Friday, January 20, 2012

Agatha Christie - The Autobiography, The Woman

Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976) is the best-selling novelist of all time. She became a writing success during her lifetime and beyond.

It was a standard beginning progressing to a global phenomenon. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published two years after it was submitted as manuscript in her late teens. Her first contract stipulated that she write five more novels. Over the years, Christie actually wrote 82 detective novels and a total of 91 books. Her most successful novel, Ten Little Indians (And Then There were None) has had 100 million sales to date and Publications International lists it as the 7th best-selling novel of all time.

Having been a fan of this grand lady for years, I was delighted to discover that Agatha Christie had written an autobiography. She began writing it in 1950, making notes for fifteen years until it was complete in 1965.

Anyone hoping that this book unveils Agatha Christie's personal writing tips might be disappointed. Christie's biographical focus includes her childhood, her interests, her romantic life and some of her writing beginnings but apart from Christie's firm belief in the ideal detective story length (50000 words) there is little in the way of writing advice or methodology. One exception is that Christie indicates a preference for inventing her characters from pure imagination rather than consciously deriving them from her real life encounters. But overall, the lady has no advice to dispense.
Perhaps this may be in part because she believed every writer has their own way of expressing themselves. And that any opinion she gave regarding how a piece of writing had been executed would only be an indication of the way she would have done it.  In her view, we all had our own way of doing it. She was therefore reluctant to read manuscripts and offer advice or criticism, believing that it had the potential to discourage otherwise budding writers who may have reached audiences despite her opinion.

Those things Christie does spell out wonderfully include her childhood, her courtships as a young adult, the books she read, her travel experiences and the idiosyncrasies she observed in others. Her life narration is also taken up with financial concerns, her enduring work as a nurse, her married years, her divorce and her journey into first becoming published. 

Some interesting facts about Agatha Christie: 
  • She did not attend school and was only provided tutoring well after 9 years of age
  • She loved dancing in her teens and as a young adult
  • She was an introvert
  • She spoke French and English fluently since childhood
  • She lived in France during part of her childhood
  • She kept a lot to herself. As a young girl, her family would reproach her of never 'noticing' anything but Agatha did in fact notice and know much but did not like discussing her insights or observations. One day, when her mother reproached her with not sharing something, Agatha replied, "I don't care for parting with information." As a result, her family often joked that, "Agatha doesn't like parting with information."
  • Agatha was a nurse by profession and learnt much taking care of soldiers during the First World War
  • She studied a branch of pharmacy and most of us would see this reflected in her detective novels
  • She stopped working as a nurse around the time she married Archie Christie
  • She thought New Zealand was one of the most beautiful countries she had ever seen
  • She learned to surf and spent days surfing in Honolulu during a world tour
  • She loved her food and had a grand appetite unburdened by diets
  • She loved travelling which is no surprise considering some of her novel's international settings - Agatha indicates that "going around the world was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me"
  • She enjoyed long train journeys and yes, she did travel several times on the Orient Express which is after all the set of her novel, Murder on the Orient Express
  • During her late teens, her mother took her to Cairo for three months where Agatha enjoyed a 'coming out' period which saw her through between fifty to sixty parties held at reputed hotels
  • Her first detective novel was the result of a dare with her sister. Agatha had always admired her older sister, Madge, who was an excellent writer but not by profession. Madge was talented in many ways in Agatha's eyes.  Having read a popular detective novel, Agatha declared that she might like to try her hand at writing one. Her sister replied that it would be difficult and that Agatha would not be able to. The bet was on. And we know the rest...
  • Her first husband, Archie Christie cheated on her soon after her mother died, it was a dark time for Agatha and she was then on the verge of a nervous breakdown
  • She remarried years later with a man several years younger than her, who she met during a trip to Baghdad
  • Due to her travels in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, Agatha seemed to have had a good nuanced insight into Arab culture which was a joy for me to read
  • Other places she visited include France, England, Greece, Spain, Australia, Canada (she loved Lake Louise), New York, South Africa, Croatia, Italy, Scotland, Iran (then called Persia) and others...
I found Agatha very humble in her expression. There was nothing in her autobiography that seemed to indicate that it had been written by a woman of prodigious success. In fact she never saw her writing as her career until she was much older, always seeing her status as "married woman" (which is probably also due to the times). Her tone remains modest and factual. She does not glamorise anything with the exception of- and this may surprise people -her attentive clothing descriptions. I think Agatha liked clothes immensely. I think this is interesting considering she went through adolescence at the time when her family fell into financial misfortune, meaning that she owned less pretty clothes than other girls. Earlier, she also recalls a time in her childhood when she developed a set of imaginary school girls. She admits that she enjoyed dressing them up according to their personality. There are many moments in her autobiography where she describes clothing with much detail, notably a green dress she bought and wore in Honolulu and which she loved.

I genuinely liked Agatha as a person, partly because we share a similar introverted temperament and also because I admire her writing drive, but mostly because she was so very fond of travelling, a great passion of mine. Agatha admits that her travelling experiences were one of the highlights of her life, and that she really felt herself come alive while she travelled. She describes travelling as living in a dream. In terms of personality traits, I would say that overall, Agatha had a strong need for new experiences.

One of the fun parts of her biography is her list of likes and dislikes which were strikingly similar to mine although I think they would resonate with many sensitive introverts. I have underlined our similarities in the following quote. 

"I don't like crowds, being jammed against people, loud voices, noise, protracted talking, parties, and especially cocktail parties, cigarette smoke and smoking generally, any kind of drink except in cooking, marmalade, oysters, lukewarm food, grey skies, the feet of birds..."

Notice that Christie does not really describe her personality in much detail, opting instead for superficial likes and dislikes. Perhaps she knew well that self-report is not a valid indicator of what one truly feels nor of one's temperament. Maybe she understood what many social psychologists believe, that human behavior depends on the situation and can not always be pinned to a set of fixed traits. It would not surprise me if Agatha believed this. After all, in her novels she displays great insight into human psychology and it would be reasonable to assume that she understood herself well enough so as to not to completely define herself.

I am sure there are other secrets to Agatha's personality. Maybe the humility that transpires in her biography is none other than secrecy. She describes herself as exuberant and yet with the exception of a detailed narration of surfing activities, I did not see this exuberance leap out from the pages of her biography. Was it an internal exuberance perhaps, the likes we find in many introverts? I believe so. Yet again, what if she did not say everything in her biography. I'd naturally assume that too. Come to think of it, she reminded me a little of Miss Marple herself.

And what if, too, her biography is laden with clues that I've yet to decipher, perhaps there are details I have missed. Perhaps you could read it too and let me know what you think.