Dame Agatha Christie or Lady Mallowan DBE, born as Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on 15th September 1890, is one of the best-known and loved English playwrights, crime novelists and short-story writers that have ever lived. She is the best-selling novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. According to Index Translationum, she remains the most-translated individual author- having been translated into at least 103 languages. ‘And Then There Were None’ is Christie’s best-selling novel, with over 100 million sales to date, making it the world’s best-selling mystery ever and one of the best-selling books of all time.
(Dame Agatha Christie 1890-1976)
Dame Agatha was born into an upper-middle class family in Torquay, Devon.
Her mother, Clara Boehmer, was an Englishwoman who was born in Belfast in 1854 to Captain Frederick Boehmer and Mary Ann West, the couple’s only daughter.
Christie’s father Frederick was a member of the American upper class, and had been sent to Switzerland for his education. He soon developed a romantic relationship with Clara, and they were married in April 1878. Their first child, Margaret Frary Miller (1879–1950), was born in Torquay, where the couple were renting lodgings, while their second, Louis “Monty” Montant (1880–1929), was born in the U.S. state of New York, where Frederick was on a business trip. Clara purchased a villa in Torquay named “Ashfield” in which to raise her family, and it was here that her third and final child, Agatha Mary Clarissa, was born.
Christie described her childhood as “very happy”. She was surrounded by a series of strong and independent women from an early age. Her time was spent alternating between her home in Devon, her step-grandmother and aunt’s house in Ealing, West London, and parts of Southern Europe, where her family would holiday during the winter. Agatha was raised in a household with various esoteric beliefs and, like her siblings, believed that their mother Clara was a psychic with the ability of second sight. In 1902, Agatha was sent to receive a formal education at Miss Guyer’s Girls School in Torquay, but found it difficult to adjust to the disciplined atmosphere. Instead her mother insisted that she receive a home education, and so her parents were responsible for teaching her to read and write and to be able to perform basic arithmetic, a subject that she particularly enjoyed. They also taught her about music, and she learned to play both the piano and the mandolin.
Christie was a voracious reader from an early age as much of her childhood was spent largely alone and separate from other children, so she became adept at creating games to keep herself occupied from a very young age although she spent much time with her pets, whom she adored. She was a shy child, unable to adequately express her feelings, she first turned to music as a means of expression and, later in life, to writing. She eventually made friends with a group of other girls in Torquay, and she noted that “one of the highlights of my existence” was her appearance with them in a youth production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’.
(Agatha as a young girl, age unknown)
At the age of just 16, Agatha was sent to Paris to receive a formal education and was taught in 3 different ‘pensions’, the last being a finishing school.
(Hesketh Crescent- early 1900’s)
(Hesketh Crescent- approx 2010)
Agatha returned to England in 1910 and found that her mother Clara was ill. They decided to spend time together in the warmer climate of Cairo, then a popular tourist destination for wealthy Britons; they stayed for three months at the Gezirah Palace Hotel. Agatha – always chaperoned by her mother – attended many social functions in search of a husband. She visited such ancient Egyptian monuments as the Great Pyramid of Giza, but did not exhibit the great interest in archaeology and Egyptology that became prominent in her later years.
When they returned from Egypt, Agatha spent a great deal of time with some very good friends of hers; a certain ‘Lucy’ family. They used to live just over the road from us on Hesketh Crescent. Indeed, she liked playing golf with Reginald Lucy and used to spend a great deal of time in their family home.
Agatha wrote her first short story, ‘The House of Beauty’, while in bed recovering from an undisclosed illness. The topic was “madness and dreams”, a subject of much fascination for her.
Other shorts followed, many of them citing her interest in the paranormal or spiritualism. All her early submissions which were written under pseudonyms, such as ‘The Little Lonely God’ and ‘The call of Wings’ were rejected by various different magazines, although some were revised and published later in her career, often with new titles.
Agatha then wrote her first novel, ‘Snow Upon the Desert’, which was set in Cairo and drew from her recent experiences in that city. It was written under the pseudonym Monosyllaba. She was very upset when it was rejected by various different publishers. Her mother suggested that Agatha ask for advice from a family friend and neighbour, writer Eden Phillpots, who duly obliged her enquiry, encouraged her writing, and sent her an introduction to his own literary agent, Hughes Massie, who also rejected ‘Snow Upon the Desert’, and suggested a second novel.
