This post came a bit last minute (so it should be shorter at least!). I was researching someone else (they’ll be up next week), and then realized that it was almost the birthday of the other person I’d considered for this week, as in, this person would have turned 125 tomorrow. So, I changed my plan and rushed to finish this. So Happy Day-Early Birthday to Agatha Christie, one of my favorites.
Agatha Christie was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in Torquay, Devon, England on September 15, 1890. Her family was comfortably middle class, and her father, an American, homeschooled Agatha; her mother, Clara, didn’t want Agatha to learn to read until she was eight. Agatha was the only child in the house (she had two older siblings, but “was a much loved ‘after thought’” (1)) and was bored, so she taught herself to read by age five.
Agatha read children’s stories that were popular at the time, including E. Nesbit and Louisa May Alcott, but also read poetry and “thrillers from America” (2). When Agatha was five, her family spent some time in France; this is when Agatha first learned French. When Agatha was eleven, her father died after a number of heart attacks.
When Agatha was eighteen, she began writing short stories; some of these would be published in the 1930s after serious revisions. Two years later, Agatha traveled with her mother to Cairo for her mother’s health. They stayed for three months at the Gezirah Palace Hotel. During this period Agatha went to house parties galore and had a number of marriage proposals, none of which she accepted.
In 1912, Agatha met Archie Christie, an aviator with the Royal Flying Corps. They had a whirlwind romance, and wanted to marry, but neither had the money to make it possible. When World War One broke out, Archie went to serve in France and Agatha worked at the Voluntary Aid Department at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay. They decided not to put off marrying any longer, and married on Christmas Eve of 1914. Archie returned to France on the 27th.
Throughout the war, Agatha and Archie didn’t see much of each other. In January 1918, though, Archie was posted to the War Office in London, and so they were finally together again; this is when “Agatha felt her married life truly began” (3).
Throughout the war, Agatha had been writing. She started in earnest on a bet from her sister “that she couldn’t write a good detective story” (4), as well as to relieve some of the monotony at work. Agatha would first develop her plot and then came up with her characters. At this time she was working at the Hospital Dispensary. She had had to take and pass a test from the Society of Apothecaries in order to get that position. This gave her the background she needed when she would use poisons in her writing. Her use of poison in her first book “was so well described that when the book was eventually published Agatha received an unprecedented honour for a writer of fiction – a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal” (5).
This first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1919. This was a big year for Agatha; in addition to the book’s publication, she and Archie moved to London, and their daughter Rosalind was born. The publication of Styles came after having sent it to four other publishers. This publisher, John Lane of Bodley Head, suggested a couple of changes to the book, including moving the resolution of the story from a courtroom to the, now famous, library.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the first book to feature Hercule Poirot, a Belgian former policeman. During World War One, a lot of Belgian refugees came to England; this is why Agatha Christie made Poirot a Belgian refugee.
After the war, Agatha continued writing. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and Miss Jane Marple soon followed Hercule Poirot. Agatha kept writing, even while she was travelling with Archie, “promoting the Empire Exhibition of 1924” (6). Agatha received news that The Secret Adversary (her second book, the first Tommy and Tuppence) would be published while she was in Cape Town. (While in Cape Town, also, Agatha became the first British woman to surf standing up.)
Agatha used inspiration from her travels with Archie, as well as people she knew. For her fourth book, The Man in the Brown Suit, Agatha based Sir Eustace Padlar on Archie’s boss. For publication of this book, Agatha switched from Bodley Head to William Collins and Sons (now HarperColins).
Around this time, Agatha and Archie returned to England to their daughter. They named their new home in the suburbs of London, Styles, after her first book. Shortly after this, Agatha’s life hit a hard spot. Agatha’s mother died, leaving Agatha to empty out the family home in Torquay. She was working on a novel at this point, but the strain of her mother’s death also strained her writing.
At this same time, 1926, Archie fell in love with Nancy Neale. Archie golfed, Nancy golfed, Agatha did not. Agatha found out about Archie’s relationship with Nancy. In early December of that year, Agatha left Rosalind with the maids at home and left. Her car was found several miles away, and a nationwide search took place. Finally she was found to have travelled from Kings Cross to Harrogate to the Harrogate Spa Hotel. Agatha was staying at the hotel as Theresa Neale, from South Africa. Luckily the staff at the hotel had recognized her and had called the police. Agatha didn’t recognize Archie, and didn’t know who she was, when he came to get her; she had amnesia and possibly a concussion. Agatha never spoke of this time with anyone.
