Dr Christopher Prior, University of Southampton
One of the real pleasures of research is its serendipitous nature. Trying to make sense of the outlook and background of colonial officials in interwar Africa for my PhD, I set about hoovering up as much popular fiction as I could.
The usual suspects were all there in the bookpile: Edgar Wallace and his Sanders of the River series, Rudyard Kipling, and the other imperialist authors that peppered officials’ recollections of their youth. The diaries and letters officials produced at the time tell a slightly different story, of solemn tomes by Victorian explorers abandoned for the latest P. G. Wodehouse or a crime or thriller novel, posted out from home and treated like a precious artefact, relished on the verandah alongside a gin and tonic after a day’s safari for the connection to home by proxy they provided.
Knowing nothing of Agatha Christie (there were none lying around the house growing up, no David Suchet as Poirot on the TV in the evenings), I started reading them not expecting much by way of empire-related material. This was particularly in light of Alison Light’s excellent Forever England, which places Christie firmly at the centre of an inward-looking middle class focus on domesticity and a rejection of the adventure fiction of the pre-First World War ‘high imperialism’ era. So I was surprised at just how much empire there was.
Upstanding, sunburnt colonial administrators (the real ones would have approved), and stereotypical crusty retired generals that were the mainstays of much interwar fiction were there, as were detailed (though undoubtedly also racist) accounts of colonial life, not just in the area that Christie and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan knew best, the Middle East (1936’s Murder in Mesopotamia and, of course, 1937’s Death on the Nile) but also Africa (1924’s The Man in the Brown Suit). These and other of her works reveal a middle-class woman who felt the empire was the work of superior men upholding civilisation and supervising supposedly primitive peoples.
So far, so typical. Therefore, after reading Christie’s interwar output, I was intrigued by how her depictions of empire might have changed in the postwar period. For, in Christie, there’s a rare opportunity to track an author’s output over a long period of time (her first novel was published in 1920, and she produced work consistently for over half a century) meaning her responses to Britain’s changing international fortunes can be tracked, from an era in which a world without red on the map was rarely considered, through rising nationalist challenges to its authority, the end of formal empire and out the other side, to a 70s world in which the British had lost nearly all of its imperial possessions (although not necessarily its imperial attitude).
Christie never really renovated her ideas about colonised, or increasingly ex-colonised, peoples. Sure, she started acknowledging their political aspirations but, as 1955’s Hickory Dickory Dock makes clear, she still didn’t think much of them. Caribbean, African and Indian figures were castigated, pitched as unstable, stupid or dangerous. But another striking facet of her postwar output was that all of a sudden, murderers with imperial connections and who were of British descent started showing up in her works. Rakes, dangerous men, immoral men, who had worked as farmers in East Africa, who had interests in mining in West Africa, or who had lived in Canada, or Australia.
Why was this? Christie was evidently making a point about morality, or the decline of it. Empire was no longer full of stout upstanding individuals, but dangerous types. Christie was so sure that empire couldn’t have been seriously challenged by her ragtag of indigenous upstarts that she had a distinctly Anglocentric view of imperial decline. Decline was happening because Britons no longer upheld old prewar ways. Something had gone, and for Christie, it was the replacement of a collective imperial spirit with a postwar left-wing ethos that led young men to pooh-pooh this supposedly noble endeavour.
I wanted to write about this, not least because there was little historical analysis of Christie’s output and her ideas about race and Britain’s place in the world, in spite of her enduring massive global popularity (as I found out after showing an NHK film crew around Christie’s native South Devon for a documentary about 1939’s And Then There Were None). This was also interesting because it goes against the grain of much of what has been written about late-imperial popular culture.
The tendency has been to focus on the congratulatory tone of this culture, that the British patted themselves on the back for a supposed job well done, a handing over of the reins. This tendency was undoubtedly there, part of an attempt to appear to others (and to themselves) that Britons had been in charge all along, that the pace and outcome of the decolonising process was the natural unfurling of a longstanding British mission, rather than of anti-colonial nationalist actions.
Christie was going against this; for her, the British were not handing the empire over because they’d completed their job, they were instead letting it slip through their fingers because they were no longer up to the job. Christie’s writing therefore adds an interesting layer of complexity to those ideas about decolonisation that were thrown into the public mix. Christie shows how little some were prepared to change their ideas about empire, using prewar certainties to explain a postwar, and increasingly postcolonial, world.
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Dr Christopher Prior is Associate Professor of Colonial and Postcolonial History at the University of Southampton. He is the author of ‘Exporting empire: Africa, colonial officials and the construction of the British imperial state, c.1900-39’ (Manchester University Press, 2013), ‘Edwardian England and the idea of racial decline: an empire’s future’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and ‘An Empire Gone Bad: Agatha Christie, Anglocentrism and Decolonization’, Cultural & Social History (published online in January 2018).