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Cannonball Read III: Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

By Faythe Saxton | Books | March 30, 2011 |

By Faythe Saxton | Books | March 30, 2011 |

Yesterday, when Dustin relayed the story of how a trade news item resulted in him spending the night on the couch, some of you had the audacity to profess your ignorance of the amazing Miss Marple. Miss Marple is one of Agatha Christie’s—one of the best mystery writers ever—two main sleuths. And although Faythe makes no mention of the wonderful Miss Marple in this review [ahem], it was clear that Agatha Christie may not be getting the attention she deserves.—TU

I have to confess, back in high school I was obsessed with Agatha Christie’s mystery novels. I read every one of her books that I could get my hands on, especially if it revolved around my favorite character Hercule Poirot (David Suchet’s version of him on PBS remains to this day exactly what my vision of him should be). Of course, being the normal completely self-absorbed teenager that I was, it never occurred to me to think about who Agatha Christie was as a person. While helping out at a charity book sale recently, her autobiography practically fell into my lap, and I suddenly found myself seized with the urge to right this wrong. I now wanted to know-just who was Agatha Christie, and how did she get her inspiration for all her stories?

It turns out that she was more awesome than I could have ever imagined. She takes a very methodological yet lighthearted and practical approach to telling her life story, and it’s filled with all kinds of interesting little nuggets. I was coasting along enjoying tales from her Victorian childhood, when from out of nowhere she dropped this scandalous tidbit of information that she overheard at the age of six:

It was impossible to use the morning room because that room was sacred to Miss grant, the present holder of the post of sewing woman. “My dear, such a sad case,” Grannie would murmur to her friends. “Such a poor little creature, deformed, only one passage, like a fowl.” That phrase always fascinated me because I didn’t know what it meant. Where did what I took to be a corridor come in?

I mean, holy crap! I had to stop reading and take a moment.

However, Agatha Christie grew up at the tail end of the Victorian era (She was born in 1890.) and as a woman now, it unsettled me to read how she so readily absorbed and approved of the status quo of the sexes in her time.

In fact I only contemplated one thing-a happy marriage. About that I had complete self-assurance-as all my friends did. We were conscious of all the happiness that awaited us: we looked forward to love, to being looked after, to being cherished, and admired, and we intended to get our own way in the things which mattered to us while at the same time putting our husbands’ life, career and success before all, as was our proud duty.

I understand that had I been born during those times I would probably say exactly the same thing, but it’s such an eye-opener and makes me all the more glad that I am lucky enough to live now and not come to believe that my entire life was made to stand behind my man instead of beside him. However, there were some passages that really put her ahead of her time in an amusing way. I had to snicker when Agatha said:

One would have thought that the community would rise up in horror against such things; but now cruelty seems almost everyday bread and butter. I wonder still how it can be so, when one considers that the vast majority of people one knows, girls and boys as well as the older folk are extraordinarily kind and helpful: they will do things to help older people; they are willing and anxious to be of service. The minority of what I call “the haters” is quite small but, like all minorities, it makes itself felt far more than the majority does.

Agatha Christie. Calling out The Haters before rappers made it cool!

There was also the matter of her personal life, which took a very modern twist. She was able to rebound from the tragedy of her first husband selfishly cheating on her during a time of tragedy(her mother had just died). He insisted on scandalously (scandalous back in those days) announcing that they would have to get a divorce. She was able to take that sad news and pull herself together by taking a soul cleansing trip around the world to exotic places (travel was much cheaper to do back then). While on her trip she met and wound up falling in love with a much younger man who was an archaeologist. She married that young man despite opposition, and they lived happily ever after. And she did all this in such a way that makes the author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elisabeth Gilbert, look like the greedy, selfish new-age charlatan that she really is.

Aside from the fascinating way that she spent her life, I was also very pleased to see that she shared how she came up with some of the ideas for her books. I was able to discover how she came up with my favorite character Hercule Poirot and how she decided on the settings for her various mysteries. It’s amazing what one can creatively fashion out of one’s own life experiences, and Agatha Christie did quite the bang-up job, if I do say so myself.

The surprise for me, and it was only because of my own ignorance, was that Agatha Christie wrote far more than just the mysteries I had devoured as a teenager. She went on to write other books that were not mysteries, numerous plays and even some music. What it all boils down to, of course is that I really enjoyed reading about her in her own words. Agatha Christie writes well and does a fantastic job of letting people into her life and seeing how her environment and love of travel influenced her and enabled her to become one of the most commercially successful writers of the 20th century. I would recommend her autobiography not only to fans of Agatha Christie, but also to anyone who wants a great read about an extraordinary person.

For more of Faythe Saxton’s reviews, check out her blog, The Amateur Malcontent.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.