by Andy Stewart MacKay
Thanks to her hugely successful detective fiction, and the many film and TV adaptations of her work, Agatha Christie has perhaps done more to define a particular kind of Englishness than any other writer. Despite the lurking malice and impressive body count, disorder is neatly resisted and withstood in Christie’s fictional England. The horrors of violence and murder are reassuringly contained, resolved and appropriately punished. Even if, by the 1950s, Christie’s village England was already beginning to feel out of date, all remains well in the “Queen of Crime’s” fictional world – and even if it isn’t, by the end it will be. Much, in fact, like Christie’s own life.
Often regarded as the epitome of the conventional upper-middle class English woman of her generation – with idyllic Edwardian childhood in Torquay, governess and finishing school in Paris – she and her family were, in fact, somewhat less conventional than they appeared. Her self-made father was American, her Irish-born mother sprang from German stock and both were born into what was, essentially, the working-class. Fascinatingly, Christie’s American grandparents were arrested in New York City in 1849 for sending anonymous and libelling letters. Like her own famous ‘disappearance’ in December 1926 (which culminated in Christie being discovered in a hotel in Yorkshire, having checked in using the surname of her husband’s mistress), there are elements of Christie life, and her family’s history, that feel distinctly like the prelude to one of her own mysteries.
From the distance of nearly a century it’s easy to romanticise Christie’s England, but it wasn’t always easy to live in it. Soon after her beloved mother’s death, and after twelve years of marriage, following the revelation of her husband’s infidelity, she and Colonel Archie Christie separated – subsequently divorcing in October 1928. The pain of it all, whilst contributing to her famous ten-day ‘disappearance’, triggered something in her, however, that she’d never known: a strength, resilience, and quiet rebelliousness. Contrary to all the assumptions of her upbringing and youth, Christie became a single and intrepid working-mother who, at the age of forty – on an archaeological dig in the Middle East – met the much younger man who would shortly become her second husband (Sir Max Mallowan). And, perhaps most surprising to Christie herself, she became the most successful author of all time. Like Miss Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Christie defied expectations. Older ladies in tweed and ‘exotic’ foreign gentlemen, Christie makes quite clear, are underestimated at one’s peril.
Having been a debutante in colonial Cairo, in what was then British-controlled Egypt, Christie would later use this as the setting for her first rejected and unpublished romantic novel Snow Upon the Desert. More self-aware than is generally acknowledged, she enjoyed poking fun at herself. Whilst the funny and camp romantic-novelist Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile is often thought to be based on the flamboyant Edwardian best-seller Elinor Glyn, she’s also partly based on Christie herself. Otterbourne is, after all, we are told, the author of a book called Snow on the Desert’s Face.
“Like Miss Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Christie defied expectations. Older ladies in tweed and ‘exotic’ foreign gentlemen, Christie makes quite clear, are underestimated at one’s peril.”
Christie’s fame came at some cost, however, to her literary freedom. Her invention of a pseudonym, Mary Westmacott (combining her middle name with that of some relatives) allowed Christie to free herself from readerly expectations and find a little space for self-exploration. As Westmacott, Christie wrote six novels – even adopting a different style of handwriting for her pseudonymous manuscripts – and managed to keep Westmacott’s true-identity a secret for nearly twenty years. More obviously biographical than her better-known work, the Westmacott novels – Giant’s Bread (1930) Unfinished Portrait (1934) Absent in the Spring (1944) The Rose and the Yew Tree (1947) A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952) and The Burden (1956) – are, like most love-themed books by women, often labelled ‘romantic novels’. Christie’s daughter Rosalind more accurately, described them as “bittersweet novels” about life itself – novels that, naturally, also meditate on the power, intensity and destructiveness of love. Christie’s Unfinished Portrait (1934) reads almost like a memoir. Written in her mid-forties – and without the services of a therapist – she’d begun to wonder what the sum of her life could yet mean, remaining as it was, ‘unfinished’.Whilst Christie’s crime stories were one response to the pace of social and political change, her Westmacott novels are another: an alternative ‘disappearance’, and a deeply personal response to the pressures of being a woman in the world. Her pseudonymous fiction offers deeper and more sensitive exploration of the complexities neatly and predictably resolved in her detective fiction. If you want to read the real Agatha Christie, read Mary Westmacott.
Andy Stewart MacKay is an author and cultural historian.