|Oct/Nov 2019 • Miscellaneous|
YouTube preserves a two-minute clip of Agatha Christie, who rarely consented to interviews, undergoing the ordeal in Lisbon in 1960. Wedged between the Queen of Crime and interviewer: Christie's silent second husband, Max Mallowan, hands folded upon his belly, benignly smiling. Christie wears a suit, pearls, a lapel broach, a wide-brimmed dark hat and what appears to be, from the side view, cat-eye glasses. Given her thoroughly documented dislike of the press, the author's cooperation during the give-and-take is an interesting performance. No viewer could mistake her for someone at ease with the process or delighted to be in the situation. Nevertheless, she affably nods and marginally titters while responding to questions she can't have welcomed, answering two of the three un-ironically.
Q: I'd like to know what is the best story to you about Poirot?
A: Very difficult to say. Oh, I should think, I should think, I should think... perhaps... The Murder on the Orient Express.
Q: Do you prefer Poirot or Miss Marple?
A: Oh... it's a very close thing between them... but I think I'm beginning to prefer Miss Marple.
Q: And will you write something about Poirot or Miss Marple in Lisbon after this week?
A: Perhaps, yes. We've had a nice holiday here so we must think of something.
Also posted on YouTube: a nine-and-a-half minute clip of a 1979 interview with Vanessa Redgrave—also not a fan of interviews or the press—on Thames Television's "Afternoon Plus." Redgrave is having a sit-down with the show's host to promote the movie Agatha, in which she stars, a film based on Kathleen Tynan's novel of the same name and inspired by Christie's 11-day disappearance in December 1926. (Redgrave's previous Christie-related film was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. In that production, Redgrave plays minor character Mary Debenham and spends most of her screen time listening intently as Albert Finney's Poirot tells her what's what.)
In the "Afternoon Plus" interview, Redgrave wears slacks, a pale pink mohair sweater and dark headband. In the YouTube comments section, P. Folliard remarks on Redgrave's "amazing... patience." Whether patient or resigned, the actress/activist gives the distinct impression she'd rather be swimming with electric eels than stuck in the "Afternoon Plus" studio. Quizzed about playing the famous novelist, the famous actress explains she doesn't "pretend to be the real Agatha Christie"; she's playing the character Agatha in Tynan's novel.
"It's rather like when a writer chooses to write about Richard the Third," Redgrave further attempts to clarify. "Richard the Third did live, but a writer's entitled to make certain assumptions... it's an imaginary story, an imaginary Agatha Christie."
Unappeased by that explanation, the interviewer persists. Surely, in preparing for the role, the actress researched the real Christie? In reluctant response, Redgrave admits she "read some of the novels [Christie] wrote under another name—that interested me."
Interested Redgrave how/why?
The authorial disguise?
The genre switch, mystery to romance?
Regrettably, the interviewer declines to follow-up on that disclosure. It's on to topics Palestinian as Redgrave's tight smile grows tighter.
Although Redgrave doesn't specify which of Christie's six Mary Westmacott romances interested her, chances are better than average that she gave Unfinished Portrait a browse. The incentive: in the character of Celia, "we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha," according to second husband Max's book jacket endorsement.
In the novel, a despondent Celia, having fled England for a sunnier isle, is discovered staring out to sea by portrait painter Larraby. Intuiting her suicidal intentions, Larraby prevents the deed by returning Celia to the hotel and spending the night listening to her saga of heartbreak, which he recounts. "After a while... I had ceased to exist for her save as a kind of human recording machine that was there to be talked to."
An unwieldy narrative set-up.
Adding to the unwieldiness: a hefty number of sentences that end in breathless, trail-off, three-dot fashion. The word "exciting" and its variants appear so frequently ("It was all very exciting." "The journey was very exciting." "Presently there was the excitement of going to bed." "The meals were exciting." "I've had the most exciting dream." "The excitement of it!" "[E]vening dresses were very exciting." "Something really exciting happened"), the reader begins to suspect her leg is being yanked.