Christie continued searching for a husband, and entered into short-lived relationships with four separate men and an engagement with her golfing partner, Reginald Lucy. However, in 1913, at the tender age of 24 she then met Archibald Christie at a ball held at Ugbrooke House, following a Wagner Concert at the Pavilion Torquay.
Archie was born in India, the son of a judge in the Indian Civil Service. He was an army officer who was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in April 1913. The couple quickly fell in love. Upon learning that he would be stationed in Farnborough, Archie proposed marriage, and Agatha accepted.
Archie Christie was a World War I fighter pilot and in August 1914, he was sent to France to fight the German forces. They married on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1914 at Emmanuel Church, Clifton, Bristol, which was close to the home of his parents, while Archie was on home leave. However it proved hard to find a church with an organist and a vicar prepared to marry them, and luckily a passing friend agreed to act as a witness. They were married in their everyday clothes with no family members present.
While he was off at war, Agatha worked as a nurse. It was while working in a hospital during the war that Christie first came up with the idea of writing a detective novel. She had long been a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories. Although it was completed in a year, it wasn’t published until 1920, five years later. The book, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ was the first to feature Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer noted for his magnificent twirly moustache and egg-shaped head. Poirot had taken refuge in Britain after Germany had invaded Belgium. Christie’s inspiration for this stemmed from real Belgian refugees who were living in Torquay.
(Christie’s First Book, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’)
The Styles manuscript was not accepted by the larger publishing houses and indeed only released by The Bodley Head after they had kept the submission for several months, providing that Christie change the ending. When she had done so, she signed a contract with them, which she said later felt “exploitave”. However it was this book that launched her literary career.
Christie meanwhile settled into married life, giving birth to her only child, daughter Rosalind Margaret at Ashfield in August 1919, where the couple spent much of their time, having few friends in London. Archie left the Air Force at the end of the war and started working in the City financial sector.
Christie’s second novel, ‘The Secret Adversary’, written in 1922 featured a new detective couple, Tommy and Tuppence and was also published by The Bodley Head. It earned her the princely sum of £50. A third novel, ‘Murder on the Links’ published in 1923 again featured Poirot and was again published by the same house.
In order to tour the world promoting the British Empire Exhibition, the couple left their daughter Rosalind with Agatha’s mother and sister. They travelled to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and lastly Hawaii where they were some of the first Brits to try surfing.
In 1926, Archie asked Agatha for divorce. He was in love with Nancy Neele who had been a friend of the director of the British Empire Mission a few years previously. On the evening of 3rd December 1926, the pair argued, resulting in Archie leaving their second home ‘Styles’, in Sunningdale, Berkshire to spend the weekend with his mistress in Surrey. That same evening at around 9.45pm, Agatha disappeared from her home, leaving behind a letter for her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her car was later found at Newlands Corner, perched above a chalk quarry, with an expired driving licence and clothes.
Her disappearance caused an outcry from the public. Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks pressured police, and a newspaper offered a £100 reward. Over a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and several aeroplanes scoured the rural landscape. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even gave a spirit medium one of Christie’s gloves to find the missing woman.
(New York Times Article)
Christie’s disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Despite the extensive manhunt, she was not found for 10 days. On 14 December 1926, she was found at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, registered as Mrs Teresa Neele (the surname of her husband’s lover) from Cape Town.
No-one quite knows the reason for her disappearance. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from amnesia, yet opinion remains divided as to why she disappeared. She was known to be in a depressed state from literary overwork, her mother’s death earlier that year and her husband’s infidelity. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, supposing a publicity stunt or attempt to frame her husband for murder.
The Christies divorced in 1928, and Archie married Nancy Neele. Agatha retained custody of daughter Rosalind and the Christie name for her writing. During their marriage, she published six novels, a collection of short stories, and a number of short stories in magazines.
In 1930, Christie married archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, having met him during an archaeological dig. Their marriage was happy and lasted until Christie’s death in 1976.
