Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
We all think we know Agatha Christie. How could we not? She’s one of the bestselling authors of all time, an icon of British popular culture, and as you’re listening to this podcast, probably one of your favourite writers. During her lifetime, and in the almost half a century since her death, plenty of time and ink has been devoted to chronicalling her life and her work. Surely there can’t be anything left unknown about her, right?
Wrong. Agatha Christie’s relationship with publicity and the media evolved over her decades-long career, and she came to value privacy very highly. She wrote an autobiography that is heavily weighted in favour of her childhood years and which doesn’t address her writing career in nearly as much detail. Before her death, she politely resisted the efforts of biographers who wanted her cooperation for revelatory volumes, pointing them instead towards her own account. For such an incredibly well-known person, she is rather a mystery, still.
Of course, because of this, dubiously sourced myths and narratives about Christie have been able to thrive. Her enduring popularity and fame acts as a catalyst, too, keeping newspapers and readers hungry for new revelations about a writer who came to hate making headlines.
Today, we’re going to look at some of these persistent myths and do our best to get a clearer view of the elusive Agatha Christie. And to help me do this, I have the ideal guest: Lucy Worsley, historian and broadcaster, and the author of a new biography of Agatha Christie that offers a fresh perspective on the fascinating yet tangled versions that exist of the queen of crime.
So Lucy, welcome to Shedunnit.
Lucy: Thank you. I have to tell your listeners that I’m a Shedunnit fan and listener myself, so I’m very excited to be actually on it.
Caroline: Oh, that’s very nice to hear. Thank you very much. So the occasion for your appearance today is your new book about Agatha Christie, which listeners can get hold of right now.
Could you give us just a little bit of background about how you came to write about her?
Lucy: Mm, yes. Well, I’ve had a longstanding interest in detective fiction and the history of it, and I’ve got a longstanding interest in female writers as well. So both of these things. For me came together in Agatha Christie.
And I should warn that my biography of her isn’t a literary biography. I’m a historian, it’s a historical biography. And she struck me as being an interesting person, partly because her life sort of captures so much of the 20th century. She was born in 1890, she lived till 1976. So a lot of the big things that happened in the 20th century happened to her.
So I’m treating her as a unique, talented genius individual, and also a representative of a generation of women.
Caroline: Which, it is fascinating, isn’t it, the way that she spanned that period like that. Something else I was thinking about before I was diving into read your book, is that it must be an interesting challenge to write about someone who wrote so much herself and has also been written about so much. How did you approach that?
Lucy: Yes. This is the section where if we were in university, it would be called historiography.
Lucy: What’s the historiography of Agatha Christie. It’s equally fascinating. I’m sort of following in the wake of two other female biographers, both of whose books I heartily recommend. There’s the book of 1984 by Janet Morgan, which was the first sort of official biography of Christie, which is belt and braces.
It goes through the life. It goes through the archive. It puts everything into place. And then in the 2000s, a writer called Laura Thompson wrote a really beautiful book. It’s fabulous. It’s a celebration of Christie and it’s full of really sensitive readings about her work. But now we’re in 2022. I just felt that a new generation had grown up who perhaps don’t know Christie, perhaps don’t like Christie, perhaps associate her with stuffy old grandparenty things.
And I felt it was time to present her looking through the eyes of the present. I mean, all history is written in the present. Isn’t it. Every year you could come up with a new interpretation of something based on how our own society is changing. And I would describe myself as a public historian, right, somebody whose work is intended to be consumed by the public, not by university academics. So contemporary concerns are also very much in my mind. And so I think she deserves a look at her life, looking through the eyes of a feminist of the year 2022. And my work will stand up for a little while and then it will change again and somebody else will have to come up with a new perspective.
Caroline: I think about all the time, what an academic, who I once had as a guest on the show, said that she had undergraduates coming to her module on detective fiction, who knew Agatha Christie, because they’d watch Poirot with their grandparents.
Lucy: Right, yes. Yes.
Caroline: I think that exactly resonates with what you’re saying. There’s a whole new generation who are yet to discover or just discovering her now.
