I recently read The Lonely God, a short story by Agatha Christie. Most people think of Christie as a detective writer but she also wrote other types of stories and was equally adept, if not better in some cases, as she was at writing the ones she is most famous for. She wrote espionage thrillers (N or M for example, which I would recommend), psychological stories with a twist at the end (The Edge is a wonderfully disturbing example,) strange stories involving harlequins from beyond the grave and perhaps most significantly of all, love stories. The Lonely God is one such love story. It follows Frank Oliver, freshly returned from Burma (or some such place) and each day he visits the British Museum in order to admire the statue of an unknown deity which is ignored by the other museum visitors. Eventually he meets a lady with a similar interest in the statue and the two (by way of a newly bought handkerchief and a scene that could have been lifted from a Richard Curtis film) fall in love.
Good as the story is the plot isn’t what intrigued me most. No… The most interesting part was the god statue, a well worn, grey stone thing with his hands over his face and his elbows on his knees… A bit gnomish in my opinion. And whilst reading I had the thought that maybe the statue was based on something that really existed, a real lonely god located somewhere in the British Museum. Agatha Christie was known for using real places in her work- Dead Man’s Folly was very much set in her own back garden for example. It wouldn’t exactly be against type for her to have seen a similar statue somewhere in the British museum and placed it into the story. What i’m trying to say is that the chances of the statue being based on something real are extremely high.
The precise location of the statue is never given puts it somwhere next to the Assyrian room. The room also appears to be full of ‘other gods’ which would immediately suggest some sort of sculpture gallery. Looking at the modern British Museum this would hint that the statue is in the ‘Greek and Roman Sculpture Gallery’ (room 23) but, alas, the BM has changed quite a bit since Christie’s time and the statue being in there is highly unlikely. For a start there’s a whole library that’s gone (now housed the British Library, with a few notable exceptions) and then there’s a whole raft of artefacts that have come and gone from the museun over the years- Some have been put into storage whilst others have gone elsewhere and other artefacts have taken their place. As you can probably tell, this makes finding the statue in the modern age somewhat tricky, though not impossible. Plans of the museum from 1894 (Some thirty years before Christie wrote the story but still closer than today) are easily accessible and these, with the help of details in Christie’s story, can take us some way to locating the statue. At one point in the story Frank Oliver explores the adjoining rooms and it’s mentioned that he sees ‘mummies’ and an awful lot of vases- Together with what we know from earlier (that the god was next door to the Assyrian room) this would potentially place the god in either ‘Egyptian room 4’ or ‘The American Room.’
Being in either would quite obviously make the Lonely God either Egyptian or from some American culture… But I think we can rule out Egypt for the simple reason that the statue just doesn’t seem like it could be Egyptian from the description. Egyptian figures are, on the whole, very stern and straight and usually standing… A little god with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands is very un-Egyptian. There are some similar but they’re mostly blocky affairs- which this doesn’t seem to be. I believe, therefore, that this was from one of the early American civilizations such as the Mayans or the Incas or the Aztecs… Searching through the BM catalogue the most tantalizing artifact is this man, who is Aztec in his origin. Sadly that figure was only acquired in 1990 so it certainly won’t be Christie’s lonely god- although I think what we’re looking for is something very close to that. Interestingly there are a lot of unphotographed ‘figurines’ on the Aztec pages of the BM catalogue, some of stone and some of pottery, and it’s tantalizing to think that maybe one of those is the figure we’re looking for.
But short of hightailing it to London (tickets from Manchester are a little bit pricey… And I’ve already paid for one holiday this week so…) it’s impossible to know for certain which is the real Lonely God. And for all I know it might no longer be on display… It might be sitting in a box somewhere in the basement, as lonely and unloved as the day he caught the eye of Frank Oliver. I’m not likely to get to the BM any time soon to find out but if you happen to go in, keep your eye out for the stone statue with his hands over his face and his elbows on his knees… He could be lonely.