Agatha Christie (125th birthday)
Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE (née Miller; 15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976) was an English crime novelist, short story writer and playwright. She is best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, notably those revolving around the investigative work of her fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. She also wrote the world’s longest-running play, a murder mystery, The Mousetrap, and six romances under the name Mary Westmacott. In 1971 she was made a Dame for her contribution to literature.
Christie was born into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon. She served in a hospital during the First World War before marrying and starting a family in London. She was initially unsuccessful at getting her work published, but in 1920 the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Hercule Poirot, launched her literary career.
The Guinness Book of World Records lists Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold roughly 2 billion copies, and her estate claims that her works come third in the rankings of the world’s most-widely published books, behind only Shakespeare’s works and the Bible. According to Index Translationum, she remains the most-translated individual author – having been translated into at least 103 languagesOn 15 September 2015, coinciding with Christie’s 125th birthday, And Then There Were None was voted as the “World’s Favourite Christie”, followed closely by Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Most of her books and short stories have been adapted for television, radio, video games and comics, and more than thirty feature films have been based on her work.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on 15 September 1890, into a wealthy upper middle-class family in Ashfield, 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. Clara Boehmer had four brothers, one of whom died young. Captain Boehmer was killed in a riding accident while stationed on Jersey in April 1863, leaving Mary Ann (Agatha Christie’s grandmother) to raise her children alone on a meagre income. Under financial strain, she sent Clara (Christie’s mother) to live with her aunt Margaret Miller (née West), who had married a wealthy American, Nathaniel Frary Miller, in 1863.
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 her mother Clara was a psychic with the ability of second sight. 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. Among her earliest memories were those of reading the children’s books written by Mrs Molesworth, including The Adventures of Herr Baby (1881), Christmas Tree Land (1897), and The Magic Nuts (1898). She also read the work of Edith Nesbit, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1903), and The Railway Children (1906). When a little older, she moved on to reading the surreal verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.
Her father was often ill, suffering from a series of heart attacks, and he died in November 1901, aged 55. His death left the family devastated and in an uncertain economic situation. Clara and Agatha continued to live together in their Torquay home, Madge had moved to Abney Hall in Cheadle, Cheshire, with her new husband, and Monty had joined the army and been sent to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. Agatha later claimed that her father’s death, occurring when she was eleven years old, marked the end of her childhood. 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. In 1905, she was sent to Paris where she was educated in three pensions – Mademoiselle Cabernet’s, Les Marroniers, and then Miss Dryden’s – the last of which served primarily as a finishing school.
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.
Returning to Britain, she continued her social activities, writing and performing in amateur theatrics. She also helped put on a play called The Blue Beard of Unhappiness with female friends. Her writing extended to both poetry and music. Some early works saw publication, but she decided against focusing on either of these as future professions.
Christie wrote her first short story, The House of Beauty (an early version of her later-published story The House of Dreams), while recovering in bed from an undisclosed illness. This was about 6,000 words on the topic of “madness and dreams”, a subject of fascination for her. Biographer Janet Morgan commented that, despite “infelicities of style”, the story was nevertheless “compelling”.
Other shorts followed, most of them illustrating her interest in spiritualism and the paranormal. These included “The Call of Wings” and “The Little Lonely God”. Various magazines rejected all her early submissions, made under pseudonyms.
Christie then set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo, and drew from her recent experiences in that city, written under the pseudonym Monosyllaba. She was perturbed when various publishers all declined. Clara suggested that her daughter ask for advice from a family friend and neighbour, writer Eden Philpotts, who obliged her enquiry, encouraged her writing, and sent her an introduction to his own literary agent, Hughes Massie, who 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 another. She then met Archibald Christie (1889–1962) at a dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford at Ugbrooke, about 12 miles (19 kilometres) from 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.
With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Archie 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. Rising through the ranks, he was eventually stationed back to Britain in September 1918 as a colonel in the Air Ministry.
Christie had long been a fan of detective novels, having enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and The Moonstone as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories. She wrote her own detective novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles featuring Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer noted for his twirly large “magnificent moustaches” 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 second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922), featured a new detective couple Tommy and Tuppence, again published by The Bodley Head. It earned her £50. A third novel again featured Poirot, Murder on the Links (1923), as did short stories commissioned by Bruce Ingram, editor of The Sketch magazine. 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 South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. They learned to surf prone in South Africa; then, in Waikiki, they were among the first Britons to surf standing up.
The 1979 Michael Apted film Agatha features a disclaimer in the opening credits stating that what follows is an imaginary solution to an authentic mystery. The film starred Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Dalton as Agatha and Archie, and depicts Christie planning suicide in such a way as to frame her husband’s mistress for her “murder”. An American reporter, played by Dustin Hoffman, follows her closely and stops the plan. The film outraged Christie’s heirs who fought two unsuccessful lawsuits in the United States to try to prevent it from being distributed.
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.
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 novelsFrom 1971 to 1974, Christie’s health began to fail, although she continued to write. Recently, using experimental tools of textual analysis, Canadian researchers have suggested that Christie may have begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
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, having chosen the plot for their final resting place with her husband Sir Max some ten years before she died. The simple funeral service was attended by about 20 newspaper and TV reporters, some having travelled from as far away as South America.