At the Hydropathic

T.J. Binyon

  • Agatha Christie by Janet Morgan
    Collins, 393 pp, £12.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 00 216330 6

At first sight Janet Morgan does not seem the obvious person to choose as the official biographer of Agatha Christie. She describes herself on the jacket of the book as a ‘writer and consultant’, who now ‘advises governments, companies and other organisations on long-range strategic planning, new technology and different approaches to whatever they find themselves doing’. She has written on politics and broadcasting and was, of course, the editor of the four-volume edition of Crossman’s diaries. All this is a world away from M. Poirot or Miss Marple, and internal evidence suggests, too, that she has no particular knowledge of, or liking for, the detective story. But on the whole this is a solid and sensible life – if sometimes annoyingly vague on detail and dates – which complements and expands Agatha Christie’s posthumously published autobiography. It is also annoying that it should not contain a chronological list of her work: that one is available elsewhere is no excuse for the omission. But the biography certainly fulfils what was presumably the family’s main aim: it lays, once and for all, the malicious rumours and vulgar gossip put about by other writers on the subject of Agatha Christie’s ten days’ disappearance in 1926, providing an authoritative, as well as authorised, explanation for the event.

It must surely have been a relief for Ms Morgan to turn from one of the most unpleasant personalities of recent politics to one of the most pleasant of popular literature. But politicians have left their mark on her: at times she appears to share, on the one hand, their belief that the public knows nothing about anything and requires instruction (usually misinformed) of the most simple kind; and, on the other, their curious ignorance about the normal procedures of daily life. It’s hard to explain otherwise why she should feel it necessary, for example, to tell her readers, with questionable accuracy, that ‘until comparatively recently motor-cars had works that were temperamental, cumbersome and precarious. It was not unusual, particularly in cold weather, to have to start the engine by cranking a handle.’ Or to tell them that a game of bridge was ‘a typical Nineteen Thirties pastime, friendly with a touch of daring (rather like a séance), riveting for those who were engaged in it and dull for those who were not, apt to degenerate into a quarrel’. And belief in her knowledge of life is shaken by the statement, made without turning a hair, that Agatha’s madcap elder sister Madge once came down to dinner at Cheadle Hall ‘dressed as a cricketer, in black breeches, cricket cap and shorts’. Even while boggling at Ms Morgan’s conception of a cricketer’s normal attire, one realises that she hasn’t addressed herself to the really important question: how on earth did Madge manage to get her shorts on over the breeches?

Madge was born in 1879; Monty, the black sheep of the family, an archetypal remittance man, in 1880; and Agatha, somewhat of an afterthought, in 1890. Madge was sent to boarding-school in Brighton, Monty to Harrow, but Agatha had no formal education until she went to finishing-school in Paris at the age of 15. Family relationships were complicated by the fact that their father, Frederick Miller, an American, had married his step-mother’s niece, Clara; Agatha’s step-grandmother was therefore also her great-aunt. They settled in a large villa on the outskirts of Torquay. In the morning Frederick would walk to the Royal Torbay Yacht Club, drink a glass of sherry, read the newspapers and walk home for luncheon. In the afternoon he would walk back to the club and weigh himself. He died in 1901, leaving the family financially embarrassed. Clara preserved his last letter, the order of service from his funeral, some beech leaves from Ealing Cemetery, his account book, and the last piece of Pears’ soap he had used.

