Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Books on the theme of Archaeology

I am lucky enough to live within a mile of an important archaeological dig that the University of Exeter has been exploring for several years. Detectorists discovered Roman coins and the dig began. The received wisdom – that the Romans did not establish themselves west of Exeter – was overturned. There is evidence of iron age living, of a Roman road (where was it going from and to?) and of occupation up to the early middle ages. And then the settlement moved. The village was abandoned and a new settlement established where our village now stands. 

Every year I go and visit the dig site, peer at the variations in soil colours, notice the markers, sometimes orange buckets, sometimes slips of paper, and try to picture people living on the site.

Sutton Hoo

Occasionally I read about archaeology. Next to our own dig I think the Anglo Saxon finds at Sutton Hoo ship burial (Suffolk) are the most engaging. A long time ago, before the National Curriculum, I used to teach my school students about Sutton Hoo, not least for its links with Beowulf. The finds are spectacular and the shadow of the ship in the mound is compelling. I have visited the displays at the British Museum more times than I can recall and plan to revisit the site of the curious mounds next to the river Deben next summer.

Here are two books related to Sutton Hoo, the first of which is a novel.

The Dig by John Preston 

The story follows the progress of the dig at Sutton Hoo in 1939. It is told in the first person by several key players: Mrs Pretty who owned the site, the first archaeologist Basil Brown, one of the professional archaeologists Mrs Piggott, and the boy Robert Pretty.

This structure of the novel mirrors a dig, as we slice through the incomplete telling of the stories of all their lives and find clues, some of which are never followed up. The gradual uncovering of the finds is well told through Basil Brown, an amateur employed by Mrs Pretty who is shoved aside by men with more class and education.

The novel reminds us that knowledge is always mediated through the time of its uncovering, in this case an Anglo Saxon king’s burial is seen in the context of the imminent outbreak of war. And we see how everyone’s story is partial, incomplete and above all unknown to others – especially the women’s. Mrs Pretty is mourning her husband, attending a medium for consultation, and Peggy Piggott is on her unsatisfactory honeymoon (sexless one imagines) and attracted to the photographer who happens to be Mrs Pretty’s nephew.

I enjoyed this book, but I wonder if I would have got so much out of it if I hadn’t known the story of the discovery and wasn’t so familiar with the artefacts.

The Dig by John Preston, published in 2007 by Penguin 230pp.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver

This is the account of the evidence and research into the site by the man who directed the most recent dig, published in 2017. All the mounds have been explored, all the evidence described, and all the theories examined. The context for the finds in England, but also in relation to Europe, is laid out. The author reminds us that no account can be final as archaeology is a dynamic study.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver, published by Boydell Press in 2017. 240pp

Essays

Archaeology has inspired creative non-fiction and none more exhilarating than this poet’s view. I was very pleased to come across this book earlier in the year. You can find the full review on Bookword (October 2019), here.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This is a collection of essays by a Scottish poet. Her themes include time and archaeology. Among other meditations she takes us on two digs, first in Alaska where a 500 year old village is being washed into the ocean. The Yup’iq people live in the village and still live off the land and sea. The dig links the people with their history and the finds extend beyond mere knowledge to influence young people in the village, and the villagers’ understanding of themselves and their past.

A second dig on Orkney also features a site under threat. At the Links of Noltland a large community created in stone is being uncovered, but funds will run out before they are able to  explore the full extent of the remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the earlier settlements but the elements will take anything that the archaeologists cannot recover.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, published by Sort of books in 2019. 247pp

Archaeology and more fiction

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss 

Set in the 1980s, Silvie’s self-taught father has dragged his family on a holiday to re-enact an iron age camp. The possibility of authentically living as our ancestors did is challenged, not just because living off the land proves difficult and is food supplemented by crisps and cola from the local garage. The beliefs and attitudes of the enthusiasts take on a very threatening aspect reminding the reader of our primitive origins. 

It is a short book, but written powerfully, and the prose develops a momentum, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. There is a full post about this novel on Bookword (June 2019): here.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

Agatha Christie

And of course the famous crime writer Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan and accompanied him on his digs in Nineveh and Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Wikipedia refers to these novels, influenced by her archaeological experiences:

  • Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
  • Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Appointment with Death (set in Jerusalem) (1938)
  • They came to Baghdad (1951)

Can you add any other books, fiction or nonfiction, that link to the theme of archaeology? 

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Must Writers live in Beautiful Places?

