100 Years of Agatha Christie Writer, Traveller, Surfer and Archaeologist

Agatha Christie remains, the best-selling novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. She is best known for her sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections but produced six more as Mary Westmacott and two under the name Christie Mallowan. The Mousetrap is the world’s longest-running play. Her books have sold over a billion copies in the English language and a billion in translation. (She is the most world-wide translated writer)

To cover both her career and personal life in full, I would be blogging for quite some time, so this is a short, compact history, which I am sure I will add to at a later date.

2020 marks 100 years since the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduced Hercule Poirot. It was created in 1916 but not published until February 1920, when it was serialised in 18 parts in The Weekly Times (part of The Times) Agatha Christie came up with the idea for the novel whilst working in a dispensary during WWI.

I began considering what kind of a detective story I could write. Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected. I settled on one fact which seemed to me to have possibilities. I toyed with the idea, liked it, and finally accepted it. Then I went on to the dramatis personae. Who should be poisoned? Who would poison him or her? When? Where? How? Why? And all the rest of it.  

Agatha Christie

Miss Marple first came into being in 1927 in The Tuesday Night Club, a short story pulled together into the collection The Thirteen Problems. It was first published in the December 1927 issue of Royal Magazine. Inspired by her maternal grandmother and her friends, Agatha Christie never expected Miss Marple to rival Poirot in the public’s affections but since the publication of The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930, the first full- length novel, readers were hooked. She is the only crime writer to have created two equally famous and much-loved characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Interest in her work still continues today, this year sees the release of Sophie Hannah’s new Poirot novel The Killings at Kingfisher Hill and the big screen launch of Death on the Nile. I really enjoy Sophie Hannah’s books so it will be fun to see what she does with Poirot. Kenneth Branagh made a great job of Death On the Orient Express so the follow up should be as equally good.

She wrote about the world she knew and saw, drawing on the military gentlemen, lords and ladies, spinsters, widows and doctors of her family’s circle of friends and acquaintances. She was a natural observer and her descriptions of village politics, local rivalries and family jealousies are often painfully accurate. Mathew Prichard, her grandson describes her as a “person who listened more than she talked, who saw more than she was seen.”    

Agatha Christie was born in Torquay in 1890 and throughout her life she returned to the South Devon area buying a holiday home there called Greenway House. Her upbringing was unusual, even for its time, as she was home schooled by her father. Her mother, Clara, who was an excellent storyteller, did not want her to learn to read until she was eight but Agatha taught herself to read by the age of five. In 1902 Agatha began her formal education at Miss Guyer’s Girls’ School in Torquay, before moving to France in 1905 to continue her education at three different Parisian schools. Agatha Christie always said that she had no ambition to be a writer although she made her debut in print at the age of eleven with a poem printed in a local London newspaper. By the age of 18 she was amusing herself with writing short stories, some of which were published in much revised form in the 1930s.

Agatha’s Christies, personal life was not without much mystery and some sadness.  It was in 1912 that Agatha met Archie Christie, a qualified aviator who had applied to join the Royal Flying Corps. Their courtship was a whirlwind affair, the war separated them and they spent very little time together, In 1914, they married but, were only reunited in 1918. They had one child, named Rosalind, in 1919.

Archie was asked to tour areas of the British Empire to promote the opening of the British Empire Exhibition, which was due to open in London in 1924. Agatha joined her husband on his travels and while visiting Hawaii the couple possibly became two of the first Europeans to master surfing standing up. They spent as much of their days as they could on the beach riding the waves. She expressed her feeling of mastery and triumph the first time she rode her board all the way to the beach while standing up. This research was done by Peter Robinson from the Museum of British Surfing, who was quick to admit that the discovery caught him by surprise.

Archie and Agatha’s relationship, strained by the sadness in losing her mother, broke down when he fell in love with a fellow golfer and friend of the family, Nancy Neale. In December 1926, Agatha left her daughter to the care of the maids without saying where she was going. Her car was found abandoned the next morning several miles away. A nationwide search ensued. The press and public enjoyed various speculations as to what might have happened and why but no one knew for sure. It eventually transpired that Agatha had somehow travelled to Kings Cross station where she took the train to Harrogate and checked into the Harrogate Spa Hotel under the name of Theresa Neale. Having been recognised by the hotel staff, who alerted the police, she did not recognise Archie when he came to meet her. Possibly concussed but certainly suffering from amnesia, Agatha had no recollection of who she was. An intensely private person, made even more so by the hue and cry of the press, Agatha never spoke of this time with friends or family. Films and TV series have been produced about this event, however the true story has never been uncovered.

After a devastating divorce, the crime novelist took a trip to Baghdad in 1928 and lost her heart to the ancient sites of Iraq and archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, who become her second husband in 1930. Forged by a love of travel this was to be a much happier marriage. Agatha would spend long seasons at various excavation sites in Syria and Iraq, accompanying her husband. She worked on restoring pieces of pottery, inventorying finds, and photographing artefacts. This also gave her further inspiration for her plots

Christie considered retiring at the age of seventy-five, but her books were selling so well that she decided to keep writing for at least another five years, and wound up writing up until about a year before she passed away at age eighty-six. After a hugely successful career and a very happy life Agatha died peacefully on 12 January 1976. She is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Cholsey, near Wallingford.

Thousands of visitors come to South Devon every year to visit the places that inspired Agatha Christie’s books and imagination. The estate of Greenway near Kingswear which was her beloved family retreat is now a National trust property. Christie called it ‘the loveliest place in the world’ and it’s easy to see why. An annual festival is held here to celebrate her life. The International Agatha Christie Festival in 2020 was cancelled but it will be held again in September 2021, which will feature a competition for aspiring young writers.

I have always been a fan of the books but finding out more about the interesting and surprising facts of Agatha Christies own unique life, makes me even more of a super-fan.

As well as a host of activities and events, more information is available on the website www.agathachristie.com.

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