Lucy: It is my aim to send people back to the original texts. If there’s anything I want to do it’s to encourage people to go back and read these 80 odd books, which are entertainment.
But for me, they’re not just that, they are a historical record of the kind of social history of the 20th century. The other thing I really wanted to capture was the way that her status has changed in academic, in scholarly circles in recent years. There were two scholars in particular, who I think of as by fairy book mothers, I don’t know if this is a concept that you’re familiar with, but two scholars, Gillian Gill and Alison Light, they were writing in the early 1990s.
And they seemed to me to be the start of a generation of people who were saying, look, this isn’t just trash. You should take this seriously. There’s a whole history of people being dismissive of the quality of Agatha Christie. And I get where they’re coming from. They’re positioning themselves as high brows in the cultural landscape by saying that, but now, and this is definitely true in the 2020s in a way that it wasn’t before she is on syllabuses, the canon has expanded. The canon of literature has become more inclusive and there is room in it now for people like Agatha.
Caroline: I’m such an Alison Light fangirl. I read everything she’s ever written. Listeners will be bored with me referencing Forever England.
Lucy: I’m totally with you there.
Caroline: So what I thought we might do for the bulk of our conversation is go through some of the myths that exist about Agatha Christie. And you’ve got some alternative stories to tell us about some of these.
So going back to her childhood, her childhood home of Ashfield was very important to Agatha. Why do you think people think this and is this correct?
Lucy: Well, this allows us to delve into the status of a key, key source of thinking about Agatha Christie, which is her autobiography.
It’s like the first thing that people probably are going to read if they’re interested in her life. She wrote this very long autobiography that was actually published just after her death and the circumstances of her writing it are quite curious. I think she did it partly for fun. And also partly to put off other people from writing the story of her life, because she wanted to control her own narrative.
So people towards the end of her life would write into her agent and say, can I do a biography? And the answer would be no, because Mrs Christie is writing her own autobiography. So this is definitely a story that she keeps tightly in her own hands. People have mixed views about it. Some people love the insight it gives into changing social customs of the 20th century.
Other people think of it as being some kind of a cover up. It definitely doesn’t reveal huge amounts of personal stuff. She was a very private person. This is one of the challenges in studying her. So you could say the autobiography presents a kind of sparkling glossy surface narrative of her life. That’s one thing that you have to watch out with it.
Another thing to watch out with it is that she wasn’t writing it as a work of nonfiction. Dates, what order things happened in, they just don’t matter to her. And whether we can believe the autobiography or not comes up as an important issue, because it’s a source for the mysterious year of 1926. Caroline, I’m sure we’re going to come on to the mysterious year of 1926.
So I was keen to discover what status it actually had. And I spoke to the editor, who’d worked on it and he had said, well, you know, before she died she had pretty much pinned it down. She had determined what was going to be in it.
So that was one question I had in my mind, because it was published after her death. Did other people edit it? So it is the story as she saw it, but then something else occurred to me, which is that towards the end of her life, I think there is quite a convincing case to be made, no, a very convincing case to be made that she was living with the early stages of dementia. Now people are aware of this because some of her later novels show the sort of changes in language that indicates somebody who’s going in that direction.
But having learned about dementia, I’ve come to realise that it affects the way that you remember your life. It has been explained to me as like this, if your memories are all like books on a bookcase, and the most recent memories at the top of the bookcase and the older memories are right at the bottom shelf, in dementia the bookcase starts to sway gently from side to side.
So the memories that are higher up that are more recent, fall off the shelves, right. And the ones that stay are the ones of your very earliest childhood years. Now, if anybody has read the autobiography, they’ll know that masses of it, a huge proportion of it, is about these very, very early years of her life.
And particularly her memories of this house, Ashfield — so much detail about Ashfield. It becomes this sort of mythical place that anchors her whole life. Now, is that the truth or is that dementia talking. That’s a question that I genuinely have in my mind.
I’m not saying that Ashfield was it’s important to her. I have no argument to make against that. It’s just that its prominence in narratives of Agatha Christie’s life might be explained by the circumstances of the writing of the autobiography.
