Having visited Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway, earlier in the week, I was excited to hear that Torquay Museum, just down the road from where I was staying, plays host to Britain’s only Agatha Christie Gallery. The weather having turned to rain on my final day on the English Riviera, it was the perfect time for a visit.
And a very fine museum this is, too. My only regret about is that I didn’t have time to see more of it – its new Roman Empire exhibition, based around new discoveries in Ipplepen, sounded particularly appealing. I was booked on an afternoon train back to London, however – so Agatha (I like to think that by now we’re on first name terms) took precedence. I shall just have to plan another Devon holiday…
The exhibition charts, very sympathetically, the course of Mrs Christie’s life, focusing on a number of key events which are illustrated by an interesting array of artefacts and memorabilia, including costumes worn by Joan Hickson and David Suchet. Thrillingly, it also includes the art deco furniture, pictures and books which formed Poirot’s London flat in the final ITV Studios adaptation of ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’.
However, let’s travel back in time to 1890s Torquay, when Agatha Christie was born and the course of crime fiction was changed forever. As mentioned in my Greenway post, she was the product of an extremely happy marriage; Agatha herself would state, years later, that “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is…to have a happy childhood” and she and her two siblings lived a contented existence at the family’s Torquay home, Ashfield.
Incredible as it may seem now, Agatha was perceived as less academic than her siblings – but nonetheless had taught herself to read by the age of five. Thanks to her American stockbroker father, Frederick, having an independent income, the family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle – although it was also quite a solitary one for home-schooled Agatha. She would later credit this solitude with sparking in her a vivid imagination which, in turn, sparked a life-long love of writing stories.
However, her father’s death in 1901, when Agatha was just 11 years old, more or less marked the end of her childhood. Overnight, the family’s financial situation changed and, while able to hang on to Ashfield, all their servants bar two had to be let go. Straitened circumstances, but this wasn’t, let’s be honest, what we consider poverty: Agatha enjoyed an entertaining adolescence filled with dance & drama classes, rollerskating along Torquay pier, swimming in local coves and horse riding.
Agatha’s mother, Clara, has been described as “the love of Agatha’s life” by Christie’s biographer, Laura Thompson. She, the exhibition tells us, grew restless some years into her widowhood and began to travel, Agatha accompanying her. By 1910, on a holiday in colonial Egypt, the pair were on a hunt for a husband for Agatha.
Back home in Torquay, Agatha threw herself into local amateur dramatics. She was also continuing to write: having had a poem published in an Ealing magazine aged 11, Agatha had won several poetry prizes by her late teens. For her first novel, ‘Snow upon the Desert’, however, she was unable to find a publisher.
In 1912, Agatha met her first husband, Archie Christie, who she married in 1914 and who served in the Royal Flying Corp. I wrote about that unhappy period in Agatha’s life when I reviewed ‘Where is Mrs Christie?’ so, rather than dwell any more on it, will move on to Agatha’s war work – which had such a telling impact upon her subsequent writing career.
Volunteering as a nurse at Torquay Hospital, in 1915 Agatha was struck down by a bad bout of flu – a potential death sentence in those days. Returning to work some eight weeks later she was advised that, although her services were still sought after, there was no way the hospital could risk her infecting its patients.
Instead, Agatha was trained by a Torquay pharmacist in the art of dispensing – and, having passed the Apothecary Hall examination, joined the hospital as a dispenser. This, of course, is where she developed the knowledge of poison that would serve her so well as an author. And yet, as a career it left her cold. Years later, Agatha would comment: “I can’t say I enjoyed dispensing as much as nursing. I think I had a real vocation for nursing and would have been happy as a hospital nurse.”
Nursing’s loss was writing’s gain, however, as shortly after the close of WWII Agatha’s sister, Madge, challenged her to write a detective novel. The end result was ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ which, would you believe, was rejected a number of times by various publishers. It was finally published in 1920 – and Agatha was paid the princely sum of £25.
It was for ‘Styles’ that Agatha devised the character of Hercules Poirot, named after one of her Belgian patients. The exhibition is strong on explaining how Poirot, and Miss Marple, shaped Agatha’s career and I was interested to note that, in later life, Agatha grew tired of the “insufferable” Poirot – although it wasn’t until towards the end of her life that she dared to kill him off. She was far fonder of Miss Marple, whom Agatha described as “rather like some of my grandmother’s Ealing cronies…though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and was, with frightening accuracy, usually proved right”.
As for Hercule Poirot, that lynch pin of British detective fiction, his popularity never waned – so much so that, on 6th August 1975, he became the first fictional character to be given an obituary in The New York Times.
Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot never met, much as Agatha’s readers yearned for an encounter – but I was touched to read that Joan Hickson and David Suchet did meet, once – fittingly, at Torquay train station in September 1990, to celebrate Christie Centenary.
What a prolific author Agatha Christie, was. Translated into over 100 languages her books have sold three billion copies and been outsold only by The Bible and Shakespeare. And yet, she remained modest about her writing, telling the BBC in a 1955 interview that “the real work is done in thinking about the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right”.
22 films of her books have been made into films (few of which met with Agatha’s approval) and she also became a celebrated playwright; during the 1950s, no fewer than seven Agatha Christie productions ran in the West End. Nor was she afraid to take risks; ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, widely considered to be her best play, has stunned audiences and critics alike for decades with its ‘triple shock’ ending – an ending which everyone had advised Agatha to abandon.
All this, and a separate career accompanying her second husband, Max Mallowan, on archaeological digs abroad. No wonder that she counted her blessings on a regular basis, commenting in one of her final interviews: “What can I say at the age of 75? Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me”.
Five years after that statement, she became a Dame – and another five years later, Dame Agatha embarked upon the greatest mystery of all, leaving behind her husband of 46 years, one daughter and her grandson, Mathew, who continues to work so hard to preserve his grandmother’s legacy.