Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are the legendary sleuths of crime fiction. Numerous novels, television series and feature films have made them part of our popular culture to the extent that not only their detective skills but also their personalities are familiar to many of us. However the character of their creator remains less well-known and perhaps even a tad mysterious.
In terns of sales, Agatha Christie is the most popular author of the twentieth century. In addition, her play ‘The Mousetrap’ has had the longest run of any play in the world – in excess of 70 years and is still running on London’s West End. Her literary career spanned several decades with the popularity of her murder mysteries earning her the title the ‘Queen of Crime’. Like the plots and characters of her plays and novels, her personal life was often eventful and rather unconventional.
Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsle. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London, 2022.
The subtitle ‘A Very Elusive Woman’ is very apt. Despite being world famous, she did not court the media tending to shy away from publicity. For example, on offical forms she would list her occupation merely as ‘housewife’. This reticence coupled with her legendary fame makes her an intriguing topic for biography.
The book begins with an amusing anecdote from her later years. She is sitting in train compartment and overhears two strangers who are unaware of her identity discussing her. They praise her novels and speculate on her character. It amuses her to hear their inaccurate impressions of her personality. The fact that someone so famous could easily go unrecognised on public transport reflects how she preferred to keep her distance from the public eye.
Along with her fame and public persona, the more ordinary aspects of her life are explored in this biography. It begins with her privileged early childhood during the late Victorian era and the circumstances leading to her literary career. There are also the less public aspects of her life including her marital problems and difficulties with the tax department – experiences many of us can relate to. This exploration of both her public and private life contributes to an entertaining, page-turning narrative.
Author Lucy Worsely provides interesting and credible interpretations as to why Christie tended to guard her privacy and avoid public discussion of sensitive events. This feature alone makes the work a significant contribution to the Christie canon. She also explores the contradictions of Christie’s life and character. While she liked to present herself as your average middle class housewife, her life was anything but conventional. Like the characters and the plots of her novels, things were rather different from what they appeared on the surface. She might have seemed an ‘ordinary’ middle class woman but she led a rich and varied existence far removed from most of her peers.
For example, her life included two marriages, extensive overseas travel, voluntary service during two world wars, archaeological digs in the Middle East and a mysterious ten day disappearance in the 1920s which attracted national publicity. In addition to all this, she enjoyed a successful writing career which lasted over half a century. Clearly Agatha Christie crammed a lot into her 85 years.
Virtually from the beginning of her literary career, she was a working mother long before it was fashionable or even common. Although she presented herself as a stay-at-home-mother, her success made her financially independent to the extent that her income exceeded that of her husband – something relatively rare in the 1920s.
This was not the only ‘unconventional’ aspect of her married life. For example it was on a trip to the Middle East, she met a young archaeologist, 15 years her junior, who became her second husband. Unlike her first marriage, this last union lasted until the end of her life.
Her marriages also afforded her extensive travel: a world tour with her first husband and with her second several trips to the Middle East to assist with his archaeological work. Clearly, these experiences of the wider world contributed to the exotic characters she would later create in her novels and plays. Just as her late Victorian upbringing and extended family acquainted her with the world of country mansions and servants, her lived experience coloured her fiction.
Lucy Worsley is a skilled academic and competent author having scripted and presented many BBC documentaries on British and European history. This background implies any book of hers would be of a high standard and this biography does not disappoint. It is entertaining and original – shedding light on both the public and the private life of this famous author. But then Lucy Worsley has an advantage in her choice of subject. With a life as colourful and eventful as Agatha Christie’s, it would be difficult to fashion a biography that was not even remotely interesting.
This well-written and well-researched biography renders its subject more approachable as someone who suffered setbacks common to many but without detracting from the mystique which has grown around her.
A biography as entertaining as any of Christie’s novels.