Caroline: That does make a lot of sense. And I remember being startled by it myself when I first read the autobiography. When you dive into a book like that by someone who you know so well for their work and their career, it’s very strange when actually that is not the main topic of their own account of their life.
Lucy: Yes. Yes. But that’s another interesting sort of contradictory nexus of mystery in the life of Agatha Christie. We would assume that a professional writer would be kind of upfront about their writing technique, the way that they wrote, the sort of mechanics of their career. But I really do believe that because she was born a Victorian because she was born into a family with money in 1890, she was never totally comfortable in describing herself as a professional working woman. And it’s something that she became less comfortable with as time went on, partly because of what happened in 1926, just to tease this interesting thing that we’re going to come onto.
So it’s hardly the biography of a writer is it, she plays that down. Her public image was very much not professional writer. It was more like a person interested in the little things of life: human relationships, details of daily life, experiences. The autobiography, it almost doesn’t tell the story of her career.
Caroline: Well, let’s move on someone who was an important figure in the early part of her life certainly, who was Archie. Archie Christie, who, although they didn’t remain married after 1926, she did carry on with his name for the rest of her career.
So tell us a bit about Archie, who I think sometimes gets portrayed as this kind of dashing individual who swept Agatha off her feet. Is that absolutely right?
Lucy: He was definitely a dashing individual who swept Agatha off her feet. And he was incredibly hot as well. Just look at pictures of him. I feel that you don’t understand the power of the attraction of Archie Christie until you look at photos of him, sorry to objectify him like this, but it is completely true. My goodness. He was scorchio.
But often you’ll read that part of the attraction was the fact that he was a pilot, someone like you know, Top Gun type character and he was trained as a pilot. And that’s definitely, I think one of the things that initially attracted Agatha to him, because she loved speed. She loved fast cars.
She’d been in an airplane herself. She was a very sort of modern person in the earlier 20th century. But I thought, great. I’m going to have fun with this. I’m going to describe the career of a heroic pilot fighting in World War One. By the time World War One actually broke out and he was serving in the RFC, he was no longer a pilot.
It’s not clear what he felt about that, but his role was in fact to order the spare parts for the planes of other pilots. And although he had trained very early and he had flown, he wasn’t particularly good at it. He wasn’t skillful at handling planes that were unreliable or difficult to manage, which was the case with many of these early World War One era planes.
So other pilots were preferred to him, but what he was good at was administration. So his job within the Royal Flying Corps when they got to France was to organise the transport, organise the equipment and the spare parts. And in France, he was definitely an administrative officer.
But also, I could see why people have this image of him as a pilot because that’s just so attractive, aren’t they, this idea that the industrial scale death of World War One can be made human and represented by these glamorous individuals, sort of knights of the air. People are attracted to the idea of a dog fight between two pilots over the battlefield, sort of representing the conflict in a human way.
Now this has all been researched by a historian that I’d like to name check. His name’s Peter Wright, and he’s published his work in a journal called Cross & Cockade. And he has rightly pointed out that even though Archie wasn’t a pilot, his wartime service was still difficult and hard and awful. And Archie traveled to France in the very first wave, and by October 1914, he’d been mentioned in dispatches for having endured I’m quoting here, great strain almost every hour of the day and night. So even the ground staff, the support staff, were under tremendous pressure and terrible conditions as well.
Caroline: But before we hear more about Archie Christie and those mysterious 11 days in 1926, we’re going to take a short break.
Caroline: So Archie and Agatha first got to know each other in the run up to the first world war. And then more than a decade later, their relationship comes to. I think on Agatha’s side, a fairly abrupt end. And can you tell us a little bit more about how that happened and what that set off for Agatha?
Lucy: Okay. We have to be quite careful to bear in mind that practically everything we know about Archie Christie comes from his ex-wife, right, who was somebody who was never able to forgive and to forget. That she paints quite a dark picture of this guy. She admits how handsome and charming and capable and go ahead he was, but she also describes him as somebody who didn’t want to talk about deep stuff. Somebody who wasn’t able to talk about his feelings or what had happened to him in the war.
