A Real Home, Jane Austen’s Chawton
Chawton Cottage was Jane Austen’s last home before she died. It is where her genius flourished and her brilliant career was launched.
At the start of Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, crime writer Ariadne Oliver calls for her friend, retired police officer Hercule Poirot, to join her at a local fete held in the grounds of a beautiful country house. She has arranged a ‘murder hunt’ but has a sneaking suspicion that a real murder is about to take place.
Poirot was directed to a winding path that led along the wood with glimpses of the river below.
The path they were following came out from the trees and the house showed white and beautiful before them in its setting of dark trees rising up behind it.
‘It is a beautiful place,’ said Poirot. ‘A beautiful house, beautiful grounds. It has about it a great peace, great serenity.’
Agatha Christie wrote Dead Man’s Folly in the summer of 1954 and set this Poirot murder mystery at her glorious country home of Greenway, in the rolling green countryside of Devon. In John Curran’s book about Christie’s private notebooks, to which he was privy over the course of four years, he sets the scene for how she might have begun to plan this mystery. Sitting at the bottom of her garden by the River Dart, she weighs up her ideas.
If the lawn was the scene of light-hearted enjoyment…a family event…no, it would need more people than that…a garden party…a fund-raiser? For the Scouts or Guides – they were always in need of funds…yes, possibilities there…There could be stalls on the lawn and teas in a tent, perhaps by the magnolia…people in and out of the house…a fortune-teller and a bottle stall…and confusion about where everyone was…And elsewhere in the grounds a darker force at work…unrecognised…
Next she might consider a suitable place for a murder, and after weighing her options, decide on the boathouse, as it would be far enough away from the day’s events and accessible from the river. And who to involve? Her crime novelist Ariadne Oliver would be a suitable conduit, and then which of her detectives would be best – the English dowager Jane Marple or the Belgian Detective Hercule Poirot? She cannot see Miss Marple tottering around Greenway so she plumps for Poirot. With these decisions made, she reaches for her notebook, and begins to write:
Basic ideas usable
Mrs Oliver summons Poirot
She is at Greenway – professional job – arranging a Treasure Hunt or Murder Hunt for the Conservation Fete, which is to be held there…
Ariadne Oliver’s hunch that something is amiss turns out to be accurate and soon Girl Guide Marlene Tucker’s body is discovered at the boathouse, giving Poirot some serious work to do. So begins another murder mystery in the tradition of: ‘A Christie before Christmas’.
Dead Man’s Folly is not one of Agatha Christie’s best crime stories – one reviewer from The Times Literary Supplement called it ‘disappointingly slight’ – but Greenway House and gardens, its boathouse and the local area are described in great detail.
Agatha Christie bought Greenway soon after her second marriage to the archaeologist Max Mallowan. She had met him on a visit to the ancient Sumerian site of Ur in 1930 when Agatha was forty. She was already a highly successful writer but her personal life had been troubled. Four years earlier, just before the breakup of her first marriage, she had mysteriously vanished for eleven days, sparking a huge search and making international newspaper headlines. Eventually she turned up at a hotel in Harrogate, where she had booked in under the name of her husband’s mistress. Agatha always remained tight lipped about exactly what had happened. Those close to her observed that after this episode, she appeared to adopt a more fatalistic attitude and a certain aloofness. In her autobiography she talked how the situation made her take stock of her friends.
There were not many Rats, but there were some rather unexpected ones; people who you had thought were your true friends, but who turned out anxious to disassociate themselves from anybody who had attracted notoriety of the wrong sort.
Although confessing that this awareness had made her sensitive, and more likely to withdraw from people, she was also pragmatic:
If the thing you want beyond anything cannot be, it is much better to recognise it and go forward, instead of dwelling on one’s regrets and hopes.
And despite being without the contentment and love of her first marriage, she remained a deeply imaginative and curious woman, with a zest for life.
I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.
