Stop Saying ‘Wagatha Christie’

I imagine that most British Agatha Christie fans under a certain age have been asked or told, ad nauseum, by friends, colleagues, relatives, and/or random people on the internet about a current legal battle that has been dubbed ‘WAGatha Christie’.

Setting the scene

In short, it goes like this. In 2019, Colleen Rooney, the well-known wife of an English footballer, tweeted the following:

‘For a few years now someone who I trusted to follow me on my personal Instagram account has been consistently informing The SUN newspaper of my private posts and stories.

‘After a long time of trying to figure out who it could be, for various reasons, I had a suspicion.

‘To try and prove this, I came up with an idea. I blocked everyone from viewing my Instagram stories except ONE account.

‘Over the past five months I have posted a series of false stories to see of they made their way into the Sun newspaper. And you know what, they did!

‘Now I know for certain which account / individual it’s come from.

‘I have saved and screenshotted all the original stories which clearly show just one person has viewed them.

‘It’s ………. Rebekah Vardy’s account.’

Rebekah Vardy is another famous footballer’s wife. Rooney’s tweet, outright naming her contemporary, caused something of a sensation on social media, with the sheer methodical ingenuity of the ruse she had employed drawing first praise and then laughter.

Before long, one account tweeted ‘Wagatha Christie’ and then several did. For context,  WAG is a term that was huge in the early 2000s, referring to ‘Wives and Girlfriends’, the plus-ones of sportsmen, particularly footballers. A whole mythology has grown up around WAGs, fuelled in part by their tabloid notoriety, presenting moneyed, classless debauchery and a kind of 24/7 reality TV lifestyle.

The ‘Wagatha Christie’ (or ‘WAGatha Christie’) thing took off in a small way. Some of my friends, particularly men aged over 40, got really into it – weirdly into making this joke over and over again. Somebody changed Agatha Christie’s Wikipedia page to say, ‘In 2019, she was reincarnated as Colleen Rooney…’ The official Agatha Christie Twitter account followed Rooney; it still does.

Japes. I didn’t find it funny at the time. I didn’t think about it too much. The story was utterly uninteresting to me. And I don’t like the expression ‘WAG’. Not only does it define women entirely in relation to their partners, stripping them of agency; it also carries a pejorative connotation – a wagging finger, a dog’s wagging tail, an appendage, a nuisance. The Equality and Human Rights Commission criticised it in 2010 as generally used in a ‘sexist’ and ‘condescending’ context: ‘The word is usually used alongside a load of other pejorative language about “WAGs”.’

While the individual women may or may not be unpleasant or tacky or anything else, the prevalence of the ‘WAG’ archetype serves only to diminish women’s agency in the public eye. Honestly, I thought that the acronym had died a welcome death in the 2010s, and then up popped ‘WAGatha Christie’. But then it went away. But then it didn’t.

This year, Vardy sued Rooney for libel over the accusation. Vardy, who has always denied leaking stories to The Sun, has been subject to a string of abuse – as is sadly always the case in this kind of thing. We tend to forget the lick of the fire when fuelling it. Anyway, with a court case now ongoing, the whole thing is back in the headlines, bigger than ever because frankly people want something to distract from the war and post-pandemic poverty this government is imposing. Newspapers and websites are full of it, and they are all running with this ‘WAGatha Christie’ tagline.

The BBC even has a podcast with a cover image of the two women, all dressed up for some classy functions, and ‘WAGATHA CHRISTIE’ imposed over the image in a yellow font and style reminiscent of the 1990s Agatha Christie HarperCollins book covers. This is telling, because it shows us that whoever designed that logo is likely boomer-aged, since that’s what ‘Agatha Christie’ conjures to them – a logo that was discontinued 21 years ago.

BBC podcast cover

People enjoy talking about WAGatha Christie – and from what I’ve seen it’s mostly middle-aged journalists, followed by middle-aged internet people, and then the rest of us who’ve simply been saturated with it – because they see the whole thing as a frivolity. It’s not like it’s a real thing involving real people. It’s just WAGs doing what they do: debasing themselves for our entertainment.

Money, Money, Money

Now, the most obvious criticism of this case, one that’s made often on Twitter, is that it would not be in court and the media would not be interested if it didn’t involve two celebrity millionaires and celebrity millionaire witnesses on both sides. The BBC in particular is fond of lamenting this point, in the same breath as advertising its full podcast on the case. ‘This case would not be in court if both parties weren’t millionaires’, said a correspondent on Radio 4’s Today this week, pointing out that it is impossible for the defendant not to lose money: even if Vardy wins, her legal fees will exceed her damages. Then, predictably, the promise of more news as it comes, either on Today or via the WAGatha Christie podcast.

