I picked up a copy of Agatha Christie – An Autobiography in preparation for a panel I’m chairing at the Melbourne Museum next month. I’d intended to skim it, concentrating on the parts that are relevant to the panel discussion. But Dame Agatha’s own life story proves to be as much of a page turner as her crime novels.
A large part of the appeal for me in Agatha Christie’s story is that she led such an interesting life, travelling from a young age to fascinating parts of the world. As a child she spent time in France, while she had her ‘coming out’ in Cairo. She joined her first husband on a world tour as a prelude to the Empire Exhibition, taking her to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, with a month-long holiday in Hawaii where Agatha learned to surf. When her first marriage broke up, she took her young daughter to the Canary Islands, and soon after headed off solo to the Middle East on the Orient Express because ‘one must do things by oneself sometime, mustn’t one?’
Her first trip to the Middle East took Agatha through Yugoslavia and the Balkans to Turkey, Syria and Iraq, crossing the great stretch of desert between Damascus and Baghdad, and on to visit the archeological digs at Ur as a guest of Mesopotamia expedition leader Leonard Woolley and his wife Katharine.
Agatha met her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan, on a return visit to the Woolleys the following year and married him in 1930. Their honeymoon took them from Venice to Dubrovnik, Split, down the Dalmation and through Greece, the highlight of which for Agatha was Delphi. Max’s work and a shared love of travel took them back to the Middle East for long stretches on numerous occasions, to Persia’s exotic sounding destinations–Teheran, Shiraz, Isfahan–as well as Iraq, Turkey and Russia.
Agatha even visited Melbourne in the early 1920s as part of the British Empire tour. She found fault in the food–‘we seemed always to be eating incredibly tough beef or turkey’–and toilets, but marvelled at the parrots–‘like flying jewels’–and the trees, which with their silvery white trunks and darker leaves struck Agatha as being like the photographic negative of trees in England with their dark trunks and lighter coloured leaves. ‘It reversed the whole look of the landscape.’
In one of the many asides that punctuate Agatha’s account of her life, she notes of travel:
You step from one life into another. You are yourself, but a different self. The new self is untrammelled by all the hundreds of spiders’ webs and filaments that enclose you in a cocoon of day-to-day domestic life… Your travel life has the essence of a dream.
It is the promise of ‘untrammelled’ time that I most look forward to as I contemplate leaving for London, Paris and Bordeaux at the end of this week. It will be a flying visit, though the longest time I’ve spent apart from my daughter since she was born nearly seven years ago. I don’t look forward to missing my family, but given Agatha left her two-year-old daughter for ten months to go on her first round the world tour, I don’t feel guilty about it either.
When not catching up with friends and family in Europe, I don’t plan to do much other than hang out with that different self that steps out when you travel, as Agatha puts it.