And I believe there were a whole generation of men like that who came back from northern France, who didn’t want to talk about what had happened there. They wanted to look to the future, put it all behind them. Now to someone like Agatha, who was so intensely concerned with the life of the mind and what lies beneath the surface.
I think that as their marriage goes on, you get hints of her dissatisfaction with this man who won’t seem to speak to her intimately anymore. And eventually after she ran into trouble, she was bereaved, she had health problems, she found that he wasn’t able to give her any kind of support, really, emotions distressed him, they frightened him, they sent him running away.
And they sent him running in the direction of an attractive young lady. Whose name is Nancy Neele, and Nancy Neele became firstly his, I don’t want to say lover in the physical sense. She became his emotional partner. And then later on, she became his second wife.
And Agatha only found out about this at the last moment, when Archie announced I’m leaving you, I’m going off with her.
Caroline: And this all happened in the run up to the events of 1926 that you alluded to earlier. Firstly, we should say exactly what happened for anyone who doesn’t know. And how did you weave that into your book, that being a much picked over and told story?
Lucy: Yes. If people know anything about Agatha Christie the person, I think it’s very likely to be the fact that in 1926, she disappeared for 11 days and there was a huge manhunt for her and that she was eventually found staying in a hotel in Harrogate. Now I think that it is still highly prevalent in our culture that people think the explanation for that was that she was framing her cheating husband for her murder, which would make her a nasty person, right?
A duplicitous person, somebody who was hurting other people in order to please herself. And that was the narrative that was picked up at the time by the newspapers. These newspapers of 1926, these growing hungry tabloid newspapers. This is a time when newspapers were moving over from a weekly edition to a daily edition.
So the story of an 11 day manhunt for a celebrity novelist who disappeared, it was exactly what the 1926 media wanted. People would have to buy the next day’s paper to see if she’d been found yet. That’s the conventional story and it still exists in our culture. It appears in many books written about Agatha Christie. I’m quoting here from a book of 1998, Agatha deliberately staged her disappearance book of 2004. She went missing so that her cheating husband would be accused of her murder. 2009, the need to retaliate motivated Agatha in going off and hiding in Harrogate, her plan was going well.
Now that narrative is wrong. It’s false. It’s misogynist, it’s unfair. And it’s so dismissive of what I believe to be the truth of what happened.
What really happened was that Agatha Christie, I believe, was living with a really terrible incident of mental illness in 1926. The things that sort of set it off for her were losing her mother, losing her marriage and also the process of losing and, you know, clearing out the environment of her childhood, this house of Ashfield that we’ve talked about already.
And I believe that she entered into a particular condition. Well, certainly she had an episode of what we would call depression. She reports symptoms like tearfulness, forgetfulness, insomnia, just an inability to cope with normal life. And then when she disappears for 11 days, I believe she entered a state called fugue.
Now fugue state is a very rare condition, but sometimes it seems to me, the way I understand it is that people adopted, they leave themselves, they enter a new kind of persona living a different life. And I think that’s why she went to Harrogate. I think that’s why she stayed in the hotel to escape from the trauma of her life as Mrs Christie, which had become intolerable to her.
Now, because it’s rare, because she was female and because she was a working woman and because she was a detective novelist, so you know, a person to be distrusted right from the start. And because she left her daughter behind, there’s a lot of reasons that people didn’t want to believe this story about her. Even though, and you know, what astonishes me about this is that you’ll often read statements like “Agatha Christie never spoke again about the events of 1926”. It’s not true. It’s, it’s almost comically not true because she actually gave an interview to the Daily Mail saying I was, I was terribly ill. I tried to commit suicide. I ran away. I did all of these things because I was in pain.
And oh, it breaks my heart. because the context for this interview was that the divorce case was coming up. And I think she needed to convince the judge that she should have custody of her daughter and who should have custody of a daughter, a good mother should have custody of her daughter, right? Not a bad mother who runs off and frames her cheating husband for her murder. And yet even though she said that and it was published in the newspapers, people still didn’t believe her because it didn’t make sense. And I don’t think that people believe her to this day.
