Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller, she was the youngest daughter of New Yorker Frederick Alvah Miller and Clarissa Boehmer, daughter of a British Army Officer. We look at her troubled ancestry and her life which takes you to the dramatic settings used in her books.
The story begins with Agatha's maternal grand-mother Mary Ann West, who was one of eleven orphaned children raised by a relative on a farm in Sussex, and is the inspiration behind the famous character 'Miss Marple'. At the age of 16, Mary was swept off her feet by a 36 year old Frederick Boehmer, an officer in the 91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot. Despite her family's disapproval, Mary married him in 1851, however their happiness was short lived. Frederick was thrown from his horse and died whilst stationed in Jersey in 1863, leaving Mary alone at 27 with four children. He had unwisely invested all his savings before his death and left Mary in a desperate situation with no financial support.
Her sister Margaret on the other hand, had been dealt a better hand of fortune and met a wealthy American widower, Nathaniel Miller, whilst working at a hotel in Portsmouth and married him in 1863. The Miller's settled in Cheshire and offered to raise one of Mary's children as their own.
Clarissa, then aged 9, was sent to live with her aunt and saved from a life of destitution into one of luxury and privilege.
It was through her aunt that Clarissa met the love of her life Frederick Alvah Miller, her aunt's step-son who was raised in New York. The step-cousins were married in 1878, and planned to eventually move back to America, but after the birth of their first two children, Margaret and Louis, Frederick was called back on business and decided it would be best if Clarissa stay behind and rented a place temporarily.
"They moved to Cairo..."
He was surprised on his return to find that Clarissa had purchased a house in Torquay on Barton Road, and it was therefore here that the family settled, and Agatha, the youngest child was born.
In 1901, Clarissa's happy family life was torn apart in echoes of her mother Mary's own tragedy, when Frederick developed pneumonia and died. Clarissa was forced to rent out their house in Torquay and moved with Agatha to the continent, where living costs were cheaper. Agatha experienced for the first time, a variety of different cultures. After attending finishing school in Europe, Agatha had her first season in Cairo, creating a love of the Middle East that we see in many of her novels.
Upon her return to Torquay, Agatha met the very charming Lieutenant Archibald Christie, who was stationed in Exeter and awaiting acceptance into the Royal Flying Corps. They courted for a long period, with Agatha reluctant to marry him until she was sure he could afford to support them.
"She mysteriously disappeared..."
When World War I started, Archibald was sent to France and fought in the Marne and Aisne, whilst Agatha became a nurse with the Red Cross. The dangers facing Archibald on the front convinced Agatha that they had courted for long enough, and whilst on leave in 1914, Agatha and Archibald were married on Christmas Eve. Their honeymoon period was only a brief few weeks as Archibald returned to the front for another six months. In 1916, Agatha accepted her own assignment to work at a pharmacy where she began to develop a knowledge of poisons, which would be put to good use in her later crime novels, where poison was often the weapon of choice. During a trip to Dartmoor in 1918, she started writing her first detective novel, and completed it in only two weeks. She sent the manuscript for 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' to three publishers. Two sent it back and one never replied, so Agatha put her hobby to one side and carried on with the war effort.
In the final months of the War, Archibald took a post in London and the Christies moved to a new house at 5 Northwich Terrace. When the War ended, he took in a job in the City, and Agatha became pregnant with their first and only child Rosalind, born in August 1919. Archibald can be found in his new profession in the 'The Directory of Directors 1936' part of the Occupational records collection on TheGenealogist. Agatha received further good news in 1920, when the publisher that had never returned her manuscript decided to publish the novel, and two years later published another she had written 'The Secret Adversary'.
After two years travelling around the world, as part of a tour promoting the British Empire Exhibition, they bought a house in Sunningdale, which they named 'Styles House' after her first book. It provided an easy commute to London and was close to a golf course where Archibald frequently played. The Christie's relationship then began to falter as Archibald struggled to find suitable work and failed to provide Agatha with the support she needed when her mother Clarissa died in 1926. After falling for another woman, Nancy Neele, on a golfing weekend, Archibald asked Agatha for a divorce. In a short space of time, Agatha's whole world had fallen apart and she mysteriously disappeared for 11 days until found at a hotel registered under the name of Mrs Neele. She clung to the hope that he would change his mind, but the divorce was finalised in 1928.
"She took the Orient Express to Baghdad..."
Following this dark period, Agatha picked herself up and set about rebuilding her life. She took the Orient Express to Baghdad and met Sir Leonard Woolley and his wife Lady Katherine who were at an archaeological dig in Ur. They became friends and invited her to a second dig in February 1930, where she met Sir Leonard's assistant Max Mallowan. His duties included escorting visitors and when Agatha heard that her daughter was ill, he offered to escort her back to Paris.
Romance quickly developed between them, despite Agatha being 14 years older, and they were married a few months later in Edinburgh in September 1930. They were a perfect match and travelled everywhere together, with Agatha writing novels whilst Max continued his archaeological work. In 1934, they settled back in England and purchased a large country house in Wallingford, 'Winterbrook House'.
During the Second World War, Max was sent to the Middle East where his Arabic was invaluable, and Agatha worked at the Pharmacy in the University College Hospital in London, as well as writing a novel each year. Her daughter Rosalind followed in the family tradition with her choice of husband, and had a war-time marriage to an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusilier's, Hubert Prichard. They had one son together before Hubert was tragically killed in action in 1944.
After the war, Max resumed his archaeological work and was knighted for his achievements in 1952. Agatha also received a CBE in 1956 and was made a Dame in 1971. She died on the 12th of January 1976, age 85, with Max at her side, who died eighteen months later. The couple are buried together near their home in Wallingford.