Greenway, a Writer’s Refuge

Greenway is the name of a beautifully preserved house and gardens on a secluded stretch of the River Dart estuary, not too far from my sister’s house in Torquay. Grahame had mentioned how atmospheric it was when he visited on one of his sailing trips a couple of years back and so, when the family gathered at Terri’s for a special birthday celebration, it was only fitting that a tour of this historic estate serve as a break from all the obligatory wining and dining.

Perhaps best described as a “modest” Georgian mansion, surrounded by mature trees and accessed only by a narrow, winding, road, this house is now under the custodianship of the National Trust. It has been painstakingly maintained in the same condition as it was when it was the summer retreat of writer Dame Agatha Christie and her Archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan. I am no stranger to some of the controversies surrounding these two quintessentially English, Upper Middle Class characters who made the property their own between 1938 and his death in 1978 and so I was fascinated by all the little details that brought their lives into focus.

That theirs was such a long and happy marriage is sometimes overshadowed by Christie’s early financial success as a writer, her unhappy first marriage to philanderer Archie Christie and the exaggerated tales of mystery surrounding her mental breakdown and disappearance in 1926. But Greenway is a shrine to the later, more peaceful period of her life where this painfully shy writer could relax and recharge away from a life where her multitudes of followers demanded ever more personal appearances while still expecting at least one new book of consistent quality each year. It didn’t matter how often she insisted that her husband’s career was the more distinguished and that he was the serious writer, the public could not get enough of Christie and she rapidly became the bestselling novelist of all time.   

Let’s examine that last statement in more detail, shall we? Few claim that the 66 detective novels or the various short stories, plays and other writings are works of great genius but her oeuvre has still outsold every other behind only the Bible and Shakespeare. {Don Quixote by Cervantes, however, still remains the bestselling single novel}. Well, a whole industry has built up as lesser writers attempt to examine this conundrum but I personally think we need look no further than Netflix for the answer. Most people like their entertainment to be a little formulaic and they prefer to enter a world where the rules are more or less established and the characters well drawn but recognisable architypes. The writing is fluid without being too intellectually challenging and the inherent snobbery of the period makes the reader feel as if they have been elevated to a higher level of society. Not only did Mrs Christie hit upon a winning formula at a very early stage of her career but she worked diligently at it for more than half a century.

Sir Max probably fell short of genius in his own way too. He came so close to discovering the fabulous treasury of Nimrud but failed to notice a series of irregularities in the floor despite working there for many years. A hoard of Assyrian gold comparable to that of Tutankhamun awaited his successors and it was perhaps a mercy that this discovery did not take place until ten years after his death. Nonetheless, he deserves an honoured place in the cadre of English Gentleman archaeologists whose painstaking scholarship and methodology have preserved so much more than mere trophies from beneath the desert sands.

Of all the charming pieces of memorabilia with which this couple surrounded themselves in their later years I was especially taken with the period toys and a much-loved collection of fancy dress costumes. Inherited pieces of rather esoteric Chinoiserie had been carefully preserved and some of the remaining furniture had received multiple make-overs. It was a delightful insight into a woman who, although she must have been able to afford anything she wanted by this stage of her life, preferred to be surrounded by the familiar and the familial. A Tang Dynasty camel, presented to his wife by Sir Max, immediately caught my attention but, despite probably being worth as much as all the contents of the house put together, sat comfortably amongst the nick-nacks.

One of the highlights of the house is the library, a light and airy room where the well-stocked drinks trolley indicates that it served more as a sitting room than a place of study (in contrast to Sir Max’s more seriously appointed office). Above the bookshelves, striking frieze of World War 2 military manoeuvres sounds an incongruous note until it is explained that the US Coast Guard were billeted in the house as preparations were made for the Normandy Landings. After the war, Christie declined the offer to have it removed as she felt it formed too important a part of the house’s history. That it was skilfully executed in a tasteful, predominantly blue colour scheme probably helped.

A garden lover would, no doubt, have a great deal more to say about the idyllic landscaping and a “whodunit” aficionado would be better informed about various references to individual books but there is one more matter to be addressed if the life of this well-known woman (and her beloved if not quite so well-known husband) is to find some context. That is the oft-repeated allegation of antisemitism. And, as often as it may be repeated, it appears to come from one particular source: the recollection of a dinner party conversation recorded decades later. Those who seek corroboration will point to the racial stereotyping present in several of her books while others point out that, since her Jewish characters frequently turn out to be sympathetic and to have unjustly fallen under suspicion, she was merely offering an astute commentary on the prejudices of the time.

Personally, I don’t find such ex-post facto rationalisations at all helpful. A great deal of the enjoyment that so many millions of people have gained from the works of the “Queen of Mystery” comes from their ability to project their own imagination onto the elaborately constructed plots and I suspect the same applies to much of the social commentary. After all, I noticed when watching a TV adaptation recently that one of the later novels contains not one but two gruesome murders of children. I’m not aware of many treatises have been written about that. Perhaps what the Lady herself  said was right, she wrote to entertain, not to be taken too seriously.


Categories: Britain, West of England

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