visiting the Fowle vicarage after the death of her fiance’s brother in order to retrieve both her and Jane’s letters to his wife Eliza. Interspersed are flashback chapters to the time of her engagement and subsequent grief (1795), their years in Bath where her parents retired with the added hope of finding husbands for the girls (1805), and their years alone in Chawton cottage (1913). Instead of focusing on Jane’s alleged romantic affairs, this time it is Cassandra who takes centre stage, but after meeting the perfect man at a seaside resort, Cassandra turns him down. (It never fails to amaze me how three promenades in the company of family chaperones could net a marriage proposal, but for the sake of the plot it works.)
The dialogue and letters captured the spirit of a Jane Austen novel, and in some cases exceeded it. Here are a few excerpts. “ Once home, Jane at once sat down to her writing with an air of great satisfaction. She had repulsed Mr. Hobday with an expert efficiency. She could return to her invented world.” Of course ,Jane knows it is really Cassandra he is interested in. “What matters a bad sister off in the background.…I am quite sure I saw sparks flying off him. I think one caught my bonnet. Because of you and your charms, I might have gone up in smoke.”
The author presents some perfectly plausible explanations for certain episodes in Jane’s life, such as her one and only marriage proposal. (see link to post by Caroline, JA’s great niece). When Cassandra refuses her suitor, Jane accepts a marriage proposal from Mr. Wrong in Every Way, hoping that seeing her settled will free her sister to marry herself, but changes her mind when she realizes Cassandra has no wish to marry. This decision, hastily reversed the following day after a sleepless night, has long remained a puzzle considering Jane’s well known opinion on marrying for love.
Why did Cassandra reject Mr. Right’s proposal? After the death of her fiance she had made a pact with a vengeful God never to marry again. While spending a very quiet Christmas with her mild-mannered fiancé and his family at the Fowle rectory she realizes she has doubts, and after his death, felt those doubts were a curse of sorts. (Her fiancé had left her a small legacy which might have compounded her guilt). Or was the pledge just an excuse when the truth was she missed her sister and her boisterous Austen family and didn’t want to be so far away from home. Perhaps it was not true love after all but a long held expectation?
Although marriage might have been an ideal and an economic necessity for women of the time, it also meant motherhood and a high risk of death in childbirth. Two of her SIL’s died shortly after birthing their eleventh child and Cassandra was often called in to help care for the children. Being an aunt in those days might have seemed the safer occupation.
The sub plot of the novel concerns what will happen to the three spinster Fowle daughters after their father’s death when they must vacate their own vicarage. The plight of the spinster in Austen’s world was often the centre of Jane’s books, but wasn’t it possible to forge a purposeful, happy and contented life without a husband or children, as the author illustrates?
As an aging and joyless spinster Cassandra knew well that she was made fun of, but perhaps she destroyed the letters, as much to protect her own story as to hide certain aspects of Jane’s. The other spectre raised is that of Jane’s moods and bouts of melancholy, and this is surely an interesting aspect and pure conjecture as I have never heard reference to such, but it has been the downside of many a brilliant and creative mind, particularly those who seek fame and success.
“Of course, their cottage (Chawton) had been a place of great joy when they had lived there together. But that joyfulness was Jane’s natural and dominant emotion was far from the truth. Oh the power upon reputation brought by an untimely death and a modicum of fame and success! Still, she thought as she gathered her things, she would not contest that legend, if that was what they chose to send out to posterity. The moodless Jane Austen. What a splendid image. She rose from her chair. Now it only remained to destroy all evidence to the contrary.”
Reading through the letters she notes, “She stumbled across references to Jane’s high spirits, remembered and smiled. That those spirits were, sometimes, perhaps too high, that the happiness had an almost hysterical edge to it, that this tended to happen when they were in the comfort of the stable established homes of their family and friends, these were not observations that Cassandra had shared with Eliza. She had chosen to keep them to herself. But the other extreme of Jane’s temperament, the seemingly endless days in the darkness, these she had written of, for she had to tell someone. Cassandra licked a finger and flicked through, searching for the letters of danger. There. January 1805. That was where it all began…..” According to the book, their father’s death started Jane’s downward spiral into despondency, and indeed those were years when she wrote nothing at all.
As a beloved and devoted sister and best friend, Cassandra knew that Jane would not, could not write again, until she was settled into a home of her own, so she hinted to her rich brother Edward, who owned several estates, including Godmersham Park, that they needed a place of their own – Chawton Cottage was offered and accepted, and Jane began to write and revise and publish, and the rest is history.
