Why an autobiographer can never tell the whole truth…even Agatha Christie

I’ve often thought that if I were famous, and a publisher wanted me to write my autobiography, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Writing about one’s life would require a degree of candour and honesty, a revealing of certain personal events and private thoughts that I just wouldn’t be prepared to share with the world.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The other option is that you are in control of what you leave out of an autobiography.

Contrary to the idea that you get the true story of events ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, an autobiography is just another version of a life. As a journalist or a biographer has an agenda—to titillate and draw in readers in order to  sell newspapers or books, or to get high ratings—so the autobiographer. That is, to present themselves as they want the world to see them.

Add to that the fact that, especially as we grow older and farther away from the events we describe, our memories often aren’t precise, particularly childhood events when we might not have understood everything that was happening around us. I remember at my father’s funeral, I related some stories that were exactly as I remembered them happening, yet my mother said I had got the facts wrong in several of them.

I could swear, for example, that when my father and I watched the Apollo lunar landing on TV in 1969 when I was a very little girl (this is my first memory of television), we did so in our flat at Heslington, York, in the UK. But no, if I look at the date of that landing, we would have been back in Auckland, New Zealand by then. Strange.

a-christieDame Agatha Christie’s autobiography

I was prompted to muse about autobiographical writing when reading this month the 551-page tome Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, kindly given to me by my friend, the crime writer Angela Savage (whose blog you can read here: http://angelasavage.wordpress.com/).

It’s a fabulous read, quite possibly the best autobiography I have read, beside Roald Dahl’s Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986). I couldn’t put it down, in fact.

It is intriguing in its description of a Victorian upper-middle-class childhood in an age that seems so strange these days. Born in 1890, young Agatha Miller was brought into a world of apparent privilege—gracious mansions, servants, extended trips to France. Yet,  as she explains, it was not full of luxuries, at least not in the way we would expect today. There wasn’t much cash, and her father was always on the brink of financial ruin, relying on an inheritance. He never worked, and eventually depleted his inheritance by a combination of bad decisions and bad luck.

daily-mirror-agatha-christieA mystery fit for the little Belgian detective

Coincidentally, while I was reading Christie’s autobiography, there was a TV special on her life hosted by David Suchet, who played her most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot from 1989 to 2013. Part of the show looked at what happened when her first marriage broke down in 1926, and her husband left her for a young woman he had worked with. During that time, Christie disappeared for 11 days, kissing her daughter Rosalind goodbye, leaving late at night, then deserting her car by the side of the road and disappearing. The media speculated that the by-then famous author had killed herself, perhaps by drowning. Eventually, she turned up, and it transpired that she had been staying at a hotel under an assumed name.

Christie never spoke about the incident, completely skipped it in her autobiography, and it remains something of a mystery.

So why didn’t she tell her side of the story? The only thing she says in the book is that it was well documented in the news media and she doesn’t want to say any more: and that’s the answer. She didn’t want to revisit it. Of course, in the 1970s when this book was published, readers couldn’t then look up the internet to view news archives: you would actually have had to go to a library with British newspapers of the time, and few readers would have taken the time to do that. Nowadays, you can simply google it. Speculation continues, as evidenced in this recent article: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

Second marriage and life in Iraq

Some of her views, such as those on transportation of criminals to Australia and on empire would not be appreciated by many readers today: she must be read as a product of her times and class, however.

Christie travelled extensively and adventurously, and tales of these travels are another intriguing part of her autobiography. With her first husband, she travelled round the world in the early 1920s, surfed in Hawaii and visited Australia and New Zealand, all of which she describes in the book with relish. She travelled through the Middle East on her own after her divorce, and met her second husband, Max Mallowan, at Ur. He was an archaeologist who was 14 years younger than Christie. They married when he was 26 and she 40, and the marriage lasted until she died in 1976.

They had an interesting life, living for years in Iraq, at Ur, Ninevah and Nimrud for Mallowan’s archeological digs. Christie even joined in the archeological work, including photographing and drawing it for classification purposes.

