Six Damn Fine Degrees #71: Agatha Christie and the desert

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

While Agatha Christie is possibly most famous for her many fictional English villages or mansions or lodges or what have you, my imagination was always drawn to the books she set in the desert. Preferably, though not necessarily, on archaeological digs. Because, although she herself keeps insisting she will not describe any scenery in her books, she has a knack of picking out details which bring these fantastic places to life. The sound of the waterwheel, the flowers, the sparsely furnished accommodations. In Murder in Mesopotamia, a group of archaeologists are working at a dig, very near the fictional town of Hassanieh. And although the plot is one of her weaker ones, the characterizations of the people and the description of their routines seems to evoke a world that just seems more real to me than St Mary Mead or Chipping Cleghorn. The reason for this, as I found out much later, is that they are, in a sense, more real – or rather, they represent Christie’s later years, ones imbued with more affection and gratitude, her second lease on life.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, née Miller, married Archibald Christie on Christmas Eve in 1914. When they met, he was a romantic figure, with ambitions of becoming a pilot. He was also ardently pursuing Agatha, but their courtship, due to circumstances not the least of which was the war, took two years. And even if it hadn’t been for that, it seems neither of them was very sure of the marriage, even days before they tied the knot. There were of course issues with money, but there was also a hankering for independence in Agatha who, on one hand, wanted her freedom, but on the other wanted marriage very badly too. It is not clear to what extent this was imbued in her by convention. In her day, women had husbands, not careers, and she herself wrote, “Men have better brains than women, don’t you think?” And to her rather romantic sensibilities, Archie must have seemed her knight on a shining motorbike, her dream come true.

During the war years this sensitive, sheltered young woman, more used to garden parties than drudgery, became a nurse. Although circumstances must have been horrific, she would describe the job as being satisfactory, albeit much later, in an interview from 1974. Archie and Agatha married in a much pared-down ceremony while he was home on leave. In the first years of their marriage, they were apart a good deal. He returned in 1918 apparently the same as he ever was, but the truth should have been obvious: that he had been through war, and the war had left its mark.

Even early on in her life, Agatha was already writing. The story goes that she wrote her first detective novel due to a bet with her sister Madge, culminating in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It does seem clear that her work as a nurse and at the dispensary taught her a lot about different poisons, a useful thing for a crime writer. And throughout the ups and downs of her marriage: the birth of her daughter Rosalind in August 1919, Archie’s melancholy, and money troubles, her books became more and more successful. Even during these more affluent years, however, they were apart often, as Archie got a job in the City, discovered golf and became protective of his spare time. They moved house to Sunningdale, Berkshire near two golf courses to make him happy, though Agatha found it increasingly stifling. And then, devastatingly, in 1926 the bottom fell out of Agatha’s world when her adored mother, Clarissa “Clara” Miller, died in April of that year. Agatha very much looked to her husband for consolation, but Archie, always repulsed by overt emotion, could get no further than to suggest she join him in Spain, where he was staying on business. Wretched, she instead went alone to her childhood home of Ashfield in Torquay to sort through her mother’s things, where she found solace only from her beloved pet dog, Peter. To add to her misery, Archie even declined to come over to visit her on weekends. When he finally did come over for Rosalind’s birthday, a different man walked through the door than the man she had known – or thought she had known. He had fallen in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and impatiently informed Agatha that he wanted a divorce. Despite the many signs and portents following Rosalind’s birth that the couple had been drifting apart, her shock was absolute. Though Archie made a half-hearted stab at reconciliation, it was no good. On 3 December 1926, when he didn’t come back home to “Styles” in Sunningdale, she drove off and went missing. Her car was found empty the next day.

There was a great deal of speculation about what happened during her disappearance. What her state of mind was where she went, and why. Eleven days afterwards, when she was discovered in a spa at Harrogate, the official line was amnesia. But she never wrote about it (her autobiography merely states, “There is no need to dwell on it”) and refused to speak of it, so we will respect her privacy. It is clear enough she had suffered such a blow that she never really got past it. She would never forget the media’s rabid speculation that she was dead, nor did she forgive them for hounding her and Archie afterwards, or – to add insult to injury – for speculating that it may all have been a “publicity stunt”. The fallout in the press was disastrous. She was wounded and vulnerable as her life had inexplicably fallen apart: she was at the end of her tether. To get through the darkness of 1927 and 1928, she wrote as if her life depended on it, which – in many ways – it did.

