Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, whose books have been outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. You can probably name several of her books and recurring characters, but how much do you know about Agatha Christie herself? In our final British History episode, we look at Agatha Christie’s life, in the hospital dispensary, at home with her daughter, abroad on archeological digs, and behind the typewriter.
Joining me in this episode to help us learn more about Agatha Christie is historian Dr. Lucy Worsley, OBE, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and BBC presenter and author of the new book, Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman, which will be published in the United States on September 6, 2022.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is Agatha Christie as a young woman, circa 1910. It is in the public domain and available via Wikimedia Commons. The audio interlude is “Mystery Waltz,” written by Raymond Scott and performed by Raymond Scott and His Orchestra in 1953. The audio is in the public domain and available via Archive.org.
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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. In the final episode of our brief series on British history, we're looking at the life of writer Agatha Christie. The best selling novelist of all time, Agatha Christie is much better known than most of the people we discuss on this podcast. But I learned so much researching for this episode. When I'm not reading history books, I'm devouring British mystery novels. That all started when I discovered Agatha Christie books in my youth and quickly read as many of them as I could get my hands on from the library. Researching this episode has been a delight, and I'm so thrilled to share it with all of you. Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on September 15, 1890, in Torquay, a seaside town in Devon, England, near Exeter. Her upper middle class parents lived in Ashfield, a large Victorian home that Agatha loved. Although Agatha's older sister had been sent to boarding school, Agatha was educated at home. Apparently, Agatha's mother, Clara, believed she should not learn to read until she was eight. But she taught herself by age four or five and was always a voracious reader. When she was 11, Agatha's father died. With her older siblings out of the house. Agatha lived alone at Ashfield with her mother, and eventually started attending school. Their financial situation had deteriorated, and instead of the lavish debutante season that Agatha's older sister Madge had enjoyed, Agatha instead went to Cairo, Egypt, with her mother in 1910, for a season at the Gezirah Palace Hotel with the British expatriate community there. In 1912, back in England, Agatha met aviator Archie Christie at a dance and they were quickly engaged. With the outbreak of World War I, Archie was sent to France. The two were married while he was home on leave at Christmas Eve in 1914. But they couldn't spend much time together during the war, while Archie was abroad, and Agatha was working in a hospital dispensary in Torquay. Finally, in January, 1918, Archie was posted in London, and they were able to live together. In 1919, Agatha gave birth to her only child, Rosalind Margaret Clarissa. 1919 was also the year that Agatha finally had a story accepted for publication. She had been writing poetry, short stories, and novels for years, but they had all been rejected by publishers. During World War I, Agatha wrote "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," partly in response to a bet from her sister Madge, that she couldn't write a good detective story. Her work in the dispensary provided her valuable knowledge about the use of poisons. But it still took several years to find a publisher for the book, which featured Hercule Poirot. Finally, the fourth publisher she tried, agreed to publish the book and gave her a contract for five more books, although she later considered the contract to be exploitative.
In April, 1926, Agatha's mother died. They had been very close, and it fell to Agatha to clean out their beloved home. Agatha fell into a deep depression, which exacerbated problems in her marriage. Archie fell in love with another woman, with whom he golfed. In December, 1926, Agatha left home, with Rosalind in the care of staff, and disappeared. Her abandoned car was found the next morning, but she was not, leading to a nationwide search. 11 days later, she was found checked into the Harrogate Spa Hotel, over 200 miles from home, under a different name. When Archie came to retrieve her, Agatha seemed not to recognize him. I'll speak more about her disappearance and its effect on her life with today's guest. In 1928, Agatha and Archie divorced, and Archie quickly remarried his golfing girlfriend. In 1930, in Iraq, Agatha met a young archaeologist named Max Mallowan. Despite their nearly 14 year age difference, they fell in love; and they married in September, 1930, and remained married for the rest of Agatha's life. Agatha took Max's name, but kept writing under the name Agatha Christie. The two often traveled to digs together, many of which were funded by Agatha. During World War II, they were separated, with Max working in Cairo, and Agatha again at a hospital dispensary, this time at University College in London. In September, 1943, Agatha became a grandmother, when Rosalind gave birth to a son, who would be her only child, Matthew. In 1956, Agatha was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, CBE, and then promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, DBE, in 1971. Max was knighted for his archaeological work in 1968. On January 12, 1976, Agatha Christie died at the age of 85, with Max at her side. She is buried at St. Mary's in Cholsey. Through it all, Agatha Christie wrote and wrote and wrote. She published 66 crime novels, six non crime novels, 150 short stories, over 30 plays, and an autobiography. Although she's thought of primarily as a novelist, her play, "The Mouse Trap," is the longest running play in the world. Agatha's books have been outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, and have been translated into over 100 languages. Joining me to help dig into the story of Agatha Christie's life is Dr. Lucy Worsley, OBE, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and BBC presenter, and the author of the new book, "Agatha Christie: an Elusive Woman," which will be published in the United States on September 6, 2022.