After Jane’s death, Cassandra wrote, “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”
Such a close sisterly bond is a rare and wonderful thing, so perhaps that fateful bonfire was Cassandra’s final gift to Jane after all. They were private people, and would remain private for eternity, and doesn’t that add to the mystique?
Author’s Note: “It is a matter of family record that, in the last years of her life, Cassandra Austen looked over the letters that she and her sister had exchanged. All those she found open and confidential – the majority of them, then – she burned. We cannot doubt that there would have been a long and deep correspondence between both Cassandra and Jane, and the Fowle family at Kintbury. None of this has, as yet, come to light. The letters in this novel are entirely imagined. The beneficiary of her will was Isabella, now married – she left 45 pounds, and to Elizabeth, the only one left unmarried, she bequeathed the extraordinary sum of one thousand pounds – presumably in reparation of that bequest she herself had received so many years before.”
Of note, this novel is being developed into a four-hour Masterpiece miniseries. (link) Just my cup of tea!
The author also just released a new book, Godmersham Park (link) in June – might as well ride the Jane Train while you can. Of course, it’s all pure speculation, as the best of historical fiction is, but I’ll be ordering it anyway.
It’s been a bad year for gardening. I’ve done very little other than admire the flowers which survived the harsh winter, both mine and other people’s. I lost several lavender bushes, a favorite purple clematis, two older established John Cabot/David Austen rose bushes, and most of the ever-bearing strawberry plants. Other things came up looking pathetic including my hardy Knock Out Roses which did not seem as lush this year especially the ones facing north, not to mention a half dead birch tree and lilac bush. Blame it on the weird spring, with the temperatures yoyoing up and down so much.
In early May when all the hanging baskets were out for Mother’s Day, it seemed too cold to be buying plants which I would only have to bring in and out of the garage. So I waited until it got warmer. Then it was too hot, then cool again…..by then I had waited too long to buy dipladenia – all the pink ones were sold out. I was busy was other things and then it was too late for anything, although I did scoop up three Red Twig Dogwood bushes for half price to try and replace the privacy hedge the new neighbours had cut down. (Why oh why?) Otherwise my sole flower expenditure this year was a hibiscus plant, plus some lettuce seeds (I couldn’t find seedlings), one beefsteak tomato, and a new rhubarb plant. The plus side of not having any hanging baskets is not having to water, as rain has not been as plentiful either and now in mid-July the lawns are as dry as August, although we did get a glorious rain this morning.
Here’s a mini-tour of the good and the bad.
I went to a garden party….in honor of the Queen’s 70th Jubilee on Jun 4. Canada is a commonwealth country, so I grew up singing God Save the Queen in grade school, along with our national anthem, Oh Canada. One of my very first memories is of the Queen’s visit to my city in 1959, although as a wee tyke of three I wouldn’t have had any idea of who she was, but I do vaguely remember standing on the riverbank near the church watching the Royal Yacht glide by. All I knew was an important person was onboard, so we had to wait…and wave.
So when I read that the city was throwing a garden party in honour of the queen’s 70th anniversary on the throne, I went straight to the website to sign-up…..but the registration was already full, as the event was limited to only two hundred people. So I spoke to a very nice lady at city hall who put us on the waiting list, whereby I happened to mention that my mother at 96 was the exact same age as the Queen. (I’m not without my devious ways.) A few days later an invitation arrived via email – Hear Ye, Hear Ye – you have been added to the Queen’s guest list. Attendees were encouraged to dress up and wear a hat, including vintage 50’s styles from the era of the Queen’s visit.
Attendance was limited at this exclusive event as they wanted to model it after the Queen’s own garden parties. She holds three every year on the grounds of Buckingham Palace and one in Scotland – a tradition dating back to the time of Queen Victoria in the 1860’s. The parties are by invitation only and fancy dress is required. Tea, scones and cake are served to about 10,000 people. It’s a way for the Queen to recognize and reward public service, and a chance for her to mingle. This year due to mobility issues, other members of the royal party filled in. Here’s a link to more information about the Queen’s annual Garden Party.
The day of the party dawned warm and sunny, with a delightful breeze – one of those perfect June days you so seldom see anymore. The venue was a public park with beautiful gardens (I posted about Plein Air Painting here in Sept. 2019 when the flowers were at their peak) and we walked through the arbour strung with hanging baskets to the registration desk.
