Women in Writing: The Fascinating Life of Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie claimed “People should be interested in books, not their authors." However, it’s difficult not to take an interest in hers when she lived a life as colourful as those of her characters.
Agatha Christie has thoroughly cemented her place as one of the world’s most famous mystery writers. Her prolific list of publications spans over 60 novels, 150 short stories and 30 plays. She also wrote six semi-autobiographical novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, though her identity was revealed nearly 20 years later. Only the Bible and Shakespeare’s works have sold more copies than her books and her writing has been translated into over 100 languages.
Born to a middle-class family in Devon in 1890, Christie was homeschooled during her early years. Undeterred by her mother’s plan not to teach her to read until she was eight, Christie taught herself to read by the age of five, quickly becoming enamored by the popular children’s books of the time. From the age of 15, Christie studied to be a classical musician but was too shy to pursue it professionally. During the First World War, she worked as a VAD nurse and later at a hospital dispensary where she gained a knowledge of poisons that she would put to good use throughout her writing career. It was during this time that she began to write detective stories, prompted by a bet with her sister Madge that she couldn’t write a good detective tale. Her debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920, after being rejected by six publishers. In 1922, she toured the British Empire with her husband, Archie, to promote the British Empire Exhibition. While in Cape Town, she supposedly became the first British woman to ever surf standing up.
In his essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde wrote “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This certainly seemed to be the case when Christie’s own life began to mimic the stories she wrote and she disappeared on December 3rd 1926. That night, she had left her home in Berkshire and gotten into her car, which was found abandoned the next morning, prompting one of the largest ever manhunts. Crime writers, Dorothy L. Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were brought onto the case to lend their expertise knowledge. Prior to the incident, Christie’s marriage had been deteriorating as her husband engaged in an affair with Nancy Neele, leading to suspicion that he had murdered her. However, Christie was discovered 11 days later at the Swan Hydro hotel in Harrogate, claiming to have no memory of what had happened. Even more curiously, she had checked into the hotel under the name Theresa Neele, aping the name of her husband’s mistress. Christie never publicly spoke about the days she had spent missing, with some speculating that it had been a publicity stunt. Biographer Andrew Norman believed she had been experiencing a ‘fugue state,’ a psychiatric disorder usually accompanied by unplanned travelling and short-term amnesia regarding one’s past and identity, typically caused by emotional stress or trauma. Christie later divorced Archie and married archeologist Max Mallowan, accompanying him on digs around the world.
Christie continued to gain worldwide recognition. The characters she created were so memorable that when her fictional detective Hercule Poirot died, a full-page obituary for him was published in the New York Times. Her plots were so realistic and accurate to the point that her description of thallium poisoning in The Pale Horse was described by a pathologist as the only source outside of reference books where such accurate information was portrayed. This led to speculation that the book could have provided serial killer Graham Young with information about the poison which he used to kill three people and poison an unknown number of others. She was even investigated by MI5 during the Second World War after the publication of her novel N or M?. In the novel, one of her characters was coincidentally named Major Bletchley, leading to suspicions that Christie had obtained classified information from the secret codebreaking base in Bletchley Park.
Agatha Christie won numerous awards throughout her life and she was made a dame in 1971. She continued to write into her 80s, dying peacefully in 1976. To this day, Agatha Christie has remained a household name and she continues to retain her title as a master of crime fiction.