Hi, Lucy, thanks so much for joining me today.
Lucy Worsley 9:41
I'm so thrilled to be here. I love the whole concept of your podcast, Kelly. Congratulations on everything you've done.
Kelly Therese Pollock 9:47
Thank you. And listeners will notice of course that I normally work on lesser known American history. And this is very much not that topic, of course, since we're talking about the the best selling novelist of all time; but I think we'll talk about all the stuff that people actually don't know about Agatha Christie, which is super fascinating. So I'd love to know a little bit just kind of how you got interested in writing this book. You've written lots of books. Why Agatha Christie? Why now?
Lucy Worsley 10:16
Well, I have two answers, really. As a social historian, I'm fascinated by the history of detective fiction. People often talk about it like it's a guilty pleasure. But I think it I think it reveals an awful lot about people's anxieties, the sort of state of the world that they live in, and I've written about that before. And I've also written about Jane Austen. Now, bear with me, I actually see something in common between these two writers, because both of them were sort of written off. It took them a long time to get taken seriously. In Jane Austen's case, it never happened in her lifetime, and in Agatha Christie's case, it's fascinating to me, she's obviously had huge commercial success, but critical acclaim, that's something different. That's been a long time in coming. I think she's just starting to get that now. I think people are beginning to take her seriously.
Kelly Therese Pollock 11:17
Yeah. And so I often when I talk to people who are writing about subjects that are very little known, or there's not a lot of archives, it's a question of, you know, how do you find the information? In this case, there's archives, there's lots of secondary sources. So how do you then frame a book about someone about which, like, everybody knows her name, but maybe lots of people don't know a whole lot about her? You know, how do you sort of figure out what what to say?
Lucy Worsley 11:44
Well, I was lucky enough to have access to her, her her own papers, her letters, her notebooks, all of her masses of professional administrative stuff as well. And in person, she was very shy, she wouldn't have been in your face. She wasn't a great talker. But she was a great writer. Her letters are such a sort of exuberant, exciting rollercoaster ride, as you're reading through what's happened in her life. But sometimes, you know, even with that kind of access, you have to read against the grain, because a lot of the things that I'm interested in about her are her struggling with things like celebrity, with being a working mum, with being the breadwinner in a marriage. And these were things that she was totally reticent about in her public interviews. Well, with a certain exception, before the year 1926, the notorious year of 1926, she was much more open about some of these things than she was. I'm sure we'll get a cover up to that in a moment. But going through the archive and tried to find evidence of how she managed her money, what she thought about money, what she thought about her position within a marriage, what she felt about you, I had to look for that information. Very hard.
Kelly Therese Pollock 13:07
Yeah. Yeah. It's so interesting. You brought up 1926. So I wanted to talk about that, because I realized as I was starting to read the book, and as I was reading through it, that really all I knew about Agatha Christie, besides the fact that she was the best selling novelist of all time was that she had disappeared for 10 days. So I wonder, you know, even though that piece is so well known, but it's so there's so many sort of alternate takes out there like fictional alternate takes on what happened and, and people speculating and stuff, but it seems like it's, in some ways more straightforward than that. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about untangling that mystery and thinking through, you know, sort of what what happened during her disappearance?
