The Big Read: Love in a time of Agatha
It was Valentine's week so there has been a lot about love, and love is a good thing, obviously, but I don't always recognise what people mean by it.
I like love stories but they tend to end just as they get interesting: when the lovers get together. If stories are journeys, and the best ones are, that's when it begins.
Everyone talks about romantic love as though we all agree on what it means and how it plays out, which implies there's really one kind of love with its own rules and prohibitions and perhaps some local variations. If you believe there are as many loves as there are people to do the loving, and that two lovers' ideas of love ideally smoosh together to form a third version, that is obviously a big fat lie.
I often think of Agatha Christie, third-highest selling author of all time after Shakespeare and the gang that wrote the Bible. When she was a young woman she believed passionately in a particular idea of love. She married a dashing young cad named Archie Christie and travelled the world with him and wrote five moderately successful novels. She believed in the love you learn from bad books and moralists: eternal, possessive, rigid and unchanging. Then on a cold December day in 1926, just as she was publishing The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the most ingenious and formally inventive crime story ever written up to that point, with a twist I can't reveal but with resonance in the tale I'm about to tell, he announced that he had met a young woman named Nancy Neele and was seeking divorce.
The end of that idea of love felt like a kind of death. Agatha left their house in Berkshire and the next day her car was found in a ditch beside a lane leading towards a dark body of water known as Silent Pool. There were enigmatic clues in the car. Agatha had vanished.
For 11 days the newspapers wrestled the mystery of the missing murder writer. Silent Pool was dragged; Archie was questioned by police; angry editorials and know-it-all columnists demanded his arrest. It was an inadvertent masterstroke of publicity: Agatha in her absence became the most famous woman in England, Roger Ackroyd became a bestseller, over the next 50 years she sold more than a billion books around the world.
She was found when a travelling musician recognised her in a health hydro in Yorkshire, checked in as "Teresa Neele from Cape Town". She never spoke publicly about the incident but the official version was temporary amnesia, what we'd call a fugue state today, a shutting down of the synapses and faculties that make shape and pattern from our lives and keep a grip on our identity, caused not by grief but a deep cognitive dissonance.
I suspect it was more like the mad impulse that can seize any of us in those moments - a desire to make the other person notice us, worry about us, regret us, want us back. It's resonant enough for Gillian Flynn to borrow the outlines of it wholesale for Gone Girl. One of Agatha's previous books, indeed, involved a woman who feigns amnesia. Whatever it was, it didn't work. They divorced the next year.
In later years Agatha must have wondered what all the fuss was about. In her next several books, if you want to guess whodunit, look no further than any handsome, charming young man in the cast of characters, but of course Agatha found love again.
She married Max Mallowan, an archaeologist 15 years younger than her, and worked beside him at Ur and Nineveh, cleaning shards of pottery with Innoxa hand cream and piecing them together like the cryptic jagged fragments of a plot. Her art became more powerful, her books more courageous and inventive. Every year until she was 70 she accompanied him on the Orient Express to a dig in the Middle East, and every year she went away on her own to produce at least one novel, plus one play, plus one collection of short stories. In a letter she described their marriage as two sets of train tracks that sometimes intersected, sometimes diverged and took unexpected sidings. They both described it as blissfully happy.
People don't like it when love doesn't look the way they demand. A recent biography shrilly announced Max's affair with Agatha's good friend Barbara Hastings Parker, whom he married after Agatha died in 1976 at the age of 86. It also triumphantly announced that Agatha was intermittently infatuated with the young archaeologist Stephen Glanville. Clearly, it fumes, this was not real love, theirs was not a love story.
For many people, others' love is a hard thing to endure; their happiness is a hard thing to tolerate.