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Agatha Christie Biography And Visits

The Boathouse at Greenway

Agatha Christie was a hugely popular crime and thriller writer who sold millions of books during her working life which extended from the 1920s to the 1970s. In 1962 a UNESCO report quoted by her biographer Charles Osborne stated that Agatha Christie was the most widely read British author in the world, with Shakespeare second, a long way behind. But inspite of her popularity, and wide readership, her novels weren't considered serious. Detective stories were simply entertainment, as Agatha Christie herself vigorously maintained. WH Auden viewed them as tobacco, an addiction which wasn't quite proper. Now, it is not for me to spoil things by claiming detective fiction for the earnest English Literature crowd, but it is interesting how closely detective stories are related to the earliest days of novel writing. The eighteenth century was to see the first novelist in Daniel Defoe. Puritan self confession narratives evolved into fictional moral tracts, which became what we now know as the novel. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, was one of the first of this new genre. Soon novels moved away from the moral tales where they began, a development encouraged most obviously by cheeky eighteenth century novelists Henry Fielding and Lawrence Stearne. Nevertheless when we remember the popularity of detective stories, it is easy to see the continued influence of the original moral tracts. Detective stories involve a crime, usually a murder, and the successful uncovering of a culprit. On the way the best crime writers are able to explore our conceptions of morality. It might seem a crime to take an entertaining form of writing and put it in the context of English Literature. In my defence, I would suggest bearing the following words of Agatha Christie in mind. These are words that describe her relationship with her second husband Max Mallowen, an eminent archeologist: "I am lowbrow and he is highbrow, yet we complement each other, I think, and have both helped each other" (from An Autobiography).

 

 

Torquay, looking from Kents Cavern

Agatha Miller was born 15th September 1890 in Torquay, Devon, to Frederick and Clarissa Miller. Her parents were Americans who settled in England. Agatha had a brother and sister, but as both were much older than her, she spent a lot of time playing alone, or with an elderly nanny. Much time was spent reading. She would also make up stories and recite them to her nanny. Following a bout of flu it was suggested that it might be fun to write the stories down rather than reciting them. In this way Agatha began writing, usually mimicking whatever book she had recently read.

The seeds of another lifelong interest were also being sown in childhood. Frederick Miller was a keen amateur archeologist, often helping with excavations at Kents Cavern near Torquay. Agatha was probably thinking of her father when she wrote the following passage in The Man In The Brown Suit:

"I... feelingly remembering a period when Papa had been literally plastered from head to foot with rich Pleistocene clay. One principal reason for settling in Little Hempsley had been the neighbourhood of Hempsley Cavern, a buried cavern rich in deposits of the Aurignacian culture. We had a tiny museum in the village, and the curator and Papa spent most of their days messing about underground and bringing to light portions of wooly rhinoceros and cave bear."

In later life Agatha was to remain interested in archeology, and marry an archeologist. But her first marriage was to a military man, Lieutenant Archibald Christie, who she met at a house party in Chudleigh. The young couple married on Christmas Eve 1914. Agatha then went to work in the dispensary at Torquay Hospital. During slack periods Agatha decided to write a detective story, about a murder committed in an upper class household, using in her plot various poisons sitting on shelves around her. A two week summer holiday was spent on Dartmoor in a hotel close to Hay Tor, finishing this first novel, which she called The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Mornings would be spent writing, followed by a walk on the moor. As she walked Agatha would mutter to herself, enacting her narrative. The completed book was sent to four publishers. After four rejections the book was then forgotten. The Christies moved to St John's Wood in London, and in 1919 Agatha gave birth to a daughter, Rosalind.

Towards the end of 1919 an unexpected letter asking for a meeting arrived from John Lane at the publishing company Bodley Head. This was two years after the original submission of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. John Lane explained how much of a risk he was running in taking on an inexperienced author, and how grateful Agatha should be for the chance she was being offered. He then presented her with a stringent contract, which was signed in a flurry of excitement. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920. A second book The Secret Adversary (1922) introduced another favourite subject, that of a master criminal seeking world domination. Agatha Christie's domestic murder novels were to greatly outnumber her international thrillers, but some of the most successful stories would combine international locations with a limited, almost domestic environment. It was as if all the dangers and excitements of a big world were also to be found in small worlds. The claustrophobic setting of the international train which stars in Murder on the Orient Express would be an example.

 

 

 

The Silent Pool, Surrey

The Mysterious Affair was the beginning of a prolific career. Agatha soon felt confident enough to jettison Bodley Head, revenge for the contract she had originally been tied into by John Lane, and change to Collins. She toured the world with her husband, and was seemingly happy. Then suddenly the worst crisis of Agatha Christie's life enveloped her. On the evening of 3rd December 1926, following a row, Archie Christie left his wife to live with another woman, Nancy Neele. That same evening Agatha wrote to the Deputy Chief Constable of Surrey claiming that her life was in danger. Then, leaving her daughter Rosalind asleep in bed, she drove off in her car, which was later found at a popular nature reserve, Newlands Corner near a lake called the Silent Pool. The car was abandoned, covered in frost with the headlights on. A huge hunt was organised, involving hundreds of policemen. On the weekend after the author's disappearance fifteen thousand volunteers searched the Downs near the Silent Pool. Archie Christie was a suspect in the possible murder of Agatha Christie and was given a police guard.

