Mysterious words from the beyond
Recently discovered tapes promise revelations about the elusive Agatha Christie, writes Selina Mills
ONE hot summer afternoon in London, when I was five or six, I was sent to the garden of our house in Chelsea to contemplate a naughty deed, rather than attending a birthday party. I can’t remember my crime, but I can remember swaying too violently on a vivid orange hammock and falling on my head with a thump. Before long, a smart old woman with ropes of pearls rushed over from next door and calmed my howling. We had a nice little chat about the merits of hammocks on hot sunny days and being naughty until my mother arrived and the woman left. I did not discover until much later, however, that my rescuer was Agatha Christie; the following winter, in 1976, she died.
I tell this story, not just for the name drop, but to give a clue about Christie. A couple of months ago, her grandson Mathew Prichard was going through her effects at her home, Greenway, in south Devon, and to his astonishment found a box full of tapes and a Grundig Memorette reelto-reel tape recorder. Dating back to the 1960s when Christie was making working notes for her biography, published in 1978, the tapes offer an intriguing glimpse into the intimate life of one of the world’s most private and reclusive writers. They reveal a side that her fans and critics never saw: a cosmopolitan, clever and forthright person, who cared deeply about so many things, even little girls who fell out of hammocks.
First, the bad news for the many Christie aficionados: the tapes do not reveal what happened during the 11 days Christie went missing in 1926. When the author’s first marriage was disintegrating, she disappeared. The public and press, in true mystery-novel style, were convinced she was dead, perhaps from suicide. After a search, she was found at the Hydro Hotel, Harrogate, looking quite well and with no explanation for the episode other than amnesia. She never spoke about it ( her family now accept her biographer Laura Thompson’s view that she had some form of breakdown) and sadly the tapes hold no clues to this elusive period.
Interestingly, and perhaps because of the frenzy of the publicity in 1926, Christie rarely gave interviews again, except in 1955 to the BBC and in 1974 to the Imperial War Museum about her experiences in a World War I dispensary: hence her knowledge of poisons. So the mere existence of these tapes is important.
Speaking in an informal and relaxed tone, and continually hitting the pause button to think, and almost interviewing herself by answering hypothetical questions, she talks about much of her life, including her pre-war travels and digs in the Middle East, her 1930 honeymoon in Dubrovnik with her second husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, and wartime London. As you listen to her quiet rhythm and clipped syntax it is hard not to be lulled into a past era, a world of quiet assurance and old England that we rarely hear these fast 21st-century days.
She mulls over her writing. When speaking about The Mousetrap , London’s longest-running play, she says its success was 90 per cent luck and that there was a bit of something in it for everybody, although she never imagined it would go on for so long. But she is also immensely humble: ‘‘ I must say I had no feeling whatsoever I had a great success on my hands . . . I was a bit depressed about it, I remember.’’
Yet she also believes deeply in her characters. In another tape, she explains how she came to create Miss Marple, the elderly spinster who acts as an amateur sleuth for 12 novels. She is adamant that Miss Marple is not based on her grandmother, but admits there are similarities: ‘‘ She had this in common with my grandmother that, although a completely cheerful person, she always expected the worst of anyone and everything and, with almost frightening accuracy, was usually proved right.’’
She also rejects the idea — despite many of her fans wishing it so — that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple could ever meet, because Poirot was such an egoist and would not like to have an elderly spinster giving him advice. Poirot, of course, would not fit into the cosy world of Miss Marple: ‘‘ They are both stars, and stars in their own right. I shall not let them meet unless I feel a very sudden and unexpected urge to do so.’’
Whatever your view on Christie’s novels ( and this can range from snubbing to adulation) they show, as do her own insights, that she observed people with clarity. She understood archetypes and used them as part of the function of her plots. What her readers so enjoy is the recognition of themselves or others in these characters. We know these archetypes: the jealous wife, the greedy husband. And while the plots are straightforward, they often wrestle with moral and philosophical issues: when do you really know something? Would you kill for love? Character solves the plot in a Christie novel.
The tapes also reveal, and this is too often forgotten, that Christie loved travelling and escaping the public glare, particularly when she was at the height of her fame in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s. For a few months a year, she could just be Mrs ( later, Lady) Mallowan, who quietly considered humanity at ground level while digging alongside her husband. She loved everyday objects, digging and the struggles of cooking in the desert, which she detailed in Come, Tell Me How You Live , the travelogue of her journeys in Iraq and Syria.
As she talks, Christie gives an intimate and private sense of herself. She has mannerisms, clears her throat in the middle of sentences, is considered and ordered in her thinking.
She would never reveal herself in this way publicly, knowing how the press would speculate. She would also have been the first to admit she was not a literary writer and never set out to be, and what is clear from the tapes is that she was happy her books gave entertainment, enjoyment and escapism. Yet she had much support from the literati of her generation. She was popular with French intellectuals, and deeply admired by the Shakespearean scholar Robert Speaight. And on the publication of the final Poirot novel in 1975, the fictional Belgian detective was given a frontpage obituary in The New York Times .
Christie’s grandson is still painstakingly digitising the tapes, so it will be a while yet before we find out if there are any other hidden ghosts in the attic. But the tapes are a wonderful way of making Christie real and human and removed from the brand.
As she writes in 1929 in her short story The Man from the Sea : ‘‘ You as you may not matter to anyone in the world, but you as a person in a particular place may matter unimaginably.’’ The tapes, the books and her character still do.
Private person: Agatha Christie remains a best-selling author more than 30 years after her death