Agatha Christie

6.9 Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime (Part 1)

Agatha Christie, from Birth to Disappearance

Agatha Christie is the world’s most popular novelist, outselling everyone but the Bible and Shakespeare. She wrote great mysteries, and she was a bit of a mystery herself. So much so that I had to split up her episode into two episodes. This first part will take her from birth to her sensational disappearance.

This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.

Full Transcript

The trouble with writing an episode about Agatha Christie is that she is such a charming writer herself that it’s tempting to just read out passages from her autobiography. But that would be both a copyright violation and historically inaccurate about some things, so you will, sadly, be getting some of my words as well. The other thing that happened, probably because Agatha had so many good stories, was that this episode ballooned outside of my self-imposed time limits, so I am doing what I have never done before and splitting it right down the middle. This is Part 1, Part 2 will be next week.

Agatha was born in 1890 in Devon, England. She lived in a lovely house with a lovely garden and a lovely family. Her father had no profession. “It was,” Agatha says, “the days of independent incomes, and if you had an independent income you didn’t work. You weren’t expected to. I strongly suspect my father would not have been particularly good at working” (Christie, 15). What he was particularly good at was being liked. He was kind, funny, and generous.

Agatha’s mother was much younger, but strong minded. She decided that Agatha should grow up free and untrammeled, so she was not to be taught to read until age eight. Four-year-old Agatha was not on board with this plan, and she taught herself. Her nurse actually had to apologize to her mom, admitting ruefully that Agatha could read—so sorry—don’t know how that happened.

The existence of people like the nurse proves this wasn’t the age of independent incomes for everyone. They had three servants, which Agatha says (in all seriousness) was a minimum then. Her family was not well off, she insists, because they did not have a butler or a footman. It sounds like wealth from where we (and no doubt the three servants) are sitting, but in fact what was really different was which things were expensive. Labor was cheap. But clothes were expensive. Agatha records that most girls she knew had only one to three dresses for the evening and you had to make them last for years. Transportation was expensive too. They couldn’t afford a horse and carriage. A car was beyond their wildest dreams.

So Agatha grew, well-loved and untrammeled by any school, until age 11, when her father died, and she marked it as the end of her idyllic childhood.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The money had mostly evaporated. Her mother was left with only a small income. Small being a relative term, of course. They moved to France because it was cheaper. The modern mind boggles, but yes, it was cheaper to live in a hotel in France than it was to stay in their own home.

As a teenager, Agatha finally went to school for a bit. But it was mostly a finishing school. Because she was raised by Victorians and Victorians who had at least the memory of money, the plan for Agatha was marriage, obviously. And she defended this, even years later. She wrote:

“The real excitement of being a girl—of being, that is, a woman in embryo—was that life was such a wonderful gamble. You didn’t know what was going to happen to you. That was what made being a woman so exciting. No worry about what you should be or do—Biology would decide. You were waiting for The Man, and when the man came, he would change your entire life. You can say what you like, that is an exciting point of view to hold at the threshold of life. . . We were conscious of all the happiness that awaited us; we looked forward to love, to being looked after, cherished and admired, and we intended to get our own way in the things which mattered to us while at the same time putting our husbands’ life, career and success above all, as was our proud duty. We didn’t need pep pills or sedatives; we had belief and joy in life. We had our own personal disappointments—moments of unhappiness—but on the whole life was fun. Perhaps it is fun for girls nowadays—but they certainly don’t look as if it is.”

(Christie, 128)

This, quite clearly, does not fall in line with modern feminist doctrine. And Agatha lived plenty long enough to know it, but she stuck to her opinions. She writes:

“The position of women, over the years, has definitely changed for the worse. We women have behaved like mugs. We have clamoured to be allowed to work as men work. Men, not being fools, have taken kindly to the idea. Why support a wife? What’s wrong with a wife supporting herself? She wants to do it. By Golly, she can go on doing it! . . . You’ve got to hand it to Victorian women; they got their menfolk where they wanted them. They established their frailty, delicacy, sensibility—their constant need of being protected and cherished. Did they lead miserable, servile lives, downtrodden and oppressed? Such is not my recollection of them. All my grandmother’s friends seem to me in retrospect singularly resilient and almost invariably successful in getting their own way. They were tough, self-willed, and remarkably well-read and well-informed.