Lucy Worsley 13:56
Certainly. Anybody who's going to write about Agatha Christie, I think needs to confront this sort of central issue of her life, what happened. And the time is often spoken of as a mystery. The facts were she disappeared from her home. Her abandoned, damaged car was discovered empty. A big national manhunt was set off and then 11 days later, she was discovered living under a false name in a hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, That much is obvious. But then, you know, people like to attribute to her bad motives. They say, "Oh, was she trying out a plot? Or was she trying to get publicity for her book?" or everybody's favorite argument, "Was she trying to frame her cheating rat of a husband for her murder?" And I was open. I was open to that because, you know, I have observed in popular culture recently, people's desire to believe believe that that comes from sort of feminist's place. The idea that "yeah, okay, he was a cheating rat of a husband. He'd gone off with a woman 10 years younger, who liked playing golf with him, all the cliches. Well, fair dues to her." But I just did not find that at all, in the evidence for her own personality, really. I don't think she would have done that to her, her daughter. And also I began to examine the newspaper reports, which were responsible for weaving all of these ideas that she was a bad deceptive person, and realizing that there was another strand that had been overlooked, which is the newspaper interview in which she actually gave her side of the story. It is astonishing to me that soon after the disappearance, she gave a newspaper interview, she explained what had gone on and it's a horrible, sad story, she'd experienced suicidal thoughts. She'd had a dangerous, distressing, horrible incident of mental illness. But even though she said that in a big interview with The Daily Mail, the Daily Mail, which is read by millions of people, even though she said that in that interview in 1958, nobody wanted to hear it. Nobody wanted to listen. And I find that sad, but also quite plausible, because, you know, it's difficult today to talk about mental illness. Imagine how hard it was 100 years ago, it was uncomfortable, it made people uncomfortable. That's not what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that it was something to do with this mystery novelist being involved in the mystery of her own.
Kelly Therese Pollock 16:36
Yeah, and that seems, in some ways, the the story of her life, both how other people are perceiving her, but in some ways, also how she's presenting herself that, you know, you talk some about how it's, it's almost like when she's at her home, I think it's called Greenway, that it, you know, it's like putting on a play almost of sort of what country manor life is like. But it seems like that that also not just the way that she may be presenting, you know, knowingly or unknowingly presenting herself. It's also that people throughout the decades of her life are sort of reading something into her, are projecting things onto her. Can you talk a little bit about that piece of it?
Lucy Worsley 17:22
Because she's such a long lived and prominent woman of the 20th century, she's kind of like a blank canvas for people to project their ideas about what a woman should be onto. And she was born in 1890. I think she was really shaped by the values of her Victorian upbringing, which were all about marriage. She describes her childhood as being spent waiting for "the man." He will come along, he will change your life. There was no question of someone like her ever working. But along came World War I, and all of those values and attitudes began to crumble away. She began to work as a nurse, initially, as a volunteer later she was paid. And she began to think in my reading of it, "Well, yeah, it's not so about being a working woman," and getting feelings of competence, and achievement and cameraderie. From this, and then after that, where once she'd realized she had this gift for writing that she could sell, she was off on to a career as a detective novelist, publishing these books, giving interviews in the paper, talking about having a career, essentially. But then 1926 happened, and she had this huge public shaming, I would describe it as in sort of modern terms. And it was really great for her professionally, because she became notorious. It did wonders for her sales, but it was terrible for her personally, because I feel part of the problem was that in 1926, people were willing to believe that she's, in some ways, deceived, everybody played a trick, because there was something a bit off about her in the first place, if she was a working woman, you know. She'd stepped outside the boundaries of what people like her were supposed to do. I think she got she got some thing of an easy ride because she was from the upper middle class section of society. Okay, there was something a bit glamorous about her that people liked. But she got a harder time because of the fact that she was she had been so open about her professional ambitions, I feel. So after 1926, the way I see it is, she never dared tell the truth about her ambition again. She felt that she had to somehow hide it and present this much more Miss Marple-like image of somebody who achieved their success sort of by accident. And I can see, to mhat makes sense. She busted down how talented and hardworking she was. And yet she was a bit afraid to say that out loud.
Kelly Therese Pollock 20:03
Yeah, I want to pick up on that strand of being Miss Marple-like, because you do a lot in the book, when you were talking earlier about sort of reading against the grain, of reading, sort of the story of Agatha Christie through her books and her works. And of course, she has so so many of them. There's so much to work with there. Could you talk about doing that, sort of understanding an author through the things that they've written?