Chairs were set up under the large shade trees for the required speeches, with every stripe of politician represented – federal, provincial, municipal. A pipe band opened the ceremonies.
And then to the food tent – we snagged a table in the shade. The food was wonderful…..the traditional tea party fare.
The sandwiches – salmon, tuna, egg, cucumber – were all excellent. I tried my first cucumber sandwich – where else can you find a cucumber sandwich but at a tea party! And scones of course, and all kinds of dessert squares, and cookies, including these special Union Jack ones.
These individually wrapped souvenirs were sugar cookies with royal icing – almost too pretty to eat, but I managed.
There were macrons in red, white and blue. I’m always disappointed by macrons, as they look better than they taste, and aren’t they French?
There was tons of food left-over, as witnessed by the trays of sandwiches behind the tables, so I hope the food bank benefited.
There was no cost for the tickets as the event was paid for by a heritage grant, but I wonder if some of the people who RSVP’d forgot to show up, or changed their minds, although there did seem to be a good crowd there, including a few people who were walking through the park and asked if they could join in.
The table décor was lovely, and a few lucky souls got to take the centrepieces home.
I really liked these royal blue satin tablecloths.
There were flags,
and tents. Nothing says fancy summer party like a white tent.
It was fun to check out people’s outfits, and their hats.
I wore a floral yellow dress from the 80’s, and got several comments on it, but sensibly wore flat sandals, although I did see a few people tottering around on impossibly high heels, sinking into the grass. I’m too old for that and too afraid I’ll fall over and break something. I needed the sweater because it was cool enough in the shade, and also to cover my arms, as I don’t do sleeveless anymore. It felt strange to wear a dress again, for the first time in five years. I wasn’t too happy with my hat, an old straw relic also from the 80’s, but didn’t have time to look for anything else. Plus, I think those fascinators are silly things on most people.
A vintage clutch purse which closes with a satisfying click, like all 50’s style purses do, including the Queen’s. She has over 200 of her iconic brand, in many colors. It’s rumored that she sends secret signals to her staff with her purse, shifting it’s location to indicate that she wishes to be rescued from a conversation or wants a dinner to wrap up.
And pearls of course, there were lots of pearls in evidence.
After lunch, there was an enactment of the Queen’s life put on by a local theatre group, with various members representing the queen at different stages in her career. No matter what people might think of the monarchy, there’s no denying the Queen has lived a long life of dignified service, not to mention surviving all those family scandals. She must be a woman of fortitude, strength and resilience.
Afterwards, we wandered through the garden pathways admiring the baskets, although the flower beds themselves were just newly planted.
All in all, it was a beautiful day and a wonderful party. Long live the Queen!
Fun has been in short supply lately due to the pandemic, so it was with some anticipation that I attended a summer theatre production last month – a musical set in the Roaring Twenties. It was my first time in an indoor venue with 500 other people in several years, but we were lucky as we had great seats, mid-way left orchestra, and the three seats in front of us were empty. We put my mother on the aisle, and wore our masks, although many people did not.
The entire season from 2020 was held over until this year. I ordered the tickets way back in February and was lucky to get a cancellation, as people are so desperate for fun after two years of lock-down, that most people held onto their seats. It was really nice to be in a theatre again.
I’ve always been a big fan of the Roaring Twenties decade – Downtown Abbey, Fitzgerald & Company, the hairstyles and fashions of the flappers, but have to admit that other than the Charleston and a few other tunes, I didn’t know much about the music of the era.
The setting was a speakeasy on New Years Eve 1928 and it was two hours of non-stop music, dancing and fun. Here’s the songlist.
I was surprised how many of the songs I recognized (and my mother, being born in 1926, knew them all) but some of them were surprising as I associate them with other decades and singers – like Ray Orbison’s Are you Lonesome Tonight, Guy Lombardo’s Auld Lang Syne and It Had to Be You, which I always thought of as a 50’s crooners song.
The lyrics of some of these songs seem almost quaint by today’s standards – Tea for Two and Ain’t She Sweet for example, with Let’s Do It and Making Whoppee being the most risque. Although after googling Ain’t We Got Fun – see below – perhaps the lyrics (Mr. Stork?) are not so innocent after all, but better suggestive than downright crude.