That’s my great sense of injustice about the life of Agatha Christie, really, despite her faith and her success. I still hate the idea that people don’t believe a woman who told us that she was living with a mental illness to use today’s terms. This is not chronologically appropriate language for the 1920s, but if it had happened today, I think that’s the way in perhaps, we would’ve been talking about it. I mean, it’s still not easy or acceptable to talk about mental illness, but in 1926, it was even harder than it is now.
Caroline: It is astonishing to think that, as you say, she made that calculation that it was better to say publicly that she’d had a breakdown, that she was suffering than it was to have people assume that she was a conniving, framing, horrible person. Neither of those things feel like a comfortable thing to do in public.
Lucy: Oh, no, no, no. And she had made this terrible sort of pact with the press because they were so central to her career. Before 1926, she was just what these tabloids loved, you know, she fitted the story about women doing new things. There had been this sense of, they’d taken jobs in the war, they were writing articles and stories that were in the newspapers.
And there’s an interview she gave in the early twenties, which I rather love. She says, oh yes, I can never give up crime now. Yeah. I’m addicted to crime. and the interviewer said, and what about your little daughter? And Agatha said, even my daughter doesn’t deter me from my pursuit of my career.
Now these are the sorts of statements we will never hear again from her after 1926 and after her very public shaming. And after this whole situation arose in which she could see the possibility that her daughter might be taken from her.
Caroline: Public shaming is actually a very good way to frame it. I think it does seem to have a connection to subsequent versions of that in the sort of internet age, this sort of delight in tearing somebody’s narrative apart in public.
Lucy: Yes. Yes. Yes. And part of the reason that I addressed this the way I did, I really entered the sources with an open mind because in reaction to that phenomenon of public shaming, I think partly there has been a sort of current in popular culture, in novels that are coming out more and more often it seems, where people embrace the Dark Agatha, if you like, and she becomes a fictional version of herself where yes, she did frame her cheating husband for murder, but hey, he deserved it, the rat, and I was willing to countenance that, but I just didn’t find it there in the sources and in the archive.
Caroline: So turning to another myth or misconception about Agatha Christie’s career.
There’s this story that’s often told about her writing The Mysterious Affair At Styles because her sister bet her that she couldn’t write a detective story. Is that accurate? Is that really the first detective story Agatha Christie ever wrote?
Lucy: Well, during the first world war Agatha served as a nurse and ended up working in the hospital dispensary and there she became very knowledgeable about and handled poisons.
So yes, you do often hear this idea that she was emulating her writer sister, and she was working the dispensary, and these were the conditions in which her first story, The Mysterious Affair At Styles appeared. That’s all true. I’m not denying that, but there’s a proto detective story that I came across that I was rather fascinated by and while Agatha and her friends were serving in the hospitals as nurses, the work was dark and difficult.
They were dealing with horrible things. They were dealing with, well, as nice Victorian young ladies, they were dealing with very shocking things like the sight of dirty, naked, wounded men. It was just a shock to the system for them. And one of the ways in which they tried to keep up their spirits, make life more palatable, more fun, more acceptable, was to produce a hospital magazine.
And this hospital magazine was basically full of jokes. It was, I think it’s a concept that still exists today. The darkness of the humour of people who work in medicine is definitely a way of coping, right? And this was their way of coping and they produce this magazine. They called themselves the queer women, which I rather love because they clearly by becoming nurses, by working in the hospital, they clearly stepped outside what had been expected for them, which was to stay in the domestic sphere and to get married and never to work for money.
Anyway, Agatha and the queer women produced this magazine and in it, there’s an item of police court news and the police court news features a mysterious death that’s happened in the hospital. What actually appears is the coroner’s report. And this is Agatha having fun. A lot of people forget the fact that she was a light, satirical writer as well as a dark twisty somber one. And in the police court news the mysterious death is investigated and the medicine, the medicine is the thing that seems to be crucial.
The doctor has questioned, oh no, no, no nothing, no. The nurse question. No, no, no, no. He, he had nothing to do with it. And then the dispensers are questioned, Agatha herself being one of the dispensers, her friends being the other dispensers. And they all get questioned too, but none of them can give a straight answer.
