Hercule Poirot solves mysteries with “the little grey cells.” Miss Maple knits away, unnoticed in a corner of the room. Oh, but her keen observations and propensity for eavesdropping foils the murderer every time! While Agatha Christie characters have obtained a life of their own, exactly how much do we know about their creator? Little before her autobiography was published posthumously in 1977, because Christie abhorred the spotlight; refusing all requests for interviews. A humble author, she never wanted her private life to outshine her literary achievements.
I’m recommending an autobiography published 36 years ago because it contains timely lessons for parents, educators, authors and travelers, as well as the recollections of a fascinating person. Written true to form, it’s a must for all Christie fans.
Born in Devon, England, in 1890, Christie opens her story with a sentence every parent should note. “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood.” In spite of having financial problems and two very different personalities, her parents “loved each other dearly.” That love provided Christie with a strong foundation, and served her well through two World Wars, economic troubles, career setbacks and personal disasters.
Growing up in a rambling Victorian home, Ashfield House, it may appear as if her family was wealthy, but appearances are often deceiving. English property taxes, then as now, kept the family land-rich but cash-poor. Yes, she had a nanny, and there was a cook and groundskeeper; however, labor was inexpensive at the turn of the 20th century, allowing even middle-class families to have a staff.
The most unexpected fact her autobiography reveals is that Christie had no formal education. Her mother believed there was little need for a girl to learn to read before the age of 8. But with a house filled with books – and people who read to her daily – she began reading “almost through osmosis” before the age of 6. Her home schooling was lax at best, which gave Christie plenty of time to play and use her vivid imagination. Early in her childhood, she invented characters, wrote stories and plays; and enlisted those around her to put on performances for her parents.
She became accomplished in math through word puzzles. Her geography, history and science lessons also came directly through books found in the family library and what she observed in nature. The only subject she couldn’t master was French. Her mother solved that problem, killing two birds with one stone, by moving the family to France for the summer. Renting out Ashfield House covered the annual property taxes, and hiring a French nanny, who spoke little English, forced Agatha to learn the language.
Christie’s math and science abilities were used when she worked in a pharmacy during World War I, compounding prescriptions. Naturally, learning what substances are poisonous later came in handy when she began writing mysteries. For that reason, she is rightfully considered the crown jewel of the home-schooled crowd. So much for the argument that in order to succeed in life children must spend endless hours in a classroom!
Want-to-be writers often wonder how famous authors became successful. Read this autobiography to find out. Producing more than 70 books and numerous short stories and plays, Christie’s career proves that hard work and perseverance matters more than luck. It was literally years before her work was acknowledged, and she made a major mistake shared by many other first-time authors. To get her first book published, Christie signed a contract to produce five additional novels – for what amounted to chump-change! After fulfilling her contractual obligations, she moved on, wiser for the experience.
Sadly, her writing success probably destroyed her first marriage. In 1914, she met and married Archie Christie, a pilot in the Flying Corps. Christie’s only child, Rosalind, was born five years later. While we get some information about their divorce in 1926, Christie doesn’t dwell on the subject. However, the date does indeed coincide with the publication of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” the first mystery to garner both the acclaim and royalties she deserved.
Christie’s passion for traveling was almost as great as her need to write. Her preferred mode of transportation was the train, but not just because of the scenic views. Train trips gave her time to observe people from many different backgrounds and cultures, as well as providing knowledge of exotic settings. “Your travel life has the essence of a dream,” she writes. Yet, whether in England, France, Egypt, Syria, Australia or America; she lugged her trusty manual typewriter around the world.
Two of her best tips for travelers are “just go” and “never complain about what you cannot change.” She often started her journeys on a shoestring, believing traveling “second-class” far outweighed not getting to see new and magnificent places and the ancient wonders of the world. Her second tip refers to natural disasters, uncomfortable trips or a change in the itinerary because of political unrest; all of which she experienced numerous times in the Middle East.
I found it amusing that her second tip also landed her a second husband. She was traveling alone in Iraq and needed a way to get to Baghdad, when Max Mallowan, an archeologist, offered to drive her there. But first they had to make a detour through the desert so he could visit a site in Ukhaidir. There the car “sunk gently into the sand and refused to move.” As the sun blazed overhead and the hours dragged on, Christie decided her only option was to lie down in the shelter of the car and take a nap. That’s when Mallowan decided she would be an excellent wife.
Her childhood recollections demonstrate how technology and customs changed rapidly during the 20th century. When she was a teenager, she paid a “barnstormer” to take her on her first airplane ride, then lived long enough to witness men walking on the moon. Until she was about 25 years old, English women swam at “for female only beaches,” where they were lowered into the sea in a small hut that shielded them from men’s prying eyes and protected their “dignity.” It wasn’t until she was about 30 years old and learning to surf in Hawaii that she dared to purchase a scandalously modern one-piece bathing suit.
I only have space to give you a limited overview of this book. For me, the best parts include how she took the Blitz in stride and her volunteer work during WWII. Plus, I confess to dreaming of walking in her footsteps, as I read about her adventures on numerous archeological digs with Max.
She began writing her story in 1950, but it wasn’t completed until 1975 because she believed “writing an autobiography is an indulgence” that should never get in the way of real work. Cleverly written, entertaining and informative, read “Agatha Christie – An Autobiography;” and you’ll be glad she found the time to indulge us.