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8 October 2012

Agatha Christie has always been the target of snobs. We should stand up for her

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie was too lowbrow, officials thought, to be given a damehood. According to documents The Mail On Sunday got hold of under the Freedom of Information Act, the view was that she wasn’t “worth more” than the CBE she was awarded in 1956. One undated note explained: “While a further award would no doubt be popular, we did feel Mrs Christie’s work justified no more than a CBE.”

Longevity triumphed in the end. Officialdom caved in when she reached 80 and gave us Dame Agatha.

Longevity has its rewards. By surviving until he was 93, PG Wodehouse finally overcame those who blocked his knighthood because of ill-judged but innocent broadcasts he made when interned by the Germans in France during the war. Evelyn Waugh indignantly turned down the CBE in his fifties, but died at only 66, long before all his general obnoxiousness would have been forgiven and the knighthood he craved grudgingly conferred.

Back to Dame Agatha, though. I can’t entirely blame officialdom, because even many Christie fans went through a period of rejecting her. I read every one of her novels in my early teens, only to move on loftily when I developed intellectual pretensions. She couldn’t write, I would explain, if anyone spoke well of her, and her characterisation was deficient.

It took ‘flu in my early thirties to open my mind. As I lay listlessly in bed, I begged for Christie on the grounds that she wouldn’t be too taxing. After the first, I had my epiphany. Quite simply, when it came to plotting, the woman was a genius.

She wasn’t a stylist, but her simple prose was fine for telling complex stories, her stock characters were perfectly believable and Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple were brilliant creations. And the well-travelled Christie really understood human nature – a major reason why her books have sold in billions around the world.

As I got older and became aware of how silly clever people (even officials) can be, I came to rate ever more highly the insights of Miss Marple. Recently, I read an essay William Hazlitt wrote in 1822 ("On the Ignorance of the Learned"), that immediately brought her to mind. “An elderly country gentlewoman,” he wrote, “will often know more of character, and be able to illustrate it by more amusing anecdotes taken from the history of what has been said, done, and gossiped in a country town for the last fifty years, than the best blue-stocking of the age will be able to glean from that sort of learning which consists in an acquaintance with all the novels and satirical poems published in the same period.” Yes, yes, yes.

In any gathering of crime writers, you will find many who admit to having gone through the phase of thinking they had grown out of Dame Agatha only to find her again later and stay to marvel. We tip our caps to her. Like PD James and Ruth Rendell, she should have had a peerage.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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