Lucy Worsley 20:31
Certainly. So one of the ways in which I think it's perhaps most easy to do this with respect to Agatha Christie, is to look at the whole strand of books that she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. These are a treat if you, you don't know about them. They're not detective stories, right? They're more like literary fiction. And they are really autobiographical, particularly the early ones. And it's, it's my argument that she started to produce those books to write in that way, as a response to, I've come to be talked into this by various friends who are more knowledgeable about psychiatry than I am. She's, I think that this was a form of therapy after 1926. She'd had these terrible, distressing experiences in her mind. We know that she sought psychiatric help. And putting together the dots working out which psychiatrist she might have visited, it was somebody who did recommend that kind of thing. And so that's having, having established that she does write as a means of making herself whole again, I think this helps us to understand Miss Marple, as the product of the woman who she became after 1926, because although she was wounded, and fragile and vulnerable, actually, she did sort of bounce back from that this she had this not in public, but in private. She had this wonderful second act of her life, she found a second marriage, and it was the product of her happiness with her second husband, I think that allowed her to create Miss Marple, who is a powerful woman. She doesn't look like a powerful woman. In fact she presents as completely the opposite. She presents as this sort of negligible in some way, slightly annoying old lady, but everybody knows you underestimate Miss Marple, at your peril. I think she represents Agatha Christie's best and truest self if you like, once you've been through trauma and come out the other side of it.
Kelly Therese Pollock 22:39
Yeah, and I hadn't realized till I read it in your book that Miss Marple doesn't age until Agatha's own age catches up to her and then they sort of age in tandem. That is so telling.
Lucy Worsley 22:51
And they do a lot of the same things as well. For example, they have these strategies to misdirect your attention away from just how formidable their brains are. So Miss Marple loves gardening, Agatha Christie loves gardening. They have so much so much in common. And another sort of layer to this is Agatha Christie to my mind, is very reticent about releasing personal information after 1926. To cite an example, you very rarely get any insight into who, where Miss Marple comes from. There are hints, you know, she has a sort of ecclesiastical background, we hear about her go to parties when she was young, but we didn't get all the the dots are not joined. She sort of stands for an older, wiser woman who has got secrets from us the reader.
Kelly Therese Pollock 23:45
Yeah. One of the things, of course, that they don't have in common is that Agatha is a mother, as you mentioned, she has a daughter. And it's this it's such a fascinating relationship between the two of them. They clearly love each other very much. Agatha clearly wants what's best for Rosalind. But it seems at times, like she's almost doesn't quite know how to be a mother or how to be the mother she wants to be. And she's trying and struggling. Could you talk some about their their relationship and it's sort of complicated nature?
Lucy Worsley 24:21
Hmm, this is fascinating. I feel that Agatha Christie comes with this big label that says "tricky, difficult." There's something slightly slightly challenging about her as a human being. And in one of these sorts of accounts that one of the charges that's laid against her with respect to that is this idea that she was somehow a bad mother. And it is, Kelly, I don't believe there is such a there's such a thing as a bad mother. I think they're just mothers right? So sometimes they have a good day. Sometimes they have a bad day. Everybody changes from day to day. And I guess it was a bad day for Agatha when she left her daughter in order to make this suicide attempt. I mean, brutally horribly. That is what happened, I think on the third of December, 1926, the night that she disappeared. But also, I think that she did that to keep her daughter safe. I think that she did that, because she had come to realize she was in a danger to her daughter, and that her daughter was best left at home under the care of the three responsible adults who were in the house that night, when Agatha went away to make an attempt. It wasn't a very serious attempt, it wasn't a successful attempt, but she made this attempt she crashed her car, she did make an attempt on her life, is that the action of a good mother or a bad mother? Who can say really, it's what what's admirable about Agatha Christie, I think is the way that she's she tries to be honest about mothering. She doesn't coat it in syrup. She doesn't see it in the terms which society expects. There's all sorts of examples of bad mothering going on in her fiction, but also examples of good mothering. She complicates it. She's, she's interesting. That's what I think about her. For me interest interesting, for perhaps other people who are less attuned to the difficulties of being female, tricky, difficult.
Kelly Therese Pollock 26:21
Being a mother is hard on the best of days.
Lucy Worsley 26:24
Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, this is something that I would admit that I wouldn't have liked If I had been Agatha Christie's daughter. She uses her daughter for copy. I guess all novelists to one extent or another, do this they take real life, they weave it into their art. Agatha is doing that constantly, particularly in her Mary Westmacott novels, also in her detective novels; but I do feel for Rosalind, when Rosalind, you know, is captured to say, "Look, Mommy, please don't put me in this book." You have privacy, her privacy. And then because Agatha Christie becomes this huge, globally successful commercial brand, her daughter gets caught up in in running the empire. And I do see her as kind of a member of a royal family, if you like, somebody who is unable to escape the destiny presented to them just by their family situation.