In 1902 Madge married a prosperous Lancashire businessman, and in 1910 Clara took Agatha, who had given up her youthful hopes of becoming a concert pianist or opera singer, to Cairo for the season to look for a husband. Much to Ms Morgan’s disappointment – she is always eager to find adumbrations of the future in the early life – Agatha showed absolutely no interest in antiquity or archaeology, refusing point-blank to visit Cairo Museum. She wasn’t a complete social success either. One officer returned her to her mother after a dance with the words: ‘Here’s your daughter. She has learnt to dance, in fact she dances beautifully. You had better try and teach her to talk now.’ She came back to England without a young man in tow, but in October 1912 met Archie Christie, then a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, at a ball at Chudleigh. In August 1914 Archie, who had transferred to the RFC, was posted to France with his squadron. He returned to England on leave in December, and they were married by special licence on Christmas Eve. During the war Agatha worked first as a VAD, then as a dispenser in the hospital at Torquay. In September 1918 Archie was posted to London; a daughter, Rosalind, was born in 1919; and in 1920 Hercule Poirot made his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Two years later Archie, who had gone into the City, was invited by his former house-master at Clifton, Major E. A. Belcher – an eccentric tyrant, later caricatured by Agatha in The Man in the Brown Suit – to join, as financial adviser, a mission to the Dominions which would drum up publicity for the forthcoming Empire Exhibition of 1924. The mission left for South Africa on board the RMS Kildonan Castle in January 1922; Agatha went along for the ride, leaving Rosalind with Madge. Belcher won the fancy-dress competition; Archie and Agatha beat a Belgian couple at quoits – ‘I hear you’ve knocked out the Dagoes! Splendid.’ After dispatching three cases of carved wooden animals back to Torquay, they left Cape Town for Australia. Agatha wrote to her mother advising her to buy Shepperton Packing Co Green Label ‘Fancy’ canned peaches. Then, following a short stay in New Zealand, the Christies left Belcher and the others and took a holiday in Hawaii. Rapturous first impressions were modified when Archie was badly blistered by the sun and Agatha got severe neuritis in her left arm from too much surfing. They rejoined the party in Canada, sailed from New York and arrived in Southampton in December.

They moved to Sunningdale in Berkshire, where they rented a flat, and then bought a house, ‘a sort of millionaire-style Savoy suite transferred to the country’. Archie insisted on calling it ‘Styles’. His business affairs had begun to look up; and Agatha had settled down to the regular production of novels. She bought a car, took on a literary agent – Edmund Cork of Hughes Massie, who looked after her affairs for the rest of her life – and a secretary-governess. In 1926 she became famous. In the spring of that year she published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a book based on an idea suggested to her independently by her brother-in-law and by Lord Louis Mountbatten and which certainly has claims to be the most ingenious of her novels. At 11 p.m. on Friday 3 December she came downstairs, got into her car, drove off into the darkness and vanished. The car was discovered abandoned the next morning at Newlands Corner, near Guildford. For the next ten days the Police scoured the Downs, dragged pools and streams, investigated reports of sightings. The press muddied the issue with far-fetched rumours and fabricated stories. On 12 December a ‘Great Sunday Hunt for Mrs Christie’ was organised. The Evening News advised ‘anyone who may have bloodhounds ... to bring them along’. Men should wear thick boots; women Russian boots and tweed skirts. An aeroplane flew overhead. Meanwhile the Yorkshire Police had come to suspect that a Mrs Theresa Neele, who was staying in a seven-guinea-a-week room at the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, might be the missing novelist. On the evening of Tuesday 14 December Archie identified Mrs Neele as his wife, though Agatha appeared to be less sure of him. ‘She seemed to regard him as an acquaintance whose identity she could not quite fix,’ reported the hotel manager. ‘It was sufficient, however, to permit of her accompanying her husband to the dining-room.’

Ms Morgan has obviously put a great deal of research into disentangling this episode. She has read all the newspaper reports, consulted a lot of private papers, and spoken to all those who might have relevant knowledge. There is no reason to believe that anything – other than, perhaps, the odd minor detail – can be added to her account, or that her interpretation of events is likely to be superseded.

In the summer of 1926 Clara, Agatha’s mother, had died. After the funeral Agatha went down to Torquay and spent a depressing and exhausting six weeks clearing out the family house, crammed with the accumulated debris of three generations. In August Archie and Rosalind arrived. Archie seemed unlike his usual self: pressed, he admitted that he had fallen in love with his golf partner, Miss Nancy Neele. An impossible three months followed. Archie blew hot and cold, moving from his London club to Styles, and then back to the club. Agatha’s only friend was her wire-haired terrier, Peter. In December she cracked. Packing a suitcase with an odd assortment of effects, and putting on a money belt containing several hundred pounds, she drove south. At Newlands Corner she seems to have had a slight accident. Leaving her car, she walked to Guildford and took a train to Waterloo. She was wearing a skirt and cardigan and had blood on her face. She went by taxi to Whiteleys, bought a coat and other necessities, and then took a train to Harrogate, where she checked in at the Hydropathic. There she led a quiet life for ten days, doing crosswords in the drawing-room, retiring to the conservatory in the evenings, and occasionally having a rubber of bridge with the other guests. Ms Morgan has no doubt – and we must undoubtedly follow her in this – that the behaviour is entirely consistent with genuine amnesia. She suggests that in Agatha’s case it might be that rarer and more complex type of memory loss known as a ‘hysterical fugue’, in which ‘a person experiencing great stress flees from intolerable strain by utterly forgetting his or her own identity.’ She puts forward, with less persuasiveness, the theory that Agatha might have belonged to the class of ‘somnambules’: people who can ‘induce independently experiences of the kind produced by hypnosis: hallucinating, amnesia and so on ... they have a strong propensity to fantasise ... and as adults claim to spend much of their everyday life in the world of imagination, even when their normal daily tasks require concentration.’ There’s an attraction to this theory, in that it connects Agatha’s behaviour with her imagination as a writer, smuggling in through the back door of neuropsychiatry the old Romantic myth of the artist’s madness. Its weakness, obviously, is that she never again behaved somnambulistically, as she surely would have done if she belonged to the type, while the evidence Ms Morgan adduces from the work is flimsy and unconvincing, to say the least. For the reader, though more than half the book is still to come, everything after this event seems something of an anti-climax.

