Friday, July 4, 2014

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography is more of a rambling memoir than a traditional autobiography, and more enjoyable because of that.  A more serious autobiography would probably focus on Christie's career, but the less directed format allowed her to focus on her personal life, and particularly her childhood.  Agatha Miller was born into the last days of a world Jane Austen would recognize, where gentlemen did not earn a living despite their declining investments and a girl might be raised entirely by a nanny and never have a day of formal education and a charming ne'er do well of an older brother might find an acceptable place in the officer corps on his connections.  She looks nostalgically on those times, but as a 21st Century great-granddaughter of a woman "in service," her comments on servants (on one hand, they were professionals; on the other they knew their place and were happier because of it) strike me as a bit odd.  It was an idyllic life, until her father's death left the family in financial straights.  Even then, Agatha seems to have had a "proper" adolescence and debut, traveling to lower-cost resorts where it was possible to live on less than the income from renting out one's home.  She had a few romances before meeting Archie Christie, married and worked in a hospital dispensary during WWI, had a daughter, and began her writing career.

I wonder how hard it was for Christie to discuss her first marriage.  It felt like she was trying to be fair to Archie, but he comes across as a bit self-centered and unreliable.  They were in love, and they went on a year-long trip around the world, but there's a nagging idea that he's going to let her down.  We know that happened - he left her for Nancy Neale while Agatha was mourning her mother's death and single-handedly clearing out her family home, and that led to Agatha's famous disappearance (which she doesn't mention).  Still, I question how reliable of a narrator she is for this part of her life.

Or for any part of her life, really.  Is any memoirist, particularly one who is so vivid of a writer, giving a truly unbiased view of her life?  Another example involves her second marriage to Max Mallowan.  They met when she was invited to visit an archaeological dig; Max was expedition leader Leonard Wooley's protege.  She chronicled their friendship and then romance through a series of trips, but with a fuzzy timeline and leaves the impression that he fell in love immediately and she had no clue.  Once married to Max, she accompanied him on his archaeological digs until WWII when he entered the Army and she once again worked in a hospital dispensary.

Christie wrote her memoir between 1955 an 1965, but it essentially ends before she began writing it, and only casually discusses her career.  Except for the year following the breakup of her first marriage, she apparently found writing easy.  All she needed was a typewriter, a good table, and a few hours of privacy to produce her yearly novels, and when she wanted money for a home improvement or a new car, she'd just sit down and write a short story and send it to a magazine for publication.  She almost dismisses her prolific WWII output by saying that there wasn't much else to do - Max was overseas, her daughter was in Walse, her friends were scattered, and there wasn't much nightlife - and that she wrote two books simultaneously so if she became blocked on one, she could work on the other.  I'd like to read a straight biography of Agatha Christie, particularly one that analyzed her professional life  I don't think, though, that such a book, no matter how informative, would be quite as much fun as her own memoir.

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