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An Autobiography

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An Autobiography

Agatha Christie

An Autobiography

    Contents

    Cover Preface Foreword ? Part I Ashfield Part II ‘Girls and Boys Come out to Play’ Part III Growing up Part IV Flirting, Courting, Banns Up, Marriage Part V War Part VI Round the World Part VII The Land of Lost Content Part VIII Second Spring Part IX Life with Max Part X The Second War Part XI Autumn ? Epilogue Searchable Terms About the Author Copyright About the Publisher

    PREFACE

    Agatha Christie began to write this book in April 1950; she finished it some fifteen yearslater when she was 75 years old. Any book written over so long a period must contain certainrepetitions and inconsistencies and these have been tidied up. Nothing of importance has beenomitted, however: substantially, this is the autobiography as she would have wished it toappear.

    She ended it when she was 75 because, as she put it, ‘it seems the right moment to stop.Because, as far as life is concerned, that is all there is to say.’ The last ten years of herlife saw some notable triumphs–the film of Murder on the Orient Express; the continued

    phenomenal run of The Mousetrap; sales of her books throughout the world growing massively yearby year and in the United States taking the position at the top of the best-seller charts whichhad for long been hers as of right in Britain and the Commonwealth; her appointment in 1971 asa Dame of the British Empire. Yet these are no more than extra laurels for achievements that inher own mind were already behind her. In 1965 she could truthfully write…‘I am satisfied. Ihave done what I want to do.’

    Though this is an autobiography, beginning, as autobiographies should, at the beginning andgoing on to the time she finished writing, Agatha Christie has not allowed herself to be toorigidly circumscribed by the strait-jacket of chronology. Part of the delight of this book liesin the way in which she moves as her fancy takes her; breaking off here to muse on theincomprehensible habits of housemaids or the compensations of old age; jumping forward therebecause some trait in her childlike character reminds her vividly of her grandson. Nor does shefeel any obligation to put everything in. A few episodes which to some might seemimportant–the celebrated disappearance, for example–are not mentioned, though in thatparticular case the references elsewhere to an earlier attack of amnesia give the clue to thetrue course of events. As to the rest, ‘I have remembered, I suppose, what I wanted toremember’, and though she describes her parting from her first husband with moving dignity,what she usually wants to remember are the joyful or the amusing parts of her existence.

    Few people can have extraced more intense or more varied fun from life, and this book, aboveall, is a hymn to the joy of living.

    If she had seen this book into print she would undoubtedly have wished to acknowledge many ofthose who had helped bring that joy into her life; above all, of course, her husband Max andher family. Perhaps it would not be out of place for us, her publishers, to acknowledge her.

    For fifty years she bullied, berated and delighted us; her insistence on the highest standardsin every field of publishing was a constant challenge; her good-humour and zest for lifebrought warmth into our lives. That she drew great pleasure from her writing is obvious fromthese pages; what does not appear is the way in which she could communicate that pleasure toall those involved with her work, so that to publish her made business ceaselessly enjoyable.It is certain that both as an author and as a person Agatha Christie will remain unique.

    FOREWORD

    NIMRUD, IRAQ. 2 April 1950.

    Nimrud is the modern name of the ancient city of Calah, the military capital of the Assyrians.Our Expedition House is built of mud-brick.

    It sprawls out on the east side of the mound, and has a kitchen, a living–and dining-room, asmall office, a workroom, a drawing office, a large store and pottery room, and a minutedarkroom (we all sleep in tents).

    But this year one more room has been added to the Expedition House, a room that measures aboutthree metres square. It has a plastered floor with rush mats and a couple of gay coarse rugs.There is a picture on the wall by a young Iraqi artist, of two donkeys going through the Souk,all done in a maze of brightly coloured cubes. There is a window looking out east towards thesnow-topped mountains of Kurdistan. On the outside of the door is affixed a square card onwhich is printed in cuneiform BEIT AGATHA (Agatha’s House).

    So this is my ‘house’ and the idea is that in it I have complete privacy and can apply myselfseriously to the business of writing. As the dig proceeds there will probably be no time forthis. Objects will need to be cleaned and repaired. There will be photography, labelling,cataloguing and packing. But for the first week or ten days there should be comparativeleisure.