Max, aged twenty-seven, was thoughtful and reserved, and possessed of the flair for languages, intuition and knowledge that would make him an esteemed archaeologist. Over the course of the season they fell in love. Agatha describes a trip she and Max took to the city of Ukhaidir when their car sank into the desert sands. As hour after hour passed in raging heat while they waited for help, Agatha simply laid down in the shelter of the car and went to sleep.
Max told me afterwards, whether truthfully or not, that it was at this moment he decided that I would make an excellent wife for him. “No fuss!” he said. ‘You didn’t complain or say that it was my fault, or that we never should have stopped there. You seemed not to care whether we went on or not. Really it was at that moment I began to think you were wonderful.’
Theirs was a happy and companionable marriage. Max was calm, reasonable, and logical, which Agatha found soothing.
When you’re there I feel everything is all right – I feel just quiet and safe and happy – dear Max – I’ve felt that with you almost from the beginning.
He lifted from her shoulders ‘so much that I didn’t even know was there’. Agatha enjoyed Max’s profession and she learned a good deal from him about archaeology, developing a passion for Egypt and the type of adventures his career offered. She was enchanted by the ancient treasures but even the simplest, brightly glazed pottery sherds gave her pleasure.
I have always loved things like seashells or little bits of coloured rock – all the odd treasures one picks up as a child. A bright bird’s feather, a variegated leaf – these things, I sometimes feel are the true treasure of life, and one enjoys them better than topazes, emeralds, or expensive little boxes by Fabergé.
They settled easily into the first years of their union. She joined him on yearly expeditions and wrote in a steady, creative stream, up to three books a year. They spent their summers with Agatha’s daughter Rosalind on the edge of Torquay, where Agatha had lived for nearly thirty years. After her mother’s death she had kept the house as her holiday home but the rural feel of the place was becoming compromised and she was now ready to leave it behind.
Agatha had a lifelong love of the West Country, claiming that all the hills in Devon are exactly the right shape. She and her mother had always admired Greenway, a large white Georgian house by the River Dart, with views towards the sea and Dartmouth, and upstream to Totnes. When it came up for sale, she and Max took a look out of curiosity – and at his suggestion she bought it.
She showed the house to the architect Guilford Bell and gave him one of his first commissions; he had made the daring suggestion to pull down the clunky Victorian extension and bring the house back to its original fine, Georgian proportions.
Agatha was forty-eight when they first moved in and although they had other homes, Greenway was her ‘dream house’. She spent many summers and Christmases here with Max and Rosalind who, with her husband Anthony and son Mathew, moved to Greenway permanently in 1968.
The extensive gardens were tangled and overgrown when they took over the house, and Agatha set about restoring order and replanting. In her notebooks at this time, her outlines for murder plots are interspersed with lists of bulbs and roses. Along the tangled paths were discovered a swimming pool inside what became the boathouse. There was a landing place for boats and a battery with ancient mortars at the site where Sir Walter Raleigh is believed to have landed, bringing potatoes, maize and tobacco to Britain from North Carolina.
Agatha and Max were only just settling into their new house when war was declared. As they listened to Chamberlain’s announcement on the wireless in the kitchen, Agatha calmly continued preparing a salad. She had hoped for peace in their time but she and Max had been expecting the worst, and true to form, Agatha simply carried on.
At first they remained at Greenway. Soon friends arrived with their large brood of children, fleeing the air raids of London. Then came ‘soldiers practicing what they would do if the Germans landed – they can hardly move they’ve got so much on!’ Next to arrive were two nurses with ten evacuee children all under the age of five. Servants had answered the call to war and there was little domestic help. Agatha fled at that point to London for a quieter life (relatively speaking in view of the air raids).