A banjo player at the Hydro Hotel in Harrogate then came forward with a report that he had seen Agatha Christie at the hotel. Richie Calder of the Daily Mail travelled to Harrogate, and approached the woman spotted by Harrogate's observant banjo player. Although she had given her name as Mrs Neele, Calder addressed the woman as Mrs Christie. Agatha Christie did not deny her real identity, but when asked what she was doing in Harrogate, abruptly announced that she had amnesia and went to her room. Archie Christie arrived on the evening of Tuesday 14th December and identified his wife. While a few doctors were found to back up the amnesia story, in reality it seems that the stress of her failing marriage caused Agatha Christie to stage her own disappearance. An apparent suicide would inflict pain on an unfaithful husband, and possibly even frame him as a murder suspect. Fortunately, enough people were willing to turn a blind eye to the huge waste of police time, and abandonment of a young child, and collude in the cover up. Agatha was given a chance to recover from what seems to have been a breakdown, and from this point on Agatha Christie was a professional writer. As her public had come to know her by her married name it was decided that for the purposes of her career, the name appearing on the books would remain Christie.

 

 

 

Pullman coaches as used on the Orient Express at the Bluebell Railway

In the autumn of 1929 it was time to take a break from writing. Rosalind was at boarding school and not due back until Christmas. After speaking to a married couple at a dinner party who talked of the Orient Express, Agatha booked herself on the train, travelling from London to Istanbul. She then took a forty eight hour bus journey on to Baghdad where she visited the British Museum excavations at Ur led by Leonard Wooley. Wooley's wife Katherine was a Christie fan, so the author was given special treatment and stayed with the dig until November. She returned in March the following year, and became friendly with Wooley's assistant Max Mallowen. After travelling home together on the Orient Express, Mallowen proposed, and following some thought Agatha accepted. They married on 11th September 1930 in Edinburgh, and spent their honeymoon on the Orient Express travelling to Venice, and then along the Greek coast to Patras in a small Serbian cargo ship. Parting at Athens, Max returned to Ur, while his new wife returned to England.

 

 

 

 

 

Galleries at the British Museum holding exhibits from excavations in the Middle East.

Through the 1930s Mr and Mrs Mallowen spent much time in the Middle East. Many novels were written on digs, between cleaning and labelling shards of pottery or pieces of sculpture. The Mallowens also had a house in London and from 1938 a house called Greenway on the banks of the river Dart not far from Torquay in Devon. At least two novels a year were published, and Agatha Christie became a huge publishing phenomenon. Her two most popular characters were Belgian detective Hercule Poirot who had appeared in the first Christie novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Miss Marple, an elderly lady who usually solved crimes in the little village of St Mary Mead. Miss Marple made her first appearance in Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. Between 1930 and 1956 six non crime novels were also published under the name of Mary Westmacott, but it was the crime novels that continued to sell in huge numbers.

The power of the old morality tracts seemed undiminished. Reading some of her autobiographical writings it might be assumed that the Christie vision of morality was quite simple. The innocent and guilty were portrayed as fundamentally different, virtually as different beings:

"Why should we not execute him? We have taken the lives of wolves in this country; we didn't try to teach the wolf to lie down with the lamb - I doubt really if we could. We hunted down the wild boar in the mountains before he came down and killed the children by the brook. These were our enemies and we destroyed them." (Quoted in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie by Charles Osborne)

And yet this black and white conception of morality is not reflected in the novels themselves. The murderer is often portrayed as a sympathetic character, while the victim is often flawed in some way. This is clearly reflected in a novel such as Appointment With Death published in 1938. In this book an evil old lady, Mrs Boynton, who has terrorised her family for decades is taken on holiday to the Middle East. There it appears that the family finally snaps, murdering the old woman with an overdose of her heart medicine. The hope is then that a murder will be overlooked as death by natural causes. The various suspects are considered by Poirot who just happens to be on holiday in the area. A doctor argues that old Mrs Boynton was evil and the world is better off without her. In considering one damaged member of the family, Ginerva Boynton, the doctor seems to turn suspected murder into self defence, a possible murderer into a possible victim:

"I should say mentally she is in an extremely dangerous condition. She has already begun to display symptoms of schizophrenia. Unable to bear the suppression of her life, she is escaping into the realm of fantasy. She has advanced delusions of persecution - that is to say, she claims to be a Royal Personage - in danger - enemies surrounding her - all the usual things:... It is the beginning of what is often homicidal mania. The sufferer kills- not for the lust of killing - but in self defence." (P93)

