Saturday, 14 November 2015
Within A Wall by Agatha Christie
short story first published in Royal magazine 1925
collected in The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories, published 1997
And now [the artist] had completed his fourth work - a portrait of his wife. We had been invited to see and criticize. Everard himself scowled and looked out of the window; Isobel Loring moved amongst the guests, talking technique with unerring accuracy.
We made comments. We had to. We praised the painting of the pink satin. The treatment of that, we said, was really marvelous. Nobody had painted satin in quite that way before.
Mrs. Lemprière, who is one of the most intelligent art critics I know, took me aside almost at once.
"Georgie," she said, "what has he done to himself? The thing's dead. It's smooth. It's - oh! its damnable."
"Portrait of a Lady in Pink Satin?" I suggested.
"Exactly. And yet the technique's perfect. And the care! There's enough work there for sixteen pictures."
"Too much work?" I suggested.
"Perhaps that's it. If there ever was anything there, he's killed it. An extremely beautiful woman in a pink satin dress. Why not a colored photograph?"
commentary: In a recent blogpost on muses, my good friend Margot Kinberg mentioned this short story. I was intrigued, because I claim to know the Agatha Christie oeuvre very well, but this was unfamiliar. I found that I did have a copy of it in the collection mentioned above. It’s a book from the late nineties anthologizing ‘uncollected’ Christies - someone had got busy and scooped up all kinds of odds and ends of stories. In her autobiography she describes how she wrote short stories cold-bloodedly for money: if, for example, she wanted to do home improvements, she knew she had to earn money that way. Perhaps this was one of those stories, dating as it does to before her marriage breakup and personal breakdown, the great dividing moment in her life.
I had read this collection back in 1999, but had no memory of it – so I did some refreshing.
The story does not contain any crime (or not traditional crime – someone behaves very badly) and I thought it interesting and well-written, and with points to make about exploitation and art. It reminded me very much of W Somerset Maugham, who was then a very popular author (and one whom I feel is much under-rated now) – he wrote a few stories in this vein.
It’s one of the better stories in the book, though all of them have at least historical interest. The Actress and The Edge are both entertaining dramas – the Edge with some psychological perception. Manx Gold relates to a publicity stunt to bring tourists to the Isle of Man, and the story of the stunt is interesting enough, but the treasure hunt is only of interest to Manx residents. The Mystery of the Spanish Chest is the twin of the Mystery of the Baghdad Chest: it’s the Mystery of the Changed Names. The Harlequin Tea Set is a late appearance by Mr Satterthwaite and Mr Harley Quin. I have a soft spot for those stories, but I thought this one was weak, with a most improbable plot device, and a crime with no true motivation at all, and the key point – Daltonism – not really having any relevance.
And there are a couple more – they all are interesting to read, and you can spot various favourite Christie ideas, themes and tropes in the making.
Thanks again to Margot, over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, for the tipoff.
Portrait of a Lady in a Pink Dress is by Marion Boyd Allen. The lower picture is a young Agatha Christie dressed in pink…