Published in 2000, Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries
is a biography by Gillian Gill. Although Agatha Christie was the queen of British mystery writers for 50 years, she was notoriously private and little was known about her personal life. Gill's book explores the life and writings of Christie, allowing readers to finally get to know the woman behind the mysteries. With her PhD in modern French literature, Gill has taught at some of the most prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale. She has also authored several biographies about famous women in history.
In the introduction, Gill paints a picture of Agatha Christie as a woman of opposites. Christie is fiercely intelligent, but has difficulty speaking to others--so much so that she is thought to be stupid. She is beautiful as a young woman, but painfully shy. Christie earns enormous fame for her work as an author, but she never enjoys the intellectual echelons populated by other detective fiction authors of her generation, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. Christie produces an enormous body of work during her lifetime, yet keeps herself hidden, especially loathing newspaper reporters. Who was Agatha Christie, really?
Agatha Christie is born in 1890 in the English seaside town of Devon, the third child to her parents Clara and Frederick Miller. From the very beginning, she demonstrates a fierce protection of her private thoughts, to the point that at only three or four years old, she cannot abide the idea of her nanny listening as she speaks to her imaginary friends, the Kittens. "The Kittens were my Kittens and only mine," she later wrote. Her father and siblings think her strange for not simply telling them how she feels, but Clara is the only person who understands Agatha just as she is, and she often acts as an interpreter for her silent daughter.
Agatha adores Ashfield, her family's estate, nearly as much as she adores her mother. Ashfield's influence can be seen in her work as the importance of ancestral family homes is a common theme in her stories. In fact, Agatha writes as a way of earning money when her mother falls on hard times, yet after Clara's death, Ashfield must still be sold. Agatha suffers two emotional breakdowns clearing out forty years worth of keepsakes and memories from the estate.
Agatha meets Archibald Christie at a dance. He is young, passionate, and broke, utterly unlike any other man she has ever met. The pair have a fiery courtship and are married in 1914, despite the fact that Agatha is engaged to be married to another. In addition, Clara does not trust Archie. She feels that his directness and machismo will overwhelm her introverted daughter. Over the early years of their marriage, Agatha lives with her mother and only sees Archie for short periods when he is on leave from fighting in World War I.
While Archie is away, Agatha works as a nurse treating wounded soldiers. Though she loves the job, Archie hates the idea of his wife working outside the home, and he demands she quit. Agatha does, but she comes away from the experience with a working knowledge of poisons. With free time suddenly on her hands, she is inspired to write a mystery novel centered on an especially clever way of poisoning someone.
Although The Mysterious Affair at Styles
is clearly the work of an amateur (Agatha puts in too many subplots and too many different types of clues), it demonstrates her keen logical sense and ability to think outside the box. It was published in 1920, the year after Agatha gives birth to a daughter, Rosalind, who is like her father in looks and temperament. Several more books follow in this fashion, and she starts enjoying some success.
In December 1926, Archie announces that he has fallen in love with another woman. Agatha leaves the house suddenly, and her car is later found containing clothes and her drivers license. She is not seen again for 10 days until discovered at a hotel where she registered under the name of Archie's new lover. Agatha never explains why she disappeared or what happened during that time, but public opinion on the matter is negative. Overall it is believed that she was attempting a publicity stunt. From this point forward, Agatha nurses a deep distrust for newspaper reporters.
Over the next few years, Agatha recovers through the combined efforts of her friends and therapy. With Rosalind away at boarding school, Agatha finally accepts herself as a writer and realizes that it is the way she can best provide for herself as an independent woman. It also affords her the means to do something she always dreamed of: travel alone to the Middle East. The trip proves to be a rebirth of sorts for her, and she would return many times to this part of the world. On one such visit, she meets Max Mallowan. He is open and forthcoming, in contrast to Archie's refusal to discuss his feelings.
Although he is 14 years her junior, the pair fall in love. This time, Agatha takes her time in deciding on marriage. She does not want to risk future betrayal and now no longer needs a man to feel happy. In the end, however, she determines that "nothing in the world would be as delightful as being married to him," and so they are married in 1930.
As the years pass, Agatha grows in fame and reclusiveness. Part of this is her past trauma, but also it is largely due to her dissatisfaction with her appearance as she ages. In 1971, she is made a Dame of the British Empire. In 1974, she suffers a heart attack from which she never fully recovers, and she passes away in 1976.