What can we deduce from that? Double standards in journalism? Well, that’s nothing new. But it’s more than that: we don’t normally see journalists deplore coverage of something as they advertise that coverage. No, when a journalist decries the role of money in this whole thing, they aren’t critiquing the journalistic focus; they aren’t even critiquing money (after all, the implication is that it would all be fine if someone other than solicitors stood to make a profit). They’re critiquing the rich people, not for being rich, but for being the wrong kind of rich.

The implication in this analysis is that Rebekah Vardy doesn’t seem to understand what she’s doing – that she is a pawn in a game played by legal professionals – that she has more money than she knows what to do with. And she has that money because she married a footballer. If there is an explanation – ‘This is about reputation’, the same journalist said at the time – it is glossed over as rather a flimsy concern. And perhaps it is, since as evidence is released it is immediately trawled over in a bloodthirsty way to make one party or the other look bad in the court of public opinion.

Of course, if a member of the royal family sues a newspaper for libel, that’s another matter altogether. It’s ‘brave’ for them to go public, and everyone knows it’s not about the money. It’s about doing the right thing. But they inherited their wealth, and their plastic surgery is tasteful. They are the right kind of rich.

And that is where that WAGatha Christie moniker comes in. The joke here is not just the simple joy of a pun. If it were, I would have been the most popular teenager in school for calling my backpack ‘Bagatha’. There is an implication. An overwhelming conception of Christie’s fictional landscape is that it is inhabited solely by the upper crust: aristocracy or the upper-middle classes. I would dispute this, but it’s culturally true: that is what ‘Agatha Christie’ represents, largely owing to television adaptations. The people inhabiting Christieland are, in the public imagination, the right kind of rich.

The Wrong Kind of Rich

Criticising new money – and criticising famous women, especially those who have married into new money – is nothing new. It goes back as far as print journalism, and was certainly rampant during the rise of celebrity culture in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, Christie herself reflected this in her 1937 novel Death on the Nile, recently filmed by Kenneth Branagh.

In that novel, the victim, Linnet Doyle, is a socialite whom everyone wants to know but no-one likes. She is one of the richest and prettiest women in the world – a prize for any money-grabbing young man. But she doesn’t understand the world she moves in. Exquisitely tailored, she trusts the wrong people, hires the wrong staff, is too emotional, getting involved in not one but two love triangles, and turns down an earl to marry her murderer. She also doesn’t understand money, and her sleazy financial guardian helps himself to her fortune.

Gal Godot as Linnet in Death on the Nile (2022)

It’s never stated, but this is in part due to the fact that hers is new money. She inherited it, from her father, but he was a self-made millionaire. And, as such, all their connections and loved ones are bought and paid for. Of course, Linnet is killed. The other victims in that novel are also self-made: a maid who uses blackmail to increase her wealth and a bestselling novelist who sullies the public’s literary palettes with trashy romance. The murderers, incidentally, both herald from aristocratic lines in which the cash has dwindled. That book is crying out for a Marxist analysis.

The suspicion of inherited new money remains strong and has centred around footballers’ families at least since the Beckhams in the early 2000s, when Victoria and David Beckham’s home was dubbed ‘Beckingham Palace’ by the press, and speculation ran rife about plastic covers for the chandeliers or polystyrene-clad butlers. Now that their children are old enough to carve out their own (undeniably nepotistic) careers, they too are ridiculed for not understanding what they’re doing with their money. But aristocrats can do horrible, stupid, and reckless things with their money and it’s just a thing the rich do. We don’t like the idea of a dynasty built on new money.

What we see in coverage and commentary on the Vardy/Rooney case is obviously pleasure in theatre but also a complete lack of humanisation for the two women. When they talk about the impact of proceedings on their careers, their mental health, and even their children, the response ranges from open ribaldry to selective deafness. The ‘WAG’ is not a real person, not even a real celebrity: just someone defined by her partner’s name and money. Like Linnet, the WAG does not belong in a Christiean landscape.

Therefore, she is an entertainment to be consumed, guiltily. Of course, she is stupid – because she has money she didn’t earn, and that money has filled her brain with silicone. The idea of lateral thinking and problem solving does not intersect with the image of the WAG. That’s why the idea of ‘WAGatha Christie’ caught on. Because we are not conditioned to think of WAGs as fully human, fully capable of tackling a problem, less still of ingenious sleuthing as Rooney demonstrated.