The association of writers and beautiful places seem boundless: Jane Austen in Bath, the Brontes in Howarth in Yorkshire, Wordsworth in the Lake District, Elizabeth Bowen in Bowen’s Court in Ireland and Elizabeth Taylor lived beside the Thames near Reading. One of the pleasures of moving to Devon is the wealth of lovely places to visit. On a recent trip to Greenway in South Devon I mused on the connection between writers and their homes.

Greenway

Greenway May 2017

On the heights near the mouth of the River Dart is the house that Agatha Christie built for her summer holidays, referring it to the most beautiful place in the world. Now a National Trust property, Greenway is an impressive place to visit. And the house is more or less as it was in the 1950s.

Hall in Greenway, May 2017

What this offers the writer

For the writer’s leisure the following delights are on offer

  • Tennis counts
  • Croquet lawn
  • Boating on the river
  • Garden walks
  • Local archaeology
  • Piano playing
  • Board games

The Greenway house is full of boxes, collections of decorative boxes of all sizes from snuff boxes in display cases to other boxes in all styles. This seems fitting for a writer of mysteries. Without the boxes Greenway would seem quite empty.

And for inspiration?

The house itself would have been a pleasure to write in; the library, the sitting rooms, the tables and chairs set up around the house, the gardens in fine weather, all these would be a delight.

Then there’s the view, the gardens and the sea less than 2 miles away.

Agatha Christie used the house in 1956 as the setting for one of her Poirot mysteries: Dead Man’s Folly, in which a local girl is found murdered in the boat house on the eve of the village fete.

Being a best-selling writer Agatha Christie enjoyed considerable wealth, which meant she could afford this level of luxury.

Other houses

Jane Austen’s Writing Table, Chawton

Few writers receive the rewards from their writing at the level of Agatha Christie. For example, Jane Austen lived off her brother’s charity in Chawton, Hampshire. It is pleasant, but not on a grand scale.

Elizabeth Bowen held her house in such regard that she wrote a history of Bowen’s Court in 1942. It featured in her early novel The Last September, which I reviewed.

Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Mass in 2007

No writer was more closely associated with her home than Emily Dickinson, largely because she rarely stepped out of it. Now a museum, I visited the house in Amherst, Mass and was charmed.

For a collection of photographs of writers’ houses see this Guardian feature: Temples of Literature by Nick Channing.

I’m a bit of a romantic and like to imagine writers in garrets and humble rooms, suffering for their creative talents, penning their works of art, making beauty in difficult circumstances. But I can see that inspiration and creativity are fed by living in beautiful places, or just from the writer’s imagination.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is my third post in the Decades Project, and we are into the 1920s. This classic whodunit was published in 1926. The genre was already established. Hercule Poirot had appeared in two previous novels. He solves the mystery of who killed Roger Ackroyd despite protesting that he wanted to retire. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was voted best crime novel ever in 2013 by the Crime Writer’s Association.

We are a decade on from O Pioneers! and oh so far away. This is cosy, unchanging rural England, where people are putting The Great War behind them and where people still know their place.

The story of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

We have many characters with the motivation to kill Roger Ackroyd, and many activities designed to throw the reader off the trail of the killer. There is a little back story: Roger Ackroyd, who is very rich, was about to marry a widow Mrs Ferrars. Mrs Ferrars was being blackmailed because she poisoned her brutish husband. She commits suicide, but has written to Roger Ackroyd to tell him who the blackmailer is.

On the point of revealing the identity of Mrs Ferrars’s blackmailer, Roger Ackroyd is found dead and her letter is missing. There is a nephew who benefits from his death; his sister’s daughter whose smallest bills he was in the habit of scrutinising; a creepy housekeeper with a secret she will hide at all costs; a manservant who creeps about; a housemaid who is not what she seems; a male secretary who may be greedy; a big game hunter, likewise; and a mysterious stranger seen at the house around the time of the murder. Our narrator is the village doctor Dr Sheppard, who has access to all households. What he doesn’t know his sister Caroline is sure to discover and gossip about. These two are able to keep the reader well informed.

Who is to solve the mystery? Poirot has retired to King’s Abbot in Devon, hoping to grow vegetable marrows and stay out of the limelight. His friend, Captain Hastings is in the Argentine so it falls to Dr Sheppard to act as Poirot’s sidekick and to ask the questions we want answered.

No spoilers here. But the ending has the requisite clever twist.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie in 1925

Born in Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie has probably sold more novels than any other writer – 2bn copies. She lived in interesting times. She met and married her husband in 1914. He went off to the war in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and she signed up as a VAD nurse. After the war she continued her reading and writing, and in the year that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published she disappeared for six days. Her marriage was in difficulties. Divorced in 1928, she got remarried 2 years later to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Already familiar with Cairo she frequently accompanied him on his expeditions. Egypt and the Middle East form the background to many of her novels. During the Second World War she worked in a pharmacy in London. She lived until 1976, aged 85.