    It is true that there are certain hindrances to concentration. On the roof overhead, Arabworkmen are jumping about, yelling happily to each other and altering the position of insecureladders. Dogs are barking, turkeys are gobbling. The policeman’s horse is clanking his chain,and the window and door refuse to stay shut, and burst open alternately. I sit at a fairly firmwooden table, and beside me is a gaily painted tin box with which Arabs travel. In it I proposeto keep my typescript as it progresses.

    I ought to be writing a detective story, but with the writer’s natural urge to write anythingbut what he should be writing, I long, quite unexpectedly, to write my autobiography. The urgeto write one’s autobiography, so I have been told, overtakes everyone sooner or later. It hassuddenly overtaken me.

    On second thoughts, autobiography is much too grand a word. It suggests a purposeful study ofone’s whole life. It implies names, dates and places in tidy chronological order. What I wantis to plunge my hand into a lucky dip and come up with a handful of assorted memories.

    Life seems to me to consist of three parts: the absorbing and usually enjoyable present whichrushes on from minute to minute with fatal speed; the future, dim and uncertain, for which onecan make any number of interesting plans, the wilder and more improbable the better, since–asnothing will turn out as you expect it to do–you might as well have the fun of planninganyway; and thirdly, the past, the memories and realities that are the bedrock of one’spresent life, brought back suddenly by a scent, the shape of a hill, an old song–sometriviality that makes one suddenly say ‘I remember…’ with a peculiar and quite unexplainablepleasure.

    This is one of the compensations that age brings, and certainly a very enjoyable one–toremember.

    Unfortunately you often wish not only to remember, but also to talk about what you remember.

    And this, you have to tell yourself repeatedly, is boring for other people. Why should they beinterested in what, after all, is your life, not theirs? They do, occasionally, when young,

    accord to you a certain historical curiosity.

    ‘I suppose,’ a well-educated girl says with interest, ‘that you remember all about the

    Crimea?’

    Rather hurt, I reply that I’m not quite as old as that. I also repudiate participation in theIndian Mutiny. But I admit to recollections of the Boer War–I should do, my brother fought init.

    The first memory that springs up in my mind is a clear picture of myself walking along thestreets of Dinard on market day with my mother. A boy with a great basket of stuff cannonsroughly into me, grazing my arm and nearly knocking me flat. It hurts. I begin to cry. I am, Ithink, about seven years old.

    My mother, who likes stoic behaviour in public places, remonstrates with me.

    ‘Think,’ she says, ‘of our brave soldiers in South Africa.’

    My answer is to bawl out: ‘I don’t want to be a brave soldier. I want to be a cowyard!’

    What governs one’s choice of memories? Life is like sitting in a cinema. Flick! Here am I, achild eating éclairs on my birthday. Flick!

    Two years have passed and I am sitting on my grandmother’s lap, being solemnly trussed up as achicken just arrived from Mr Whiteley’s, and almost hysterical with the wit of the joke.

    Just moments–and in between long empty spaces of months or even years. Where was one then? Itbrings home to one Peer Gynt’s question:

    ‘Where was I, myself, the whole man, the true man?’

    We never know the whole man, though sometimes, in quick flashes, we know the true man. I think,myself, that one’s memories represent those moments which, insignificant as they may seem,nevertheless represent the inner self and oneself as most really oneself.

    I am today the same person as that solemn little girl with pale flaxen sausage-curls. The housein which the spirit dwells, grows, develops instincts and tastes and emotions and intellectualcapacities, but I myself, the true Agatha, am the same. I do not know the whole Agatha.

    The whole Agatha, so I believe, is known only to God.

    So there we are, all of us, little Agatha Miller, and big Agatha Miller, and Agatha Christieand Agatha Mallowan proceeding on our way-where? That one doesn’t know–which, of course,makes life exciting. I have always thought life exciting and I still do.

    Because one knows so little of it–only one’s own tiny part–one is like an actor who has afew lines to say in Act I. He has a type-written script with his cues, and that is all he canknow. He hasn’t read the play. Why should he? His but to say ‘The telephone is out of order,Madam’ and then retire into obscurity.

    But when the curtain goes up on the day of performance, he will hear the play through, and hewill be there to line up with the rest, and take his call.

    To be part of something one doesn’t in the least understand is, I think, one of the mostintriguing things about life.

