In the cover photo of her new biography, the young Agatha Christie seems extremely confident. Maybe she was. During her long career, she will break records both for the detective novel and for the theater. Like Dickens, with a similar following and sales, she was a great inimitable.
It is also a difficult subject. Her greatest adventure was when she became literally elusive, missing for 11 days after her marriage broke up in 1926, causing a stir. Unlike its mysteries, it still cannot be fully explained. The same goes for the lady, a very private person, dedicated to her work.
She presented a banal and conventional facade, but her success shows that she was no ordinary woman. She had her quirks and unorthodoxy: as a surfer in the 1920s; divorce at a time when he was still downgraded; and remarry a man 14 years younger.
Like his fiction, Christie was extremely adaptable. She had to be, live a century marked by extreme changes. His family was wealthy middle class, but descended in the world. Young Agatha Miller was bright, but undereducated except for marriage. She attracted many proposals, but married for love. Archibald Christie, says biographer Lucy Worsley, was sexy. He was also almost immediately called up for World War I.
Therefore, the young couple spent four years apart, Agatha working as a nurse, from which she gained knowledge of poisons – so useful for an author of detective novels. His writing started for money, but sold to a grateful audience. Six bestselling books later, her marriage fell apart. She flees, in what Worsley calls a dissociative fugue, but also with a tidy sum in her purse. As with Arthur Upfield and the Murchison murders (in which the murderer used a method devised by Upfield to dispose of the bodies), advertising increased sales.
Divorced, her daughter in boarding school, Christie took a lonely vacation in Iraq – and ended up finding a new life with archaeologist Max Mallowan. She helped him, especially financially, and they were deliciously happy together. From this moment on, the biography loses much of its interesting conflict, becoming a chronicle of increasing success. Most importantly, Christie had the luck and the courage to incorporate his work into theater and film. On screen in particular, she still has a huge footprint, her iconic characters, portrayed by top actors.
Christie has had biographers before, and Worsley brings the rigor of a historian to the task. TV presenter on heritage and great English monuments, she understands her audience. Indeed, what could be more monumental and English than the Grande Dame herself? This means that Worsley mixes an airy tone with due attention to family records and endnotes.
Yet, although she is a fan, she is not without criticism. Christie was a product of his time, prejudiced when it came to class and race. What is outrageous now was beyond reproach then. Worsley is more interested in Christie as a feminist (although the Lady has denied it). She also draws on recent literary criticism to defend Christie as a writer; and also to explain its success.