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Lucy Worsley on Agatha Christie: "She’s a genius, she’s an artist, she’s a creative"

Lucy Worsley speaks to Rhiannon Davies about her new biography of the doyen of detective novels, Agatha Christie, and what her life and work reveals about the 20th century

Lucy Worsley. (Photography by Frank Monks)
Published: September 12, 2022 at 12:58 pm
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Rhiannon Davies: Why have you decided to write about Agatha Christie for your new book?

Lucy Worsley: I have a bit of an obsession with detective fiction, and I’m also really interested in female writers, so I thought it would be fascinating to view Agatha Christie’s life through the eyes of a historian. And it was such a long life: she was born in 1890 and died in 1976. To me, her books aren’t just entertainment – they’re a record of the social history of the 20th century. So she’s a genius, she’s an artist, she’s a creative – but she’s also a representative woman of her time. A lot of the things that happened to other women in the 20th century happened to her.

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How did her background inform her life and writing?

She was born into a family with money, and I think that’s so important in understanding a lot of the things that happened to her later. Her father was American – so that gave her an international perspective on life right from the start. One of the things people get wrong about Agatha Christie is thinking she’s quintessentially English; in reality, she was from a family of globetrotters.

They lived in Torquay, on the south coast of Devon, and Agatha had a very comfortable life in a Victorian villa. They had lots of money and a beautiful garden where, she tells us, she used to play with her imaginary friends. So she was making up stories from an early age.

She’s a genius, she’s an artist, she’s a creative – but she’s also a representative woman of her time

What was expected of a woman of her social class at that time?

Get married. She described the philosophy of the people she knew in her childhood as waiting for "the man" who was going to come along and change your life. She had an older sister, Madge, who was sent to boarding school and given some of the values of what was called the "New Woman". This was a middle-class view of femininity: you should be educated, and break barriers, and go out into the world.

Clearly, though, her parents didn’t agree. They brought Madge home and put her on the marriage market. She got married – very successfully – to the heir to a Manchester business fortune, and ended up with a huge house. The idea was that Agatha herself would follow the same route – minus the inculcation with the values of the New Woman at boarding school.

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Throughout her whole life, Agatha never spoke in favour of emancipation or women’s capacity or anything like that. But, even though she didn’t say she held feminist values, I think we can detect some of those ideas in her actions.

English detective novelist Agatha Christie typing at her desk at her home
Agatha Christie would later incorporate elements of the case into some of her bestselling whodunnits (Photo by Getty Images)

In what ways could she be seen as a feminist?

Throughout her life, Agatha kept up a public image that she wasn’t a professional working writer – which, clearly, she was. She wrote roughly 80 books; 2 billion paper copies of her works have existed; she’s sold more copies than any other book or writer except the Bible and Shakespeare. What strikes me is that, unlike God or Shakespeare, she’s female. And that often gets weirdly glossed over.

That’s partly her own doing. She never wanted to be taken seriously as a professional writer, partly because of the values of her childhood but also because of something very bad that happened to her in 1926. That year marked the great pivot point of Agatha’s life, when she went through a huge episode of what we’d today call public shaming, which we’ll return to later.

At the time, lots of newspaper articles were written about her in which her professional success was definitely a bad thing. So, after 1926, she never spoke of herself in those terms again. You’d think that on her passport she’d state her profession as writer or author – but it actually said she was a housewife.

You say that, in terms of her parents’ expectations for her life, getting married was the biggest priority. So did her first marriage conform to social norms of the time?

She came on to the marriage market in trying circumstances: her father had died and the family had lost their money, so they were going downhill socially. Yet Agatha was still expected to try to marry up. She actually received nine proposals, sometimes dismissing them in the funniest ways. When one young man asked her to marry him, she said something like: “It’s an awfully silly thing to ask a girl to marry like this. We’ve only known each other for 10 days – don’t be such a fool.”

But then along came the 10th man, Archibald Christie – Archie. He wasn’t quite what her mother would have wanted, being from a slightly lower social class. In his favour, though, he was incredibly hot, and a pilot, and Agatha was head over heels with him. It’s like the film Top Gun, except it happened in a country house in Devon in 1912.

