HerStory|This Lady Never Vanished: The Enduring Appeal Of Agatha Christie

HerStory|This Lady Never Vanished: The Enduring Appeal Of Agatha Christie

Her books have their share of stereotypes like empty-headed heiresses and gossipy old women, but she also wrote female characters who were brighter and livelier than the men

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, October 05, 2023, 09:43 PM IST
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HerStory|This Lady Never Vanished: The Enduring Appeal Of Agatha Christie | File pic

Two recent screen projects — Charlie Chopra And The Mystery Of Solang Valley in India and A Haunting In Venice in the UK — point to the continuing popularity of Agatha Christie, nearly half a century after her demise (her birthday on September 15, just went by). Death On The Nile, Murder On The Orient Express, And Then There Were None have already been revisited. There are stage productions of The Mousetrap (the longest-running play ever) and Witness For The Prosecution, always on stage somewhere in the world. Her novels have outsold the work of every other writer, yet there has been a kind of reluctance to give her and other writers of crime fiction their due place in the literary firmament.

Of the Queens of Crime in what is now considered the Golden Age (from the 1920s and 30s) of crime fiction — Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh — only Christie has landed in the 21st century with her popularity not just intact but growing. She was not the first female writer of detective fiction (Metta Fuller Victor gets that honour) but remains undoubtedly the finest. Consequently, there have been dozens of biographies and studies of her novels, her own autobiography and the constant speculation about the greatest mystery of her life, the 11 days when she inexplicably vanished. The latest, An Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsely, was shortlisted for the Dagger Awards for non-fiction earlier this year, and examines the writer’s life, times and work in an enjoyable style.

Worsley writes in her preface, “Agatha shattered the twentieth century’s rules for women. Females of her generation and social class were supposed to be slender, earn nothing, blindly adore their numerous children and constantly give themselves to others.”

She grew up at a time when feminism was not in vogue, and went through all the social rituals young women of the upper class in the west had to endure to find a suitable husband. The World War interrupted and then altered things for women. For the first time, many had to go out to earn a living while their husbands were away on the battlefront, and wealthy ladies volunteered, as did Christie (nee Miller), in a hospital, where she started at the lowest level, as a cleaner, and later trained as a nurse. Her experience at hospitals gave her a knowledge of poisons, which she used in several books.

Even though she believed that women had to be ladylike, and is quoted as having said that men had better brains than women, she created one of the most memorable female detectives — Jane Marple, who first appeared in The Murder At The Vicarage (1930) at the age of 65. Through Miss Marple, a sort of alter ego, Christie shared her ideas with adoring readers and indirectly commented on the problems of British society. People read her books avidly and gifted them to others, so Christie At Christmas became an annual custom.

Her first marriage to Archibald Christie was tumultuous, periods of bliss along with severe differences. Her husband wrote about Agatha (quoted in Worsely’s book), “A kindly and affectionate disposition, fond of animals except worms and cockchafers; fond of human beings except husbands (on principle). Normally lazy but can develop and maintain great energy. Sound in limb and eye, wind not good uphill. Full of intelligence and artistic taste. Unconventional and inquisitive. Face good, especially hair; figure good and skin excellent. Can wheedle well. Wild but if once captured would make a loving and affectionate wife.”

Her second marriage to archeologist Max Mallowan was happier. One of her most quotable quotes is about marrying an archaeologist, as he is more interested in her the older she gets. She also spent time on his dig sites in the Middle East, which made its way into her fiction.

Agatha Christie did not care to fight the image created of her as that of a snobbish, fuddy-duddy old lady; her books were not expected to last so long, but they did, and researchers have been analysing their enduring appeal. John Mortimer, reviewing Gillain Gill’s book, Agatha Christie: The Woman And Her Mysteries in The New York Times, writes, “Christie was not the simple or ordinary woman she claimed. Gifted with unusual energy, intellectual brilliance, and drive, full of sensual delight in the physical world, Christie was attractive, charming, and sociable, a passionate lover of men, a trustworthy friend of women. She was also, however, silent, reserved, hesitant of intimacy, haunted by solipsism, forever doubtful and insecure in her human relationships, seeking to be invulnerable. The least confiding of women, Christie did confide in The Reader, a distant, anonymous, unknown and therefore unthreatening person, with whom she felt she communicated on her own terms.”

Whether Agatha Christie, who was accused of being anti-Semitic, classist, racist and anti-gay, was also anti-feminist, has been debated endlessly. Her books have their share of stereotypes like empty-headed heiresses and gossipy old women, but she also wrote female characters who were brighter and livelier than the men. She created successful career women as well as single and independent women in her books.

As Gillian says in an interview to Elizabeth Mehren in The Los Angeles Times, that in Christie’s books, “Men were as likely to be victims as women, and just as likely to be murderers as women. Most murderers in most books are male, and most murder victims in most books are women.”

Moreover, the female murderers in her books are not “not some sly seductress, not the stereotypical female murderer. In Christie’s books, the women are very ordinary. They can be sweet young things; they can be elderly spinsters. They are you and me, essentially.” Gill points out that as early as in her second novel, The Secret Adversary, Christie introduced a sleuthing couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who operate “a team of equals, not as boss and female sidekick.”

The most astonishing anecdote that illustrates how the bestselling author was more about her work than her public image comes from her autobiography, in which she writes about the time in 1958, when her play, The Mousetrap, became the longest-running production in British theatre, having completed 2239 performances in 10 years; the producer threw a party to celebrate at The Savoy, where Agatha Christie was refused entry because the doorman did not recognise her. Instead of creating a scene, she simply went and sat in the lounge.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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