The Christies were divorced in 1928; in the autumn of that year Agatha planned a holiday in the Caribbean, but on a sudden whim took the Orient Express to Stamboul instead and then travelled on to Baghdad. She visited Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur and was invited by Woolley and his wife Katharine – a dangerous woman, according to Gertrude Bell – to come back the following spring. In the event she returned in the spring of 1930, met Woolley’s young assistant, Max Mallowan, and travelled back to England with him. He proposed in Torquay, they were married in Edinburgh in September and took a honeymoon in Venice and on the Dalmatian coast. He was 25, 15 years younger than her.

Agatha’s life now settled into a routine which was to last until the beginning of the war. She would spend the summer in Torquay with Rosalind, Christmas at Abney Hall near Manchester with Madge and her husband’s family, the late autumn and spring at Max’s current dig – first in Iraq near Nineveh, then in Syria at Chagar Bazar, where Agatha would act as the expedition’s photographer, or clean broken shards of ivory or pot by sponging them (a method she invented herself) with Innoxa cleansing-milk – and the rest of the year in London or Wallingford, where they had bought a small Queen Anne mansion, Winter-brook House. Most years she would publish two, sometimes even three books. The vast majority were detective stories or thrillers, but occasionally there would be a straight novel, under the name of Mary Westmacott, or even a book of poems such as The Road of Dreams, published at her own expense in 1924, copies of which were still available in the Sixties. In 1930 her first play, Black Coffee, was performed; she was gradually to become more and more interested in writing for the theatre: an interest which culminated in the unbelievable success of The Mousetrap, still going strong in its 32nd year.

During the war Max was attached to the Air Ministry, spending most of the time in North Africa. Agatha remained in England, producing books with even more fecundity than before. After 1945 life returned to something approaching its former pattern. Each year until 1960 they would work at the excavations at Nimrud; each year a new Agatha Christie would appear. In 1966 she wrote her autobiography; in 1967, after Max received a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours, she became Lady Mallowan; in 1973 her last detective story, Postern of Fate, appeared. A slow physical and mental decline set in. In the winter of 1975 she caught a chill, and died the following January at Wallingford. A year after her death Max married Barbara Parker, who had worked on his archaeological expeditions, but died himself in August 1978.

Ms Morgan’s main concern in dealing with Agatha Christie’s work is to tie it in with the life – which she does more than adequately. She says little, and on not much more than a superficial level, about her methods, or the books and plays themselves. But a biographer is not obliged to be a critic, and it is a more serious fault that one gets very little feeling of Agatha Christie’s character; only in one respect does she come completely to life – her naked and unashamed love of food. ‘Though rain pours down, eating is always eating,’ she writes to Edmund Cork. As a child she forms a taste for Devonshire cream which lasts throughout her life; on her 80th birthday there’s ‘half a cup of neat cream for ME while the rest had Champagne’ – she never drank. But she has more sophisticated tastes as well. In 1943 she celebrates the opening of Moon on the Nile with a dinner at which rationing seems to have been forgotten: ‘Party at Prunier’s afterwards. Smoked salmon and oysters, hot lobster Thermidor and chocolate mousse.’ ‘How would it appeal to you,’ she writes to a friend, ‘to come about 8.30 and eat a Great Deal of Caviare?’ And on her 70th birthday: ‘Hardly felt my age! Rich hot lobster for dinner.’ Food is as important on the dig: chocolate éclairs are made with water buffalo cream and walnut soufflés cooked in tin boxes. Notes on a novel include a reminder of the best source of crème de marrons; a trip to America produces the remark that Vermont has ‘lovely scenery and the best real butter I’ve tasted for ages’. No wonder that at one point she describes herself as ‘a bit bemused by heavy eating’, or that Dorothy Olding, her American agent after Harold Ober’s death, should be employed to scour New York for an enormous swimsuit and elephant-size knickers.