There was a lot of toing and froing over whether they would get married, because neither of the families was particularly happy about what they saw as this slightly ill-matched couple. Perhaps they wouldn’t have tied the knot had it not been for the First World War. Archie was sent off to France, and when he came home for Christmas after the first few months of the war, something had changed within him, and he said: “We’ve got to get married at once.” It was a very hasty wartime marriage, like many others. And, like many other hasty wartime marriages, it wasn’t going to last that long.

What was Agatha’s own experience of the First World War?

I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate just how important the First World War was in the creation of Agatha Christie as a person. With Archie away serving in France, she volunteered at the field hospital that had been set up in Torquay. She started at the bottom, washing the floors, and she later used this experience in her fiction; you find little snatches of her real life in so many of her novels. Then she progressed to actually treating patients, which was harrowing work. She describes having to take a man’s amputated leg down to the furnace in the hospital for it to be burned, and how one of her patients died after three days in her personal care.

The trauma of war clearly affected men – everybody knows about shell-shock – but historians have realised recently that it affected women, too, in a way that nobody really wanted to talk about at the time. Even if the nurses weren’t at the front line, they still experienced things that no nice young ladies like Agatha ever expected to witness – the naked, dirty and wounded bodies of young men, for instance. Then they had to go home to their families, but they could not distress them by describing what they’d seen. They had to keep this horror within the hospital. This act of containment – having a secret, being not quite what you seem from the outside – was essential to all of the characters Agatha went on to produce as a detective novelist.

Her time in the hospital was also particularly important because she trained as a pharmacist’s assistant, taking a job in the part of the hospital where the medicines were mixed – this involved handling really dangerous, strong drugs. So Agatha was handling poisons, and it was during her time working in the pharmacy that she picked up a pen and started to write. One of the things she wrote, beginning in 1916, was her very first published detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles [which originally appeared in 1920]. And guess what?

It features a young lady who works in a hospital as a dispenser, and it features a death by poison.

Let’s talk about 1926 and Agatha’s 11-day disappearance, an episode that captured the nation’s imagination. What was the background to her vanishing?

This mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie, which led to a national search for her – she was eventually found staying under a false name in a hotel in Harrogate – seems to be the central injustice of Agatha Christie’s life. A lot of people would tell you that it happened because she wanted to frame her cheating husband for her murder. That’s what the newspapers said at the time, and it’s a narrative that’s been picked up in so many other books about her.
When I started my research for this book, I was open to that suggestion. But it’s not at all consistent with what I found in her personal archive and in the evidence from the time. What I believe happened was as different from that as night from day.

By 1926, Agatha was a successful novelist, and she was under a lot of pressure to keep producing books. But her mother died that year, and she went into an episode of what today would probably be described as depression. She reported forgetfulness, tearfulness, insomnia, an inability to cope with normal life. Unfortunately, it turned out that her husband, Archie, couldn’t cope with this – he wasn’t an emotionally literate man. And then he announced that he was leaving her for a woman called Nancy, who was nearly a decade younger than Agatha.

English crime writer Agatha Christie and her daughter, Rosalind, are featured in a newspaper article reporting the mysterious disappearance of the novelist, 1926. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
English crime writer Agatha Christie and her daughter, Rosalind, are featured in a newspaper article reporting the mysterious disappearance of the novelist, 1926. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Agatha became very low and, on 3 December, her mental state became so bad that she considered suicide. She then entered, I believe, into a fugue state. Now, this is a very rare condition, and it causes you to step right outside your normal self and adopt another persona, so that you don’t have to think about the trauma you’ve been experiencing in your current situation. She gave herself a new name and travelled to the town of Harrogate, which had a reputation for medical excellence. There she stayed at a health spa, where she tried to recover her lost health.

That’s not framing your cheating husband for murder – that is living with a really serious mental-health condition. And yet the narrative is that she was somehow a bad person who was playing some sort of a trick on the world: perhaps she was doing it to frame the husband; perhaps she was doing it to get attention to sell novels.