In 1943 Greenway was requisitioned by the Admiralty for the use of the US Navy’s officers. Agatha spent the autumn clearing out the house and preparing the garden for winter with the one gardener left to her before he was called up. In a letter to Max, who by now had been posted to Egypt with the British Council she wrote,
I stayed for a little while after the men had gone and then I walked up and sat on the seat overlooking the house and the river and made believe you were sitting beside me…It looked very white and lovely – serene and aloof as always. I felt a kind of pang over its beauty. I discovered today that there is no personal loss in leaving it – because queerly enough I can’t recall ever being very happy in it…All my happy memories are of the garden and you planting your magnolias and I making my new path down by the river. And yet the house is not an unhappy home – and I love it. It is untouched by what the people in it feel and think, but it wanted to be beautiful. – I consider I made it beautiful, or rather, displayed its beauty. Greenway has been a mistress rather than a wife! ‘Too dear for our possessing’ but what excitement to possess it! I thought tonight sitting there – it is the loveliest place in the world – it quite takes my breath away.
Throughout the war Agatha and Max kept up a sustained correspondence, Agatha mulling over plots and ideas and Max giving detailed reports about local antiquities and exotic surroundings. In one letter she wrote: ‘I’ve put Greenway out of my mind until the end of the war when you and I will go back together. Magnolias! Camellias! The river.’
Meanwhile, she worked hard, writing more books than at any other time in her life. In 1942 she attracted the attention of the British Intelligence agency MI5 after a character called Major Bletchley appeared in her thriller N or M? (1941). The name sparked warning bells and it was feared someone might be leaking information to her from Britain’s secret codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. But as she explained, ‘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 loveable characters.’
Agatha returned to Greenway just after the end of war in Europe and was pleasantly surprised by how well the US Navy had treated the house. A reminder of the American occupation is the long frieze in blue and white painted in the library, featuring all the places the flotilla had been, from Key West to Sicily, and ending at Greenway with the house peeking through the trees. Agatha refused the Admiralty’s offer to have it painted over, saying it would be an historic memorial, but she did insist on the removal of the dozen or so latrines they had installed.
After the war friends and family would visit Greenway over summer and autumn. Agatha’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, remembers visitors such as Allen Lane of Penguin Books arriving in his Bentley coupe, and Peter Saunders (theatre impresario and producer of The Moustrap) arguing with Agatha about plot logistics. In his autobiography Saunders wrote:
There is a delightful informality about staying at Greenway House. The gong goes for breakfast but guests go down whenever they want. After breakfast, Agatha said, “We do exactly what we like in this house. Most of us play cricket in the morning.” It seemed a very odd pastime but it was for the benefit of her eight-year-old grandson. The house had a cricket net and we took turns in bowling at Mathew, excepting Agatha, who declared herself umpire. Every time he was out, Agatha called, “No ball”.
She was a great reader of fiction and non-fiction, particularly enjoying the works of Dickens and Shakespeare. Although Agatha was a good conversationalist with her close circle of friends, she felt most at ease with small children. Some guests, missing her presence, could often find her upstairs playing Animal Snap with her grandchild or telling stories. Mathew Prichard remembers her as one of the greatest listeners he ever met.
In the afternoons, weather permitting, tea would be served on the lawn. Guests could play croquet to the strains of a Cole Porter song wafting from the house. Dogs sprawled in the sun, and from an upstairs window you might just be able to hear the clack of a typewriter. In the evenings they would go to the drawing room after dinner and Agatha would read the family a couple of chapters from her latest book.
Agatha continued to live a full and highly productive life until well into old age. Her publisher William Collins, with a little creative counting, announced that her Passenger to Frankfurt would be her eightieth book for her eightieth year. It was a sensation in both Britain and America. That year too (1971) she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire and enjoyed a summer of birthday celebrations at Greenway.
Picnic on the moor with 5 dogs and a super dinner last night:
Hot Lobster a la Crème
Blackberry Ice Cream and real blackberries and lots of cream, and special treat – half a large cup of neat cream for ME while the rest had Champagne.
Awash with flowers, telegrams and cards, she wrote to her literary agent Edmund Cork that she was made to feel ‘like a Prima Ballerina, indeed, quite above myself. No modesty left.’ She was especially delighted with Cork’s gift of a gold pen. ‘Death to anyone who borrows it and doesn’t give it back.’
Agatha has many fascinating things to say about her writing in her autobiography: ‘If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark or Graham Greene, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t…I have learnt that I am me.’
