Christie [née Miller; other married name Mallowan], Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa
- Janet Morgan
Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (1890–1976)
Christie [née Miller; other married name Mallowan], Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa (1890–1976), writer, was born on 15 September 1890 at Ashfield, Torquay, Devon, the last of the three children of a late marriage between Frederick Alvah Miller (1846–1901), an American of independent means, and Clarissa Margaret (Clara) Boehmer (1854–1926), his cousin from his father's second marriage.
Early life and first writings
The Miller family and their servants lived comfortably and hospitably at Ashfield, a large villa with extensive gardens, an orchard, conservatories, a tennis court, and croquet lawn, surroundings that were to provide the backdrop to many of Agatha's later stories of easeful middle-class lives shockingly disrupted by murder. Agatha's brother and sister were sent away to school but her own formal education was minimal: dancing, singing, and piano classes, a few untaxing lessons when she was fourteen, various well-intentioned finishing schools in France. She taught herself from her father's library, stocked with complete editions of nineteenth-century novels, and sets of the Art Quarterly and the Cornhill Magazine. Self-contained and secretive, Agatha lived in imaginary worlds, her closest companions imaginary friends.
When Agatha was eleven, her father died of heart disease. His affairs had been mishandled and Clara struggled to keep Ashfield. For Agatha's first season her mother took her to Cairo, less expensive than London but with dances, polo, the races, and potential suitors. Agatha was attractive and energetic, tall, with thick, long, blonde hair and a pleasant voice. She was, however, paralysingly shy. Her nervousness in public had led her to abandon thoughts of a career as a singer or a pianist. A cruel dancing partner told Clara that, although her daughter danced beautifully, she did not know how to talk. Instead, Agatha wrote: sentimental verse, stories about visions and séances, and a novel. The last was scrutinized by a kind neighbour, the writer Eden Philpotts, who sent it to Hughes Massie, his literary agent. Massie sent it back.
Agatha was neither ambitious nor anxious about her future. When war came in 1914 she worked first with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a local hospital and then 'In a Dispensary', the title of a poem she wrote at that time (published in The Road of Dreams, 1924). She was fascinated by the poisons:
menace and murder and sudden deathIn these phials of green and blue!
Challenged by her sister Madge, Agatha now embarked on a detective story. Her plot was a riddle. 'The whole point', she explained in her Autobiography, 'was that it must be somebody obvious, but at the same time, for some reason, you would then find that it was not obvious, that he could not possibly have done it. But really of course he had' (Christie, Autobiography, 255). The structure of this story, accumulation of complication with a neat and surprising resolution, became her favourite device. Her detective was inspired by the refugees she saw in Torquay. Hercule Poirot was a retired Belgian police officer, clever, meticulous, and self-important. Rejected by two publishers, The Mysterious Affair at Styles went on to John Lane at the Bodley Head, who acknowledged its receipt but, for the next two years, said no more.
The typescript had been sent in under Agatha's new name, for in a rush on 24 December 1914, she had married Archibald Christie (1889–1962), a young officer in the Royal Flying Corps on his first leave. Archie's war was exciting; when it ended, he was, at twenty-nine, a colonel with decorations for bravery. He found it difficult to settle into his new job in the Air Ministry, but his wife's success was just beginning. The Bodley Head published her book in America in 1920 and in England in 1921 with an option on five more. Terms were meagre but Christie joyously applied herself to writing. By 1922 she had finished two more books and a set of Poirot stories. In that year, too, longing to travel, she decided to accompany Archie on a ten-month overseas mission to which he had been appointed secretary to drum up support for the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition. Leaving her small daughter and only child, Rosalind (1919–2004), Agatha set off, taking her typewriter, for the colonies.
