Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Torquay, Devon on 15 September 1890, the youngest of three children born to Frederick and Clara Miller.
Agatha described her childhood as “very happy” and spent much of her time reading. She enjoyed the books of Mrs Molesworth and Edith Nesbit. Her mother insisted on giving her a home based education and both her parents were instrumental in teaching her the basics of arithmetic and other subjects. She enjoyed a wide range of subjects. The young Agatha also learned how to play the piano and the mandolin.
She loved her childhood pets. She had few close friendships with other children of her age. She was blessed with a boundless imagination and spent happy hours creating characters and writing about them.
She did make friends with a group of Torquay girls and was cast as the hero, Colonel Fairfax, in a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Yeoman of the Guard.
Unfortunately her father suffered from heart problems and died aged 55 when she was just 11, in November 1900. Agatha described this time as the “end of her childhood.”
In 1902 Agatha was enrolled in a girls’ school in Torquay but was unhappy there due to the rigid discipline. From 1905 onwards she was sent to Paris to complete her education.
The possibility of her being somewhere on the Asperger / neurodiverse spectrum can’t be ruled out. This diagnosis isn’t of any medical merit but based on a brief analysis of the facts:
- She was incredibly creative and musical;
- she was very introspective at times
- she often got along better with her books and her pets than with other people;
- she didn’t relate so easily to other children of her own age.
- she didn’t “fit in” in the unfamiliar and rigid environment of a typical English girls’ school of the time.
- Although she was sociable and liked to attend various functions, and thus many would say “she can’t have been one” a fair number of Aspies do manage to pull this off this quite well;
- Some of the characters she created can be considered possible Aspies – e.g. Poirot with his excessive insistence on absolute order and for everything to be lined up in straight rows. He’s also obsessed with his dandified dress and sartorial perfection. (most Aspie’s aren’t, but then Poirot doesn’t dress typically either). Poirot isn’t exactly a party person but is very good at one on one interaction. The eccentric Mr Satterthwaite, who prefers to observe than participate, also displays some Aspie traits. The same can be said for Parker Pyne.
- Her temporary disappearance in 1926 is something of a “coup” many people on the spectrum dream of pulling off.
When Agatha returned to England in 1910 her mother was ill. Seeking a warmer climate they set off for Cairo for an extended holiday. On her return Agatha continued to write an assortment of short stories, many of which were rejected but later “resurrected” after she became famous. At this stage of life young Agatha had no concrete plans to become a full time writer: she was content to meet a suitable husband and settle down with a little family.
She continued to pursue her writing aspirations between her other activities, and wrote a novel set in Cairo called Snow Upon the Desert but no-one was interested in publishing it. A friend introduced her to her own literary agent, who also rejected it but encouraged her to keep writing.
She never smoked or drank alcohol. She once experimented with cigarettes for several months but fortunately never acquired a taste for it, and failed to see the attraction it held for so many.
She met Archibald Christie shortly before the outbreak of the Great War. He was sent to the battlefields of France but they were married on 24 December 1914 at Emmanuel Church, Clifton, Bristol while he on home leave for Christmas. She became a nursing volunteer at a hospital in Torquay during the war and her duties were to assist the doctors attending wounded soldiers, and improve morale among the patients. She became a qualified dispenser in 1917 and was thereafter paid for her services until the end of hostilities.
After the war the Christies settled in St John’s Wood, London and Archibald had a job in the City. Agatha’s only child, Rosalind, was born in 1919.
Like many well known books, the manuscript of The Mysterious Affair at Styles suffered the rejection of several publishers before Bodley Head finally accepted it in 1920. This was the book where Hercule Poirot of the majestic moustache and obsession with orderliness was introduced to the world.
This book propelled her into the realm of the best sellers and put her name on the lips of readers all over the globe.
Several more crime novels followed, such as The Secret Adversary starring adventurous couple Tommy and Tuppence, and Murder on the Links. In 1924 Agatha and Archie set off on an extended tour to promote the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition. They left Rosalind in the care of her granny and aunt. They visited South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, before returning by way of Canada. They surfed the icy waters off Cape Town and later did stand-up surfing off the Hawaiian coast. Agatha was always eager to try her hand at new things.
Disappearance of the “Queen of Crime”
1926 was a tough year for Agatha. Her mother died, and not long afterwards she discovered that her husband’s love for her had grown cold and he had been seeing a woman called Nancy Neele.
They had a huge row on the evening of 3 December and Archie stormed off to Godalming to join his mistress. At 21:45 pm Agatha left the house, leaving a note for her secretary telling her she was going to Yorkshire.
Her car was discovered parked on the edge of a chalk quarry and many people feared the worst: that she may have committed suicide. But there was no body! Days went by and she was not found – dead or alive.
The vanishing of the already world famous author caused great shock among her many fans. The Home Secretary pressured police to find her and a newspaper offered a reward of one hundred pounds – a huge sum in those days. Her disappearing act made the front page of the New York Times.
More than 1000 police officers and 1500 volunteers combed Yorkshire for clues.
She was eventually tracked down on 14 December at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate. She was booked under the name Teresa Neele from Cape Town. She had used her husband’s mistress’ surname for her alias!
She never explained the reason for her disappearance and made no reference to it in her autobiography.