Agatha then married an archaeologist, with whom she travelled extensively. What role did she play in 20th-century archaeology?

Agatha got a second chance at life and love when she met Max Mallowan. After they married in 1930, she spent part of each year on archaeological digs with him in Syria and Iraq.

One of the ways in which she’s been underestimated is as a funder of 20th-century archaeology. She basically paid for Max’s digs – partly to please him, partly because she found archaeology personally interesting, and partly because she enjoyed the life she was able to live on a dig, where she was treated as just another member of the team. She was famous for being very good at cleaning the finds, particularly the delicate ivories discovered in Iraq at the site of Nimrud, also known by the ancient name Kalhu. She would clean them with a little brush and some face cream.

Though that’s a very striking image, it completely downplays the fact that she was there in the first place only because she’d provided the money for the expedition to happen. It was socially unacceptable then that she was a female breadwinner who was basically bankrolling her husband’s career.

One of the ways in which she’s been underestimated is as a funder of 20th-century archaeology

During her travels she met people of several different nationalities, but her work often mirrors prejudices held by many others in 20th-century Britain. How did those attitudes evolve and reflect changing ideas?

One of the reasons for reading Agatha Christie is to understand how the racial politics of middle-class white people of Britain played out throughout the 20th century. Her publishing history reflects that, too, because she was writing about the world of her first readers, who were in Britain and America – largely people who looked and sounded like her.

What you can see in her writing over the years is a gradual liberalising of views. Many people make the mistake of thinking that all of her stories are set in 1935 or thereabouts. That’s largely down to the TV adaptations that aired on Sunday nights, which maybe your grandparents used to watch. Actually, her books span a much wider chronological period. After the Second World War, for example, her books feature more Iraqi characters.

In Agatha and Max’s archaeological life, you can see them gradually coming to terms with the fact that the attitudes of prewar archaeology were no longer acceptable. Ideas about where finds from digs should eventually be kept changed over time. The whole history of 20th-century archaeology is captured in the life of Agatha Christie.

What happened at the end of her life?

It’s amazing to think that Agatha Christie was still writing books into her eighties. Her publishers began to get a bit worried, because it was clear that the books weren’t as good as they used to be. Weirdly, though, she’d become such a powerful brand by that point that it didn’t matter. In the 1970s she published a book called Passenger to Frankfurt; I personally think it’s bonkers – as did her publishers. But it was a huge hit, staying on the bestseller list for six months, so they had to apologise to her for doubting it.

The deterioration in the quality of the writing may have a sadder explanation – pretty heartbreaking, actually. If you analyse the language she’s using in her later books, it becomes repetitive and a lot simpler. Other sources also suggest that she was entering into the early stages of dementia.

When Agatha did finally die, in 1976, it was possibly as easy as any death could be. She was being looked after by her (much younger) husband, Max; one day, after they’d eaten lunch together, she passed away very peacefully. The two of them are buried next to each other in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Cholsey, near where they lived in Wallingford, Oxfordshire.

Why should historians be interested in her work and life?

Agatha Christie is worth studying because she’s there in the back- ground of our lives today. Someone who’s such a cultural phenomenon is worth taking seriously and investigating. I also think it’s important because her life and her work provide a wonderful record of what white middle-class British people thought about things throughout the 20th century. It helps you understand where we are in the world today. That’s all on top of the fact that you can get huge pleasure and enjoyment from reading her books. Some of them are just works of art – they’re exquisitely crafted machines for giving you pleasure and entertainment.

Lucy Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and a broadcaster and bestselling author of books including Queen Victoria (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018) and Jane Austen at Home (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017)

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This article will be published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine – out 29 September 2022

Authors

Lucy WorsleyAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Lucy Worsley is a historian, author and broadcaster, and is also joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. A familiar face on British TV screens, she has presented a host of history programmes including Royal History’s Biggest Fibs, Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley, Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley and Victoria & Albert: The Royal Wedding.

Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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