    I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow,

    be alive is a grand thing.but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to

    So what I plan to do is to enjoy the pleasures of memory–not hurrying myself-writing a fewpages from time to time. It is a task that will probably go on for years. But why do I call ita task? It is an indulgence.

    I once saw an old Chinese scroll that I loved. It featured an old man sitting under a treeplaying cat’s cradle. It was called ‘Old Man enjoying the pleasures of Idleness.’ I’venever forgotten it.

    So having settled that I’m going to enjoy myself, I had better, perhaps, begin. And though Idon’t expect to be able to keep up chronological continuity, I can at least try to begin atthe beginning.

    PART I

    ASHFIELD

    O! ma chère maison; mon nid, mon gîte

    Le passé Vhabite…O ma chère maison

    I

    One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood. I had avery happy childhood. I had a home and a garden that I loved; a wise and patient Nanny; asfather and mother two people who loved each other dearly and made a success of their marriageand of parenthood.

    Looking back I feel that our house was truly a happy house. That was largely due to my father,for my father was a very agreeable man. The quality of agreeableness Is not much stressednowadays. People tend to ask if a man is clever, industrious, if he contributes to the well-being of the community, if he ‘counts’ in the scheme of things. But Charles Dickens puts thematter delightfully in David Copperfield:

    ‘Is your brother an agreeable man, Peggotty?’ I enquired cautiously.

    ‘Oh what an agreeable man he is!’ exclaimed Peggotty.

    Ask yourself that question about most of your friends and acquaintances, and you will perhapsbe surprised at how seldom your answer will be the same as Peggotty’s.

    By modern standards my father would probably not be approved of.

    He was a lazy man. It was the days of independent incomes, and if you had an independent incomeyou didn’t work. You weren’t expected to. I strongly suspect that my father would not havebeen particularly good at working anyway.

    He left our house in Torquay every morning and went to his club.

    He returned, in a cab, for lunch, and in the afternoon went back to the club, played whist allafternoon, and returned to the house in time to dress for dinner. During the season, he spenthis days at the Cricket Club, of which he was President. He also occasionally got up amateurtheatricals. He had an enormous number of friends and loved entertaining them. There was onebig dinner party at our home every week, and he and my mother went out to dinner usuallyanother two or three times a week.

    It was only later that I realized what a much loved man he was. After his death, letters camefrom all over the world. And locally tradesmen, cabmen, old employees–again and again some oldman would come up to me and say: ‘Ah! I remember Mr Miller well. I’ll never forget him.

    Not many like him nowadays.’

    Yet he had no outstanding characteristics. He was not particularly intelligent. I think that hehad a simple and loving heart, and he really cared for his fellow men. He had a great sense ofhumour and he easily made people laugh. There was no meanness in him, no jealousy, and he wasalmost fantastically generous. And he had a natural happiness and serenity.

    My mother was entirely different. She was an enigmatic and arresting personality–more forcefulthan my father–startlingly original in her ideas, shy and miserably diffident about herself,and at bottom, I think, with a natural melancholy.

    Servants and children were devoted to her, and her lightest word was always promptly obeyed.She would have made a first class educator.

    Anything she told you immediately became exciting and significant.

    Sameness bored her and she would jump from one subject to another in a way that sometimes madeher conversation bewildering. As my father used to tell her, she had no sense of humour. Tothat accusation she would protest in an injured voice: ‘Just because I don’t think certainstories of yours are funny, Fred…’ and my father would roar with laughter.

    She was about ten years younger than my father and she had loved him devotedly ever since shewas a child often. All the time that he was a gay young man, flitting about between New Yorkand the South of France, my mother, a shy quiet girl, sat at home, thinking about him, writingan occasional poem in her ‘album,’ embroidering a pocket-book for him.

    That pocket-book, incidentally, my father kept all his life.

    A typically Victorian romance, but with a wealth of deep feeling behind it.

    were my parents, but because they achievedI am interested in my parents, not only because they

    that very rare production, a happy marriage.

    Up to date I have only seen four completely successful marriages. Is there a formula forsuccess? I can hardly think so. Of my four examples, one was of a girl of seventeen to a manover fifteen years her senior. He had protested she could not know her mind. She replied thatshe knew it perfectly and had determined to marry him some three years back!

    Their married life was further complicated by having first one and then the other mother-in-lawliving with them-enough to wreck most alliances. The wife is calm with a quality of deepintensity. She reminds me a little of my mother without having her brilliance and intellectualinterests. They have three children, all now long out in the world. Their partnership haslasted well over thirty years and they are still devoted.