The winter of 1928, she decided, would be spent in the sun, in the West Indies to recuperate. Tickets had already been acquired. But, in a twist of fate, she ended up next to a gentleman at a dinner party, who had just come back from Baghdad. She had always dreamed of going to Baghdad. News of the archaeological dig at Ur in Iraq was all over the papers. So, in an extraordinary move for a woman on her own, the very next day she exchanged her tickets: she would take the Orient Express.

Initially she stayed in one of the anglicized enclaves in Baghdad, among people very much like those she had known all her life. This seemed rather pointless, having come so far, and so her newly found sense of adventure soon spurred her on to the dig of Leonard Woolley, the man who claimed to have found the site of Noah’s flood. Katherine Woolley, the famed archaeologist’s wife, was a fan of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and as Katherine always got her way, Agatha was welcomed at the dig. It must have been a relief to her not to be the notorious disappeared divorcee she was painted as in London. Here she was simply an author and a traveller. It was Katherine Woolley who made it into the book Murder in Mesopotamia. Like Katherine, the Louise Leitner of the book has had an unusual life, and had found her way towards archaeology and a new husband. Also like Katherine, Louise has all the men dancing to attendance. Unusually for an Agatha Christie novel1 Louise is very much based on a real person, though the doomed infatuation that leads to Louise’s death in the book never happened to Katherine. Eccentric, magnetic and possibly blind to her own faults, she took no umbrage and the women remained friends.

Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan during a visit on a dig in Nippur in South-Iraq, 1949 – 1953. C, The Penn Museum Archives (49024)

It was at the same site, in 1930, that Agatha met Max Mallowan and with him, got her second lease on life. They started off as friends, Max accompanying her back to London when Rosalind had a health scare. He was not a physically imposing figure, perhaps, but he was confident. And while the two got to know each other travelling, Agatha actually managed to have fun again. He had ambitions of starting an archaeological project himself, a wish to climb socially, and was affectionate and courteous. Agatha must have realised that with him, she could have her adventures and her freedom, but in addition – crucially – a sense of emotional security. To my modern eye, the liberties he took in suggesting how their money (her money, in fact) might be best spent seems supercilious. But he clearly knew which side his bread was buttered, and made sure Agatha had the relationship she craved. In Come Tell Me How You Live, she has a laugh at the archaeological adventures she now became part of – poking fun at everyone, and not sparing herself. While it was all probably far less romantic and light-hearted than she makes it sound: she seems to be having a blast playing the archaeologist’s wife. Working hard washing pots, sleeping in tents, and having an affectionate joke at her husband’s expense when, in morbid tones, he declares for the umpteenth time that the spoils of the site they are digging on are “Roman”.

Agatha Christie never did live in an English village of the kind she describes in her books. She did live, and love, in the desert. She enjoyed travelling, especially by train, even more so by the Orient Express. She was fond of being the archaeologist’s wife, while still being allowed her own identity and her acclaim as an author. Perhaps this is why Death on the Nile (or Appointment with Death, which seems to come from an adjacent plot idea according to Agatha’s notes), Murder on the Orient Express and Murder in Mesopotamia – the more adventurous books – have such an appeal for me. Don’t we all wish we could just change our minds at a moment’s notice, and venture into parts unknown? A story seldom told even in her own fiction, it is inspiring to find that a courageous woman in her middle years can, and does, have the agency to go on an adventure and change her life for the better.

1 The omission of the Mary Westmacott novels in this piece is intentional. As it is already overlong, I will stick to the books she wrote under the name of Agatha Christie. For the interested: do seek out some of the material below. There is so much more to explore.

  • Sources as to names, dates and properties are the usual internet sources: especially interesting ones are linked to within the piece. This Six Degrees is also inspired by the documentary Agatha Christie: 100 Years of Suspense (2020), and owes much to the charming book Agatha Christie, A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson (e-book by Headline Publishing, 2013), who also features in the documentary. The new book Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsley is due as an audiobook in September, so at the time of writing I haven’t had a chance to consult it: but I look forward to it very much.
  • When I call Dame Agatha, Lady Mallowan, DBE, “Agatha” she would be well within her rights to be indignant. But because this piece is about her as Agatha Christie, Archibald Christie’s wife; Agatha Christie the famed author and divorcee; Agatha, Mrs. Mallowan, and Dame Agatha to boot: I am being familiar for purposes of clarity, not mere cheek.

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