I do like a literary biography and Lucy Worsley's Agatha Christie - A Very Elusive Woman is a great autumnal read. It's a traditional 'womb to tomb' format which can sometimes be tricky but Worsley keeps this fresh by interjecting her own thoughts. For example, when she was researching Agatha's first husband, handsome pilot Archie Christie and saw his picture she thought he was 'totally hot!'
I expected the most intriguing part of the book to be Agatha's famous eleven day disappearance in 1926 which caused so many repercussions and gave her an unfair reputation for being difficult. Actually though I became absorbed in the voluntary nursing that Agatha did during the Great War before switching to pharmacy dispensing which she did as a volunteer in both world wars. Of course, it was the pharmaceutical knowledge of drugs and dosage which inspired some of her famous plots.
The popular image of Agatha Christie is that of a formidable older women but Worsley brings into clear view the young Agatha described by a contemporary as 'tall, very pretty, Scandinavian coloring and a lovely complexion' who falls in love with the dashing aviator Archibald Christie. Sadly the marriage didn't last and Archie's affair prompted Agatha's disappearance where she drove aimlessly around the Surrey Hills at night contemplating suicide before heading towards a quarry. The car wheels became jammed in a hedge and hitting her head on the steering wheel may have shocked her back into an appreciation of life. Worsley attributes this to a mental breakdown and fear that she was losing her mind and incapable of looking after her young daughter which seems entirely plausible.
Less easy to explain is the subsequent trip to a department store and booking into the Spa Hotel in Harrogate under a pseudonym where she seems to have rather enjoyed herself. While friends and family grew frantic with worry and rival police forces were searching for her Agatha was socialising with other guests, dancing the Charleston and having parcels of clothes, books, magazines and flowers delivered to her room.
What an extraordinary life she had! A hugely successful writing career. Author of The Mousetrap the longest running West End play. A passion for buying and restoring houses. A subsequent marriage to Max Mallowan which launched a new interest in archeology, excavation and travel. I can't say I warmed to Max or her chilly daughter Rosalind in this biography but Agatha comes across as a joy who adored and financially supported her family and friends and when the taxman finally came calling said 'I shall go on enjoying myself and have a slap up bankruptcy!'
This will join Valerie Grove's Dear Dodie (biography of Dodie Smith, author of I Capture the Castle) as one of my favourite writer biographies. What are yours?