She had written 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories. They have, of course, been adapted for tv and film.

Greenway House in Devon was Agatha Christie’s holiday home, and it was from here that Allen Lane was travelling when he had the idea for Penguin paperbacks. Greenway House is now a National Trust property.

My reflections

It’s a very long time since I read a detective novel, and it was interesting to notice the plotting. Although I enjoyed reading this classic murder-mystery it has not converted me to an enthusiasm for the genre.

As a historical artefact it was interesting. It is set in the 1920s, when vacuum cleaners were a new fangled idea, but the novel celebrates continuity of the village community in rural England. John Major’s vicar’s wives are cycling past warm beer on the village green in the background. It’s not like that now, and I wonder how much was disappearing even then. The decades have brought changes here in rural Devon just as surely as in New York and Nebraska (the locations of the two previous novels in this series).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. First published in 1926. I read the Penguin 1948 edition, a gift from my sister. 250pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1930s

I plan to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) for April’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

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Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

What’s the connection between Exeter Station and a publishing revolution? Let’s be precise, it’s Exeter St David’s Station, there being other stations in Exeter. As I frequently pass through or catch a train to and from Exeter St David’s I was entranced to discover that it was the site where Penguin Books originated.

A book for the price of a packet of fags

The story goes that returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter station platform. It was 1934. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. The paperback revolution began.

271 AllenLane

It was probably not so much the soft covers but the desire to produce books for the same price as a packet of cigarettes that contributed to the success of his idea. A note for younger readers: smoking was not at that time considered a danger to health or a socially unacceptable activity.

Not on our time

The idea was not immediately taken up enthusiastically by Allen Lane’s employers, Bodley Head. They did not think it would be successful, and required him to do the work for his publishing idea in his own time. Fortunately he had colleagues who did support the idea, including one who came up the idea of the slightly comic penguin that would become identified with the new format. One of the team was sent off to London Zoo to draw the penguin for the original colophon.

271 penguin

Later the format was expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays.

Democratic

Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The Bookseller May 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers.

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

The first titles

Penguins Books began with ten titles.

  • Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • Dorothy L. Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  • André Maurois Ariel
  • Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
  • Mary Webb Gone to Earth.

Other authors were Susan Ertz, Compton Mackenzie, Eric Linklater, Beverley Nichols and E.H. Young.

According to a story in History Today, one enthusiastic reader was responsible for Penguin books being selected by the Woolworth’s buyer: Mrs Prescott.

A key moment came when the book buyer for Woolworth’s, a man named Prescott, was approached. He did not like the sample he was shown, but his wife’s enthusiastic reaction changed his mind (or so Penguin legend has it) and he ordered 63,500 copies. That meant that at least the first Penguins would not make a loss. (Richard Cavendish, History Today)

Another note to younger readers: Woolworth’s was an early version of Poundland-type shops but with a shade more class. It went under in the great bankers’ crash of 2008, and I’m not going to remind you about that, because you should know.

271 Allen Lane and Lady Chat

The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence in 1960 was one of Penguin Books finest hours. The battle to have the book declared obscene was lost despite the claim made by the chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones that it was ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’. Mrs Prescott probably turned in her grave.

Original Penguins Livery

You can still pick up early Penguins in second-hand shops. Most of mine have telltale pencil prices inside the cover, or addresses of previous owners, often institutions. The early editions are very attractive, irresistible even. I treasure mine. Don’t get excited about my copy of Ariel by Andre Maurois in the photograph. It’s a 1985 facsimile. The others are pre-war editions.

271 My penguins

Book sales at Exeter St David’s Station today

Allen Lane’s experiment was a success. For a time. Penguin Books has been swallowed up by the commercial publishing giant Random House. And at Exeter St David’s Station the only books sold today have to be tracked down in the dingy cave that is WH Smith’s. The book selection is at the far end of the shop, reached by squeezing through passengers buying magazines, sweets and fizzy drinks for their journey. The shop stocks best sellers, fiction and nonfiction. Nothing I was tempted to buy and I doubt whether Allen Lane would have thought much of the selection either.

271 ExStD

Ironically, at No 1 in the fiction shelves was Girl on a Train. I doubt I will ever read a book with ‘Girl’ in the title unless I am persuaded by someone whose judgement I trust.

