I have been reading Agatha Christie novels hungrily since I was a very young girl. I loved the English settings, the predictable but pleasing cast of characters, ranging from stuffy retired majors, to plucky society debs, to earnest war heroes, to finicky spinster ladies. I loved that there were always lots of clues, some red herrings, and a satisfying ending where good (usually) triumphed. Most of all I loved that there were so many of them, a prime requirement for a voracious reader like myself!
But after all those years of reading all her novels, I never took the time to actually read the Autobiography of Agatha Christie which she wrote over the course of fifteen years, from 1950 to 1965. I wish now that I had read this wonderful autobiography years ago, because it gives such vivid insight into the life of one of the world’s most prolific, successful, and well-loved writers.
Agatha Christie was born Agatha Miller in 1890 in Devon to a well-heeled family. Her father was American and her mother was English. She describes her father early in the book as “an agreeable man” and she notes how rare the quality of being “agreeable” is in today’s society. Her father died when Agatha was young, but you can see his personality emerge in many of her books as the man who is liked by everyone and attentive to the needs of others, especially women.
Agatha’s mother seemed a woman who knew her own mind and had quite clear views about raising well brought up children. Both Agatha and her older sister learned French in finishing schools abroad and arrived into adulthood with a clear sense of how to comport themselves in society. Her brother, Monty,though ,was feckless and wild, and he appears to be the prototype for many of the likeable but reckless young men who people her stories.
Agatha from her earliest days was immensely imaginative and created many detailed and secret inner lives for herself, lives that were to bring her comfort and strength as she faced challenges in an ever more dangerous world that encompassedtwo major wars, World War I and World War II.
In the first war she met her first husband, the handsome Archibald Christie. Their early marriage was very lighthearted and adventurous and resulted in the birth of their only child, Rosalind. But Archibald Christie could not abide illness or difficulties put in his way, and when Agatha struggled emotionally during the last days of her beloved mother’s illness, he promptly deserted her and his daughter and took up with a much younger woman. In typical British fashion, Agatha spends very little of her autobiography lamenting this difficult and heart wrenching time; yet you cannot help but feel the terrible sense of loss and betrayal she suffered at this desertion.
Her husband’s actions forced Christie to grant him a divorce, and then her life as a writer was kicked into high gear. Where earlier she had been writing more as a lark than anything else, now writing became her bread and butter. Never one to shirk responsibilities, Agatha became extremely prolific, not just with mystery novels but with short stories and even plays. She even wrote fiction under the psedonym Mary Westmacott to further extend her range as a writer.
All this enormous output brought her weath and fame. Even in the midst of all this writing she found time to pursue her other love, traveling. She was especially interested in the Middle East and it was there that she met a most unlikely candidate for her second husband.
Max Mallowan was a young archaeologist, well educated, good looking, and ardent about his work. He found himself taking Agatha on an extended guided tour of an archaeological site he was interested in, and ended up falling in love with her. But her friends were appalled when Agatha told them of his proposal; after all, he was nearly 20 years younger than she! Fortunately, Agatha disregarded the advice of her friends and married Max. Some of the most delightful parts of her autobiography have to do with their loving and companionable partnership and of their mutual admiration for each other.
Agatha Christie is sometimes considered to be a rather workmanlike writer because of her tremendous output, but in fact she took great pains with her writing and often showed a great ability to handle erudite information and a knowledge of psychology and crime. Her early experiences in a hospital dispensary during the first world war led to her very proficient handling of death of poisoning in many of her novels. She always tried to play fair with her readers, but every once in a while she liked to tease them with a surprise ending such as in the Murder of Roger Aykroyd or Witness for the Prosecution. Some of the best parts of her autobiography deal with her theories about writing.
I often go through reading binges of Agatha Christie, even though I’ve read these stories many times before. There is a feeling of sanity and common humanity that illuminates her stories, that never pales no matter how often I ead them. And there is nothing quite as delicious as settling down with an Agatha Christie novel, a hot cup of tea, and a plate of cookies. Moviegoers have also been crazy about Christie, for movies or television productions of Christie novels are perennially popular.
Reading the Autobiography of Agatha Christie is every bit as enjoyable; and unlike with her stories and plays, this book is all true!