By the time the film Agatha came out, Christie's Westmacott nom de plume had been public knowledge for 30 years. A Sunday Times columnist spilled the beans in 1949. Thereafter, Unfinished Portrait was marketed as "semi-autobiographical." Since the parallels between Christie's life and character Celia's story are extensive and often exact, the "semi" qualifier under-promotes the product. Celia has lost her mother and husband to death and betrayal (as had Christie). As does her creator, Celia writes novels. Celia adores and perpetually mourns her mother (as did Christie). Celia enjoys a brief career as a singer, one of Christie's early creative outlets. In the novel, Celia's daughter prefers daddy (as was the case in the Christie household). In the novel, Celia's estranged husband Dermot is a cheater, a fellow prone to belittling his wife (as in the Christie household). Dermot golfs. Colonel Archibald Christie was a golf fanatic.
The list goes on.
Worth noting: when Dermot enters the narrative (page 213), the languid dreamy tone gets tossed for sharper exposition, a vastly accelerated pace and dialogue aplenty. Among the fiction's other close-to-the-bone details: Dermot expects Celia to remain as "lovely as ever" after giving birth. Disliking baby Judy's "curves" and "dimples," he wants Celia's assurance that their daughter "will be thin someday" because he "couldn't bear it if she grew up fat." Dermot also doesn't care for "silly women" or "people who are ill." Celia's mother dubs Dermot "ruthless." After 11 years of marriage, Dermot says, "one needs a change." When Celia initially refuses to divorce him so that he can marry his mistress, Marjorie Connell, Dermot calls Celia a "vulgar, clutching woman." In the novel, once Celia and Dermot divorce, he marries Marjorie Connell "a few days after the decree was made absolute." Free of Agatha, Archibald Christie waited slightly longer—just shy of three weeks—to marry Nancy Neele.
After piling on the details of Dermot's caddish behavior, Christie, in one of her odder Unfinished Portrait decisions, has narrator Larraby offer up a slew of justifications for that conduct. Dermot "was fond of Celia, but he wanted Marjorie. I can almost sympathize..." (The punctuation is Christie's.) "He'd loved Celia, I think for her beauty and her beauty only." "Also, she clung. And Dermot was the type of man who cannot endure being clung to." "Celia had very little devil in her, and a woman with very little devil in her has a poor chance with men." "[Celia] loved him enduringly and for life"—Agatha's plight with regard to Archie, according to Judith Gardner, the daughter of Agatha's lifelong pal Nan Watts. Gardner's take is unequivocal: "Agatha never got over Archie" (Jared Cade, Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days).
For those schooled in Christie's crisper, brisker crime fiction, the gush and purge and prolonged lament of Unfinished Portrait startle. Gone missing is the "Who? Why? When? How? Where? Which?" plot strategy outlined in her planning notebooks, which Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks editor John Curran considers "the essence of detective fiction distilled into six words." Also not in evidence: the kind of tightly worked narrative that led critic Julian Symons to crown Christie the "supreme mistress in the construction of puzzles" (Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel).
Christie, as Westmacott, published Unfinished Portrait in 1934. Eight years earlier, writing as Christie, she published the crime fiction that made her reputation, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Not every critic applauded ("Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Edmund Wilson snapped), but the majority of reviewers, in step with the majority of readers, praised the novel for its originality and clever the-narrator-did-it twist. Still analyzing the ins and outs of the text in 2000, French psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard writes: "Few writers have mined the eminently Freudian question of psychic blindness as systematically as Agatha Christie. Why don't we see?" (Bayard's italics). Bayard's theory: "It was Caroline Sheppard—not narrator Jim Sheppard—who killed Roger Ackroyd" (Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery). Edging farther out on a critical limb, in a 2018 Studies in Crime article, the University of Newcastle's Alistair Rolls proclaimed Jim and Caroline Sheppard an incestuous pair.