They all give different versions of what happened to the coroner and the death remains unsolved. It’s detective fiction. It’s a detective story. It is a proto detective story. There’s a closed circle of characters. They’re all confined by the world of the hospital. And motive is discussed. Poisoning is discussed.
It’s a super early version, I think, of the sort of thing that’s going to appear in The Mysterious Affair At Styles. So yes, what everybody thinks that Styles is inspired by the hospital is true, it’s just that here’s an interesting little step along the way, this funny little satirical item of police court news in the spoof hospital magazine.
Caroline: Well, that’s fascinating. Turning to a different theme that comes to be very important to Agatha bit later on in her life, which is archaeology. This is something that’s connected with her second husband, Max Mallowan, who is an archaeologist, who she first meets on a trip to the middle east and something I was fascinated by when I was researching this for an episode earlier this year is there are all these different stories from people who met Agatha on their various digs, and they all go out of their way to talk about how much she contributed in terms of her work, reconstructing, pottery, and photographing and all this and so on. Was that really her greatest contribution though, is what I would love to know.
Lucy: Yes. I felt that Agatha’s involvement in archaeology has often been treated as a kind of quaint and harmless pastime. Something that her second husband was really interested in so she got with the programme and sort of went along and was a good wife in the sense that she helped him out in lots of practical ways, including photographing, drawing, finds, and assembling things that were in pieces.
There’s a quote that is from Joan Oates, an archaeologist who worked with Agatha in the postwar period so an eyewitness and Joan Oates says her greatest contribution to archaeology was her almost single handed reconstruction of over 30 wood and ivory writing boards recovered from a well in 1953 in hundreds of very small and very similar fragments, just the sort of jigsaw puzzle she loved.
And that’s such a striking image. Isn’t it? The great lady playing with all these tiny little pieces of ivory and then the other image that really sticks in the mind is one that Agatha herself gives us. She said that when she was cleaning the ivories, she had my own favorite tools, an orange stick, possibly a fine knitting needle, one season, a dentist’s tool.
And she would use a jar of cosmetic cleansing cream for the face. Which I found more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices, how thrilling it was, the patience, the care that was needed, the delicacy of touch and fine, you know, that’s lovely. Isn’t it? It’s brilliant. It’s nice to think of this intricate domestic labour being what she contributed to the dig.
I just sort of was blown away by what that version of the narrative misses out, which is that she paid for the dig in the first place. I think that’s her greatest contribution to archaeology in the 20th century was to pay for it, right? It was to provide the money to bankroll these expeditions. She was absolutely the crucial facilitator that allowed her second husband to be in west Asia or Iraq, performing these huge excavations.
And I became very obsessed by trying to track down the money, which proved remarkably elusive, because I believe not only was she paying, but also it was socially unacceptable for her to have paid. So nobody really wanted to make a big song of dance about that. She was very much presented as Mrs Mallowan, the good archaeological wife.
I’ll just tell you something that was thrilling to discover in the archives of the British Museum, the papers relating to the funding of her second husband’s very first expedition to Iraq and he needed to raise £2000 for this, his first independent dig to take place, which was a huge challenge.
And he got a thousand pounds from the British Museum and from the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, and he needed another thousand pounds. Basically he got a hundred pounds from a well known private individual who funded archaeology. He got another hundred pounds from one Agatha Christie, and then a mysterious contribution came in of £500 and the contributor was anonymous, but this person wanted their money back again if other contributions came in. That was Agatha Christie, I believe. I a hundred percent believe that was his wife. Who else would’ve made a contribution under those terms? And she is often listed in the expedition reports as somebody who’s given small sums of money. I believe she was giving larger sums of money too, anonymously.
And then in the post war period, Agatha’s second husband, Max became an employee, he became a professor at the university of London. There’s often archaeological gossip recorded in books about Agatha Christie saying that she had sponsored his post. And I thought, I need to track this down. I need to find the piece of paper that proves that.