“Are you tired of smutty lyrics that make the air turn blue” says the opening song on Zoomer Media’s – Your All Time Classic Hit Parade TV show. (My mother watches this on Vision TV Channel 24 on Friday nights at 8:30 – it’s a half hour of pure nostalgia.) Alicia Ault from the show’s trio, The Ault Sisters, played a lead role in the Roaring Twenties musical, although I didn’t realize it until after I read the playbill. The sisters look so much alike it’s hard to tell them apart.
Many of these songs are memorable even if you don’t know what time period they came from. Will the songs from today’s 2020 decade be remembered a hundred years from now? Somehow I doubt it. When you think of all the changes music has gone through over the years, I wonder what they’ll be listening to then? (Hopefully we’ll be listening to a choir of angels.)
The costumes were lovely.
Yes, I know, no photos allowed in the theatre, but I did ask one of the ushers if I could take a picture of this dress. If I ever go to a Roaring Twenties party I want a dress like that, complete with the fringe on the bottom. Her headband was nice too.
The choreography was wonderful, ending with the Charleston,
and a toast to the New Year. I don’t know how they can sing and dance like that and not be out of breath….or in need of a beverage or two.
All in all, it was a swell performance, or in the lingo of the decade, the bees knees, the cat’s pyjamas….well you get the picture! (Here’s a link to more slang from the 1920’s.)
PS. The second Downton Abbey movie – A New Era, also set in 1929, is out for home viewing soon. Has anyone seen it?
As I mentioned in Part One, Agatha Christie did not include much about her writing in her autobiography. There are references sprinkled here and there, and some observations, but no real advice. It’s as if she regarded the writing to be a minor aspect of her life, necessary but not of that much importance, which is peculiar for such an established and prolific author. I suspect she did not think the details of her craft would be of much interest to her reading audience, as writers were not as common back then, not like now when social media has made everyone a writer.
I can’t imagine coming up with the plot and characters for 66 plus books. I read somewhere that she would put all the characters together at the end and then decide who did it, and then go back and insert the clues, but I can’t substantiate this. While there is little in her autobiography about her technique or what inspired the books, she does tell us how she got started.
Her older sister had written and published a few short stories, and it was an early conversation with her which proved crucial to her own writing career. Her sister, in an informal bet, dared her to write a detective novel, a popular genre at the time. She was discouraging, “I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge, who had thought about it herself, but “they were very difficult to do.” “I should like to try,” was Agatha’s reply. ‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,” said Madge. There the matter rested….but the “words had been said….from that moment I was fired by the idea that I would write a detective story…..I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out but the seed had been sown……the idea had been planted. Some day I would write a detective story.“
An earlier attempt at a novel set in Cairo, had been rejected and then critiqued by a neighbour who was a popular novelist, who realizing how shy she was, was kind in his criticism, offering encouragement and some advice about plotting.
She wrote her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while her husband Archie was off at war. The idea was conceived at work in the dispensary, where she was surrounded by professional poisons. Soon she had a sketchy picture of some of the characters, including her detective, Hercule Poirot, whom she imagined as a meticulous, tidy little man, Belgian like the Belgian refugees in the area, but she wished she had made him younger, considering they were to be together for so many years. (In later years she found him “insufferable” according to her diary.)
“In leisure moments, bits of my detective story rattled around in my head. I had the beginning all settled, and the end arranged, but there were difficult gaps in between. It made me absent-minded at home.” Her mother encouraged her, her mother had the usual complete faith that her daughters could do anything. She wrote it out longhand, and then typed it. “Up to a point I enjoyed it. But I got very tired, and I also got cross. Writing has that effect, I find.” She had difficulties with the middle, “the complications got the better of me, instead of me being the master of them.” It was then that her mother made the suggestion that she go away on holiday and write undisturbed. She booked into a large dreary hotel in the country, walked on the moors and wrote. She spoke to no one – it would have taken her mind off what she was doing.
She sent it out several times with no success, and had almost forgotten about it as Archie had come home from the war. They were busy looking for a place to live, as flats were in short supply in post-war London, so she was surprised when it was accepted for publication. They requested a few minor changes, and it was finally published in 1920.
Like many young authors, she got trapped into a lousy contract promising them her next five books. (After fulfilling her end of the bargain, she changed publishers with no explanation given, although they were willing to bargain by then.)