Her views on the writing process may chime with many writers:
If you are properly modest you will not write at all, so there has to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in an exercise book buoyed up with exaltation. You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten. A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.
Many books were published before she considered herself a ‘bona fide author’. In her Devon neighbourhood she was mainly known as Mrs Mallowan. And when filling in a form which asked for her occupation, it never occurred to her add anything other than ‘married woman’.
She confessed that she treated the writing as a sideline, something she did for entertainment, to be fitted around her day-to-day living:
Many friends have said to me, “I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.” I must behave rather as dogs do when they retire with a bone; they depart in a secretive manner and you do not see them again for an odd half hour. They return self-consciously with mud on their noses. I do much the same. I felt slightly embarrassed if I was going to write. Once I could get away, however, shut the door and get people not to interrupt me, then I was able to go full speed ahead, completely lost in what I was doing.
How extraordinary it is then, that Agatha Christie wrote 78 crime novels, 19 plays, 14 short story collections, an autobiography, some poems and six romance novels – with her friends barely noticing she was doing it. Her book sales are in excess of nearly one billion copies and have been published in more editions and in more languages than those of any other author except Shakespeare.
During the First World War, Agatha spent time working in a hospital dispensary and became fascinated by poisons: ‘The beautiful look of the bottles, the exquisite precision of the calculations, the potential for mayhem contained within order.’ This ‘mayhem within order’ would sum up all that lay ahead in the many books featuring her sleuths Poirot or Miss Marple. And poisoning became her preferred method of murder.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introducing Poirot, was Agatha’s first mystery novel, published in 1920. A prolific reader, she had written poetry and many short stories in adolescence and her sister Madge had challenged her to write a book. In the dispensary, surrounded by poisons, she often had time on her hands and she wanted to attempt a murder mystery in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Casting around for a detective, she remembered the Belgian refugees who had arrived to live in her parish of Tor. ‘Why not make my detective a Belgian? I thought…How about a refugee police officer? A retired policer officer.’
He would be meticulous, very tidy, I thought to myself, as I cleared away a good many untidy odds and ends in my own bedroom…And he should be very brainy – he should have little grey cells of the mind – that was a good phrase. I must remember that. A tidy little man. I could see him, always arranging things, liking things in pairs, liking things square instead of round. He would have rather a grand name – one of those names that Sherlock Holmes and his family had.
And so, the world famous detective Hercule Poirot, came into being:
He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side…The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was rejected by a number of publishers before it was accepted by Bodley Head three years after it was written. It was received warmly by critics but the review that pleased Agatha most appeared in The Pharmaceutical Journal. It praised ‘this detective story for dealing with poisons in a knowledgeable way, and not with the nonsense about untraceable substances that so often happens. Miss Agatha Christie knows her job.’
When Agatha and her first husband Archie went out to celebrate the book’s publication ‘There was a third party with us, though I did not know it. Hercule Poirot, my Belgian invention, was hanging round my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea.’
It was sometimes a difficult relationship. By the end of the 1930s Poirot had become hugely popular with her readers but Agatha found him increasingly irritating, writing to her literary agent Edmund Cork,
Poirot is rather insufferable. Most public men are who have lived too long. But none of them like retiring! So I am afraid Poirot won’t either – certainly not while he is my chief source of income.
By the time she killed him off in Curtain (1975), a year before her own death, he had appeared in 33 novels, two plays and 50 short stories. Such was the popularity of the formidable Poirot, he was the only fictional character to be given a front-page obituary in The New York Times.
