History Remarkable Women

Agatha Christie (Remarkable Women #25)

Early life

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on 15 September 1890, into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon. She was the youngest of three children born to Frederick Alvah Miller, “a gentleman of substance” and his wife Clarissa Margaret Miller (née Boehmer).

Fred and Clara Miller were married in London in 1878. Their first child, Margaret Frary (“Madge”), was born in Torquay in 1879. The second, Louis Montant (“Monty”), was born in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1880, while the family was on an extended visit to the United States.

In 1881, Fred and Clara used the inheritance by Fred’s father ( £2,000) to buy the leasehold of a villa in Torquay named Ashfield. It was here that their third and last child, Agatha, was born in 1890.

Agatha described her childhood as “very happy”. The Millers lived mainly in Devon but often visited her step-grandmother/great-aunt Margaret Miller in Ealing and maternal grandmother Mary Boehmer in Bayswater. A year was spent abroad with her family in the French Pyrenees, Paris, Dinard, and Guernsey.

Because her siblings were so much older and there were few children in their neighbourhood, Agatha spent much of her time playing alone with her pets and imaginary companions. She eventually made friends with other girls in Torquay, noting that “one of the highlights of my existence” was her appearance with them in a youth production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Yeomen of the Guard, in which she played the hero, Colonel Fairfax.

Clara believed Agatha should not learn to read until she was eight but thanks to her curiosity, she was reading by age four. Margaret had been sent to a boarding school, but their mother insisted that Agatha receive a home education. As a result, her parents and sister supervised her studies in reading, writing, and basic arithmetic, a subject she particularly enjoyed. They also taught her music and she learned to play the piano and the mandolin.

Agatha was a voracious reader from an early age. Among her earliest memories were reading children’s books by Mrs Molesworth and Edith Nesbit. When a little older, she moved on to the surreal verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. As an adolescent, she enjoyed works by Anthony Hope, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas.

In April 1901, aged 10, she wrote her first poem, “The Cow Slip”.

By 1901, her father’s health had deteriorated, because of what he believed were heart problems Fred died in November 1901 from pneumonia and chronic kidney disease. Agatha later said that her father’s death when she was 11 marked the end of her childhood

The family’s financial situation had by this time worsened. Margaret married the year after their father’s death and moved to Cheadle, Cheshire while Monty was overseas, serving in a British regiment. Agatha now lived alone at Ashfield with her mother.

In 1902, she began attending Miss Guyer’s Girls’ School in Torquay but found it difficult to adjust to the disciplined atmosphere. In 1905, her mother sent her to Paris, where she was educated in a series of pensionnats (boarding schools), focusing on voice training and piano playing. Deciding she lacked the temperament and talent, she gave up her goal of performing professionally as a concert pianist or an opera singer.

Marriage & Literary success

After completing her education, Agatha returned to England to find her mother ailing. They decided to spend the northern winter of 1907–1908 in the warm climate of Egypt, which was then a regular tourist destination for wealthy Britons.

They stayed for three months at the Gezirah Palace Hotel in Cairo. Agatha attended many dances and other social functions and she particularly enjoyed watching amateur polo matches. While they visited some ancient Egyptian monuments such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, she did not exhibit the great interest in archaeology and Egyptology that developed in her later years. Returning to Britain, she continued her social activities, writing and performing in amateur theatricals. She also helped put on a play called The Blue Beard of Unhappiness with female friends.

in 1908, Agatha wrote her first short story, “The House of Beauty”, while recovering in bed from an illness. It consisted of about 6,000 words on “madness and dreams”, a subject of fascination for her. Her biographer, Janet Morgan, has commented that, despite “infelicities of style”, the story was “compelling”.

Other stories followed, most of them illustrating her interest in spiritualism and the paranormal. These included “The Call of Wings” and “The Little Lonely God“. Magazines rejected all her early submissions, made under pseudonyms (including Mac Miller, Nathaniel Miller and Sydney West). Some submissions were later revised and published under her real name, often with new titles.

Around the same time, Agatha began work on her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert. Writing under the pseudonym Monosyllaba, she set the book in Cairo and drew upon her recent experiences there. She was disappointed when the six publishers she contacted declined the work.

Clara suggested that her daughter ask for advice from the successful novelist Eden Phillpotts, a family friend and neighbour, who responded to her enquiry, encouraged her writing and sent her an introduction to his own literary agent, Hughes Massie, who also rejected Snow Upon the Desert but suggested a second novel.

Meanwhile, Agatha’s social activities expanded with country house parties, riding, hunting, dances and roller skating. She had short-lived relationships with four men and an engagement to another.

In October 1912, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford at Ugbrooke, about 12 miles (19 kilometres) from Torquay. The son of a barrister in the Indian Civil Service, Archie was an army officer who was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in April 1913. The couple quickly fell in love. Three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed marriage and Agatha accepted.

