An Elusive Woman: Lucy Worsley on Agatha Christie

Lucy Worsley

The historian and broadcaster sat down with our editor to talk about Christie, her life and the many screen adaptations.
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Lucy, many congratulations on the new book. The subtitle is An Elusive Woman, her reported words in an interview in December 1926. Was this a difficult project to embark on, and how do you feel about Christie now you’ve finished?

I liked Christie before I began, but now I love her.  That’s warts and all, light and shade!  I was worried at first that she would be too successful, too famous, too magnificent, for my readers to really warm to her.  There’s something a bit prickly and difficult about her public image.  But the woman and her image are totally different things.  I discovered so many fragilities and vulnerabilities that I ended up feeling almost protective of her.  She would in later life present herself as ‘the Duchess of Death,’ this powerful, enigmatic figure who rarely gave interviews.  But that was a way of armouring herself, I believe.  It was self-protection.  I knew right from the start that I wanted to intertwine her life story with a broader story about the twentieth century.  I think her defining feature was her modernity, whether that’s big things like being a working mother, exploring psychotherapy, living through two World Wars, being divorced – or little ones, like her passion for speed.  In the 1920s, she learned how to surf in Hawaii, and in the 1960s she would drive her car at its maximum velocity of 85 miles an hour down the new M4 motorway.  For a girl born in the reign of Queen Victoria, she broke all sorts of rules.

She is the most successful novelist of all time, and a woman – how much of a female icon is she?

An underestimated one!  The cliché runs that Agatha Christie has been outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible – but she achieved that as a woman in a world made by men.  With her films playing endlessly on Sunday afternoons, I think that her success came to seem like part of the wallpaper of life – people forget what a ground-breaker she was.  But she’s not a completely obvious role model, because she never felt able to claim that sort of status for herself.  In later life she always talked down the value of her work, describing herself as ‘just’ a housewife, and would have vehemently denied that she was anything like a feminist.  That’s partly the values of her upper-middle class Victorian childhood, I think, but it was also, I believe, the legacy of a terrible public shaming she got in the notorious year (we’ll come onto this shortly!) of 1926.  She ended up hating being a public figure.

 Successful as she is, there are some themes in her novels that are problematic today. She was clearly a woman of her time. How do you think we should view Agatha Christie today?

Not just as entertainment. For a historian, her works and her archive present a treasure trove of evidence for the attitudes of a great swathe of Middle England (and beyond) throughout the span of the twentieth century. The attitudes in her work were echoed with her readers.  I think as historians we have to study them to see the deep-rooted origins of problems that still affect the world today. But her novels are also interesting as evidence of changing attitudes: there’s more same-sex desire, there are more liberal attitudes towards, say, Iraqi people, as the decades go on. And to me it seems lazy to pigeon-hole her, as people tend to, simply as a conservative writer. Her novels operate by presenting you with widely-accepted stereotypes, then sometimes turning them on their heads.  Most obviously, never underestimate Hercule Poirot, even if he’s a rather camp war refugee who hasn’t been to public school. And of course it’s perilous to mess with that fluffy little old lady called Miss Marple. I think Christie the writer is basically critical of British culture. She says rottenness is everywhere.  People don’t seem to realise that she often takes the perspective of an outsider.

 She grew up in a wealthy family in Devon during the Edwardian period. How influential was this environment on her, both from a literary standpoint, and her personality?

Agatha’s destiny was to follow her older sister into marriage (preferably to a rich man) and motherhood. To that end, her parents hardly educated her – she claimed to have taught herself to read.  Her siblings were much older, so she spent a lot of time entertaining herself with the imaginary friends who were the precursors of her literary characters.  She was brought up in a leisurely, loving family.  But this wasn’t necessarily a good preparation for a life that would encompass war, and divorce, and a lack of money.

 Her disappearance in 1926 became a huge news story at the time, but she didn’t mention it in her 1977 autobiography, published after her death. It would appear on the surface to be a bout of mental illness, what are your thoughts on the episode?

 Her Autobiography does mention it!  And so do newspaper interviews she gave, particularly a very full one in 1928.  But I’m not surprised you think otherwise, and you’re not alone!  The fact is that Agatha was really quite open about this being a dangerous, distressing episode of mental illness.  ‘I just wanted my life to end’ are the words she uses, of the night she famously ‘disappeared’.  But journalists at the time, and historians since, haven’t really wanted to believe her.  That’s because it was uncomfortable back then – and it’s still uncomfortable now – to hear a woman talking about mental health.  That’s why the papers at the time instead suggested she might have hidden herself away on purpose, either to seek publicity, or even to frame her cheating husband for her murder.  I think if you listen to what she says – rather than to the claims made by male policemen and journalists and the historians who’ve repeated them – the so-called mystery of her ‘disappearance’ just melts away.

 Christie’s novels often involved infidelity, or other kinds of sexual dynamic. Was this due to her first marriage which ended unhappily, and heartbreak?

 The cheating husband is certainly a character she would go on to write with great power and conviction.  You’re right to draw attention to her betrayal by her first husband Archie Christie (who left her for a younger woman) because I think for Agatha it confirmed that even the people closest to you could be false.  It made her into the deliciously gothic writer that she became.  But it’s also fair to say that all her characters, not just the husbands, have a dark secret of one sort of another.  Like the cynical Miss Marple herself, Agatha has no illusions.

 What’s your favourite Agatha Christie novel?

 I love The Murder at the Vicarage of 1930, Miss Marple’s first appearance in a novel.  It’s so amazingly clever.  For much of the book, you don’t even realise that this negligible little old lady even is the detective.  And I believe that Miss Marple was Agatha’s most treasured character, the one who stood for the Agatha herself.  They end up growing old together, and use lots of the same tricks for misdirecting our attention away from their formidable brains.  Also, that particular book was written as a kind of wedding present to her second, much-loved husband, Max Mallowan, to whom Agatha remained married for forty-five years.  Miss Marple is the product of second chance at life and love.  I’m happy for Agatha that she got it.

 We’ve seen a resurgence recently with the new Poirot movies starring Kenneth Branagh, and adaptations are often on the small screen. And, of course, The Mousetrap has been running in the West End since 1952. Do you think we’ll still be reading/watching Agatha Christie whodunnits in 50 years?

 Yes, for two reasons.  I think the best of her books stand up to being adapted again and again, for each new generation, like Austen.  And then secondly, these whodunnits are such important evidence for how people thought of Britain and Britishness for much of the twentieth century.  I argue that you should read Christie not only for pleasure but also to learn about history.

 My favourite Poirot is played by Peter Ustinov, but which depiction is the most faithful to the novels?

 Ah, I’d say none of them!  Agatha herself hated films of her books, and even the great starry thespians who played the part could never quite capture her Poirot to her own satisfaction!  And I do think that the screen adaptations tend to compress and water down the brilliance of Christie.  Switch off, is what I say, and go back to the books instead.

Lucy Worsley is a historian and broadcaster and author of Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman.