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.

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