An eventful year for Agatha Christie, 1926.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out in June. On the evening of December 3, the author left her home in Sunningdale. On December 4, her Morris Cowley (two-seater or four-seater, depending on the source) was discovered approximately 15 miles away, abandoned at the edge of a chalk pit near Newlands Corner in Guilford. Left in the car: a fur coat, a suitcase of clothes and driver's license (an "expired" driver's license, as reported by Matthew Bunson in The Complete Christie: An Agatha Christie Encyclopedia)—but no handbag. While police, bloodhounds and volunteers scoured the countryside for clues (or the body of a clues expert), Christie settled in at the Hydro Hotel, Harrogate, registered as Theresa or Teresa (depending on the source) Neele, the surname of Archibald Christie's mistress. The mistress herself, Nancy Neele, relocated to her parents' house to wait out the publicity storm (Cade). Archibald Christie contributed to that storm by giving the Daily Mail an interview in which he revealed that "the possibility of engineering a disappearance had been running through [his wife's] mind" and that he "personally" felt that is what Agatha had done. He also stated that Agatha "was very clever at getting anything she wanted" but vehemently denied that "there was anything in the nature of a row or tiff" between husband and wife.
Reporters at the time didn't hide their skepticism about Archie's truthfulness or the reasons behind the vanishing. Roger Ackroyd sold well before Christie's disappearance; afterward, it sold even better. Some sniffed a publicity stunt. Subsequent biographers, for the most part, have stuck with the amnesia excuse, concocted by Archie as he collected his found spouse at the Hydro Hotel. (A member of the Hydro's house band blew Agatha's cover. After noticing Mrs. Neele of South Africa bore a striking resemblance to Agatha Christie of Sunningdale, he tipped off police.)
A Christie biographer who doesn't buy into the amnesia explanation is Jared Cade. (Originally published in 1998, his Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days was reissued in an expanded, "updated" edition in 2011.) Cade agrees with husband Archie's first theory: Agatha "engineered" her disappearance and did so, in Cade's opinion, to punish foot-out-the-door Archie and provoke speculation that the colonel had done his wife harm. In pulling off the scheme, Cade believes Agatha had the assistance of friend Nan Watts.
Cade's is an appealing interpretation because 1) it better suits our notion of "how a crime writer would act," and 2) rather than cast Agatha as victim/doormat, passively accepting Archie's philandering, it reveals her to be a tit-for-tat avenger. What seems less open to speculation and disagreement: the author's severe underestimation of how famous she'd already become by 1926 and how feverishly interested the public would become in her private affairs.
It was friend Nan Watts (Cade reports) who urged Agatha, in the author's only public comment on the subject, to agree to a February 1928 Daily Mail interview and defend herself against the lingering assumption that she'd "deliberately disappeared." A misguided suggestion by Watts, if true. The interview didn't come close to putting the matter to rest and achieved much the opposite. Along with resuscitating the dubious amnesia excuse, Christie floats an extra: the second identity excuse. "As Mrs Neele I was very happy and contented. I had become, as it were, a new woman." Despite being "greatly struck by (her) resemblance" to the newspapers' photos of Mrs. Christie, "it never occurred to me that I might be her, as I was quite satisfied in my mind as to who I was," Christie pronounced—apparently with a straight face.
Altogether, a plot with many holes.
Small wonder the fictioneers rushed in with plugs.
To The Washington Post, Kathleen Tynan ID-ed her novel as "not a who-dun-it" but a "why-do-it... an imaginary solution" to the "authentic mystery" of Christie's disappearance and activities between Christie's official dates of lost and found. In Tynan's novel, to get character Agatha to the Harrogate Hydro and subject to the pursuit of reporter Wally Stanton, Tynan gives short shrift to the Archie/Agatha prequel. In Tynan's novel, page 4, the Christies' miserable marriage and life together are disposed of thus:
They set up house and had a daughter and lived happily till twelve years later, when the marriage lay ruptured and bleeding. During the previous summer, soon after the death of Agatha's mother, Archie had told her that he had fallen in love with another woman.