Kelly Therese Pollock 27:16
The other fascinating relationship in Agatha's life that you mentioned is her second husband, Max. You know, I didn't even know I guess that much about her life, her actual personal life when I started reading the book, and I remember when they get married, when they meet and get married, I was like, I wonder if this is going to last and then it lasts the rest of their lives. So I can you talk a little bit about that sort of what they did for each other how they were a good team, a good partnership?
Lucy Worsley 27:44
Hmm. One of the things that interests me about Agatha Christie's long life, 1890 to 1976, is the way it, it sort of encapsulates, it embodies a lot of the things that are happening that are changing in the 20th century. And one of those things is the nature of marriage. And having gone through World War I, and the the changes in the expectations for people like her, girls like her, I think that she really wanted from that point, this radical new style of marriage that was coming ,companionate marriage. And the idea is that we don't have a man above a woman, as it's not a sort of hierarchy. It's it's a partnership. We have a man and a woman working together. She Agatha Christie did not get that in her first marriage. It's the breakup of that was one of the causes that lead to illness in 1926, I think. But then along came this archaeologist that she met in the aftermath of her breakup. And I could see why you were thinking, "Are they going to stay together?" because on paper, it shouldn't have worked. She was 14 years older than him. She was way richer than him. She was, you know, established in her career. She was 38. She was successful. And then he was just sort of fresh out of college, working in archeology, didn't have much money. And I think that she felt safe with him. I mean, she did, she wasn't looking for love. She said, "No, I'm having nothing to do with men." And she slipped into this easy relationship. And of course, nothing was going to happen. And then just weeks later, he said, "Please marry me." And she really struggled with the idea because it was so countercultural to have such a husband so much younger, but once she'd come around to it, it did work because she offered him all sorts of things. I mean, money, lifestyle, status, but also she presented him I think with somebody who was fragile, so vulnerable, somebody that although he was young, he had an old soul, somebody he could help and and look out for, and they were married for 45 years. It's just It's lovely to read about how long and successful and durable this marriage was that on the face of it, perhaps looked a bit odd. They certainly felt it, they felt judged. They felt they were, you know, oh, when, when he turns 40, right, there's this letter from Agatha that breaks my heart, it says, "Oh, darling, I'm so glad that you've turned 40 at last, because when I was in the 50s, and you were still in the 30s, that was hard for me."
Kelly Therese Pollock 30:23
And it's so beyond this sort of supportive relationship of it, just the logistics of following him into the field to do archaeology provides so much background for so many of her novels. You know, I think about like riding the Orient Express, and how important that is, obviously, to one of her best novels. Was she already interested in archaeology? You know, was that was this just, like, help Max in his career?
Lucy Worsley 30:50
Well, this might sound controversial, but I'm not sure how truly passionate she was about archaeology. I mean, she is one of the things for which she's known. And each year, they would travel together to West Asia, and go on a dig of one kind or another. But she and she had traveled to Iraq, after the breakdown of her first marriage to reinvent herself, you know, running away from Britain, running away from her problems, getting on this fantastic adventure, to the city of Ur, the ancient city of Ur that was being investigated then. And it was it was like, the discovery of Tutankhamun, it was it was front page news everywhere. So it had been that that attracted her to go to Iraq, but then it was Max who kept her interest. And the reason I think she liked being on the dig was to be with Max, to be with Max, to make him happy. This was his career. She liked the fact that he had this independent concept of himself as an archaeologist. And I also think that she liked the way that going on a dig threw her into a closed circle with the other people who were going to be taking part in it, like the epigraphists, and the people who were, you know, involved in the field work. And that all a lot of her books are basically about a domestic situation, the circle of people under the roof of a house, that that can also be under the roof of a train, or a hotel, or an archeological excavation. You will read sometimes that her greatest contribution to 20th century archaeology was cleaning the finds. She was very keen on cleaning the finds, these wonderful, exquisite, complicated ivories that are in the, you can go see them in the British Museum today, that came out of the site of Nimrud in southern Iraq. But yeah, she was cleaning the fines. But the way I see it, that was a little cherry on the cake for her because actually, she was funding the digs. It was her writing earnings that allowed the digs to be happening in the first place. That's an unsung part of her support the whole business of archaeology, I'd suggest in the 20th century, and one that it was hard for her to talk about tracking that down, which I was determined to do, but tracking that down through the papers of herself. And her literary agent was quite a quite a task. But I think, well to my satisfaction, I got there in the end.
