World’s best-selling crime writer with one-half billion books sold; and read in more than languages than Shakespeare—Check √
Creator of popular characters: Tommy & Tuppence, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple—Check √
Adaptations for movies: Murder on the Orient Express, Witness for the Prosecution; and long-running play: Mouse Trap—Check √
But did you know she had severe shyness in her youth? That she was home-schooled? She was a gifted singer and possessed a talent for music? She was the first woman to surfboard standing up? That she went on many archeological digs? She started writing in 1920 and continued writing until 1976? She also became an expert in poison and was named a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. There are so many facets to this private, but a wildly interesting woman (she could be a character in her own books!).
One can’t possibly write about an extraordinary life in a few pages. But we can talk about some surprising details and leave the biographies to books (and even an encyclopedia, which is what happens when you are so prolific in publication).
Born on September 15, 1890 Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was welcomed to Torquay, (some refer to it as the English Riviera in Devon), a resort at the north end of Tor Bay, located in Southwest England. Here today you can visit “The Agatha Christie Mile" and stay at The Grand Hotel, where Agatha spent her honeymoon night with her first husband, Archie Christie, on Christmas Eve 1914.
It’s funny but Agatha’s mother, Clara, lovingly introduced her third child to a better-than-middle-class family life but insisted that she did not want Agatha to read until she was eight—saying the delay was better for eyes and the brain. So, the smart but sheltered child was taught at home, mostly by her father, Frederick, an American and a very agreeable man. In a kind of writing/journal family game called “Confessions" he described his favorite occupation as ‘doing nothing.’
Agatha’s sister, Margaret Frary Miller—Madge—on the other hand, was eleven years older and a boarder at Miss Lawrence’s School in Brighton. Monty, her brother, ten years older was at Harrow, and not a very good student who would eventually leave without passing his examinations. No matter the restrictions placed on her by their mother, Agatha outsmarted them all and taught herself to read at five years of age! She often dragged around her favorite books, fairy tales like The Giant’s Robe and Under the Water, about children who discovered a world under a stream. Later it would be the popular Mrs Molesworth children’s books, Christmas Tree Land, The Magic Nuts and Edith Nesbit’s fantasies, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Railway Children. And despite her mother’s inclinations, Agatha received many books as gifts, from Madge and Auntie-Grannie and of course, Frederick’s letters when he had business in America.
After Agatha’s father died—she was eleven—things changed. Frederick’s fortunes had faltered, which may have contributed to his heart attacks, and Clara, Agatha’s mother was clearly distraught and the two of them clung together. They made adjustments though and Agatha was able to attend school in Paris, where she met with great success in music. She was so good at singing and playing the piano, that may have been an option for her should she not have been so shy and quite nervous in front of others.
Mother and daughter sought out Cairo in 1910 and Agatha had somewhat of a social whirl at the Gezirah Palace Hotel, which has interesting historical underpinnings as a guest palace during the Suez Canal inauguration celebrations. The hotel was said to have a ‘fishing fleet,’ a term widely used in the 19th century to describe the boatloads of single women who arrived in Egypt each Season on the hunt for a husband. Agatha had a ball there literally, and fended off various marriage proposals. But that didn’t stop her from house party invites when she returned back home to England.
In the early 1900’s Agatha worked with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, a Red Cross hospital in Torquay. She clocked 3,000 hours of unpaid work during World War I and not only became a dispenser of drugs but soon completed an exam for the Society of Apothecaries where she became very well acquainted with poisons. She had also begun a novel (on a dare from her sister who challenged her to write a mystery); and when the book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published, she was honored with a review in where else? the Pharmaceutical Journal.
Agatha met flier Archie Christie at a ball at Lady Clifford’s house, Ugbrooke—in Devon. It was fast love and marriage followed two years later in Emmanuel Church on Christmas Eve; with a one-night honeymoon at the Grand Hotel in Torquay. Archie was attached to the Royal Flying Corps and was called to France on December 27, making for an abbreviated nuptial. He would return in 1918 however, and a daughter, Rosalind, was born in 1919.
Agatha used events from her life in crafting her books. It’s interesting to note that during the war she met many disenfranchised Belgians and thus the idea of a character of that origin gave us the introduction to Hercule Poirot. She made a plethora of notes on everything she encountered: a conversation overheard in a Tea shop; a trip on the Orient Express, visiting archeological digs in Egypt where she met her second husband.
She often said that plots came to her at odd moments. Whether she was examining a hat, attending a party, or drawing on a large circle of friends, military men, and local townspeople for characters—so much information packed into little notebooks, that writing became her all-consuming passion. You would think she had more ideas than time, but she managed to write two or three books a year.
In fact, Agatha Christie became so prolific her output and popularity resulted in 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, and the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap, amid many movies, film adaptations and television series of her stories (many shown on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). She has been referred to as the most successful female playwright of all time.
Bunson, Matthew. The Complete Christie: An Agatha Christie Encyclopedia. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. Book.
Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie: A Biography. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Book.
Thompson, Laura. Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018. Book.