Stimulated by adventure, her popularity among readers at home and abroad, and the example of the independent-minded women she met on her travels, Agatha Christie was transformed. On her return she was encouraged by Hughes Massie's successor, Edmund Cork, her agent and friend, to move to a new publisher, Godfrey Collins, whose firm she never left. Collins's nephew, William (Billy) Collins, became her editor and, quickly, another mainstay. Her first book for Collins, published in 1926, was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Disappearance and later works
Here, while giving every clue, Christie triumphantly misled her readers. The trick caused a fuss but not a sensation; that came six months later, in December, when she disappeared. Miserable after her mother's death, exhausted by the strain of clearing Ashfield, and lonely—Archie was preoccupied by his job in the City and by golf—she grew increasingly distressed. When Archie revealed that he had fallen in love with Nancy Neele, a golfing partner, his wife broke down. Fleeing Styles, their ominously named house in Surrey, Christie made her way to Harrogate, registering herself as Miss Neele at the Hydropathic Hotel. Police hunted the country, attended by bloodhounds, amateur search parties, and clairvoyants. Colonel Christie was suspected of murder, Christie herself of seeking publicity. Ten days later she was identified by the hotel's bandsmen who, to their credit, accepted no inducement from the press to tell their story.
Christie could not remember why or how she had come to Harrogate. She sought help from doctors, tried neurologists and even hypnosis, but never recovered her memory of that time. She was appalled by the attention, while those who knew her were amazed by the absurdity of the unceasing speculation about the motives for her flight. Sensibly, Christie tried to put the episode behind her. Her autobiography does not mention it but an oblique picture of the dissolution of the Christies' marriage may be found in Unfinished Portrait (1933), one of six novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott. The Christies were divorced in 1928; from that time Agatha Christie, a devout Christian, no longer took communion.
By 1930 Christie had resumed her work with renewed vigour, publishing in that year her first play, Black Coffee; her first Mary Westmacott novel, Giant's Bread, and The Murder at the Vicarage, which introduced Miss Jane Marple. The shrewd, observant, unshockable maiden lady was 'the complete detective service in the home' (Christie, Autobiography, 433).
There was an even greater step. On 11 September 1930 Christie married Max Mallowan (1904–1978), an archaeologist, whom she met in 1928 while visiting Leonard Woolley's excavations at Ur. Mallowan was fourteen years younger than Agatha. The partnership was a success. (The famous quip that the older the wife of an archaeologist, the more interesting she becomes to him, was not made by Agatha, who had better taste, but first appeared in the Gothenburg Trade and Fishing Journal.)
Agatha shared her husband's affection for the Near East. She accompanied him on expeditions, photographed, cleaned, and registered finds, supervised the cook, and thought out plots. Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was based on a journey back to London in 1931; Katharine Woolley, Leonard Woolley's formidable wife, is portrayed in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936); while Death on the Nile (1937) draws on a voyage in 1933 on SS Karnak. Agatha's book of affectionate reminiscence, Come Tell Me How You Live (1946), describing the Mallowans' life in camp in Syria, was a homecoming present to Max at the end of the Second World War.
Agatha Christie's production of books, plays, and short stories was uninterrupted. At least one novel a year appeared from the 1930s to the 1950s. She was never short of plots: an idea for a 'Dentist Murder … evidence of teeth', outlined in an exercise book, prompted thirteen variations. As a child, taxed with some household mystery, Agatha had declared, 'I don't like parting with information'. Now it was carefully dispensed. In her books she gave out her clues one by one, playing on commonplace assumptions—that twins were identical, for instance—drawing her readers inexorably towards the wrong solution, only to ambush them at the end.
Characteristics of Christie's writing
In these intriguing puzzles, Agatha deployed her characters like chessmen. From book to book she experimented, in some playing games with ambiguities of speech, elsewhere with memory, timing, or motive, with tricks of light, mirrors, and false identities. Like her sister Madge, whose play about the Tichborne case, The Claimant, ran in the West End in 1928, Agatha was fascinated by disguise. All her fiction is concerned with the tension between appearance and reality. At Bertram's Hotel (1965) exemplifies this, itself becoming, ironically, an instance of mistaken identity, the setting being modelled not on Brown's Hotel in London, as many believe, but on Fleming's Hotel, a neighbouring establishment in Mayfair.
