Saturday, July 4, 2015

Agatha Christie and Our Independence Day

I recently saw the hashtag #125stories on Twitter, and landed on the hub that the Christie Estate created as lead-up to the celebration of Agatha's Christie's 125th birthday in September.

"Whilst digging through the Agatha Christie archive we stumbled upon something quite special – a huge box full of old fan letters addressed to Agatha Christie. Their envelopes were decorated with stamps from exotic locations from every corner of the world, and their contents was even more diverse. Some even had replies from Christie herself."

The Estate decided to ask we current readers to share our stories.

I thought Independence Day would a fine day to share mine. Sure, we threw off their Imperialist rule, but the cultural bonds between the US and the UK would not be severed. Not even by my Irish-American grandmother, who had no use for the English, but was not so hard-line to forsake being a huge Christie fan.

Another lovely crossover to July 4th is this: Christie wrote a fascinating memoir entitled Come, Tell Me How You Live, which I wrote about last year. Her title is a quote from verse three of the White Knight's poem, Haddocks' Eyes, from chapter eight of Through the Looking-Glass (1871). And it was on July 4, 1862, that Lewis Carroll rowed upon the Isis of Oxford University with Reverend Duckworth and the three daughters of Henry Liddell, including Alice, which lead to the much-loved Adventures in Wonderland (which I wrote about here).

My #125Story for Agatha Christie

The skulls. Those perfect, bright red, cloned-like skulls, all sitting in a row. They fascinated me, tantalized me as a young child.

You know, the ones on the side of mystery novels. 

In my local library they were the only books with symbols on the spine. The other books all had dull Dewey decimal numbers. But the mysteries . . . they got the ominous skulls.

I got focused on the skulls because of my Irish-American grandmother, Mary Walsh O'Neill. She was a voracious reader of mysteries and my father, her son, went to the library every week to pick out books for her. I went with him, and that's when I first saw them. The rows upon rows of the red skulls on the shelf, and then the stack of six or eight my dad would carry out, and off to Grandma's.  It was a  lovely ritual.

Grammy read a wide range of authors, but Agatha Christie was first among equals. My first direct encounter with Christie was the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express, although I couldn't really follow it. But once I got to college, I was reading through the canon and enjoying every moment of it.

Most recently, I read her fascinating memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live, engaging travel writing of her time on archaeological digs with her second husband, Max Mallowan. What an extraordinary woman to get to know. Thanks for the early introduction, Grandma.

Oh Frabjous Day: Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Alice, Who Was "Born" on the Fourth of July!

Happy Birthday, Alice! Joining in the worldwide celebration for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland.

I wrote this look at Alice through the ages after seeing the 2010 Tim Burton film.  Bringing it up from the archive today because she was "born" on the 4th of July: 

"The famous story is said to have been told during a boating trip on July 4 [1862, while we were quite busy with the Civil War], when Charles, his friend Duckworth and the three Liddell girls rowed to the village of Godstow. " From The Public Domain Review.

What a wonderful intersection of American/British culture. Lewis Carroll published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland three years later in 1865, hence the 150th anniversary this year.

From 2010:

I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland at the IMAX the other day, although it’s neither the story Alice in Wonderland, nor Burton’s. It’s imaginative fanfic from screenwriter Linda Woolverton.

Wiki tells us that fan fiction “began at least as early as the 17th century, with unauthorized published sequels to such works as Don Quixote.” That book was so beloved that people just wanted the story to keep going, they wanted more of Quixote and Sancho. That to me is at the heart of fanfic-—you love certain characters and their fictional universe so much that you spin out tales of your own. The modern genre took off following Star Trek, and the fans who just had to have more of Spock and Kirk (from every angle).

And so Alice in Wonderland really should have been called something different. It’s a completely original story, some are calling a sequel. Alice is now 19, and her mother is pushing her into a marriage with a lord, who has red hair like the Hatter, but none of his charm.