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Archie was sent to France to fight. They married on Christmas Eve 1914 at Emmanuel Church, Clifton, Bristol, close to the home of his mother and stepfather, while Archie was on home leave. Rising through the ranks, he was posted back to Britain in September 1918 as a colonel in the Air Ministry. Agatha involved herself in the war effort as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross.

From October 1914 to May 1915, then from June 1916 to September 1918, she worked 3,400 hours in the Town Hall Red Cross Hospital, Torquay, first as am unpaid nurse and then as a dispenser at £16 (approximately equivalent to £900 in 2019) a year from 1917 after qualifying as an apothecaries’ assistant. Her war service ended in September 1918 when Archie was reassigned to London and they rented a flat in St. John’s Wood.

Agatha had long been a fan of detective novels, having enjoyed Wilkie Collins‘s The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and Arthur Conan Doyle‘s early Sherlock Holmes stories. She wrote her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916.

It featured Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer with “magnificent moustaches” and a head “exactly the shape of an egg”, who had taken refuge in Britain after Germany invaded Belgium. Agatha’s inspiration for the character came from Belgian refugees living in Torquay and the Belgian soldiers she helped to treat as a volunteer nurse during the First World War.

Her original manuscript was rejected by Hodder & Stoughton and Methuen. After keeping the submission for several months, John Lane at The Bodley Head offered to accept it, provided that Agatha change how the solution was revealed. She did so and signed a contract committing her next five books to The Bodley Head, which she later felt was exploitative It was published in 1920.

Agatha settled into married life, giving birth to her only child, Rosalind Margaret Clarissa, in August 1919 at Ashfield. Archie left the Air Force at the end of the war and began working in the City financial sector at a relatively low salary.

Her second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922), featured a new detective couple Tommy and Tuppence, again published by The Bodley Head. It earned her £50 (approximately equivalent to £2,800 in 2019). A third novel, Murder on the Links, again featured Poirot, as did the short stories commissioned by Bruce Ingram, editor of The Sketch magazine, from 1923. She now had no difficulty selling her work.

In 1922, the Christies joined an around-the-world promotional tour for the British Empire Exhibition, led by Major Ernest Belcher. Leaving their daughter with Agatha’s mother and sister, in 10 months they travelled to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada. They learned to surf prone in South Africa; then, in Waikiki, they were among the first Britons to surf standing up.

When they returned to England, Archie resumed work in the city and Agatha continued to work hard at her writing. After living in a series of apartments in London, they bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they renamed Styles after the mansion in Agatha’s first detective novel.

Agatha’s mother, Clarissa Miller, died in April 1926. They had been exceptionally close and the loss sent Agatha into a deep depression. In August 1926, reports appeared in the press that Agatha had gone to a village near Biarritz to recuperate from a “breakdown” caused by “overwork”.

Disappearance in 1926

In August 1926, Archie asked Agatha for a divorce. He had fallen in love with Nancy Neele, a friend of Major Belcher. On 3 December 1926, the pair quarrelled after Archie announced his plan to spend the weekend with friends, unaccompanied by his wife. Late that evening, Agatha disappeared from their home. The following morning, her car, a Morris Cowley, was discovered at Newlands Corner, parked above a chalk quarry with an expired driving licence and clothes inside.

The disappearance quickly became a news story, as the press sought to satisfy their readers’ “hunger for sensation, disaster, and scandal”. Home secretary William Joynson-Hicks pressured police and a newspaper offered a £100 reward (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in 2019).

More than a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers and several aeroplanes searched the rural landscape. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave a spirit medium one of Agatha’s gloves to find her. Agatha’s disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Despite the extensive manhunt, she was not found for another 10 days.

On 14 December 1926, she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, registered as Mrs Tressa Neele (the surname of her husband’s lover) from “Capetown S.A.” (South Africa). The next day, Agatha left for her sister’s residence at Abney Hall, Cheadle, where she was sequestered “in guarded hall, gates locked, telephone cut off, and callers turned away“.

Agatha’s autobiography makes no reference to the disappearance. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from “an unquestionable genuine loss of memory“, yet opinion remains divided over the reason for her disappearance. Some, including her biographer Janet Morgan, believe she disappeared during a fugue state. The author Jared Cade concluded that Agatha planned the event to embarrass her husband but did not anticipate the resulting public melodrama.

Biographer Laura Thompson provides an alternative view that Agatha disappeared during a nervous breakdown, conscious of her actions but not in emotional control of herself. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, supposing a publicity stunt or an attempt to frame her husband for murder.

Second marriage & Later life

In January 1927, Agatha looking “very pale”, sailed with her daughter and secretary to Las Palmas, Canary Islands, to “complete her convalescence”, returning three months later. Agatha petitioned for divorce and was granted a decree nisi against her husband in April 1928, which was made absolute in October 1928. Archie married Nancy Neele a week later. Agatha retained custody of their daughter and kept the Christie surname for her writing.