After her disappearance, Agatha separated from Archie. She moved to London with Rosalind and with her secretary, Carlo. She underwent psychological treatments at this time. Agatha was struggling financially, and was having trouble writing. Her brother-in-law suggested collecting some previously written Poirot short stories and publishing them; these short stories were published as The Big Four.
In 1928, Agatha and Archie’s divorce was finalized, and Agatha went to the Canary Islands with Rosalind. She finally finished The Mystery of the Blue Train, the story she had been struggling with after her mother’s death. In late 1928, Giant’s Beard was published; this was her first book as Mary Westmacott. Agatha would write six romances as Mary Westmacott (in addition to the sixty-six novels and fourteen collections of short stories as herself).
In the autumn of 1928, Agatha finally travelled on the Orient Express, something she had always wanted to do. She also travelled to Baghdad and to the archeological site at Ur, making friends with the Woolleys, the people who ran the site. The following year, Agatha came back to the dig and met 25-year-old Max Mallowan, and archeologist in training. Max showed Agatha around the site and “each found the other’s company relaxing” (7).
Max and Agatha fell in love, their relationship “forged by travel” (8). Max proposed to Agatha on the last night of his trip to Ashfield, her family home. They were married on September 11, 1930. Max and Agatha spent their summers at Ashfield, springs on archeological digs, and the rest of the year in London or at their home in Wallingford, Oxfordshire.
Throughout most of her marriage to Max, Agatha was writing two or three books a year. When they were on Max’s digs, she would write “a chapter or two during quiet mornings and helped out on site in the afternoon” (9). Many of Agatha’s Middle Eastern themed or placed books came out of this period.
In 1938, Agatha and Max bought Greenway House on the River Dart to replace Ashfield. During World War Two, though, the home was taken over by Americans. Agatha also worried they’d have to sell Greenway House in order to pay taxes. During the war, Max was in Cairo, using his knowledge of languages to assist the war effort; Agatha stayed in London, doing much as she did during the First World War, volunteering at the dispensary at University College Hospital, and writing. Agatha wrote N or M? as a patriotic gesture at this time, but the publication of the book was delayed so it didn’t quite have the effect she’d have liked.
With Max gone, and there being so much less to do, Agatha’s output during the Second World War was prolific. Between 1939 and 1945, Agatha published twelve books under both her name and as Mary Westmacott. In 1946, her cover as Westmacott was blown and she stopped using that name; she had “enjoyed the freedom to write without the pressure of being Agatha Christie” (10).
After the war, Agatha’s output slowed. She had Max back, and the tax implications of her writing were just too much. Throughout the rest of the 40s and 50s, she worked on theatrical productions, and less on books. (Though she would continue to publish throughout the rest of her life, she wasn’t putting out multiple books a year anymore, and some years would publish nothing.)
One of her theatrical contributions was The Mousetrap. Premiering in the West End on November 25, 1952, The Mousetrap is the world’s longest running play, never having ceased performance since then. It has been performed over 25,000 times.
Agatha’s last public appearance was at the premiere for the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express, with Albert Finney. Agatha liked the film but thought Poirot’s mustaches “weren’t luxurious enough” (11).
Agatha Christie Mallowan died on January 12, 1976. She is buried at St. Mary’s, Cholsey, near Wallingford.
Agatha Christie holds a number of records for her works. As mentioned, The Mousetrap is the world’s longest running play. She’s also in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best selling novelist of all time, with over two billion copies of her books in print. She is the world’s third most-published author, behind only Shakespeare and the Bible. She is the most translated individual, having been translated into 103 languages. And And Then There Were None (first published in 1939) is the best selling mystery novel in the world, and one of the best selling books ever, with 100 million sales.
That’s Agatha Christie, quick and not super in depth, but hopefully fun. I love Agatha Christie, I love Poirot (David Suchet forever!) and Miss Marple. I wanted to do something about her for her 125th birthday, and so many other events in her life happened in September, I thought why not. I’ll probably wind up rereading some Agatha Christie tomorrow, or maybe finally read The Mysterious Affair at Styles (surprisingly hard to track down…). Happy early birthday, Agatha!
1, 2, 3 – Agatha Christie, Childhood
4, 5, 6 – Agatha Christie, Poirot is Born
7, 8, 9 – Agatha Christie, A New Start
10, 11 – Agatha Christie, Autumn