She sees the White Rabbit at the garden party that is meant to be her engagement party, and just after the Lord has gotten on bended knee to ask her hand, she says she needs a moment and chases after the rabbit, who inevitably leads her to the rabbit hole.

Down we all go in a fairly violent fall. Besides all the characters, pieces of the original story poke through this fanfic, including “drink me” to shrink and “eat me” to grow. What’s funny is early on the Dormouse and the Rabbit have an omniscient voice-over dialogue while Alice is trying to figure out how to get through the tiny door, saying “gee, you’d think she would remember this from the first time.” It’s a cute, somewhat lazy, covers-all way to acknowledge the original story and forestall any logic issues with the new story. You really do think Alice would say something like, “Wow, this happened to me when I was a kid.”

The Tea Party Is Mad, NOT the Hatter

Well, he might be crazy, it’s just that Lewis Carroll never called him the Mad Hatter, in all the pages of Alice in Wonderland, just the Hatter. The name of the chapter is "The Mad Tea Party," but it’s popular usage that elided the “Mad” to the oft-referred character, with a back story of its own. “Mad as a hatter” is an old expression, derived from the mercury used to cure hatbands. It’s just not an association that is Carroll’s. The Disney movie posters got it wrong, but Woolverton had that detail right: Depp is only called “the Hatter.”

“Really, now you ask me, “ said Alice, very much confused, “l don’t think—“

“Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

“It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life.”

As a child I had a classic Crown edition of the book, with colorized John Tenniel drawings, but it was the one book on the shelf that frightened me. I would flip through the pages and Alice was ALWAYS scowling, looking angry and mad in his illustrations. First she is stretched out, then she is huge, stuffed into a small house. Playing cards attack her, the Red Queen is shrieking “Off with her head.”  I looked a bit like Tenniel’s Alice at the time (being a natural towhead then, and a chemically assisted one now), and I didn't find her very appealing. In face I thought she was scary looking.

As an adult it is a good read. There is a charming playfulness to the dialogue overstuffed with puns:

“What a curious plan! exclaimed Alice
“That’s the reason they’re called lessens,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”

But what struck me is how much Alice is put down as stupid by almost everyone/creature she meets:

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle. “Really you are very dull.”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,” added the Gryphon.

“You don’t know very much,” said the Duchess; “and that’s a fact.”

Woolverton reclaims Alice from this sort of humiliation. Alice expresses confusion about what’s going on, but she reasons out each step, and ends up in Joan of Arc armor to battle the Jabberwocky. Take that, Mr. Carroll. This is the 21st century, and girls/young women will not be put down. We have the power to tell our own stories, and we use it.

Alice Through the Years

Maxim de Winter: “Will you be Alice in Wonderland, with that ribbon in your hair?” from DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

Mia Wasikowska has no ribbon in her hair. There is a strange enervated quality to her Alice. I don’t know if she’s trying to seem blas√©, or modern, or cool, but a little more personality would have given the film more of a lift.

Underland is a dark place ruled by the evil Red Queen/Queen of Hearts mashedup character, given lots of personality by Helena Bonhem Carter. I liked the use of 3-D, with the screen overfilling the viewer’s senses. Johnny Depp is more than the sum of ghoulish makeup and spikey orange hair. His fanfic Hatter is a good friend to Alice.

Lewis Carroll tapped into extremely primordial, collective unconscious feelings with his tale. The metaphor of ‘falling down the rabbit hole’ is a universal motif for the many instances in life where we go from knowing who and where we are, to the next minute being

someplace strange, either physically or psychological, and then not knowing who we are.  It's why Alice has been reinterpreted countless times for countless reasons since she first appeared,  from being a brunette for a book jacket and as a screen siren on the sheet music for the 1933 Hollywood version starring Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and W.C.Fields to being a roadster for a Ford print ad.

Alice: “I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?'"

Apparently, you are whomever humankind needs you to be at different eras in time. Thanks Alice.