    Another was that of a young man to a woman fifteen years older than himself–a widow. Sherefused him for many years, at last accepted him, and they lived happily until her death 35years later.

    My mother Clara Boehmer went through unhappiness as a child.

    Her father, an officer in the Argyll Highlanders, was thrown from his horse and fatallyinjured, and my grandmother was left, a young and lovely widow with four children, at the ageof 27 with nothing but her widow’s pension. It was then that her elder sister, who hadrecently married a rich American as his second wife, wrote to her offering to adopt one of thechildren and bring it up as her own.

    To the anxious young widow, working desperately with her needle to support and educate fourchildren, the offer was not to be refused. Of the three boys and one girl, she selected thegirl; either because it seemed to her that boys could make their way in the world while a girlneeded the advantages of easy living, or because, as my mother always believed, she cared forthe boys more. My mother left Jersey and came to the North of England to a strange home. Ithink the resentment she felt, the deep hurt at being unwanted, coloured her attitude to life.It made her distrustful of herself and suspicious of people’s affection. Her aunt was a kindlywoman, good-humoured and generous, but she was imperceptive of a child’s feelings. My motherhad all the so-called advantages of a comfortable home and a good education–what she lost andwhat nothing could replace was the carefree life with her brothers in her own home.

    Quite often I have seen in correspondence columns enquiries from anxious parents asking if theyought to let a child go to others because of ‘the advantages she will have which I cannotprovide–such as a first-class education’. I always long to cry out: Don’t let the child go.Her own home, her own people, love, and the security of belonging–what does the best educationin the world mean against that?

    My mother was deeply miserable in her new life. She cried herself to sleep every night, grewthin and pale, and at last became so ill that her aunt called in a doctor. He was an elderly,experienced man, and after talking to the little girl he went to her aunt and said: ‘Thechild’s homesick.’

    Her aunt was astonished and unbelieving. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘That couldn’t possibly be so.Clara’s a good quiet child, she never gives any trouble, and she’s quite happy.’ But the olddoctor went back to the child and talked to her again. She had brothers, hadn’t she? How many?

    What were their names? And presently the child broke down in a storm of weeping, and the wholestory came out.

    Bringing out the trouble eased the strain, but the feeling always remained of ‘not beingwanted’. I think she held it against my grandmother until her dying day. She became veryattached to her American ‘uncle’. He was a sick man by then, but he was fond of quiet little

    The King of the GoldenClara and she used to come and read to him from her favourite book,

     But the real solace in her life were the periodical visits of her aunt’s stepson–FredRiver.

    Miller–her so-called ‘Cousin Fred’.

    He was then about twenty and he was always extra kind to his little ‘cousin’. One day, whenshe was about eleven, he said to his stepmother:

    ‘What lovely eyes Clara has got!’

    Clara, who had always thought of herself as terribly plain, went upstairs and peered at herselfin her aunt’s large dressing-table mirror.

    Perhaps her eyes were rather nice…She felt immeasurably cheered.

    From then on, her heart was given irrevocably to Fred.

    Over in America an old family friend said to the gay young man, ‘Freddie, one day you willmarry that little English cousin of yours.’

    Astonished, he replied, ‘Clara? She’s only a child.’

    But he always had a special feeling for the adoring child. He kept her childish letters and thepoems she wrote him, and after a long series of flirtations with social beauties and wittygirls in New York (among them Jenny Jerome, afterwards Lady Randolph Churchill) he went home toEngland to ask the quiet little cousin to be his wife.

    It is typical of my mother that she refused him firmly.

    ‘Why?’ I once asked her.

    ‘Because I was dumpy,’ she replied.

    An extraordinary but, to her, quite valid reason.

    My father was not to be gainsaid. He came a second time, and on this occasion my motherovercame her misgivings and rather dubiously agreed to marry him, though full of misgivingsthat he would be ‘disappointed in her’.

    So they were married, and the portrait that I have of her in her wedding dress shows a lovelyserious face with dark hair and big hazel eyes.