Penguins I loved

My love of reading was fostered in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Puffins, and later by the Pelicans that no self-respecting teenager aspiring to be an intellectual would be without. I read Freud from them, and soon discovered ST Bindoff’s Tudor England. And on and on, through many adult novels, history books, polemics, art collections and suddenly here we are in 2016. Books, Penguin Books. And it all began at Exeter St David’s.

Related books and posts

JE Morpurgo Allen Lane, King Penguin.

Jeremy Lewis Penguin Special, The Life and Times of Allen Lane

Stephen Ware, ed Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970

Banning Books on this blog November 2015

Allen Lanes files are held at Bristol University Library

 

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Men Explain Things to Me

I’m out walking with a friend. We check the map to be sure where we turn off the path. ‘Are you lost?’ a passing man asks. And he proceeds to take the map from us and to tell us where we are (we knew) and which road to take (ditto). Is that a familiar scenario? It’s the kind of thing Rebecca Solnit would recognise, and she wrote about it in her essay Men Explain Things to Me. Originally published on the TomDispatch blog in April 2008, the essay led to the coining of the word ‘mansplaining’, although not by Rebecca Solnit herself, who avoids the implication that ‘men are inherently flawed in this way’ (see dedication below).

175 Men exp coverReading about walking and how walking and writing and story telling are interconnected I came across the wonderful and multi-talented and multi-knowledgeable Rebecca Solnit. I referred to The Faraway Nearby in my previous post (here), and how it distracted me from other reading while on my walking holiday. I had been waiting for the publication in book form of her essay Men Explain Things to Me since I came across references to it and to her writing. It’s available now.

Men Explain Things to Me

‘Every woman knows what I am talking about,’ says Rebecca Solnit, as she gave her hilarious account of a man explaining. She told him she had been writing about Muybridge, and he informed her that she should read this important book that had just been published. He resisted three or four attempts by a friend to let him know that this was Rebecca Solnit’s book before he finally took it in. ‘He went ashen.’

Giving explanations of this kind involves not listening, and denies a voice to women, suggests they don’t know about things and implies women’s ignorance and their need for the authoritative material to be delivered by a man.

But Rebecca Solnit’s essay is about much more than the annoying experience of being mansplained, silenced, assumed ignorant. In a postscript reflecting on responses to this essay (including being told by some men that she didn’t know what she was writing about) she included these paragraphs, leading us into the other essays in this collection:

I surprised myself when I wrote this essay, which began with an amusing incident and ended with rape and murder. That made clear to me the continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death (and I think we would understand misogyny and violence against women even better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape and murder and harassment and intimidation, online and at home and in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear).

Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity and to liberty. I’m grateful that, after an early life of being silenced, sometimes violently, I grew up to have a voice, circumstances that will always bind me to the rights of the voiceless. (16)

The Big Picture

The dedication to this collection of essays begins

For the grandmothers, the levellers, the men who get it, the young women who keep going, the older ones who opened the way …

I especially admire Rebecca Solnit’s ability to draw the bigger picture, to link the minor social misery to more extreme and brutal forms of silencing. In a more recent essay (2011) she draws a very clear parallel between the IMF’s exploitation of third world countries and the assault by Strauss-Kahn, the ex-head of the IMF, and other men of power of women, who often come from the same exploited areas of the world (Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: some thoughts on the IMF, global injustice and a stranger on a train).

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the "Abode of Chaos" museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Rape, and the fight back by the women of Delhi, the ‘disappeared’ of South America and the mothers and grandmothers who would not be silenced about their loved ones, gropers on trains who are pelted with grapefruits, the struggle for marriage equality and how gay marriage has challenged the traditional institution of marriage, the removal of women from history through male genealogies, and mansplaining; they are all connected, reproduce inequality, demean us all and silence so many.

175 Womenppower symbolShe pays too frequent tribute to ‘the men who get it’ for me, but I guess that in this collection of previously published essay each one has to reassure readers that some men do get it, and that’s a good thing. Actually it is an important message that men are not inherently flawed. If they were change would be impossible and there would be no hope for the world.

There may not be anyway, but that’s another aspect of this story.

The writing

Beautiful prose. Such a knowledgeable writer. Again, you should read Rebecca Solnit.

 

Rebecca Solnit (2014) Men Explain Things to Me and other essays Granta Books 130pp

For a blogger’s take on Mansplaining in detective fiction see Miss Marple vs the Mansplainers: Agatha Christie’s Feminist Detective Hero by Alice Bolin on the Electric Lit blog.

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