‘Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman’ by Lucy Worsley
(2022, 415 pages, Genre: Biography)
“Once I’ve been dead ten years, I’m sure no one will ever have heard of me.” This statement wouldn’t be nearly so ironic, had it not been uttered by one of the 20th century’s best-known authors: Agatha Christie. Even today, nearly half a century after her death, Christie is a household name. She has been identified by UNESCO as the world’s best-selling author. Her work has been assiduously adapted to the stage and screen—including last year’s star-studded film adaptation of Death on the Nile with Gal Gadot and Kenneth Branagh. In other words, most of us do not need to be told that Agatha Christie broke barriers for her writing. Where this 2022 biography really soars is in filling in the details of Christie’s life beyond her literary contributions. It’s a story that would be fascinating even if the subject weren’t one of the world’s best-known writers.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller, born in 1890, grew up in a genteel Edwardian family in southwest England. Young Agatha served as a nurse during World War I, and hastily married British fighter pilot Archibald Christie before he was sent to France to serve. In 1926, faced with her husband’s infidelity, Agatha set tongues wagging with a mysterious episode that seemed pulled from one of her literary thrillers. (I won’t spoil the story with too many details, but suffice it to say that it involved amnesia and a prolonged disappearance.) Later, Agatha would again raise eyebrows by marrying a man 13 years her junior, archaeologist Max Mallowan. The two were truly in love, and nurtured an unconventional marriage for the rest of Ms. Christie’s life. (After they wed, Christie was legally the Lady Mallowan, but kept her former surname as a nom de plume.) Amazingly, Agatha regularly accompanied Max on his archaeological excavations, serving as a field assistant. The places and practices that she encountered in Middle East then made their way into her fiction—for instance, in the mystery stories They Came to Baghdad, Death on the Nile, and Murder in Mesopotamia.
In this biography, historian and BBC commentator Lucy Worsley is astute at identifying the sociocultural factors that shaped Agatha Christie’s ambitions and sensibilities throughout her long life. These included a strong attachment to her mother and a love of domesticity, hospitality, and upper-crust manor houses which would belie her later financial difficulties. Christie was a breaker of molds, pursuing romantic equality and paid labor in an era when well-to-do women were encouraged to do neither. She was a dramatist in addition to a novelist, an aspect of her career that didn’t even begin to flourish until Christie was in her sixties. While Worsley’s affection for Christie is apparent, her subject doesn’t get a “pass” on the less savory aspects of her life story, including the antisemitism and lazy orientalism of her later works and the creative accounting that allowed her to dodge taxes in England and abroad for decades. Still, for all her warts, Christie proves a complex individual who, if nothing else, forged her own way and left an impressive legacy. “No one will have heard of me,” indeed!
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Faithe Miller Lakowicz