Would Agatha Christie finish writing The Mysterious Affair At Styles, had the Great War not occurred?
It changes her life and her writing. Like so many others, her family life is impacted. She conveys her painful experiences and their circumstances in a number of plots and through her characters.
After her whirlwind romance to Colonel Archibald Christie, the newlywed Agatha works at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay and finds the secret of Bromide that will launch her name.
During many walks in Dartmoor she brews the sub-plots that will captivate her readers right until the end. Her meeting with the Belgian refugees paves the way to the creation of a little man with an egg-shaped head Hercule Poirot.
Archie comes back and sees his shy wife is rising to fame. The post-war years see he gradually withdraw himself from the public life and from Agatha, playing golf more often. He does not seem to appreciate either Agatha’s allusion of him in Captain Hastings, Poirot’s sidekick.
Furthermore, it concerns Agatha that the civilian life does not suit her husband. He has a job in the City, but he is unhappy. His feeling of ‘not fitting in’ is captured through the likes of Alexander Bonaparte Cust (see Notes On ABC Murders) and the charming but domineering David Hunter (see Notes On Taken At The Flood).
Meanwhile, she maintains her optimism towards their marriage. In 1922, the couple leaves the infant Rosalind in the care of her grandmother Clara and her aunt Madge for a ten-month voyage around the world to promote the British Empire Exhibition.
In the Introduction of The Grand Tour, a collection of Agatha’s letters to her mother, Mathew Prichard writes that the decision to go is a difficult one.
On the one hand, it is driven by Archie’s restlessness and dissatisfaction towards his job. On the other, Agatha is a keen traveller and she sees it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. It upsets her sister, however, that Agatha will not be able to meet her brother Monty on leave from Africa.
The Man In The Brown Suit (1922) is the fruit of the journey. Set in South Africa, the places mentioned is a reminder of the world that is about to change (Machonoland became Rhodesia in 1895, then eventually Zimbabwe in 1980). The diarist Sir Eustace Pedler derives from Major Belcher, of whom is the member of the expedition.
In Murder In The Links (1924), Agatha incorporates Archie’s hobby into the plot. Also, Hastings finds his ‘Cinderella’; their chance encounter on the train has become the opening chapter.
By the same token, her creation of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford speaks volumes of the different Agatha before her separation and divorce. The adventurous and spontaneous Agatha fails to reach out to Archie. His state of mind is anyone’s guess nevertheless, for most probably it is only his wife who understands the extent of his suffering from the horrors of the war and depression. She does not reveal anything in public, although her discussing mental illnesses in her books may be related to Archie’s ‘issues.’
In Alexander Bonaparte Cust she portrays a traumatised ex-soldier. She puts him upfront as the main suspect. Surprisingly, Poirot sides with him despite the suggestive evidences and therefore Inspector Japp is not amused.
Hastings : ‘We know a fair amount about him.’
Poirot : ‘We know nothing at all! We know where he was born. We know he fought in the war and received a slight wound in the head and that he was discharged from the army owing to epilepsy. We know that he lodged with Mrs. Marbury for nearly two years. We know that he was quiet and retiring – the sort of man that nobody notices. We know that he invented and carried out an intensely clever scheme of systemised murder. We know that he made certain incredibly stupid blunders. We know that he killed without pity and quite ruthlessly. We know, too, that he was kindly enough not to let blame rest on any other person for the crimes he committed. If he wanted to kill unmolested – how easy to let other persons suffer for his crimes. Do you not see, Hastings, that the man is a mass of contradictions? Stupid and cunning, ruthless and magnanimous – and that there must be some dominating factors that reconcile his two natures.’
We know nothing at all… Is it possible, I wonder, whether the sentence is actually Agatha’s thoughts about Archie’s mind? She knows nothing at all that Archie will leave her; knows nothing at all the reason behind his being unsupportive after Clara’s passing and knows nothing at all why their marriage does not work.
What she knows of, Tommy and Tuppence will grow old together and Poirot and Hastings’s friendship will last.
In the Second World War, Agatha’s son-in-law’s life is claimed. Mrs. Folliat (see Notes On The Dead Man’s Folly) loses her husband before the War broke and her two sons in the process. Three death duties are enough to make her sell the estate. ‘So many things are hard, Mr. Poirot,’ she said, now living in the lodge at the outskirt of her former home. This seems to mirror what the authoress must have been through when selling Ashfield in 1938.
In spite of the difficult times, Agatha marvels at channelling tragedies to her advantage. For writing is her refuge and her comfort. A vocation.
In the Epilogue of her archaeological memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946) she writes:
‘For after four years spent in London in war-time, I know what a very good life that was, and it has been a joy and refreshment to me to live those days again…Writing this simple record has been not a task, but a labour of love. Not an escape to something that was, but the bringing into the hard work and sorrow of today of something imperishable that one not only had but still has!’