Reflecting on the period in her autobiography, Agatha wrote, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

In 1928, Agatha left England and took the (Simplon) Orient Express to Istanbul and then to Baghdad. In Iraq, she became friends with archaeologist Leonard Woolley and his wife, who invited her to return to their dig in February 1930.

On that second trip, she met archaeologist Max Mallowan, 13 years her junior. In a 1977 interview, Mallowan recounted his first meeting with Agatha, when he took her and a group of tourists on a tour of his expedition site in Iraq.

Agatha and Mallowan married in Edinburgh in September 1930. She accompanied Mallowan on his archaeological expeditions and her travels with him contributed the background to several of her novels set in the Middle East. Other novels (such as Peril at End House) were set in and around Torquay, where she was raised.

Agatha drew on her experience of international train travel when writing her 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. The Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, the southern terminus of the railway, claims the book was written there and maintains Agatha’s room as a memorial to the author.

Agatha and Mallowan lived in Chelsea, first in Cresswell Place and later in Sheffield Terrace. Both properties are now marked by blue plaques. In 1934, they bought Winterbrook House in Winterbrook, a hamlet near Wallingford. This was their main residence for the rest of their lives and the place where Agatha did much of her writing. Agatha led a quiet life despite being known in Wallingford.

The couple acquired the Greenway Estate in Devon as a summer residence in 1938. Agatha frequently stayed at Abney Hall, Cheshire, which was owned by her brother-in-law, James Watts, and based at least two stories there: a short story “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” in the story collection of the same name and the novel After the Funeral.

One Christie compendium notes that “Abney became Agatha’s greatest inspiration for country-house life, with all its servants and grandeur being woven into her plots. The descriptions of the fictional Chimneys, Stonygates, and other houses in her stories are mostly Abney Hall in various forms.”

During World War II, Agatha worked in the pharmacy at University College Hospital (UCH), London, where she updated her knowledge of poisons. Her later novel The Pale Horse was based on a suggestion from Harold Davis, the chief pharmacist at UCH. In 1977, a thallium poisoning case was solved by British medical personnel who had read Agatha’s book and recognised the symptoms she described.

The British intelligence agency MI5 investigated Agatha after a character called Major Bletchley appeared in her 1941 thriller N or M?, which was about a hunt for a pair of deadly fifth columnists in wartime England. MI5 was concerned that Agatha had a spy in Britain’s top-secret codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The agency’s fears were allayed when Agatha told her friend, the codebreaker Dilly Knox, “I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters.”

Agatha was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950. In honour of her many literary works, Agatha was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1956 New Year Honours. She was co-president of the Detection Club from 1958 to her death in 1976.

In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature degree by the University of Exeter. In the 1971 New Year Honours, she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), three years after her husband had been knighted for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also be styled Lady Mallowan.

From 1971 to 1974, Agatha’s health began to fail, but she continued to write. Her last novel was Postern of Fate in 1973. Textual analysis suggested that Agatha may have begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia at about this time.

Personal qualities & preferences

In 1946, Agatha said of herself: “My chief dislikes are crowds, loud noises, gramophones and cinemas. I dislike the taste of alcohol and do not like smoking. I do like sun, sea, flowers, travelling, strange foods, sports, concerts, theatres, pianos, and doing embroidery.”

Agatha’s works of fiction contain some character stereotypes seen as objectionable in modern times, but in real life, many of her biases were positive. After four years of war-torn London, Agatha hoped to return some day to Syria, which she described as a “gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life; who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible”.

Agatha was a lifelong, “quietly devout”  member of the Church of England, attended church regularly and kept her mother’s copy of The Imitation of Christ by her bedside. After her divorce, she stopped taking the sacrament of communion.

The Agatha Christie Trust For Children was established in 1969 and shortly after Agatha’s death a charitable memorial fund was set up to “help two causes that she favoured: old people and young children”.

Agatha’s obituary in The Times notes that “she never cared much for the cinema, or for wireless and television.” Further,

Dame Agatha’s private pleasures were gardening – she won local prizes for horticulture – and buying furniture for her various houses. She was a shy person: she disliked public appearances: but she was friendly and sharp-witted to meet. By inclination as well as breeding she belonged to the English upper middle-class. She wrote about, and for, people like herself. That was an essential part of her charm.


Agatha died peacefully on 12 January 1976 at age 85 from natural causes at her home at Winterbrook House. When her death was announced, two West End theatres – the St. Martin’s where The Mousetrap was playing, and the Savoy, which was home to a revival of Murder at the Vicarage – dimmed their outside lights in her honour.

She was buried in the nearby churchyard of St Mary’s, Cholsey, in a plot she had chosen with her husband 10 years before. The simple funeral service was attended by about 20 newspaper and TV reporters, some having travelled from as far away as South America. 30 wreaths adorned Agatha’s grave, including one from the cast of her long-running play The Mousetrap and one sent “on behalf of the multitude of grateful readers” by the Ulverscroft Large Print Book Publishers.

Max Mallowan, who remarried in 1977, died in 1978 and was buried next to Agatha.

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