Agatha caught speech exactly, as shown in a series of brilliant titles: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1921), Why Didn't they Ask Evans? (1934), The Body in the Library (1942), Mrs McGinty's Dead (1952), 4.50 from Paddington (1957). She is unerring in the timing, structure, and disposition of clues. Self-contained and self-controlled, she manipulates her readers. Like the pharmacist with whom she worked in 1915, who liked to keep a lump of curare in his pocket, she savoured the power that is derived from non-disclosure. Her people are archetypes, representative of their epoch, class, and, if they have one, profession. Their tastes, manners, and language are predictable; they act out their parts in a sequence of moves. In these intricately choreographed narratives every detail matters. Agatha was infuriated by publishers who, failing to understand this, sought to alter dialogue and description in deference to the supposed sensitivities of her readers.
Unlike great writers, Agatha Christie was unable to depict the depth and complexity of human character and relationships. Readers of her detective stories must be satisfied by narratives that make a clear distinction between right and wrong, reflecting her own belief, discussed in Nemesis (a ‘late Marple’ of 1971). Her fiction is cathartic: harmony is disturbed, evil surmounted, order restored. Her detectives are her standard-bearers, people like ourselves: Mr Parker Pyne, retired statistician; Mrs Ariadne Oliver, crime novelist; Monsieur Poirot, the Cartesian intellectual; Miss Marple, a fascinated village anthropologist.
Copyright issues and later years
'Poirot is rather insufferable,' Agatha told Edmund Cork in 1938. Two years later she gave him his last case in Curtain, unpublished until 1975. She could not, she said, kill her 'chief source of income'. For much of her life Agatha's finances were precarious. Most of her money came from sales in the United States where, after much uncertainty, a series of judicial rulings in the late thirties and forties made her liable for large amounts of additional tax. In 1955 a company, Agatha Christie Ltd, was set up, giving her a regular income, and the establishment in 1957 of the Christie Copyrights Trust, to which many of her rights were assigned, enabled trustees to distribute capital for charitable purposes, with Agatha's consent. Her anxieties remained: litigation had been costly and assessments were still outstanding. In 1968, having been found liable for huge levies on assumed values of those few copyrights she had retained out of special affection, she agreed to the sale of a majority share of Agatha Christie Ltd to Booker Books, a subsidiary of the agricultural and industrial conglomerate Booker McConnell, to which the assets held by the Christie Copyrights Trust were also eventually transferred. After forty years' worry, she was clear but still in debt, the special assessments having obliged her to take a loan at a demanding rate of interest.
Habit, the pleasure of achievement, but also anxiety about money and later a feeling of duty to the company that employed her, underlay Agatha's extraordinary assiduity. By the early 1970s she had published more than eighty crime novels, eleven books of short stories, fifteen plays, among them The Mousetrap, first produced in 1948, still running over fifty years later. She had been appointed CBE in 1956; in 1971, her eightieth year, she was made DBE. Dame Agatha's fame was worldwide. Guerrillas who had kidnapped the British ambassador to Uruguay in 1970 discussed Miss Marple with their captive; Poirot's ‘little grey cells’ were displayed on Nicaraguan postage stamps to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Interpol in 1972.
Success was pleasing, celebrity unwelcome. 'Writers should write', Agatha maintained, refusing interviews and invitations to open bazaars. She accepted the presidency of the Detection Club only when it was agreed that a co-president should be appointed to conduct the proceedings. She would not make radio or television broadcasts; strict conditions govern access to a surviving recording, made for the archives of the Imperial War Museum, of her reflections on her time with the Voluntary Aid Detachment during the First World War. She hated being photographed, being sensitive about her shape, enlarged by time, heredity, and her love of rich food—she disliked alcohol but kept a taste for drinking cream. She was, however, pleased by the portrait, commissioned by her grandson, Mathew Prichard, from Oscar Kokoschka. His picture shows a very old woman, shrunken but dominating, with restless hands. In time, she came to resemble it. 'At any rate', she told Cork, 'I look like someone.'