As for what motivates character Archie's unsporting behavior (in the novel): "I've really had enough of all this. These people. Your writing. Your damned garden. I'm simply not my own person anymore." (page 20)
In its uncomplimentary review of Tynan's novel, Kirkus tosses in criticism of the "upcoming film," objecting to the casting of "much-too-beautiful V. Redgrave as AC." In a nifty bit of casting, however, Redgrave's paramour at the time, Timothy Dalton, plays Archie. Staying true to its source, the film downplays Dalton's role—a shame. Dalton's self-involved colonel is far more watchable than Dustin Hoffman's self-involved newshound. To shore up his criticisms of the film, Roger Ebert references George Orwell's essay "The Decline of the English Murder." Ebert's review also discloses that he's "never been able to work up much enthusiasm" for Christie novels because he prefers "books with some juice in them"—likely eliminating him as the ideal audience for any movie inspired by Christie's life. Although The New York Times applauded the "resourcefulness" of Redgrave and Hoffman, the film as a whole proved to be a "handsome, rudderless sort of movie." Time hasn't improved the movie's reputation. Almost 30 years after its release, Robert Fulford, writing in The National Post, describes Agatha as "deadly" (in the uninteresting-to-the-max sense of the word) and revives accusations that the fault of the deadliness lay with Hoffman's endless rewrite demands and Redgrave's "ennui-projecting performance."
During the filming, squabbling broke out between and among writers, producers, and actors, actor Hoffman holding pride of place in several of those standoffs. In her essay "Autobiography in Agatha," Sarah Street describes the film production as "tortuous." Whereas Wally Stanton's role was significantly expanded in the film version, the role of Agatha's Hydro friend, Evelyn, was severely curtailed—an adjustment that displeased Tynan, Street reports. Frustrated by Hoffman's insistence on reshooting (and re-reshooting) scenes, co-producer David Puttman pulled out of the enterprise. Acting on behalf of the Christie Estate, Christie's daughter, Rosalind Hicks, attempted to block the filming from the get-go. Despite the failure of Hicks's lawsuit, its filing rattled Tynan, who worried the Christie Estate might next decide to sue her personally for penning the novel that started the ball rolling. And Tynan wasn't the only one made nervous by the Christie Estate's saber rattling. In the novel, on the night of the disappearance, Rosalind gets a goodbye kiss from her mother. In the film—on the advice of attorneys—the nursery scene got scrapped (Street).
In her "Afternoon Plus" interview, Redgrave expresses solidarity with the Rosalinds of the world. "You can understand," she says, why relatives would not want "things" they considered "private and personal... made public." Redgrave's membership in an acting clan exhaustively covered by the press probably accounts for her sympathy. In 2011, Vanessa led the charge in suing Tim Adler over The House of Redgrave, a biography the Redgrave family considered libelous.
Christie might not have wanted to (again) discuss her 11 elsewhere days, but she was keen to leave her version of her life's story for posterity. At 75, she published her autobiography, the content dictated, according to grandson Mathew Prichard's introduction, over a 15-year period. "The disadvantage of a dictaphone or tape recorder... is that it encourages you to be much too verbose," Christie allows on page 341 of the 532-page text. As if to quash (far) in advance the possibility of readers agreeing with his grandmother's assessment, in the second paragraph of Prichard's introduction he insists: "A lot of people I know have found the autobiography so fascinating they couldn't put it down." In Christie's foreword, spoken/written in 1950, the author puts forth another stringent opinion: "I do not know the whole Agatha. The whole Agatha, so I believe, is known only to God"—quashing, in advance, any reader's hope of full disclosure.
In lieu of divulging Hydro-at-Harrogate specifics, Christie sticks with vaguer summations of misery during that stressful period of existence. "The next year of my life is one I hate recalling. As so often in life, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong." Her beloved mother died, and she was left to "clear up" her mother's house and estate. She turned down Archie's suggestion to accompany him to Spain.
I wanted to be with my sorrow... I see now that I was wrong. My life with Archie lay ahead of me. We were happy together, assured of each other, and neither of us would have dreamed that we could ever part. But he hated the feeling of sorrow in the house, and it left him open to other influences.
In her run-down "nervous state," she "hardly knew" what she "was doing." She "began to get confused and muddled over things." Required to "sign a cheque," she couldn't recall what name to sign—a detail disputed by biographer Cade, who contends Christie includes it merely to echo the amnesia alibi.