Kelly Therese Pollock 33:11
Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about money. Because that's so important in you know, I think I like probably most people had just thought, "Well, she was a wildly successful writer, so she must have been rolling in money." And she lives at some points as if she's rolling in money, but it's much more complicated than that. Can you talk a little bit about her sort of trouble with money?
Lucy Worsley 33:32
Trouble with money. Yes. Does anybody have an easy relationship with money? I'm not sure that they do. Yeah. But hers is, is really interesting, too, because it's kind of again, it's wrapped up with what was happening to women and particularly working women throughout the 20th century. She was brought up in a family who had inherited wealth. Their life was leasurely, it was luxurious. The Millers, they were called, living in their Victorian villa in Torquay. And they didn't really educate her. Agatha sort of educated herself. She became a great bookworm. And her father taught her some arithmetic at the dining room table after breakfast, but they didn't they didn't tell her how to manage wealth. In fact, they were hopeless at managing wealth because during her childhood, the family fortune frittered away. It dwindled. It disappeared, and she did come come to adolescence, knowing that the family fortune had gone really. So earning that back I think was an important motivating force to her. Another thing that you sort of, I sort of revel in about her is that she was you know, a bit of a somebody who likes to shop. Yeah, I can see the attraction of that she liked earning money. She liked spending money, she liked owning lots of lovely things. But after 1926, the attitude to money became more complicated because I sort of think that she went into denial, as I've already said about the fact that she was a professional writer. So she started to downplay that. And she also downplayed, and this was really regrettable, the need to pay tax. Nobody likes filling in their tax return, do they? Imagine not filling in your tax return times a billion. That's, that's what happened to Agatha Christie. She got into a mess. And she was also caught out by you know, changes in the way tax was being administered on British people who lived in America. I got way too interested in the history of the development of taxation. And I did not put all of that into my book. Anyway, after after World War II, she finds herself weirdly in debt, in danger of going bankrupt because these taxes have piled up. And that is partly why I think she diversifies into new things. She starts to write plays, well, she'd always written plays. But in the 1950s, she starts to write really successful plays. And in the 1960s, she goes into this deal with MGM Studios, so that they can make films of her books. And part of this is motivated by the financial mess, I suppose. She did love and live in this elegant, beautiful house called Greenway in Devon. And it's run by the National Trust today, and you can go and visit it. And I think if you walked into the door, you think, "Wow, this is amazing!" But Agatha herself admitted she couldn't really afford it.
Kelly Therese Pollock 36:27
Yeah, it's, it's, I think it's this piece of this professionalism, or not wanting to admit being a professional, that I kept sort of coming back to, this idea that she fits writing in sort of around everything else, maybe just like, pops off to a typewriter, or she's writing in a room that everybody else also uses for other things, that gave me sort of a feeling of connection. You can't tell, but I am recording in my dining room. I edit sitting on my couch, like you know, the and it's true that this is not my job. But you know, I feel that very strongly that there's something about being a woman, being a working mom, maybe, that you're just trying to fit things in in the rest of your life. And it was just so fascinating to me to read that about her, about this person that I think of as this wildly successful writer. But yet she's not she's not sort of accepting that.
Lucy Worsley 37:21
It's extraordinary. She she's an extraordinary person, she's more talented than we are, she's more successful than we are. And yet there are some things about her that feel recognizable. In some way, she is one of us. And I think for sure that's the reason that her some of her, you know, extreme fans are so extremely devoted to her. And, you know, in her in her books in her work, she often champions the underdog in a way that people often miss. They think, oh, there's something kind of establishment and cozy and conservative about that. So then quaint, twee, but you know, Miss Marple, obviously as somebody who society underestimates, and so too is Hercule Poirot as somebody who's not been to public school, he's actually a war refugee. He's got this strange facial hair and a funny little name. You know, his name, Hercule Poirot. It's a joke. Hercules is a big, strong, muscular hero, but Hercule as our hero is, is kind of diminutive. It's it's it's camp. She's was I think she was on our side in a funny sort of way.