Why journalists should actually read Agatha Christie

Not really about money, then, but about class. And here is another interesting dimension to the case. Vardy’s defence against the original accusation – that she was blameless and countless members of her staff had access to her Instagram account – held short shrift with pundits. This was back in 2019, before evidence that may or may not indicate that her explanation was stage-managed emerged, and when the whole saga was still unfurling on social media. Why, then, discard the idea straight away? It’s an obvious fact of life that even minor celebrities have help with their online personas. But, as in an Agatha Christie story, the idea of staff spoils the investment we have as media consumers in figureheads enacting real-time drama.

It is also true that servants are acknowledged to be culturally invisible in Christie’s work – a fair few of her murderers plan to get away with it by disguising themselves as butlers, waiters, maids, or stewards because ‘nobody looks at the servants’. However, a Christie novel will highlight this fact by weaving it into the denouement, as the detective, who did look at the servants, exposes the killer’s guile and prejudice. This assumption that servants are invisible is presented as many a baddie’s undoing. Here, it’s just accepted as a fact: these is a case about the two women, no one else.

In fact, the evidence emerging at the trial – and gleefully splashed across media – does paint a fascinating picture of just how online celebrity personas are crafted, as we become privy to messages shared between individuals and the ‘teams’ behind them. But this is never analysed. Analysis stops short at which of the two women, Vardy or Rooney, comes out looking worse. Here again, Agatha Christie beats the British press hands down, by using her characters’ and implied readers’ prejudices to trick them, hurling a surprise solution out of left field that will shock and maybe, just maybe, give pause for reflection: whydidn’t I notice the butler? Why did I think a little old lady couldn’t have whacked someone’s head in with a sugar hammer?

If this were an Agatha Christie novel

This whole thing started at the wrong place, for the public at least. It started with the solution. ‘It was……. Rebekah Vardy’s account.’ Except that it didn’t. Because, while in a Christie novel, a solution is the solution and tricks to catch the culprit always result in a confession and resolution, the trick here didn’t quite work. Because the finding was challenged. Context and evidence were brought in, and then the detective/accuser was sued. That’s not a neat ending. And the further the trial goes, the further it becomes clear that nothing is as neat as it is in fiction.

But. Fiction isn’t neat. Not good fiction, anyway. It’s all about reflecting the mess of the real world. For all its artificial structure, detective fiction is no different, and we see many examples of Christie’s novels taking place during or after a trial. In Sad Cypress, Poirot races against the barristers to assemble his own explanation for the crime before they’ve finished their versions, while a woman stands trial for her life. In Ordeal by Innocence, the family of a convicted murderer is horrified, many years after his execution, to learn of new evidence that had been omitted from the trial – just as they’d learnt to live with the mess it had thrown at them.

If we are to think of these events as an Agatha Christie novel, I think the players are currently living in the before time, the background, the context, where some sort of horrible thing happened – a trial, widely reported, with a clear villain and a clear hero and lots of evidence that everyone has an opinion on. In a few years, when things seem to have settled, someone will come back into the public eye and a new mystery will emerge, its roots in this scandal.

Then, we’d be forced to look back, rethink our assumptions, and wonder how we could have been so ignorant.

The original WAGatha Christie

I distinctly remember hearing the phrase ‘WAGatha Christie’, possibly just from schoolfriends, when I was 13. At that time (2003), Footballers’ Wives was all the rage and Agatha Christie Limited, desperate to rebrand, commenced a failed operation to engage the youth by releasing a tacky ITV adaptation of her 1945 novel Sparkling Cyanide reimagined in the world of twenty-first century premier league football.

Sparkling Cyanide (2003) was not a sparkling success

The resulting drama engaged absolutely no one because people who watched Christie on ITV wanted something like… Christie on ITV, and people who watched Footballers’ Wives had no interest in something that was being heavily marketed as an Agatha Christie story. It really wasn’t, by a country mile, the worst adaptation out there, but it’s amazing that anyone thought it might spawn a franchise.

Maybe that’s the original WAGatha Christie. Or maybe it’s one of her own novels.

Towards Zero (1944) centres on a famous tennis player who has married twice, and both his wife and his ex-wife have joined him for the weekend… We’re encouraged to view one and later both of the wives as hysterical until the final twist when we are absolutely not. Because a sportsman’s wife may be easy to digest as a stereotype rather than a human being.

But in fuelling these stereotypes, we do nothing but reek damage and miss out on things we could learn.

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