    Before my sister was born they went to Torquay, then a fashionable winter resort enjoying theprestige later accorded to the Riviera, and took furnished rooms there. My father was enchantedwith Torquay. He loved the sea. He had several friends living there, and others, Americans, whocame for the winter. My sister Madge was born in Torquay, and shortly after that my father andmother left for America, which at that time they expected to be their permanent home. Myfather’s grandparents were still living, and after his own mother’s death in Florida he hadbeen brought up by them in the quiet of the New England countryside.

    He was very attached to them and they were keen to see his wife and baby daughter. My brotherwas born whilst they were in America. Some time after that my father decided to return toEngland. No sooner had he arrived than business troubles recalled him to New York. He suggestedto my mother that she should take a furnished house in Torquay and settle there until he couldreturn.

    My mother accordingly went to look at furnished houses in Torquay.

    She returned with the triumphant announcement: ‘Fred; I’ve bought a house!’

    My father almost fell over backwards. He still expected to live in America.

    ‘But why did you do that?’ he asked.

    ‘Because I liked it,’ explained my mother.

    She has seen, it appeared, about 35 houses, but only one did she fancy, and that house was forsale only–its owners did not want to let. Sc my mother, who had been left ?2000 by my aunt’s

husband, had appealed to my aunt, who was her trustee, and they had forthwith bought the house.

    most.’‘But we’ll only be there for a year,’ groaned my father, ‘at

    My mother, whom we always claimed was clairvoyant, replied that they could always sell itagain. Perhaps she saw dimly her family living in that house for many years ahead.

    ‘I loved the house as soon as I got into it,’ she insisted. ‘It’s got a wonderfullypeaceful atmosphere.’

    The house was owned by some people called Brown who were Quakers, and when my mother,hesitatingly, condoled with Mrs Brown on having to leave the house they had lived in so manyyears, the old lady said gently:

    ‘I am happy to think of thee and thy children living here, my dear.’

    It was, my mother said, like a blessing.

    Truly I believe there was a blessing upon the house. It was an ordinary enough villa, not inthe fashionable part of Torquay–the Warberrys or the Lincombes–but at the other end of thetown the older part of Tor Mohun. At that time the road in which it was situated led almost atonce into rich Devon country, with lanes and fields. The name of the house was Ashfield and ithas been my home, off and on, nearly all my life.

    For my father did not, after all, make his home in America. He liked Torquay so much that hedecided not to leave it. He settled down to his club and his whist and his friends. My motherhated living near the sea, disliked all social gatherings and was unable to play any game ofcards.

    But she lived happily in Ashfield, and gave large dinner parties, attended social functions,and on quiet evenings at home would ask my father with hungry impatience for local drama andwhat had happened at the club today.

    ‘Nothing,’ my father would reply happily.

    ‘But surely, Fred, someone must have said something interesting?’

    My father obligingly racks his brains, but nothing comes. He says that M—is still too mean tobuy a morning paper and comes down to the club, reads the news there, and then insists onretailing it to the other members. ‘I say, you fellows, have you seen that on the North WestFrontier…’ etc. Everyone is deeply annoyed, since M—is one of the richest members.

    My mother, who has heard all this before, is not satisfied. My father relapses into quietcontentment. He leans back in his chair, stretches out his legs to the fire and gentlyscratches his head (a forbidden pastime).

    ‘What are you thinking about, Fred?’ demands my mother.

    ‘Nothing,’ my father replies with perfect truth.

    ‘You can’t be thinking about nothing?

    Again and again that statement baffles my mother. To her it is unthinkable.

    Through her own brain thoughts dart with the swiftness of swallows in flight. Far from thinkingof nothing, she is usually thinking of three things at once.

    As I was to realise many years later, my mother’s ideas were always slightly at variance withreality. She saw the universe as more brightly coloured than it was, people as better or worsethan they were. Perhaps because in the years of her childhood she had been quiet, restrained,with her emotions kept well below the surface, she tended to see the world in terms of dramathat came near, sometimes, to melodrama. Her creative imagination was so strong that it couldnever see things as drab or ordinary. She had, too, curious flashes of intuition–of knowingsuddenly what other people were thinking. When my brother was a young man in the Army and hadgot into monetary difficulties which he did not mean to divulge to his parents, she startledhim one evening by looking across at him as he sat frowning and worrying. ‘Why, Monty,’ shesaid, ‘you’ve been to moneylenders. Have you been raising money on your grandfather’s will?You shouldn’t do that. It’s better to go to your father and tell him about it.’

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