Agatha always kept a sharp eye out for plot possibilities. In 1917 while preparing for the Apothecaries Hall examination, she had received private tuition from a Mr P, a commercial pharmacist in Torquay. He was overly fond of giving her pats on the shoulder, nudges, a light stroke of her cheek, and Agatha tried never to be alone with him. One day he pulled from his pocket a dark-coloured lump and asked her what she thought it might be. In response to her bewilderment, he replied it was curare, once used to poison the arrows of hunters in South America. Although safe to eat, it causes paralysis and death if introduced to the bloodstream. Mr P told Agatha he carried it in his pocket because it made him feel powerful. She looked at him closely, this ‘rather funny-looking little man, very roundabout and robin redbreast looking, with a nice pink face. There was a general air of childish satisfaction about him.’ He struck her as a dangerous man and nearly fifty years later she used him as the model for the poisoner in The Pale Horse.
In the late 1950s, grandson Mathew Prichard remembered attending a dinner dance with Agatha. They were at a table with about twelve people and at one stage everyone had left the table to dance or chat. Mathew and Agatha were on the other side of the room when she pointed back to the table, turned to Mathew and said,
‘There you are. That’s how I invented the plot for Sparkling Cyanide. We’ve left the table. Everybody’s got two wine glasses. When we come back there’s no way to know if the same glasses will be in front of the same people. It would be so easy for somebody at our table, or at another table, to exchange glasses and put poison in one.’
Agatha’s books demanded planning and this, as Curran describes it, would begin in her notebooks where she speculated on the variations and possibilities of plot. There would be reminders to look up the effects of datura poisoning or a note about a chapter needing more work. Sometimes the ideas in her notes could be transferred direct to the books. In Chapter Eight of Dead Man’s Folly Mrs Ariadne Oliver (who is thought to be Agatha Christie’s alter ego) worked through possible motives for young Marlene Tucker’s murder:
She could have been murdered by someone who just likes murdering girls…Or she might have known some secrets about somebody’s love affairs, or she may have seen someone bury a body at night or….
John Curran pored over all seventy-three of Agatha’s notebooks in the hope, it seems, of finding her method for writing detective fiction. But in the end he concluded that Agatha had no consistent method at all. Ideas for the next book would be jumbled up with shopping lists, recipes, directions, notes for the gardener, a poem composed for her daughter’s birthday, or interesting quotes. And from these random jottings, a book would magically emerge, a best seller, year after year.
Agatha Christie was no pushover. Throughout her career she took meticulous care with all aspects of her published work and would stand her ground if she felt her artistic vision was compromised. Editing and proof-reading was a fraught business for her because any misprints or inconsistencies involving the tight plots would be instantly spotted by her hawk-eyed readers. But she was possessive of her work, so requests from editors to make changes had to be worded diplomatically. Mostly she kept her cool, but she would sometimes explode. Her early work used to come out with lurid covers (now highly desirable collectibles). Ugly colours, badly drawn figures and themes that missed the mark would infuriate her. ‘A book jacket may have nothing to do with the plot, but if it does it must at least not represent a false plot.’
She blasted her agent for the proposed design for a revised edition of Labours of Hercules (1947) a collection of short stories.
I cannot describe to you the rough for the wrapper…It suggests Poirot going naked to the bath!!! All sorts of obscene suggestions are being made by my family. I have, I hope, been tactful but firm. Put statuary on the cover but make it clear it is statuary – not Poirot gone peculiar in Hyde Park!!!
Agatha would have been a challenge for most publishers because she rarely gave interviews. ‘Why should I talk about what I write?’ she asked her literary agent. While she worked hard as a writer, she did not see why she should be expected to be a raconteur, which she was not. Requests for television appearances were turned down point blank. But Agatha’s intense shyness only added to her mystique and fanned intense interest about her personality and private life (reminiscent of T.E. Lawrence).
She was fond of Billy Collins, head and founder of Harper Collins, and he and his colleagues’ appreciation of her mammoth sales was demonstrated by the lengths to which they would go to please her. They tracked down books and engravings found only in America; ‘the very nicest kind of maple sugar’ which they sent by the pound every quarter; tickets to Wimbledon, and donations of children’s books to her local primary school. They even managed to find her the very big knickers (à la Bridget Jones) that she liked to wear. During a complex drama over repairs to her car, Billy Collins told his exasperated colleagues, ‘I know these arrangements are difficult, but Agatha Christie is a very exceptional author.’