“Having given up hope for some years of having anything published, except the occasional short story or poem, I would have signed anything……I would not receive any royalties until after the first 2000 copies had been sold…..none of it meant much to me – the whole point was the book would be published. I didn’t even notice there was a clause binding me to offer him my next five novels……I signed with enthusiasm…..In spite of the clause about the next five novels, this was to me a single and isolated experiment. I had been dared to write a detective story, I had written a detective story. It had been accepted and was going to appear in print. There, as far as I was concerned, the matter ended. Certainly at that moment, I did not envision writing any more books.”
Her child Rosaland was born. She was worried about keeping Ashfield, her family home as her mother still lived there. Her husband suggested she write another book.
She started making money and had an unexpected request from the Income Tax people about her literary earnings. She had not thought of herself as an “established author” and had not kept track of the royalties, so she got herself a literary agent – a young man named Edmund Cork – and a friendship which lasted for 40 years.
“The nice thing about writing in those years was that I directedly related it to money. If I decided to write a story, I knew it would net me L45, deducting income tax. This stimulated my output enormously. How different from the last ten or twenty years of my life. I never know what I owe. I never know what money I have…..or shall have next year.”
In 1927 she went to the Canary Islands to get away from the publicity of her disappearance and pending divorce, and managed to write the best part of a new book, but admitted she had no joy in writing it. “I had worked out the plot, a conventional plot….I knew where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive. I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money. That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well. I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train, but I got it written, and sent it off to the publishers It sold just as well as my last book – though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.”
By the time she remarried in 1930 she had written ten books.
Surprisingly, she never had a room of her own to write in. “I suppose I was enjoying myself so much in ordinary living that writing was a task which I performed in spells and bursts. I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write. All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter. I had begun now to write straight on to the typewriter, although I still used to do the beginning chapters and occasionally others in long-hand and then type them out.” Many friends had said to her, “I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.”
She never felt any desperation as to whether she could think of one more book to write. “There is always of course, that terrible 3 weeks or a month which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book……when you think you can’t do it.” She admitted to talking to herself, while working out bits of dialogue.
Later she branched out into writing plays – she was good with dialogue – and it was a new adventure, along with her annual Christie for Christmas. She discusses how Three Blind Mice became The Mousetrap and her feeling of happiness when the audience enjoyed it so much, and its long run on the stage, and, the dread she felt about having to make a speech for a party at the Savoy on it’s tenth anniversary. She hated public speaking, crowds, large parties, and fuss. I don’t think there were as many author interviews back then and it was not as necessary to promote your book the way it is now when there is so much competition.
She doesn’t state how long it took her to write a book, or how many drafts or revisions she went through, but mentions that she once wrote a book in 3 days flat – Absent in the Spring, under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. It was a fiction novel she had always wanted to write, about a woman whose image of herself was completely mistaken, an idea that had been clear in her mind for some time, and the one book which satisfied her completely. She wrote the first chapter, and then the last because she knew so clearly how it was going to end, then wrote straight through, calling in sick to work, so frightened was she of interrupting the flow, then she slept for 24 hrs.
Of her detective books, the two that satisfied her best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence. “No book was exactly as I wanted it to be, and I was never quite satisfied with it.”
Regarding any piece of creative work she wrote, “There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of work before you can in any way evaluate it. You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence (about the only times in my life when I have been full of confidence). If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so there had to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in an exercise book buoyed up with exaltation. You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten. A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.” (I find this is true, it’s difficult to evaluate your own work.)
To sum up, after reading her autobiography, I know more about her life, but I don’t feel that I really know her any better as a person or as a writer, although I enjoyed reading and can relate to many of her observations on writing. I found her to be a complex person, contradictory in some ways, but that might just be because she was a product of her time and the times had changed.
It seems as if the writing was just a sideline to her marvelous and enjoyable life. She wrote mostly for herself – that you could make money from it and that other people liked it was a bonus. Of course, in her later years, when she was expected to produce a book every year it could be drudgery and work – but by then she had assumed the mantel of a professional writer and she had her plays as a diversion. Like any other job, writing has its good days and its bad days. So perhaps there is some advice here, for those of us slogging away putting words on a page, after all.
PS. I watched the new Kenneth Branagh version of Death on the Nile recently. It was nicely filmed but just okay, casting and plot-wise. The usual quota of dark- haired men and very thin women. I guessed the ending about 20 minutes in, and there were way too many dead bodies for me.
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.