Agatha Christie was one of the first grown-up authors I read, as a child making her transition into the world of books where the author’s name was as big as the title on the front cover. I loved her clever, twisty plots and the ease with which she took the reader into the heart of the story. I determined to read everything she had ever written, and had more or less managed it by the age of 15. I also read her autobiography and books about her books, as avidly as the novels themselves. I don’t recall when I first found out about her notorious disappearance, and looking back over my reading in those years I don’t know how I can have found out about it – in her own autobiography Christie doesn’t breathe a word about an event that upset her so much she refused (with one exception) to talk about it for the rest of her life. But somehow the whole legend that is Agatha Christie is inseparable from the enigma of the time she went missing and the story was as fascinating to me as it was to the general public at that time.
So when I came across a book by Jared Cade entitled Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days, I just knew I had to read it. Cade claimed to have solved the riddle of her disappearance thanks to unprecedented contact with members of Agatha Christie’s family, and indeed he goes into the story in detail and produces a highly plausible explanation. But it’s also a full biography of her life, intended to show both the origins of her disappearance and the repercussions that never really went away. The fundamental cause, however, was quite simple: her husband, Archie Christie, was having an affair with his golfing partner, Nancy Neele and was determined to divorce Agatha in order to marry her. Despite what was evidently a rather tempestuous relationship, Agatha Christie was devastated. Her own parents had been a devoted couple and she had expected as much for herself. She remained very close to her mother, who had recently died, topping her marital troubles with some pretty hefty grief. And the years of her marriage had witnessed an extraordinary creative output (which she managed to keep up for several decades). Not only had she managed to write five novels in five years, she had also written and published almost 70 short stories in the previous two years, as her reputation had begun to grow. Her most recent novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, had sold quite well and provoked a lot of comment due to its unusual solution, and Agatha Christie was on the cusp of becoming well known. It would be her disappearance that made her famous.
What happened was this: on Friday 3rd December 1926, Agatha and Archie had what seemed to be a definitive row over the state of their marriage, with Archie admitting he planned to spend the weekend with his mistress. When he did not return for dinner that night, it seemed evident he had gone for good. In some distress, at 9.45 that evening, Agatha went out in the car. The car was found the following morning, its headlights still on, abandoned by a local beauty spot, with her fur coat and dressing case on the back seat. What happened then was a potent cocktail of police and media concern. The spot where the incident occurred was in between two county constabularies, and it seems that a certain amount of rivalry pushed the officers involved to ever greater endeavour. But things might still have been kept in hand if the press hadn’t picked up the story and found a hungry audience for it. It was 1926, the year of the General Strike in Britain, a dreary, depressing and unsettling year of hardship, but also a time when class constraints were being keenly felt. Agatha Christie was a well-to-do lady, but also a crime novelist; she would not have wanted her picture in the paper, but she was nevertheless known more widely than many of her kind. It was a delicious irony that she should have disappeared in circumstances as strange as any one of her plots, and a combination of lingering respect for the upper classes as well as schadenfreude over what might have happened provoked thousands to help search for her.
Convinced that the worst had happened, the police search concentrated on the local area and pools were dredged and acres of land carefully searched. It was over a week before Agatha Christie was spotted at a spa in Harrogate going under the name of Mrs Theresa Neele. Archie Christie was taken up north to retrieve her and a distinctly awkward reunion resulted (not least because the police had a fair mind to charge him with murder in the event of a body being found). The family declared that Agatha Christie was suffering from memory loss brought on by stress but neither press nor police were happy with this conclusion, the media speculating that it had all been a publicity stunt and the constabulary looking to charge the Christies with the costs of the search.
Eventually the fuss died down, but exactly what happened was never revealed – and naturally I won’t give you any clues. You’ll have to read the book if you want to find out. And it is no hardship at all to do so; this is a gripping read, very accessible and informative and I certainly learned more about Agatha Christie than I ever knew before. I didn’t know, for instance, that she was very religious, although some of the things that happened to her shook her faith considerably. Nor did I know that she had a very chequered marital history, with neither of her husbands remaining faithful to her, which seems a terrible shame when she set such store on the thought of a perfectly happy marriage. The only quibble I have with the book is that I came away with no clear picture of Agatha Christie’s character. I can see this is partly because she was a very private person, who often pretended very convincingly that all was well when it most certainly wasn’t. But underneath that veneer, a powerful and inconsistent persona seems to reveal itself. She was very romantic and idealistic, often uncertain where the boundary between fantasy and reality lay, and yet she also seems proud and a little capricious and willful, too. One of the serious bones of contention between herself and Archie was the fact that she wouldn’t permit him access to the money she earned from writing, which was difficult when Archie couldn’t at that time find a job he wanted to do. She was an extraordinary person, but also highly-strung when younger. Where she does seem very admirable is in the way she grew and adapted over the course of her life, always determined to make the best of things and to find a philosophy to help her through.
I’ve been away for a few days from blogging partly because silly bloglines won’t let me comment on any blogs and now I can’t recall which post I saw where (I do apologise, but I have read you all!), but mostly because I’ve had cystitis (why do I never get illnesses I can be proud of?). I have just picked up my antibiotics from the chemist and I loathe taking them because of all the possible side effects (coma, convulsions, death). I hope to return to the reading room again soon, unless of course I have jaundice or an allergic reaction or exploding tendons (!) in the meantime. Cross your fingers for me.