Perhaps the most interesting and instructive element in the book, though it is treated as no more than a subtext, concerns her relations with her publishers and with the income tax authorities. Immediately after acquiring an agent, she moved from the Bodley Head – who had been rather too sharp in dealing with her – to Collins. Their behaviour, towards an author who must have done them better than almost anyone else, is a revelation. She complains continually, and usually justifiably, about cover designs, blurbs, proofs and misprints. Even in the Seventies they were designing covers which made the tiny Poirot look six feet tall. In 1940, after she has complained about the cover of Sad Cypress, Edmund Cork writes that ‘Collins think it would be unpatriotic to destroy 15,000 copies of a jacket in these times of paper shortage.’ No doubt, but why didn’t they consult her first? As late as 1967 a proof-reader is taking it upon himself to alter her sentences. When they keep printing, in the list of her previous books, Death on the Hill instead of Death on the Nile, with the result that fans complain that this title is unavailable, Billy Collins apologises and sends her ... a book on roses. Collins’s editor calls They came to Baghdad ‘far-fetched and puerile ... it is difficult to believe that Mrs Christie regards this as more than a joke.’ American sales outstrip those of any other Christie. Collins fear that Passenger to Frankfurt will be a disaster. It is a sensational best-seller in England and America. ‘I am rather anti-Collins ... such a thick-headed lot,’ she writes, after Edmund Cork has persuaded her not to move to Gollancz. Given time, Collins got the message: in the last year of her life, after Rosalind had asked them not to press her for another book, Billy Collins remonstrated that it might be ‘a help to her to be thinking out a plot, and surely we should not definitely turn down the idea if she thinks she would like to write another story.’ He didn’t get one.

Her dealings with the income tax, and her financial affairs generally, are no less striking. In 1938, a Court of Appeals in the United States ruled that the author Rafael Sabatini, though residing in England, was liable for American tax on his earnings in the States. In the light of this judgment, Harold Ober engaged an eminent US tax lawyer, Howard E. Reinheimer, to look after Agatha’s affairs. Ten years later Reinheimer managed to reach a settlement with the IRS for the years 1930 to 1941. Meanwhile, with her American earnings frozen, she found it impossible to meet the demands of the Inland Revenue. ‘There seems little likelihood of Mrs Mallowan avoiding bankruptcy,’ Cork was writing to Ober in 1948. Fortunately, in this instance, he was mistaken. Patriotically, but probably mistakenly, she always refused to move to a tax haven, and in the Fifties, on Cork’s advice, a number of trusts were set up which controlled the copyrights of her work and paid her an annual salary. In 1957, however, there was another dispute over the tax position on copyrights she had retained. Six years later the assessment was delivered. Cork appealed against it and briefed a ‘top tax counsel’. Agatha wasn’t surprised when the appeal was lost. ‘LAWYERS!!!’ she wrote to Cork. ‘Next time we’ll have the Bottom Tax Counsel. The result will probably be just the same and will cost less.’ In the Sixties a subsidiary of Booker McConnell acquired a majority holding in the trusts, took over the copyrights, and lent Agatha the amount required to meet the tax assessments on the security of the copyrights she had reserved for herself.

‘At last she was clear, if in debt,’ writes Ms Morgan, and a little later: ‘She could enjoy the real fruits of success: peace, privacy, the company of her family, friends and the dogs, delicious food and drink, and books.’ It’s impossible to detect even a tinge of irony here: yet Ms Morgan is referring to the world’s best-selling author writing in the English language, whose works had sold, between the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and 1980, over four hundred million copies. In the last three years the trust controlling her copyrights has had an annual turnover of over a million pounds. No wonder Agatha Christie was heard to remark wistfully towards the end of her life: ‘If I’d been an opera singer, I might have been rich.’