Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence: Mad brothers and sad mothers
A lavish BBC adaptation has thrown the spotlight on one of Agatha Christie's later novels, Ordeal by Innocence, a dark family drama for which the novelist plumbed the tragedies and sadnesses of her own youth
In 1958, Agatha Christie published her 50th crime novel, Ordeal by Innocence. The 68-year-old Christie had been writing detective stories for nearly 40 years and it was generally thought her best days were behind her. But the book she had submitted under the title The Innocent was regarded by her publishers as her best in years, and she later claimed it was her own joint favourite, along with Crooked House.
The book's power is due, I think, to the vividness of her portrayal of the Argyll family and the ill-assorted, incestuous household at their grand but horribly misnamed home, Sunny Point. The Argylls are like a buttoned-up, English version of a family in a Tennessee Williams play. And I suspect the reason that they are so memorable is that Christie drew on her own family history when she created them, exploring themes she had often touched on in her writing but never quite at this depth before.
Normally the cosy, restful nature of Christie's books makes them the perfect accompaniment to duvet days. But sometimes she is capable of jolting you into the real world with an insight into the darkness of human nature that has the same discomfiting effect as the stopper popping out of your cold hot-water bottle. And rarely more effectively than in Ordeal by Innocence.
Sarah Phelps' television adaptation of the novel for the BBC, which concludes tomorrow night, is mostly splendid, but it is best when it brings out the darkness inherent in the book, rather than interpolating a chief constable bent on murder to cover up his paedophilia. Chief constables in Christie novels may often be guilty of pomposity and a certain obtuseness, but they play with a straight bat.
Christie's novel centres on the family of the wealthy Leo and Rachel Argyll, who have brought up five children, all of whom are adopted.
The book begins some time after Rachel has been murdered and her ne'er-do-well son Jacko has died in prison after being convicted of the crime. Then fresh evidence turns up that exonerates Jacko, something which does not please the rest of the Argylls, who were quite happy to have Rachel's murder pinned on the black sheep of the family.
Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel is Jacko, even though we only encounter him in the past tense, through the reminiscences of other characters; his demonic charm is brilliantly captured by Belfast actor Anthony Boyle in the TV version. Jacko is an example of a character type who recurs so often in Christie's novels, the charming scapegrace who never does an honest day's work if he can talk his way into an easier life.
Many commentators have suggested that these characters were based on Agatha's older brother Monty, who squandered the money he received on the death of his father and thereafter leaned on the family for financial help with various cock-eyed business ventures. After serving in World War I, Monty returned to live at the family home, and the mixture of love and terror he inspired in his mother seems to mirror Jacko's relationship with Rachel in the novel.
Monty was wildly unpredictable; he would engage in target practice with his revolver from his bedroom window, not stopping just because his mother had visitors ("Some silly old spinster going down the drive with her behind wobbling. Couldn't resist it," Agatha recalled him saying.) Eventually, Agatha and her sister, to spare their mother's sanity, secured him rooms in the south of France. He ended up in poor health but exerted his Jacko-like charm on a French nurse he met in hospital and moved in with her; he died of a stroke in 1929 while still in his forties. It is hard not to think that the Argyll family's attitude to Jacko is a reflection of the feelings of Agatha's family towards Monty - including the sheepish relief at his death.
As the book goes on, one starts to feel that Rachel Argyll brought her death down on herself with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, so scathing are the other characters about her hubris in thinking she could make her adopted children happy. "The blood tie does matter, you know," is a typical observation. Some of the most moving passages in the book are those in which Micky, another of the adopted Argyll children, reflects on his childhood, when he longed to return to his hard life with his indifferent birth mother rather than endure the luxury of Sunny Point.
Once again, Christie seems to have drawn on the experiences of her own family; in this case, her mother, Clara. When Clara was nine, her father, a soldier, died when he was thrown from his horse while he was stationed in Jersey. Clara's aunt Margaret, who had made a late marriage to a wealthy businessman only weeks earlier, offered to take Clara off her bereaved mother's hands, and Clara was forced to leave her family and go to live on the other side of the country.
Agatha adored her mother, whom she regarded having such insight into the feelings of her children that she seemed to have second sight; she once claimed that as a child she hardly dared to think when her mother was in the room. But she also felt that her mother kept part of herself distant from the rest of the world. "I think the resentment she felt, the deep hurt at being unwanted, coloured her attitude to life," Agatha wrote of her mother.
"It made her distrustful of herself and suspicious of people's affection. Her aunt was a kindly woman, good-humoured and generous, but she was imperceptive of a child's feelings. My mother had all the so-called advantages of a comfortable home and a good education - what she lost and what nothing could replace was the carefree life with her brothers in her own home." The phrase "imperceptive of a child's feelings" perfectly describes the Rachel Argyll of the book.
Over and over again, Christie touched on the subject of adoption. The words of the character Maureen Summerhayes in Mrs McGinty's Dead (1952) seem to echo Agatha's description of her mother's feelings: "My mother parted with me and I had every advantage, as they call it. And it's always hurt - always, always - to know that you weren't really wanted, that your mother could let you go."
Christie's biographer Laura Thompson has suggested that "it was Agatha's nature to feel Clara's emotions as if they were her own" and that when she wrote about miserable adoptees, "such was her love for her mother, she may have experienced greater agony than Clara herself ever did".
And in Ordeal by Innocence, this theme receives its deepest, darkest treatment. It is often said that Christie's novels of the 1960s and 1970s, the books of her old age, were less slick, more eccentric, more personal than her earlier work. Ordeal by Innocence is perhaps the book that heralded this change of direction, as the ageing Christie found herself plumbing the sadnesses and tragedies of her youth.
Ordeal by Innocence concludes tomorrow night on BBC1