(Agatha and her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan)
Christie frequently used settings that were familiar to her for her stories. Her travels with Mallowan contributed background to several of her novels set in the Middle East. Other novels (such as ‘And Then There Were None’) were set in and around Torquay, where she was raised. Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express was written in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, the southern terminus of the railway. The hotel maintains Christie’s room as a memorial to the author. The Greenway Estate in Devon, acquired by the couple as a summer residence in 1938, is now in the care of the National Trust. Christie often stayed at Abney Hall, Cheshire, owned by her brother-in-law, James Watts, basing at least two stories there: a short story ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’, in the story collection of the same name, and the novel ‘After the Funeral’.
During the Second World War, Christie worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital, London, where she acquired a knowledge of poisons that she put to good use in her post-war crime novels. For example, the use of thallium as a poison was suggested to and in ‘The Pale Horse’, published in 1961, she employed it to dispatch a series of victims, the first clue to the murder method coming from the victims’ loss of hair. So accurate was her description of thallium poisoning that on at least one occasion it helped solve a case that was baffling doctors.
Christie lived in Chelsea, first in Cresswell Place and later in Sheffield Terrace. Both properties are now marked by blue plaques. In 1934, she and Max Mallowan purchased Winterbrook House in Winterbrook, a hamlet in the ancient parish of Cholsey but adjoining Wallingford, then in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire). This was their main residence for the rest of their lives and the place where Christie did most of her writing. This house, too, bears a blue plaque. Christie led a very low-profile life despite being known in the town of Wallingford, where she was for many years President of the local amateur dramatic society.
Around 1941–42, the British intelligence agency MI5 investigated Christie after a character called Major Bletchley appeared in her 1941 thriller ‘N or M’?, which was about a hunt for a pair of deadly fifth columnists in wartime England. MI5 was afraid that Christie had a spy in Britain’s top-secret codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The agency’s fears were allayed when Christie commented to codebreaker Dilly Knox that Bletchley was simply the name of “one of my least lovable characters”.
To honour her many literary works, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1956 New Year Honours. The next year, she became the President of the Detection Club. In the 1971 New Year Honours, she was promoted Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), three years after her husband had been knighted for his archaeological work in 1968. They were one of the few married couples where both partners were honoured in their own right. From 1968, owing to her husband’s knighthood, Christie could also be styled Lady Mallowan.
From 1971 to 1974, Christie’s health began to fail, although she continued to write.
(Agatha Christie’s gravestone at St. Mary’s church)
Dame Agatha Christie died on 12 January 1976 at age 85 from natural causes at her home in Winterbrook, Cholsey. She is buried in the nearby churchyard of St Mary’s, Cholsey. She was survived by her only child, Rosalind Margaret Hicks.
Here in Torbay, we have the ‘Agatha Christie Mile‘ which takes in many of her favourite childhood haunts and inspirations, the Potent Plant Collection at Torre Abbey Gardens and a bronze bust of the great lady herself as well as many other fascinating locations!
Or how about going over to Greenway House, Christie’s holiday home to see some of the collections her family had gathered, five generations collected over 11,000 objects now in the house. Collections of all sorts from silverware to china, boxes and of course, books fill each room.
Torquay Museum houses the Agatha Christie Gallery where visitors can step inside Poirot’s study and lounge, reconstructed and including furniture, books, pictures and even fireplaces from his beautiful London Art Deco apartment. The Gallery also contains new, meticulously researched information panels containing a wealth of facts and photographs about Agatha Christie’s life and work, from her childhood at Ashfield, to her later years at Greenway. See some of Agatha Christie’s personal effects, from handwritten notes to some of her clothes, and dozens of first editions of her novels. The photographs are complimented with objects and documents relating to the many books and plays that Agatha penned, as well as film and television memorabilia from her most famous character Hercule Poirot.
The 2016 International Agatha Christie Festival will take place in Torquay between 14th- 18th September. Details are still to be confirmed, but last year was a roaring success and included performances and film screenings, expert talks exploring Agatha Christie’s life and times, and opportunities to enjoy food, drink and dancing in some of the finest venues on the English Riviera. And with our B&B prices starting from just £42pppn in September, you can be sure that by staying here at the Hotel Balmoral, you will be looked after and have a perfect base for any exploring.