Through it all, Christie kept writing, and became very wealthy. She was prolific, sometimes taking only a couple of weeks to write one of her mysteries. But she had to slow down: as she says in the autobiography she had to cut back to writing only one book a year, because writing any more resulted in such high tax that it wasn’t worth doing. She also wrote books under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. They sold well, too, and for years no one knew Westmacott was really Christie.
Interestingly, although Christie and Mallowan were both knighted in their own right—he in 1968 and she in 1971—this is another thing Christie doesn’t mention at all in her autobiography—see “At the end”, below, for the reason.

“Thanks, Grandma!”

In her later life, instead of writing cheques for her family and close friends, she would sign over the royalties of a certain work. For example, her grandson, Mathew Prichard, got the rights to The Mousetrap (then later inherited the bulk of her estate after his mother, Christie’s daughter Rosalind, died in 2004). At the time she gifted her grandson the rights to the world’s longest running play, Christie had no idea that it would be the phenomenal success it was. Read more here about Pritchard and how in 2010 he found long-lost tapes of his grandmother dictating her autobiography.

For the record, Christie’s books have sold about four billion copies—as an author, she is outsold only perhaps by Shakespeare.

At the end

While Christie writes enthusiastically of her young life and middle years, she rather trails off after the late 1940s, and only a small section at the end of the book talks about the 1950s and 1960s. The book was published posthumously in 1977, but she was clear that she would not write about anything after 1965. Although she was still working in the last 10 years of her life, she ended the book at age 75 because “it seems the right moment to stop. Because, as far as life is concerned, that is all there is to say” (Christie 1977:7).

The book is rather haphazard in parts, skipping across vast decades and back again, contradicting itself along the way. But this is part of its charm. I will leave the last word to Christie herself, who explains why the book is like this, after recovering from an illness in the mid-1960s:

“Returning from the valley of the shadow of death, I have decided not to tidy up this book too much. For one thing I am elderly. Nothing is more wearying than going over things you have written and trying to arrange them in proper sequence or turn them the other way round. I am perhaps talking to myself —a thing one is apt to do when one is a writer. One walks along the street, passing all the shops one meant to go into, or all the offices one ought to have visited, talking to oneself hard—not too loud, I hope—and rolling one’s eyes expressively, and then one suddenly sees people looking at one and drawing slightly aside, clearly thinking one is mad.”

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5 thoughts on “Why an autobiographer can never tell the whole truth…even Agatha Christie

  1. What an interesting perspective on this autobiography, Caron! And you’re so right that an autobiography is simply another account of a person’s life. It isn’t likely to contain every detail. Not only do people generally not want to relate every event in their lives, but people’s memories aren’t perfect. And you know, I’ve always wondered about those 11 days…

    Still, I do think the autobiography offers an interesting look at how Christie felt about her writing. She was reticent about her personal life but I’ve always liked her thoughts about her writing.

  2. Spot on!! I’ve just started on mine (for imminent release some time in the next 2-3 decades) and once you start typing, it is amazing how much you actually decide to drop out: even though it may be if interest to potential readers, they just aren’t parts of you that wish to expose…I think that it will be a sad day when a tool like the Facebook Timeline gets to the book when our lives can get laid bare without our own editorial control…

  3. PS You wrote “…I’ve often thought that if I were famous, and a publisher wanted me to write my autobiography…” Nope…fame of any sort is not a prerequisite for an autobiography…even though I only know you through here, I think that you already meet the two core requirements for a successful autobiography: you wright well and you have done (and still do) interesting things…start writing!!

    I actually think that it is a real shame that more people do not leave a record of their lives behind them…one of the saddest autobiographies I ever read was that of US fighter ace Robin Olds who only began to write with the assistance of his daughter after he was suffering from a form of dementia and it is so sad to see, among all his achievements, the gaps wrought by this affliction…

    • Yes, you’re right. An aunt of my mum who lived to be 101 wrote her autobiography, just for the family. She was a school teacher in the South Island in the early 20th century and never married. Her autobiography was absolutely fascinating.
      And actually, I have done some autobiographical writing for a book on friendship that my friend and I want to write together. It’s not really an autobiography, but there is lots of my own life in there. Got to make time…

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