5* (out of 5*)
Towards the beginning of the war, Graham Greene had written to me and asked if I would like to do propaganda work. I did not think I was the kind of writer who would be any good at propaganda, because I lacked the single-mindedness to see only one side of the case. Nothing could be more ineffectual than a lukewarm propagandist. You want to be able to say ‘X is black as night’ and feel it. I didn’t think I could ever be like that.
Dame Agatha – one of the most puzzling authors I have ever read. Puzzling because I can never guess from her stories whether she is poking fun at people by drawing up outrageous characters, whether she is echoing the mores of her time, whether she expresses her own attitudes in her books, whether it’s all or none of these.
Dame Agatha is a mystery to me.
Earlier this year I got a little unnerved with re-reading some of her books because of some of the attitudes exhibited by her characters. I know that I am looking at this from the point of someone who is of a different generation and cultural background, but still, some of the xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and snobbery is just very hard to take.
So, anyway I wanted to find out where the attitudes come from? Do they represent the author?
Having read Christie’s Autobiography, I’m still puzzled: for sure, Christie had some biases with respect to class and “stout” people and – for some reason – gardeners, but there was little in her autobiography to explain or confirm the sexism and xenophobia that seems to have thrown me in her books.
On the contrary, in a way Christie was not at all the Victorian prim that her creation Marple is. There are numerous references to occasions where she is positively rebelling against her times – from refusing to wear Edwardian fashion to declaring that one of the best days of her life was when she bought a rather speedy motor car.
And of course, I was also thrown by the enthusiasm with which she described her surfing adventures, and according to some (unconfirmed) articles she even was one of the first people to surf standing up (though I would think that some local surfers in Hawaii or elsewhere would dispute that):
“I can’t say that we enjoyed our first four or five days of surfing–it was far too painful–but there were, every now and then, moments of utter joy. We soon learned, too, to do it the easy way.
The second time I took the water, a catastrophe occurred. My handsome silk bathing dress, covering me from shoulder to ankle was more or less torn from me by the force of the waves. Almost nude, I made for my beach wrap. I had immediately to visit the hotel shop and provide myself with a wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well. Archie thought I did too.
I was suffering from neuritis, though I did not yet call it by that name. If I’d had any sense at all I should have stopped using that arm and given up surfing, but I never thought of such a thing. There were only three days to go and I could not bear to waste a moment. I surfed, stood up on my board, displayed my prowess to the end.”
It was not, however, only her love of sport that convinced me that reading her books requires a separation between the characters and the authors. As mentioned, where Marple is a strict Victorian old busy-body, I don’t believe Agatha was. In fact, if I would compare her to any of her characters it would have to be one of the bright young things – who acted more on instinct than by what was expected of them.
There are quite a few revelations about her early life with Archie Christie where the couple struggled with funds and, of course, how she struggled with money again after their divorce. Though she didn’t become a writer to earn a living, she certainly turned to it as her sole source of income once she had to fend for herself. It was at that time that she perfected the formulaic mystery that made her famous. It was also at that time – when she wrote to pay the rent – that she admits to writing some of her worst books – like Mystery on the Blue Train. It is her openness about financial struggles, being over-whelmed by public interest, and coming to changer her mind about her own perceptions and aspirations that differentiate Dame Agatha from her characters – most of whom are pretty set in their ways.
“And I think I was right to be continually asking myself ‘Why?’ all the time, because to people like me, asking why is what makes life interesting.”
“I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurrat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colours of apricot, rose, blue and mauve changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket-boys, the pick-men – the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came up to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing, with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself. How unfortunate it was, I thought, that I had always led such a frivolous life. And it was then that I remembered with deep shame how in Cairo as a girl my mother had tried to persuade me to go to Luxor and Aswan to see the past glories of Egypt, and how I had wanted only to meet young men and dance till the small hours of the morning. Well, I suppose there is a time for everything.”
As mentioned, I tried to read this book with the purpose of learning more about Dame Agatha and solve the conundrum that she poses to me in her books – how much of her writing is the author and how much is a reflection of the characters and mores of her times – and, even, how much of it is satire?
I still don’t know. Maybe it is a mystery where applying a formula – even in reverse – will not work. Maybe, it’s one mystery that just isn’t to be unraveled. If so, all I want to say is “Well played, Dame Agatha. Well played.” After all, what is life without a bit of mystery to to keep us interested?
“There is at least the dawn, I believe, of a kind of good will. We mind when we hear of earthquakes, of spectacular disasters to the human race. We want to help. That is a real achievement; which I think must lead somewhere. Not quickly–nothing happens quickly–but at any rate we can hope. I think sometimes we do not appreciate that second virtue which we mention so seldom in the trilogy–faith, hope and charity. Faith we have had, shall we say, almost too much of–faith can make you bitter, hard, unforgiving; you can abuse faith. Love we cannot but help knowing in our own hearts is the essential. But how often do we forget that there is hope as well, and that we seldom think about hope? We are ready to despair too soon, we are ready to say, ‘What’s the good of doing anything?’ Hope is the virtue we should cultivate most in this present day and age. We have made ourselves a Welfare State, which has given us freedom from fear, security, our daily bread and a little more than our daily bread; and yet it seems to me that now, in this Welfare State, every year it becomes more difficult for anybody to look forward to the future. Nothing is worth-while. Why? Is it because we no longer have to fight for
existence? Is living not even interesting any more? We cannot appreciate the fact of being alive. Perhaps we need the difficulties of space, of new worlds opening up, of a different kind of hardship and agony, of illness and pain, and a wild yearning for survival? Oh well, I am a hopeful person myself. The one virtue that would never, I think, be quenched for me, would be hope.”