“Mind you, they admired their men enormously. They genuinely thought men were splendid fellows—dashing, inclined to be wicked, easily led astray. In daily life a woman got her own way whilst paying due lip service to male superiority, so that her husband should not lose face.

“‘Your father knows best, dear,’ was the public formula. The real approach came privately, ‘I’m sure you quite right in what you said, John, but I wonder if you have considered . . . “‘

(Christie, 131-132)

Such may have been the case for some lucky Victorian women, but her grandmother’s friends were hardly a representative sample. Tell that to the spinsters, the widows, the factory working women, among many others, and I think they might feel differently.

But after all this, it turns out that Agatha did consider a career. Music was the only subject she studied formally, and she had dreams. Until her piano teacher quietly told her she wasn’t going to be a concert pianist and her voice teacher kindly told her she wasn’t going to be an opera singer either, and that was the end of that.

When she was old enough to come out, her mother couldn’t afford the season in London, so they went to Cairo, Egypt, for it. Coming out meant lots of parties, lots of dancing, and hopefully lots of proposals and that’s exactly how it turned out. It is astonishing to me how many proposals some real life historical women managed to bag, but Agatha has an explanation for that. She writes:

“I wonder if men were specially given to proposing in my young days. I cannot help feeling that some of the proposals I and my friends had were entirely unrealistic. I have a suspicion that if I had accepted the offers they would have been dismayed. I once tackled a young naval lieutenant on this point. We had been walking home from a party in Torquay when he suddenly blurted out his proposal of marriage. I thanked him and said no, and added, “And I don’t believe you really want to, either.’

“‘Oh I do, I do.’

“‘I don’t believe it,’ I said. ‘We have only known each other about ten days, I don’t see why you want to get married so young in any case. You know it would be very bad for your career.’

“‘Yes, well, of course, that’s true in a way.’

“‘So it’s really an awfully silly thing to go and propose to a girl like that. You must admit that yourself. What made you do it?’

“‘It just came over me,’ said the young man. ‘I looked at you and it just came over me.’

“‘Well,’ I said. ‘I don’t think you had better do it again to anyone. You must be more careful.'”

(Christie, 175-176)


So much for romance. Nowhere is there any worry that this might be her only chance. Nor was it.

And through all of this she had written very little. A few poems for the local paper. A few stories, all of which were rejected. She told her sister she’d like to write a detective story.

“I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge.

She met Archibald Christie at a dance. He was tall and good-looking. He came to see her a week later and things progressed. Her mother said not to marry him. “He’s ruthless and he won’t treat you well.” Other people also said not to marry him. “He’s got no money and no prospects.” Agatha said yes anyway. The engagement was on. And then it was off. And then on again. And then off and then on.

What really settled things was that in Serbia an archduke was assassinated. Agatha later wrote:

“It seemed such a faraway incident—nothing that concerned us. After all, in the Balkans people were always being assassinated. That it should touch us here in England seemed quite incredible—and I speak here not only for myself but for almost everybody else. Swiftly, after that assassination, what seemed like incredible storm clouds appeared on the horizon. Extraordinary rumours got about, rumours of that fantastic thing—War! But of course that was only the newspapers. No civilized nations went to war. There hadn’t been any wars for years; there probably never would be again. . . And then suddenly one morning it had happened. England was at war.”

(Christie, 224-225)

Archie was in the air force and absolutely believed he was going to die. He and Agatha got married with one day’s notice on Christmas Day, 1914. Two days later, he left for war.

Agatha volunteered at the hospital. For a girl who had never been expected to do anything more onerous than practice scales at the piano, it was an eye-opening experience. She spoke later about watching her first stomach operation, concluding with the words, “you can get used to anything” (KCTS9).

Between the bed-pans, the vomit, and the blood, she had tasks that were difficult in a different way. She wrote:

“I remember a serious-faced sergeant whose love letters I had to write for him. He could not read or write. He told me roughly what he wanted me to say. ‘That will do nicely, Nurse,’ he would nod, when I read it over to him. ‘Write it in triplicate, will you?’

“‘In triplicate?’ I said.

“‘Ay,’ he said. ‘One for Nellie, and one for Jessie and one for Margaret.’

