by Christina Morgan Cree
This is the second part of a 3 part series about Agatha Christie’s life. Check out part 1 and watch for Part 3 here in KRL sometime in December or January.
“I personally had no ambition. I knew that I was not very good at anything… How much more interesting it would be if I could say that I always longed to be a writer, and was determined that someday I would succeed, but, honestly, such an idea never came into my head.” Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
After the death of her father and the marriage of her sister, Agatha and her mother decided to cut back on whatever expenses they could in order stay in their home at Ashfield. Agatha didn’t mind going without and spent much of her time with friends swimming or roller skating on the pier. Some of the locals put on regular musical productions; she describes her one and only performance in one of these operettas as “one of the highlights of my existence.” She recalls in her autobiography, “As far as I remember, I felt no stage fright. Strangely enough for a terribly shy person, who very often can hardly bring herself to enter a shop and who has to grit her teeth before arriving at a large party, there was one activity in which I never felt nervous at all, and that was singing.”
Agatha, who had never had any formal education, was now enrolled in a girl’s school in Torquay. She enjoyed math and was good at it, however, “Grammar I could not understand in the least: I could not see why certain things were called prepositions or what verbs were supposed to do.”
Her essays and stories were regularly criticized by her teachers for being “too fanciful” and “for not keeping to the subject.” She’d often start with one theme and then rabbit-trail to something entirely different. For instance her story “Autumn” began with “golden and brown leaves,” then somehow a pig wandered in and the story ended with Curlytail the pig hosting a Beechnut party for his friends.
Her mother, true to character, suddenly announced one day that Agatha was going to finishing school in France. Agatha made new friends there and enjoyed her music classes especially. She attended three different finishing schools in all.
After France, she spent her time traveling; mostly on invitation from a friend or new acquaintance. She was at that age, too, where the main objective in life was to find a husband. Her sister, Madge, who loved poking fun at Agatha, made up a game called “Agatha’s Husbands.” Madge would pick out two to three of the most “repellent-looking” men in the room and tell Agatha that she had to choose one of them to marry.
“Now then, Agatha, which will you have – the fat young one with pimples…or that [hairy] one like a gorilla with the bulging eyes?”
Madge was considered by Agatha to be the talented one. Vivacious and clever like her mother, she seemed to excel at everything she tried. Before she was married, Madge wrote some short stories that were published in Vanity Fair. Later on she wrote a few plays, one of which, “The Claimant,” played at the Royal Theatre in the West End.
Agatha’s only serious attempt at writing was at the age of 11, when she wrote a poem that was published in the local newspaper. It was four verses opposing the new trams in their residential town. “I was elated at seeing myself in print, but I cannot say that it led me to contemplate a literary career.”
Later on, she wrote a few poems that were published in The Poetry Review. However, her first real attempt at a story came about while lying in bed, recovering from the flu. She had read as much as she could and was tired of solitaire card games. Her mother suggested she write a story.
“Write a story?”
“Yes, like Madge.”
“Oh, I don’t think I could.”
“Why not?” asked her mother. “You don’t know that you can’t because you’ve never tried.”
Agatha had finished “The House of Beauty” by the next evening. She went on to write several more stories and tried to get them published in different magazines, but without success. Next she tackled her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, set in Cairo. A family friend, who was currently a successful author, read it and sent a letter to a well-known publisher on Agatha’s behalf, but it was rejected.
Agatha was a popular local singer and accompanist and performed frequently. For years she had harbored a secret ambition to one day sing opera. She was given an informal audition by a friend who was with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. “Your voice is not strong enough for opera, and never will be,” was the verdict. Agatha stopped voice lessons feeling they were a waste of money. She now turned her focus to writing.
Around this time Agatha and her sister Madge had a conversation that would later become legendary. They had been discussing a new mystery they had both read entitled, The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Le Roux. Agatha said that she’d like to try writing a detective story.
“I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge. “They are very difficult to do. I’ve thought about it.”
“I should like to try.”
“Well, I bet you couldn’t.”
In her autobiography she writes, “. . .From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story. . . I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out; the seed had been sown. At the back of my mind, where stories of the books I am going to write take their place long before the germination of the seed occurs, the idea had been planted: some day I would write a detective story.”
By this time, Agatha was actively husband-hunting. Though shy, she had no shortage of proposals from men who professed to have fallen in love with her at first sight. She was engaged three times. It was during the third (long-distance) engagement that she and Archie Christie met and fell madly in love. He was an aviator hoping to get into the Royal Flying Corps. It was a tumultuous engagement; on and off again, up and down, and lasted a year and a half.
While Archie was away flying, Agatha took nursing classes which was a popular way to pass the time for the women her age. Then war came and Agatha served in the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as a nurse. Archie finally had 3 days leave over Christmas and Agatha and her mother went to meet him. Even though they had decided not to marry until later, Archie characteristically had a sudden change of mind and they were married on Christmas Eve, 1914. He was called to France to fight the Germans the day after Christmas and they did not see each other for another six months.