Why indeed do writers need to give an account of their actions? To book into a hotel incognito was her way of dealing with the realization that her husband no longer cared for her. She was already well known and didn’t want to be recognized – it’s difficult for celebrities to escape the public eye, as many are all too aware. She had given a clue in her letter – “I’m going to Yorkshire” – so as not to cause needless worry that she may have done harm to herself – but it’s a big place!
I am certain she used her hotel stay later, when she had recovered her equilibrium, as material for some of her books and that it gave her insight into the character of a “missing person” who doesn’t want to be found. Many people wish they had the courage to do the same and to withdraw to a “safe place” for a while to recharge their batteries.
Even today, with Facebook and other tech devices with their singular desire to invade all forms of privacy, Agatha, as a good detective writer, would easily have gotten away with her “getaway plan” for eleven days!
The Christies divorced in 1928 and went their separate ways, Agatha retaining custody of Rosalind.
In 1930 Agatha found love again with the distinguished archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, and their marriage would last the test of time while they both lived. This was the start of a deep interest in archaeology.
A number of her later books incorporated archaeology in some form, or were set in exotic locations where she was accompanying Max on expeditions. She was fascinated by her new hobby and accompanied Max on numerous expeditions to Syria, Iraq and other ancient places, where she would assist with preserving and labelling artifacts, cleaning pieces, taking photos and reconstructing pottery vases.
She wrote Murder on the Orient Express at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul.
In 1934 they bought Winterbrook House near the market town of Wallingford in Berkshire, which was their main residence for the rest of her life and where she would write most of her novels. Since plays and acting were also one of her fortes Agatha became president of the local dramatic society.
Her home county of Devon was always close to her heart and in 1938 Max and Agatha acquired the Greenway Estate as a summer residence there, which she used a fictionalized version of as the setting for several books.
Her lifetime love of dogs is apparent in the Poirot mystery Dumb Witness. Hastings ends up with new friend Bob the terrier although Poirot claimed him, but Hastings didn’t see Poirot as a “doggy” sort of person. After all, Bob would have had to stop shedding hairs altogether had he moved in with the obsessively tidy Belgian detective.
During World War II Agatha dispensed medicine at University College Hospital. She developed a wide knowledge of poisons to utilise in her books. Her meticulous description of the symptoms of thallium poisoning in one of her books aided doctors to solve a baffling real-life case.
She received a number of honours and awards, including an OBE. Her husband Max was knighted for his service to archaeology, so both of them received these honours in their own fields.
In the author’s own words in 1965:
“What can I say at seventy-five? Thank God for my good life and for all the love that has been given to me.”
Her health began to decline in the early 1970s but she continued to write despite these physical setbacks, just like her hero, Poirot, who never truly retired until his own death and appears in 33 of her novels and 54 short stories. Elephants Can Remember is one of the last works she wrote. But now she released two works which she had written many years before: Curtain (Poirot’s last case) and Sleeping Murder (Miss Marple’s last one).
Hercule Poirot is the only fictional character in history to have his obituary appear in the New York Times.
Agatha Christie is undisputedly the best selling author of all time and her books have been published in as many as 103 languages. Her most popular books are And Then There were None, Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Each one of her books revolves around an intricate plot and an array of complex characters, several of whom had a motive for murdering the victim or victims.
Her play The Mousetrap is the world’s longest running play. No Shakespeare work was performed so long. The first performance was on 25 November 1952 and it has never looked back, with successions of actors and actresses stepping into the roles as time strides on and catches up with the originals.
Other plays by Agatha Christie include Verdict and The Hollow.
She also wrote a few romances using the pen name Mary Westmacott.
Dame Agatha Christie passed on at the age of 85 on 12 January 1976, after a full and eventful life. She created such unforgettable characters as the delightful, nosy, intrepid Miss Marple and the apple-chomping, scatter-brained author Ariadne Oliver, who was actually a clever caricature of Agatha herself, and enabled the world’s best known crime writer to poke a little fun at herself. Agatha’s books, despite their often dark content and twisted characters such as young psychopath Josephine in Crooked House, have a subtle and unique humorous flavour to lighten the heavy and inevitable heap of murdered bodies.
Just like Ariadne Oliver, who grew tired of her vegetarian Finnish detective hero, Agatha got exasperated with Poirot but her readers loved him, so she had to keep writing about him!
Miss Marple got her name from a small railway station and village near Stockport. The fictional village of St Mary Mead landed up with a remarkably high murder rate, but fortunately the elderly spinster was at hand to provide the Inspector with vital little clues that would enable the murderer to be collared at the end.
The arrogant Poirot and the deceptively frail-looking Miss Marple never appear in the same book. As the author said: “Hercule Poirot, a complete egoist, would not like being taught his business or having suggestions made to him by an elderly spinster lady.”
Poirot liked to be recognised wherever he went. He was mortally offended once when he was mistaken for a hairdresser. Incognito was never his style. He’s been portrayed by numerous actors, from Peter Ustinov (who was actually too large to play the detective, who is described in the books as being a small man) to David Suchet.
Agatha Christie’s colourful characters are of enduring popularity to this day, having sold a total of around two billion copies and her books have inspired many a crime author or would-be crime author to write their own “whodunit.”