“‘Wouldn’t it be better to vary them a little?’ I asked. He considered. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘I’ve told them all the essentials.'”

(Christie, 239-240)

Agatha came to enjoy nursing, but a year into the war, she was reassigned to the dispensary, where she pounded, mixed, stirred, and labeled medicines according to the chemist’s directions. In particular, she learned precisely which medicines could be poisons and exactly how to make sure they weren’t used that way.

Or how to make sure that they were. The dispensary had slack periods, time where nothing much was expected of her. She was bored, and she was surrounded by potential poisons. It was time, maybe, to prove to Madge that she could too write a detective story.

Obviously she needed a detective. There was a colony of Belgian refugees nearby. Why not make her detective one of them? A retired police officer?

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written before Agatha had even the slightest idea of making a career out of writing. And yet all the classic Agatha Christie elements are there: the English country house, the limited crowd of suspects, the vivid characters, the murder, the ingenious plot twists, and most of all Hercule Poirot himself, the master detective.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written before Agatha had even the slightest idea of making a career out of writing. And yet all the classic Agatha Christie elements are there: the English country house, the limited crowd of suspects, the vivid characters, the murder, the ingenious plot twists, and most of all Hercule Poirot himself, the master detective.

Agatha completed the story. And moved on with her life. She took a course in shorthand and bookkeeping. The war ended. Archie came home and they moved to London. She gave birth to a daughter, Rosalind. They had very little money but would never have dreamed of doing who a full-time nurse and a full-time maid. Writing decades later, Agatha said “they were the last things we would have thought of dispensing with” (Christie, 268).

Several publishers rejected The Mysterious Affair at Styles. When one accepted, Agatha was so flattered that she immediately agreed to all the publisher’s terms, which meant she’d get practically nothing, but that wasn’t the point. She was published!

She had no plans to write another book. But one day when she was fretting about her mother’s financial situation. Archie said:

“Then why don’t you try and do something about it?”

“‘What do you mean, do something about it?’

“‘Well, you could write another book.'”

(Christie, 280)

This had, quite flatly, never occurred to her. Nor did she think she would make much money, but any was better than none. So she wrote a second book, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. And that was to clear her contract with the publisher so she could get herself an agent.

If she wasn’t making much money, she was at least making a reputation. The review she liked best came not from a literary critic, but from The Pharmaceutical Journal, which praised “this detective story for dealing with poisons in a knowledgeable way, and not with the nonsense about untraceable substances that so often happens. Miss Agatha Christie knows her job” (Christie, 283).

But even now she didn’t consider herself a professional. She was a wife first. A mother second. Writing was just a side thing she sort of did. So when Archie was offered a job on a scheme that would go around the world in a year. He took it, and Agatha went too.

Rosalind, age one, was no problem. Obviously, she and her nurse could go to Agatha’s mom for a year. The qualms she had were about missing her brother’s first trip home in years. But her mother was in favor of her going.

“‘A wife’s duty is to go with her husband,’ she said. ‘A husband must come first, even before your children. . . Remember, if you’re not with your husband, if you leave him too much, you’ll lose him. That’s specially true of a man like Archie.

“‘I’m sure that’s not so,’ I said indignantly. ‘Archie is the most faithful person in the world.’

“‘You never know with any man,’ said my mother, speaking in a true Victorian spirit. ‘A wife ought to be with her husband—and if she isn’t, then he feels he has a right to forget her.'”

(Christie, 288)

Agatha had a marvelous time. South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Canada, New York. It sparked a lifelong love of traveling to exotic places.

But no dream lasts forever. They came home to no job, no money, and a child who didn’t recognize them, all of which was entirely predictable.

Archie was not one who bore up well under stress. He had told her, even before they married, that he was no good in a crisis. She wrote:

“I had to accept from the first that he would be every day in a state of irritation, or else completely silent and sunk in melancholy. If I attempted to be cheerful I was told I had no sense of the gravity of the position; if I was gloomy I was told, ‘No use pulling a long face. You knew what you were letting yourself in for!'” In point of fact, he told her to go home to her mother. “‘But Archie,” she said, “‘I want to be with you; I want to share this—can’t we? Can’t we share it together? Isn’t there something I could do?’ Nowadays I suppose I could have said, ‘I’ll get a job,’ but it was not a thing one even thought of saying in 1923.”

