Selina Mills on how some newly discovered tapes give us a glimpse into the life of Agatha Christie
One hot summer’s afternoon in London, when I was five or six, I was sent to the garden of our house in Chelsea, rather than attending a birthday party, to contemplate a naughty deed. I can’t remember my crime, but I can remember swaying too violently on a vivid orange hammock, and falling on my head with a thump. Before long, a smart old lady with ropes of pearls rushed over from next door and calmed my howling. We had a nice little chat about the merits of hammocks on hot sunny days and being naughty until my mother arrived and the lady left. I did not discover until much later, however, that my rescuer was Agatha Christie; the following winter (1976) she died.
I tell this story, not just for the name drop, but to give a clue about Agatha Christie. A couple of months ago her grandson Mathew Prichard was going through her old effects at her home Greenway, in south Devon, and to his astonishment found a box full of old tapes and an old Grundig Memorette reel-to-reel tape recorder. Hidden for over 35 years, and dating back to the 1960s when she was making working notes for her biography, published in 1978, the tapes reveal an intriguing glimpse into the intimate life of one of the world’s most private and reclusive writers. They reveal a whole other side that her fans and critics never saw: a cosmopolitan, clever and forthright person, who cared deeply about so many things, even little girls who fell out of hammocks.
First off, the bad news for the many Christie aficionados (worldwide her novels have sold over two billion and are in 45 languages): the tapes do not reveal what happened during the 11 days that Agatha Christie went missing in 1926. Christie, whose first marriage was disintegrating, completely disappeared. The public and press, in true mystery-novel style, were convinced she was dead, perhaps from suicide. After a mass search, she was found at the Hydro Hotel, Harrogate, looking quite well and with no explanation for the episode other than amnesia. She never spoke about it (her family now accept her biographer Laura Thompson’s view that she had some form of breakdown) and sadly the tapes hold no clues to this elusive period.
Interestingly, and perhaps because of the frenzy of the publicity in 1926, Christie rarely gave interviews again, except in 1955 to the BBC and in 1974 to the Imperial War Museum about her experiences in a first world war dispensary — hence her knowledge of poisons. So the mere existence of these tapes is important. Speaking in an informal and relaxed tone, and continually hitting the pause button to think, and almost interviewing herself by answering hypothetical questions, she talks about everything from her pre-war travels and digs in the Middle East, her 1930 honeymoon in Dubrovnik with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and wartime London. As you listen to her quiet rhythm and clipped syntax, it is hard not to be lulled into a previous era — a world of quiet assurance and ‘old England’ that we rarely hear these fast 21st-century days.
She mulls over her writing. When speaking about The Mousetrap, London’s longest-running play, she says its success was ‘90 per cent luck’ and that there was ‘a bit of something in it for everybody’, although she never imagined it would go on for so long. But she is also immensely humble: ‘I must say I had no feeling whatsoever I had a great success on my hands...I was a bit depressed about it, I remember.’ Yet she also believes deeply in her characters. In another tape, she explains how she came to create Miss Marple, the elderly spinster who acts as an amateur sleuth for 12 novels. She is adamant that Miss Marple is not based on her grandmother, but admits there are similarities: ‘She had this in common with my grandmother that, although a completely cheerful person, she always expected the worst of anyone and everything and, with almost frightening accuracy, was usually proved right.’
She also rejects the idea — despite many of her fans wishing it so — that Poirot and Miss Marple could ever meet because Poirot was such an egoist and would not like to have an ‘elderly spinster’ giving him advice. Poirot, of course, would not fit into the cosy world of Miss Marple: ‘They are both stars, and stars in their own right. I shall not let them meet unless I feel a very sudden and unexpected urge to do so.’
Whatever your view on Christie novels (and this can range from serious snubbing to sheer adulation) her novels show, as do her own insights, that she observed people with great clarity. She understood archetypes and used them as part of the function of her plots. What her readers so enjoy is that they recognise either themselves or others in these characters. We know these archetypes — the jealous wife, the greedy husband. And while the plots are straightforward, they often wrestle with basic moral and philosophical issues: when do you really know something? Would you kill for love? Character solves the plot in a Christie novel.
The tapes also reveal, and this is too often forgotten, that Agatha Christie loved travelling and escaping the public glare, particularly when she was at the height of her fame in the Sixties and Seventies. For a few months a year, she could just be Mrs (later, Lady) Mallowan, who quietly considered humanity at ground level while digging alongside her husband, Max. She loves everyday objects, digging and the struggles of cooking in the desert, which she also details in Come, Tell Me How You Live the non-fiction travelogue about her journeys in Iraq and Syria. As she talks to the tapes, she gives an intimate and private sense of herself. She is full of mannerisms — she clears her throat in the middle of sentences. And she is immensely considered and ordered in her thinking. She would never reveal herself in this way publicly, knowing how the press would speculate.
Agatha Christie would also be the first to admit she was not a great literary writer and never set out to be, and what is clear from the tapes is that she was happy her books gave entertainment, enjoyment and escapism. Yet she had much support from the literati of her own generation — she was popular with French intellectuals, and deeply admired by the Shakespearean scholar Robert Speaight. And on the publication of the final Hercule Poirot novel in 1975, the fictional Belgian detective was given a front-page obituary in the New York Times.
Christie’s grandson is still painstakingly digitalising the tapes, so it will be a while yet to find out if there are any other hidden ghosts in the attic. But the tapes are a wonderful way of making Agatha Christie real and human and away from the brand. As she writes in 1929 in her short story ‘The Man from the Sea’, ‘You as you may not matter to anyone in the world, but you as a person in a particular place may matter unimaginably.’ The tapes, the books and her character still do.