And so I looked at the archives of the University of London and there was no record of it happening. And then I began to think would there be, I mean, if people would’ve known more openly that that was happening, if that had been the financial model that they’d used. And then I found, I was very thrilled about this, a killer letter, as I saw it in the archives of her literary agent.
Let me quote from it. Agatha’s agent writes to her: “It might be better for Max to draw his salary after April of this year”, because the last tax year had been one in which, you know, it was tax efficient for him to take his salary at a particular time. So she was just paying him direct. I love the fact that she paid her husband a salary.
No wonder this was not something that was widely talks about in the archaeological community, because it was demeaning for him. And so when we hear, I’m quoting Joan Oates again, who’s on the dig, one of the gang, one of the archaeologists, she describes how Max was very volatile. He used to flare up, but what Agatha did would be to say now, Max, in a very quiet voice, he would pause for a moment and whatever he was raging about would drop.
Of course it did, because he’d just been told off by his boss, basically. That’s not to undermine the status of this relationship. It was vital, it was central to her happiness for the whole of the second half of her life. But what we see here is part of why the relationship worked. She was weirdly insecure about her talents, but she had the money. And he was able to live with that situation.
Caroline: And before we leave archaeology, this, I think often, put about apparently Agatha Christie said that “archaeologists make the best husbands”. Did she actually say this? Is this true?
Lucy: You can buy this on greetings cards. If you work in the field of archaeology, at some point, somebody will buy you this birthday card, which says on it, “an archaeologist is the best husband a woman could have, as the older she gets, the more interested he is in her — Agatha Christie”. Well, I’m very curious about this because she never said it. She never said it. The earliest reference I’ve been able to find to it in print is in from 1952. And it’s from an organ of the press called The Gothenberg Trade and Shipping Journal, so that’s a pretty niche publication, which meant that it must have been in wide circulation.
It must have been sort of a part of cultural discourse well before that, but it used to infuriate her. And here’s another letter from her agent saying, “Agatha did not in fact say this and nothing infuriates her more than to have it attributed to her” so that she didn’t say it but these myths just stick around.
Caroline: Yes it is a good thing to put on a mug isn’t it? So it’s never going to die. And then just to close off, this is quite a big myth, I think, but it’s something that we’ve touched on throughout the conversation and I think is a major thread through your book is this idea that Agatha was a bad person, that she was deceitful or that she was somehow not deserving of the reputation that she had.
I think it’s sometimes a bit hard to understand this from our perspective today where she’s loved and admired by so many millions. But is that the case that the events of 1926 overshadowed the way she was perceived for the rest of her life?
Lucy: I think it’s true. I absolutely think it’s true. And I think that there’s still, I mean, not amongst listeners of Shedunnit obviously, but I think there’s still a large group of people who live in the world who would think yes, that Agatha Christie, there was something off about her, something nasty about her.
Now I’m not saying that she was a good person either because people can’t be put into these categories. People, women they’re complex, they’re different things at different times, but this idea of putting her into the box marked bad, because as I believe of mental illness and the narrative that the press wove about her in 1926 is an injustice, it’s wrong. It should not be said. And yet it is.
Caroline: And yet it is. And it remains such a point of fascination, doesn’t it? As you say, even when people are reclaiming the incident or telling fun stories about it, my personal favorite take on it is the Doctor Who episode about her disappearance, where it turns out that she was abducted by giant alien wasps, I think that’s great fun. It still overshadows, and it’s still this sort of pivot moment.
Lucy: It is. It’s seen as this central episode of her life and it’s seen wrongly and, you know, from popular culture, people make assumptions about history. And it’s kind of the job of the historian as I see it to unpick that and to make people question what they think they know. To complicate things.
Caroline: Well, Lucy, I think that’s everything we have time for today. Thank you so much for joining me on Shedunnit and I hope listeners will now go and explore your book.
Lucy: Thank you so much for having me. What a pleasure.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theelusiveagathachristie. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Don’t forget, you can see Shedunnit live at the International Agatha Christie Festival on 11th September. More information and tickets from shedunnitshow.com/events. And you can claim your free audiobook trial and copy of Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie biography at shedunnitshow.com/audible.
If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.