(Christie, 309-310)

Of course, there were plenty of women who thought of getting a job, but not in Agatha’s social circle. And it wouldn’t have helped much if she’d tried. Women had worked during the war, doing their bit for home and country, but when the menfolk came home, women were badly paid or pushed out entirely.

So Agatha stayed to cook and clean. They even (gasp) had to give up the maid.

Times took an upswing eventually. Archie found a job. And Agatha got herself an agent who got her £500 for her next book. Agatha and Archie felt things were all better now and they bought that symbol of wealth and modernity: a car.

The problem with upswings is that they are followed by downswings. In April 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had been very close. Archie was in Spain for work, so he did not attend the funeral. When he showed up a week later, he was as uncomfortable as ever in the presence of unhappiness. He said, more or less—very sad—so sorry—let’s distract you with a fun trip in Spain, huh?

Agatha said no. She wasn’t ready for distraction. And anyway someone had to deal with her mother’s house. So she stayed and dealt with it, alone and grieving and depressed. Archie went back to work in Spain.

When he came back in August. Agatha wrote that “he was, quite simply, not Archie” (Christie, 350). It took him a day or two to come out with it, but finally he told her he was in love with someone else, and he wanted a divorce.

Even decades later, Agatha wrote quite bluntly that it was her fault. She had been raised to believe that a woman’s place was beside her husband a that if he strayed it was because she had failed to do her duty. It’s very clear in her autobiography: “I see now that I was wrong” she said of her decision not to go to Spain (Christie, 347). “He had never been the type who looked much at other women,” she wrote. “It was triggered off, perhaps—by the fact that he had missed his usual cheerful companion in the last few months” (Christie, 351). Therefore all the blame was hers. Her grief and sorrow simply were not worth considering, not next to his needs, apparently. All this is perfectly clear in the autobiography.

What is not clear, what is in fact just downright missing, is what happened next.

The conversations and brief meetings stretched out over months, as no agreement could be reached. On Friday, December 3rd, Archie said he was spending the weekend with friends and left. Agatha told the maid she was going to London and drove off.

She did not come back. On Saturday, her car was found a long way from anywhere, 300 yards off the road, stuck in a bush. Inside were Agatha’s coat and her driver’s license. Agatha was nowhere to be found.

And that is where I will leave you this week, in true detective-novel style, with a mystery hanging over your heads. Please come back next week to hear the rest of Agatha’s story. My major sources today are Agatha Christie’s Autobiography and Laura Thompson’s biography called Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. And if you happen to pick up And Then There Were None, or Murder on the Orient Express, or any of dozens of other Christie novels while you wait, I will be flattered. You can tell me about it on the website, or on Twitter @her_half or on Facebook at Her Half of History. Talk to you next week.

Selected Sources

Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Jordan, Tina. “When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished.” The New York Times, 11 June 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/books/agatha-christie-vanished-11-days-1926.html.

KCTS9. “The Mystery of Agatha Christie with David Suchet.” YouTube, 16 May 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLEWOWcU5-4. Accessed 19 May 2021.

Suggitt, Connie. “Five Record-Breaking Book Facts for National Bookshop Day.” Guinness World Records, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2018/10/5-page-turning-book-facts. Accessed 17 Mar. 2022.

Thompson, Laura. Agatha Christie : A Mysterious Life. London, Headline, 2020.

3 comments

  1. […] Agatha Christie wrote that her grandmother (and many others) always had a sewing-woman around. “They all had a certain resemblance to each other,” she wrote, “in that they were usually very refined, in unfortunate circumstances, treated with careful courtesy by the mistress of the house, and the family, and with no courtesy at all by the servants, were sent in meals on trays, and—as far as I can remember—were unable to produce any article of clothing that fitted. Everything was either too tight everywhere or else hung on one in loose folds. The answer to any complaint was usually: ‘Ah yes, but Miss James has had such an unfortunate life.'” (Christie, 40). I hope Agatha’s memories were more childlike than accurate because the situation sounds far more unbearable for Miss James than anyone else. Sadly, I’m afraid her perception of the situation was probably spot on. But the mistress of the house was benefitting: she didn’t have as much sewing to do and there’s no guarantee her work would have fitted any better. […]

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