When I started Fedora I promised myself that I would try to avoid Agatha Christie as much as possible, not because I don’t enjoy her work but simply out of a spirit of self-preservation. She is already so well represented on the blogosphere that it seemed sensible to give the great lady a wide berth as I didn’t expect to be able to compete given her pop culture ubiquity in general. Today however Patti Abbott is celebrating the work of la Christie over at her Pattinase blog and this seems like a good opportunity to break my own rule. However, in the hope of selecting a title less likely to overlap with choices made by other contributors, I have selected one of the books she originally published as by ‘Mary Westmacott’ that is generally held to have been quite autobiographical. The following review is also offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which has reached the letter U. In addition, as the book came out before 1960, this review is eligible under the Golden Girls part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have elected to read and review at least eight novels by women mystery authors published pre-1960.
“… a blend of real people and events … In Celia we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha” – Max Mallowan in his memoirs
The first thing you notice about this book is how long it is – at some 400 pages it is by my reckoning, and by some margin too, the longest of her novels. The second thing is how many layers the author introduces between the reader and the subject. The book opens with a foreword in the shape of a letter from the author to a friend in the book trade, asking her to see about getting the manuscript ready for publication. We learn that he is a painter who is no longer able to practice his craft and has decided to take up writing instead. He tells us of his meeting with Celia, the subject of the book, when she was at her lowest ebb, contemplating suicide. He managed to dissuade her and took her back to his hotel where she recounted the story of her life, which he is now re-fashioning in the third person with occasional interruptions and personal observations on things that Celia may not have been able to see clearly for herself. In one of these he admits that the creatures on the written page are more and more his creation.
“Now”, thought Celia, “I’m pretending to be a writer. I think it’s queerer that pretending to be a wife or a mother.”
Is this Christie’s attempt at a post-modern novel, prefiguring Nabokov’s later Pale Fire and the like? Hardly. However, as the story progresses the reasons for her convoluted narrative structure become clearer (at least superficially) as the extent to which Christie was channeling herself in this story becomes more apparent. Given what a notoriously private person Christie was, it is perhaps understandably then that she would add several filters to distance herself when choosing to tell a very personal story, albeit a partial one as the title suggests, with Celia, traversing the first half of her life right from cradle. A surprising amount of time is given over to detailing Celia’s late Victorian childhood, her great fondness for her parents and the increasing ill-health of her father, forcing them to spend a long time traveling on the Continent and further in search of warmer climes. Celia learns French and to love books and the romance of fiction, divorcing herself increasingly from real life and brought up by her eccentric but loving Grannie who warns her against the trustworthiness of men (having buried three husbands).
“Celia seldom asked questions. Most of her world was inside her head. The outside world did not excite her curiosity.”
The family home, to which Celia becomes even more attached after the early death of her father, is I think modeled on the one where Christie was brought up – it is also reminiscent, or at least it seems to me, on the one later so central to the Miss Marple story Sleeping Murder. Certainly, the alternation of living with Grannie in London, at her parents’ home in the country and traveling in Europe matches the life of the young Agatha. We follow Celia through various romances as she overcomes her great shyness and the financial woes brought on by her father’s death. Eventually she marries young Dermot, who has little money but seems to love her madly. They live in comparative poverty as he tries to make a career for himself while she stays at home looking after their daughter. Eventually he finds a good job and takes up golf, spending less and less time at home. She finds a creative outlet writing romances not based on reality but just what she dreams up, which is cruelly demolished by her unimaginative and two-dimensional husband. Unfortunately for Celia, their daughter takes after her father in this respect so she becomes to feel like an outsider in her own marriage. It is clear to the reader almost from the beginning that Dermot is uncommonly selfish and self-centred but it takes Celia about 100 or so pages to really cotton on to this – but then she’s not too savvy, though this may be a limitation of the writing, which uses a very restrictive vocabulary and is weighed down by a ton of homilies. Indeed, the book is loaded down with commonplace observations, most chapters beginning with some utterly banal statement about Celia and her life – her are a sample:
“Celia’s ideas about marriage were limited in the extreme”
“The war came to Celia as to most people like an utterly improbable thunderbolt”
“Grown up life was difficult”
Thankfully, the narrative really does pick up in its final sections as Celia’s marriage starts to fall apart in a fashion that is very obviously modeled on what happened to Christie and her first husband. Those looking for some insight into what may have really occurred when she famously went missing in 1927 (previously discussed here), following her husband’s request for a divorce and the death of her beloved mother, probably get the closest to an explanation here and it is handled quite compellingly. This being a Christie novel there are some surprises too (and one rather mysterious death when the gardener hangs himself) and she does go out of her way to spring one right on the last page, when revealing what Celia’s fate is likely to be. It is here that she confronts a recurring childhood spectre dubbed ‘The Gun Man’ but the effect is somewhat undermined as this is achieved in a very prosaic fashion and is almost ludicrously pat.
“… a woman with very little devil in her has a poor chance with men.”
Having said all of that, and despite it’s rather plodding narrative, this is a fascinating book. First and foremost of course for the light it shines on the author and one of the most dramatic episodes in her life. It is also fascinating to see her flex her writing skills in a different genre – that the results are not entirely successful is no big surprise perhaps but this seems to me to have been a minor but certainly worthwhile excursion (for the author and for this reader too).