During his absence, Agatha became very sick with a bad flu and could not return to her hospital work for a month. When she returned, she was reassigned to the dispensary. She enjoyed nursing much more than working with drugs and prescriptions, but it was to be through her work at the dispensary where she learned about the poisons that would later be central to many of her plots. From Agatha Christie by Janet Morgan: “In carefully ruled notebooks she described in alphabetical order the appearance and properties of various substances, the sources from which they may be derived, their active principles and the substances with which they are incompatible.”
In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran, we find entries of unused story ideas showing her in-depth knowledge of poisons:
“Nitro benzene-point is-it sinks to bottom of glass-woman takes sip from it-then gives it to her husband”
“Camphor in capsule”
“Strychnine or drug absorbed through skin”
“Lanolin poison? Strychnine? The poison that makes everything yellow (applied to dress-very misleading as another girl had a yellow dress)”
It was during the many periods of free time in the dispensary that Agatha revisited the idea of writing a detective story. Working in a dispensary, she had a good knowledge of poisons and so that was the natural choice. For her characters, she drew more from strangers she’d see on her way home instead of friends and acquaintances; that way she could create them to be whatever she wanted. She modeled her detective after the many Belgian refugees living nearby and could never remember exactly how she came up with the name “Poirot.” She recalls that while working out the story in her head she became “absent-minded and “forgetful.” She finally began writing it down, first by hand, then on Madge’s old typewriter. “I was excited by my new effort. Up to a point I enjoyed it. But I got very tired, I also got cross. Writing has that effect, I find.”
By 1918, Archie was stationed back in London. It had been two years since Agatha had seen him last (and nearly four years since they had married). Now, finally, they could begin their life together. They rented a flat in London which meant Agatha had to leave work at the hospital. She took shorthand and bookkeeping classes and, before long, found she was pregnant. Her only daughter, Rosalind, was born in August of 1919.
After nearly two years, Agatha heard from Lane at The Bodly Head. He wanted to publish The Mysterious Affair at Styles on the condition that she write an alternative ending to the court scene that was the final chapter. She agreed and The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920 to excellent reviews. She made next to nothing on her first book. Like so many new authors, she was so elated to have a book in print that the terms of the contract didn’t seem very important at the time. She had wanted to use the pen name “Martin West” but Lane convinced her to use her own.
She wrote two more mysteries: The Secret Adversary, the first featuring married sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence, and another Poirot mystery, Murder on the Links. Then life took a new turn. Archie was offered a job organizing a world tour to promote the British Empire Exhibition. They left Rosalind with Agatha’s mother and sister and travelled to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, where they were the first Britons to surf standing up.
Once back in England they moved to the country. Agatha had completed two more novels: The Man in the Brown Suit and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was now earning a decent income from her writing.
1924 was a difficult year for Agatha and one she hated recalling as long as she lived. Her mother, whom she was very close to, died unexpectedly. She was devastated. Archie was never able to deal with any kind of upset, illness or unhappiness very well. He tried to persuade her to go to Spain with him, but she stayed to clean out her mother’s house, her childhood home, Ashfield. Alone and secluded and overwhelmed with memories, she sank into a deep depression and then what she describes as a “nervous breakdown”, crying “for no reason” and forgetting her own name.
The next time she saw Archie, he was a stranger. He had changed. He soon confessed that he had fallen in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. He had made up his mind. She stuck it out for a year hoping he would change his mind, but knowing he wouldn’t. It was during this time that she went missing for several days. Her car was found in a chalk pit in Surrey. She then turned up at a hotel in Yorkshire under the name “Mrs. Teresa Neele” from Cape Town. At the time she claimed to have had amnesia. She doesn’t mention it in her autobiography and there has been much speculation about her disappearance. In Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days, Jared Cade suggests that, according to the testimony of relatives and several witnesses, she had planned the disappearance to embarrass Archie without realizing the sensational publicity that would result.
Agatha and Archie divorced in 1928. She needed money badly and her publisher was awaiting her next book, yet she had not been able to write anything since her mother’s death. It was suggested that she take several short stories she had written for a magazine and work them together into a book. The result was The Big Four, published in 1927. She continued to write one novel per year after that: The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) and in 1930 she wrote her first book featuring Miss Jane Marple (Agatha’s favorite character), The Murder at the Vicarage.
She was now a professional author which she defined as “to write even when you don’t want to.” Rosalind was now at school and Agatha was to leave in two days on a trip to the West Indies and Jamaica. But fate intervened in the form of a couple who had just come back from Baghdad. The more they talked about Baghdad, the more Agatha felt she had to go. She woke up the next morning, cancelled her ticket to Jamaica and instead made a reservation to Baghdad on the Orient Express.
All quotes not otherwise noted, are from Agatha Christie An Autobiography.
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Agatha Christie Books on Amazon