It was a rare admission of vanity, for she remained modest to the end. Those who met Lady Mallowan—Max was knighted in 1968—were astonished to discover afterwards that this was Agatha Christie. She lived quietly and privately, enjoying, as she had always done, books, music, flowers, her houses and their lovely gardens: Winterbrook House at Wallingford by the Thames and Greenway House on the River Dart in south Devon. Her Devon connection meant much to her and, self-educated, she was pleased to be made DLitt by the University of Exeter in 1961. Elephants Can Remember (1972) was her last novel before her powers declined. Her plotting never ceased. In her final days she pounced when a visitor mentioned that tooth-powder was useful for cleaning decanters: a clever stratagem for a poisoner?
Agatha Christie died on 12 January 1976 at Winterbrook, just after luncheon, and was buried four days later in the churchyard at Cholsey, nearby. A memorial service was held on 13 May at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
Agatha Christie's work remains surprisingly provocative. Some say her books are formulaic, her characters class-ridden, her style undemanding. 'Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?' asked the critic Edmund Wilson. Colin Watson dismissed Agatha Christie's world as ‘Mayhem Parva’, merely one long parochial Edwardian afternoon. Others, however, like Jacques Barzun, have seen her books as parables, deft, authoritative, and lasting. For her admirers, from Konrad Adenauer to Claude Chabrol, they exemplify the classical detective story, as described by W. H. Auden: cathartic fantasies, playing on the reader's unconscious feeling of guilt and desire for the restoration of a lost Eden. Agatha Christie's writing is certainly an inexhaustible resource, studied in universities from Trondheim to Tokyo. Close readers have analysed the grammar and structure of her prose; feminist scholars have investigated Miss Marple. Literary historians have traced the antecedents of Roger Ackroyd and the origins of Hercule Poirot, while archaeologists have celebrated Lady Mallowan's contribution to Near Eastern exploration.
Fashions in crime fiction have changed, but Agatha Christie's popular following is undiminished. Her books, translated into more than 100 languages, have been taken up by readers introduced to her work by the television adaptations of the Poirot and Miss Marple stories, with David Suchet's and Joan Hickson's portrayals closely modelled on their literary originals. (Indeed, Christie herself had envisaged Hickson as being better suited to play the gentle but persistent Miss Marple than the overwhelming Dame Margaret Rutherford, chosen for the role by MGM in five earlier adaptations for the cinema.) Films, such as Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, have had a wide audience, and audiotapes and compact discs offer readings of Christie's fiction. For the insatiable there have even been recordings of the music commissioned to accompany the television programmes. Admirers of her work have established internet discussion groups, including websites in Czech, Icelandic, and Portuguese, and a worldwide Agatha Christie Society, founded in 1993, organizes conferences and symposia. Professional promoters draw on her work for crossword puzzle books and travel guides, and self-promoters continue to find a market for theories about her disappearance in 1926. This last would have caused her most pain. More pleasing would have been the knowledge that her beloved south Devon would benefit from ‘cultural tourists’ attracted by her writing and her reputation and that the National Trust would continue to preserve Greenway and its gardens.
- A. Christie, Come tell me how you live (1946)
- A. Christie, An autobiography (1977)
- J. Morgan, Agatha Christie: a biography (1984)
- T. Adams, Agatha Christie's cover story (1981)
- R. Barnard, A talent to deceive (1980)
- Bassano and Vandyk, photograph, 1932, NPG
- J. Gay, vintage glossy bromide print, 1949, NPG
- A. McBean, bromide print, 1949, NPG
- G. Argent, photograph, 1969, NPG
- J. Hedgecoe, doiuble portrait, bromide print, 1969 (with Sir Max Mallowan), NPG
- L. Kramer, wax figure, 1972, Madame Tussaud's, London
- O. Kokoschka, oils, 1976, priv. coll.
- Elliott & Fry, half-plate negative, NPG
- photograph, Press Association Photographs, London [see illus.]
Wealth at Death
£147,810: probate, 1976, CGPLA Eng. & Wales