Ode to Agatha

Agatha Christie is known for her ingenious murder mysteries, which star detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, but it was only when I’d finished reading these (all 74 of them!) and started on her other stories, where the famous sleuths don’t feature, that I really began to appreciate what a feminist Agatha really was, in action if not in name.

In her life and her work, Agatha constantly ignored what was seen as acceptable behaviour for a woman, without ever seeming to think she was doing anything particularly unusual. Imagine this demure Edwardian girl marrying her first husband, a fighter pilot, and travelling the world with him, surfing in Honolulu (on a long wooden board, wearing a modest knee-length woollen bathing suit!), or writing her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and earning her own pay cheque. Once she’d made a bit of cash, she bought a car and sped around the Surrey countryside in it. After she discovered her husband had been having an affair, she divorced him and ran off to the Middle East. This gentle reserved Edwardian gentlewoman hops on a train all by herself and travels through the desert for weeks, eventually winding up in Baghdad.

Yup, Ms Christie was certainly intrepid, though she would have been loath to label herself a feminist, shying away from all political and personal declarations of ideology. All we know about this incredible woman is what we can infer from her novels (always a dangerous game) and what she chose to reveal in her autobiography.

But if you lay the facts of her life alongside the heroines she drew in her novels, you can tell the kind of women she admired – strong, resourceful, quick-witted and cool-headed. In stories like Murder Is Easy, They Came To Baghdad and The Seven Dials Mystery, Christie’s heroines positively embrace danger and adventure, and show a remarkable lack of needing rescuing, preferring to escape from tight spots with MacGyver-like ingenuity (one pulls the insole out of her shoe, rolls it up and uses it to push a key out of a lock, then spills water onto the dirt floor and digs away at it with a spoon so she can escape her prison in the desert.)

Agatha’s attitude to love was pragmatic – her first marriage followed a whirlwind romance, but when the honeymoon period was over and she discovered she didn’t have very much in common with her husband and he was unfaithful, it seems she realised that true, lasting love is based on friendship and affection, as well as passion. This is what she found with her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archaeologist who she spent the rest of her life with.

Whenever she wrote a happy ending into one of her crime novels (and she didn’t always – often the hero or heroine turns out to be a coldblooded killer!), her lovers are brutally honest about what they want and need from each other. In the final scene of Murder Is Easy, the heroine, Bridget (who has just wrestled off an insane spinster who tried to slit her throat and then strangle her!) says: “Liking is more important than loving. It lasts. I want what is between us to last, Luke. I don’t want us just to love each other and marry and get tired of each other and then want to marry someone else.” The hero answers: “You want reality. So do I. What’s between us will last forever because it’s founded on reality.” That’s Agatha talking through her characters, drawing on her own experiences of love. She was an independent woman who learned from bitter experience that she had to ground her emotions in something substantial.

Agatha Christie: Lover, writer, surfer – my heroine…

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phoebe

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.
About phoebe:

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

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