The colonel who pushes for the case to be investigated does not do so because of any moral qualms, but because as he puts it: "I'm a tidy man." You get the feeling that Colonel Carbury is a bit of an old fool, whose tidy conception of the world has no room for its true complexity. And Poirot himself admits to no gray areas: "The victim may be one of the good God's saints - or, on the contrary - a monster of infamy. It moves me not. The fact is the same... I don't approve of murder." (P102)

 

 

 

The Garden at Greenway

The Christie's life of foreign travel came to an end as World War Two approached. They had just moved to Greenway when war was announced. Max joined the intelligence branch of the RAF and went to work in London. Agatha went with him and started work in the dispensary at University College Hospital. When Max was sent to the Middle East, his wife was left alone in London. She would work in the hospital dispensary during the day and revert to being an author at night. It was during these dark days that the death of Poirot was written in Curtain. Poirot was to live on until the 1970s in many more novels. But his death waited for him in a novel already written, planned for posthumous publication.

 

Following the war, the Christies returned to their old life of extensive travel and archeology. In 1952, Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap opened, first in Nottingham and then on 25th November at the Ambassadors Theatre, London. This was only her second original play, after Black Coffee of 1930. The play transferred to the larger St Martin's Theatre next door in 1974, not missing a night in the process, and incredibly as of 2013 the play is still running at St Martin's. The Mousetrap is now the most successful play staged anywhere at any time. Without giving the game away The Mousetrap once again presents the vagaries of morality. Nursery rhymes are used as the basis of plots in many Christie stories, with The Mousetrap using Three Blind Mice. Nursery rhymes sum up the Christie combination of innocence and criminality. As Christopher Wren says in the play: "I adore nursery rhymes, don't you? Always so tragic and macabre. That's why children like them." (Act 1) The play's surprise ending also confirms that borders between criminality and law abiding behaviour are not clear. People you think might be guilty aren't, while those you consider innocent turn out to be guilty.

 

 

The lobby at Brown's Hotel - photo courtesy of Brown's Hotel

Trips abroad to work in harsh environments on digs ended in 1960. A feeling of nostalgia seemed to become stronger in Agatha Christie's work from this point. In the Miss Marple novel The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side of 1962, St Mary Mead has a new housing development, and the main village street is unrecognisable because of modernisation. In 1965 At Bertram's Hotel was published, in which Miss Marple comes to stay in the traditional surroundings of one of London's fine hotels. As a character in At Bertram's Hotel puts it: "there are a lot of people who come from abroad at rare intervals and who expect this country to be - well, I won't go back as far as Dickens, but they've read Cranford and Henry James, and they don't want to find this country just the same as their own! So they go back home and say: 'There's a wonderful place in London; Bertram's Hotel, it's called. It's just like stepping back a hundred years. It just is old England." Bertram's was based on Brown's Hotel in Albermarle Street, London which was originally established by Lord Byron's valet, and remains one of London's top hotels.

1972 saw Poirot's penultimate case, Elephants Can't Remember. Then came Curtain in 1975, the projected final book which had been written during the Second World War. This is the novel where a wheelchair bound Poirot finally dies. Remarkably a fictional character then had his obituary published on the front page of the New York Times for 6th August 1975. On 12th May 1976, after lunch, as Max was wheeling her from the dining room to the drawing room at Winterbrook House in Oxfordshire, Agatha Christie also died.

The Guinness Book Of Records - according to Wikipedia - claims that around four billion copies of Agatha Christie's books have been sold, with only The Bible selling in greater quantities. My daughter's copy of The Guinness Book of Records, sadly does not have any book related records, except for the record for number of books typed backwards! Even so I think we can be fairly sure that Agatha Christie has sold vast quantities of books. Agatha Christie was always adamant that her stories were merely entertainment, as though entertainment was something unimportant. The word entertainment comes from a Latin word "tenere," meaning "to hold". We are held by the things that entertain us, given succor by them. So perhaps it is not so fanciful to actually see a link between the world's two best-selling collections of stories. The power of Agatha Christie's stories might come in part from their links with the religious morality tales out of which novels originally sprang. Christie novels offer a clear and comforting picture of morality where a supreme, seemingly all-seeing detective will always solve a crime. And yet alongside this reassurance there is an accurate reflection of the true complexity of human morality where innocent and guilty are almost interchangeable. In a Christie story the wolf and the lamb not only lie down together, they are often the same animal. And as for Poirot, a character who Christie said she ended up hating, he sees everything, and yet seems blind to life's gray areas. In Exodus God has to ask Abraham for his help in deciding what to do with Sodom and Gomorrah. God sees everything, but in doing so, like Poirot, he is not involved. Abraham is involved, does not have that universal breadth of vision, but "understands" things in a way that an all-seeing power cannot. God has to ask Abraham for advice. High brow has to come to low brow for help. "I am lowbrow and he is highbrow, yet we complement each other, I think, and have both helped each other."

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©2008InfoBritain (updated 08/11)