Kelly Therese Pollock 38:32
Yeah. So one more thing I want to ask about. And that is, so you mentioned earlier that during World War I, she had been working at a dispensary at a hospital. And then during World War II, after she's already a famous writer, she is again working in a hospital at a dispensary. Could you talk a little bit about that? And it seems like people didn't even know who she was necessarily when she was there.
Lucy Worsley 38:57
So by the time we get to World War II, she's well into this phase of her life where she's not, she's not really she's appearing in public in only very controlled, rarely granted, interviews about her work, and she has this whole other life going on. I mean, she's always she's always had that, like you've said, that's a very feminine way of working to fit it in around the edges of other things. And one of the things that clearly gave her great pleasure was being part of a team as she was on the archeological dig. And I think that she wanted, as many people who had served in World War I wanted to do wanted, she wanted to contribute again. She wanted to help the war effort. And one way in which she did that was through writing anti Nazi themes into her detective books, thrillers really and then it was also through this practical job of going back to the dispensary where she'd worked in World War I in the hospital in Torquay, and now she took a job in London at the UCL. And I think that It, it worked for her because she could feel important. And she believed that providing medicine, doing cooking, was important. It's not like she placed writing massively above that in the hierarchy of human need. She wants to do both, both, you know, the high brow and the mundane. And when she was working in the dispensary in the wartime hospital, she liked it because she'd be sitting in this room fulfilling the prescriptions, and there was just this little sort of slot in the wall. And patients would come and put their prescription through the slots, and they'd have a chat, you know, they'd get to know each other. And she was a great sponge for capturing people's speech and character and ways they express themselves. And you know, these people were providing her with copy, and they had no idea that it was the world famous Agatha Christie, who was sitting on the other side of that little peep hole in the wall.
Kelly Therese Pollock 40:52
My grandmother was a nurse at a hospital in London during World War II, and so I've been daydreaming stories where they meet each other and solve crimes together.
Lucy Worsley 41:04
It could be.
Kelly Therese Pollock 41:08
So I loved this book. I loved learning about Agatha Christie, who had always been one of my favorite authors. So can you tell everyone how to get the book?
Lucy Worsley 41:16
Oh, thank you so much. You've got excellent taste Kelly, in lots of different ways. It's available in the US from the publisher, Pegasus. It is available at all your bookstores. It's available for the eighth of September. And if you're listening globally, the UK publisher is called Hodder and Stoughton. But you can you can get it you can get it from all good booksellers, as they say. And it's called "Agatha Christie: an Elusive Woman," and I feel like our chat has covered some of the reasons that she is elusive. And they are themes that, I don't know about you, I feel like all of us still today who aspire to be creative struggle with too.
Kelly Therese Pollock 41:57
Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about?
Lucy Worsley 42:00
No, you've just put together the most wonderful definitive list of themes from from her life. Thank you. I can see that you've read it with care and really thought about it. Hats off, hats off to you.
Kelly Therese Pollock 42:11
Well, thank you, Lucy, it was a pleasure to speak with you.
Lucy Worsley 42:15
Thank you so much. I look forward to it coming out.
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used in this episode @UnsungHistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.
Lucy Worsley is an architectural and social historian, writer and Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She specialises in Tudors to the present day.
Lucy has written numerous history books including: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow; Jane Austen at Home: A Biography; and The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court. She has presented and contributed to various TV programmes and series including: Six Wives with Lucy Worsley; Lucy Worsley's Royal Photo Album; Victoria & Albert: The Royal Wedding; and British History's Biggest Fibs.
Alongside Tracy Borman, Lucy and the team of curators at Historic Royal Palaces are responsible for the way that the palaces are presented to visitors today. Their job is to share the stories of some of the most significant historic buildings in Britain: both architecturally, and as the settings for momentous events in English history.
Lucy joined Historic Royal Palaces as Chief Curator in 2003. She previously spent six years as an Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings for English Heritage as well as a stint at Glasgow Museums.
Lucy has particular expertise in 17th-century architectural and social history, up to 1760; the social use of buildings; George II; and The household of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle.
She has Honorary Doctorates from the University of Sussex (2015) and Open University (2013), a D Phil from the University of Sussex (2001), The Architectural Patronage of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, 1593- 1676, and a BA (Hons) in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford University (1995).
Lucy was made a member of the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen in 2018 and in 2019 her programme Suffragettes With Lucy Worsley won a BAFTA.