Lucy Worsley on the Mystery of Agatha Christie
In Agatha Christie, our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for September, the much-loved historian and biographer Lucy Worsley sheds light on the elusive woman behind the near-mythical author of 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections and over 20 stage plays, who remains the bestselling novelist of all time. In this exclusive piece, Worsley reflects on the misconceptions that ran rife around Christie's famous disappearance in 1926 and the truth behind the mystery that people in her lifetime (and still to this day) refused to acknowledge.
Two billion copies of Agatha Christie’s books have been printed, they say, and she’s been outsold by only the Bible and Shakespeare. She’s part of the wallpaper of life.
But when it comes to Agatha the person – as opposed to Christie the writer – there’s an enormous misunderstanding about who she really was.
In my new biography, I was determined to set the record straight about what’s often described as a mystery.
The best-known fact about Agatha Christie’s life is that she got caught up in a real-life crime drama that unfolded in the year 1926.
That December, her car was found abandoned on a steep and wild Surrey hillside, damaged as if she’d had an accident. And the novelist herself had just disappeared. For eleven days, there was a national manhunt for her – or possibly, for her corpse.
Having just produced her most brilliant book yet, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha was a public figure. Newspaper readers loved both serialisations of her detective stories, and also profiles of this prominent, successful woman.
Her papers were full of theories about where she might have gone. Had she disappeared deliberately, to test out a new plot?
Excitingly, it soon came out that her husband Archie had taken a young new lover. Had he killed his wife? Or had Agatha hidden herself away somewhere in order to frame the cheating rat for her murder?
Ponds were dragged, and aeroplanes circled overhead, and hundreds volunteered to help search the downs for a woman who might be in peril. And journalists revelled in an addictive story.
It was more than a week later that Agatha was finally found. She’d been living under a false name in a hotel in Harrogate. The press, naturally, clamoured for a statement explaining what had gone on.
But the reporters could hardly credit what they were now told. Mrs Christie, her doctors explained, had ‘lost her memory’.
It sounded completely implausible.
Journalists just didn’t believe it, and they wove a different narrative instead.
Claims began to appear that Agatha was a publicity seeker, who’d tricked everyone, and wasted the time of the police.
The press turned on their former darling. The negative stories piled up.
There were so many of these stories that the idea Agatha was a trickster became deeply embedded in Britain’s popular consciousness. It was good for Christie the author, because the notoriety increased her sales. But the public shaming was terrible for Agatha the human being.
What I find doubly unfair is the fact that those 1926 press reports have made their way into history books too.
Numerous writers have also assumed that Agatha was a bad, duplicitous person. Agatha ‘deliberately staged her disappearance,’ we hear in a book of 1998. ‘She went missing so that her cheating husband would be accused of her murder,’ we’re told in 2004. ‘The need to retaliate’ motivated Agatha, it was claimed in 2009, ‘her plan was going well.’
And from history books, the false narrative has seeped out into films, into novels and into people’s broader impression that Christie was a good writer but somehow a bad woman.
My own book was inspired by a powerful urge to right this wrong, because the truth of what really happened in 1926 is actually very easy to discover.
It’s often claimed that she never spoke about the incident again for the rest of her life.
That’s not the case at all. In 1928, with her divorce from Archie about to come to court, Agatha was forced to take desperate action to restore her reputation. This was very necessary if she were to get custody of her daughter, Rosalind.
So Agatha gave an interview to the Daily Mail, explaining exactly what had happened.
But readers then – and historians since – didn’t want to believe her.
That’s because what she had to say was difficult to hear, because it was a tale about mental illness.
Agatha tells us that on the night she ‘disappeared’, she’d made an attempt on her life.
It was following her husband’s betrayal earlier in the year, and under enormous pressure to produce her next bestseller, that she’d begun to suffer mentally.
That fatal day, she was driving along in the afternoon when she experienced a suicidal thought.
She’d had the urge to crash her car, but she refrained – she says in a key sentence – because her little girl was with her at the time. Only later that night, having left her child in the care of responsible adults, did she make a real attempt on her life.
It wasn’t a very serious attempt. But following it, having shocked herself, she began to experience a mental condition known as a fugue. It wasn’t a term in common use in 1926, which is why her doctors said she’d ‘lost her memory’. But the word means a mental flight from an unbearable reality. In a fugue state, a person can act quite normally, and do normal things, like catch a train. But she cannot recall her name or identity.
In this state, Agatha left her car, and walked through the countryside to a railway station. She travelled to Harrogate in Yorkshire, which was then a centre of medical excellence. On one deep level she was acting rationally, seeking distance from and treatment for her problems. But she was also laying herself open to all the accusations that would follow: of deception, and of neglect of her child.
In the end Agatha was awarded both her divorce, and custody of her daughter.
But she would never quite recover from her ordeal. And neither has her reputation recovered either. Many people, to this day, think there was something tricky or deceptive about her.
It makes me angry that the truth, all along, has been hiding in plain sight.
When Agatha tells us what happened that night she disappeared, I think we should pay her the courtesy of believing her.
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