In a chapter of fewer than four pages, Christie shares Archie's confession of feeling "desperately sorry that this thing" (falling in love with Nancy Neele) "has happened." Nonetheless, he'd "like" Christie to give him a "divorce as soon as it can be arranged." "With those words, that part of my life—my happy successful confident life—ended," Christie declares, then qualifies: "I thought it was something that would pass... He had never been the type who looked much at other women. It was triggered off, perhaps, by the fact that he had missed his usual cheerful companion in the last few months." Christie goes on to supply Archie with other (convoluted) excuses for bolting. "He was unhappy because he was, I think, deep down fond of me, and he did really hate to hurt me—so he had (Christie's italics) to assure himself that this was not hurting me, that it would be much better for me in the end"—and more along those lines. The brief chapter winds toward its finish with: "So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it."
And dwell the author does not. There is only a fleeting allusion to her disappearance and its aftermath ("There could be no peace for me in England now after all I had gone through... life in England was unbearable")—and that to set up a swipe at the press.
From that time... dates my revulsion against the Press, my dislike of journalists and of crowds... I had felt like a fox, hunted, my earths dug up and yelping hounds following me everywhere. I had always hated notoriety of any kind, and now I had had such a dose of it that at some moments I felt I could hardly bear to go on living.
But go on living and writing she does. In 1930, still carrying a torch for Archie (or not), "scared of marriage" because "the only person who can really hurt you in life is a husband" (An Autobiography) and against sister Madge's stiff opposition, Christie married husband number two, archaeologist Max Mallowan, a gentleman 13 or 14 or 15 years (depending on the source) her junior. In the autobiography, explaining why she married Mallowan on the QT, Christie returns to her grievances against the press. "I had had so much publicity, and been caused so much misery by it, that I wanted things kept as quiet as possible." In Christie's chronicle, her second marriage is portrayed as a companionable, non-tumultuous sort of union, involving archeological expeditions to the Middle East and assorted travel adventures. There is no mention of her second husband's wandering eye. There are no confessions of anger or upset or depression caused by Mallowan's liaison with his former student and archeological assistant Barbara Parker. Neither Christie nor her biographers describe the author again driving off into the night to hole up elsewhere, supremely distressed, thoroughly amnesic or ferociously vengeful. This go-around Christie stayed put, as did Mallowan, uninterested in divorce, supported personally and professionally in deluxe style by Christie's earnings. Dame Agatha Christie died in January 1976. Showing not quite the haste Archibald Christie had shown, Max Mallowan waited a year and eight months to wed Parker.
Whatever might be said of Agatha Christie's husbands, marriage to her put neither off the institution.
Christie's royalties, in addition to supporting her own household, supported the household of her daughter (who died in 2004) and continues to support the household of her grandson, who has owned the rights to his grandmother's play The Mousetrap since age nine or ten (sources disagree). Vested interest on display, in 2010, to The Independent, Prichard expressed "dismay" that, in its entry about the play, Wikipedia named the murderer. "My grandmother always got upset if the plots of her books or plays were revealed in reviews," he said, "and I don't think this is any different." Fans dutifully took up the cause, swelling the complaint pool. Although Wikipedia kept the spoiler, going with a "just don't read it" rebuttal, there was an adjustment: the identity of the killer now appears under the bolded subhead Identity of the murderer. In Christie's lifetime, surprised by The Mousetrap's popularity and experiencing tax difficulties, the lifelong Tory is said to have regretted her precipitous royalties transfer to her grandson (Cade). But who, including its creator, could have predicted the play's phenomenal success, smashing records then and now and still running in London's West End in 2019?
If harboring financial regrets of her own, the actress who played an imaginary Christie seems to have kept those regrets closer to her chest. Redgrave is nowhere reported as wishing she hadn't given away bundles of money to the Workers Revolutionary Party and other leftist causes over the years. The fretters seem to have been her daughters. According to an article penned by Joely Richardson and published in The Telegraph in 2011: "My sister and I have always worried about Vanessa's totally selflessness, hence Tasha's very poignant present to mum shortly before (Natasha) died—a little purse embroidered with 'save for a rainy day.'" Thus far: no published update as to whether Vanessa has acted on that monetary advice.
Another YouTube preservation: a late-middle-aged woman with late-middle-age spread in a less-than-flattering swimsuit and bathing cap, happily paddling in the surf, assuming she waved at intimates, not posterity.
Which of Dame Agatha's relatives or friends released that home video and for what reason?