HarperCollins acknowledged her in the Preface of her autobiography that was published after her death: ‘For fifty years she bullied, berated and delighted us’.
Agatha Christie is commonly accused of poor writing with one-dimensional characters and wooden dialogue. From the mid-thirties, she churned out her books at an astonishing rate and as her popularity increased, the quality of her work tended to decline.
The attitudes of her class and her times were evident, particularly in her early novels. There was ‘the usual tedious British anti-Semitism’, as the historian Jacques Barzun described it. She said she disliked ‘Negroes’, did not think too highly of Australians, and stereotyped people of colour in colonial guise (although her postwar novels are freer from this class and race bias). Despite being widely travelled, she tended to be insular and retained the limited perspectives of an Edwardian upper-class Englishwoman.
Some fellow crime writers have panned her. Raymond Chandler said her novels ‘fake the clues, the timing, the play of coincidence…fake character…hits me hardest of all, because I have a sense of character.’ Ruth Rendell said ‘When I read one of her books, I don’t feel as though I have a piece of fiction worthy of the name in front of me’. Even her friend and neighbour, Robert Graves, declared that ‘her English was schoolgirlish, her situations for the most part artificial, and her detail faulty.’
Yet Christie’s novels became a staple of twentieth Century fiction. Her work has outlasted all her contemporaries bar Dorothy L. Sayers, and she continues to be widely read in spite of her failings and prejudices. James Baldwin confessed to reading them while killing time in hotel rooms. She has been admired by Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes and Michel Houllebecq. In Britain she can tend to be labelled as a light, bourgeois, cosy read, but in France she is celebrated as a writer of consummate cleverness. In fact Agatha’s books sell four times as many copies across the Channel, and some French intellectuals and writers deem her worthy of serious study, as Sophie Masson explains in her writing blog.
No one can quite put a finger on the reasons for her phenomenal success. A defender of her work, mystery writer Robert Barnard, observes that the lack of fine writing and the colourless characters only serve to heighten the cleverness of Agatha’s plotting and pacing, which are second to none. She usually outwits her readers, despite supplying all the clues necessary to solve the mystery. Her books are neither sensational nor highly emotional. Rather, they appeal to reason and satisfy curiosity by providing an accumulation of evidence from which deductions can be made. She was masterful at gathering groups of people who harboured dark secrets and shared motives for killing; amongst them would be a murderer or murderers, hiding in plain sight.
As Agatha’s biographa Laura Thompson describes it:
The finished product had to be impregnable. Its geometry had to be capable of being turned this way and that, like a jewel in the sunlight. It had to be constructed so that it could be satisfyingly dismantled. Then everything had to be hidden from view.
Thompson adds that the best of her novels reveal what had ‘always interested her: the distilled essence of human nature, contained within the act of murder.’ She was fascinated by humanity’s capacity for evil, famously saying, ‘Old sins cast long shadows’.
The novels examine the devastation wrought by greed and desire, and can be slyly witty. Agatha was not averse to skewering her own class, as shown in the Miss Marple mystery, The Body in the Library (1942):
The English, Sir Henry decided, had a distrust for any man who danced too well!
Miss Hartnell . . . visited the poor indefatigably, however hard they tried to avoid her ministrations.
‘Gentlemen,’ she said, with her old maid’s way of referring to the opposite sex as though it were a species of wild animal.
And of Miss Marple:
Downstairs in the lounge, by the third pillar from the left, there sits an old lady with a sweet, placid, spinsterish face and a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it all as in the day’s work….where crime is concerned, she’s the goods.
Towards the end of this novel Miss Marple sighs, ‘Really, I feel quite pleased to think of him being hanged’.
Thompson points out that despite the faintly silly ending of The Body in the Library, Christie has created a world that offers readers a retreat to ‘an age of hierarchies, prejudices and certainties’, in much the same way as Downtown Abbey does for contemporary audiences.
Agatha Christie had, as P.D. James observed, ‘the ability to conjure a world without actually describing it.’ This world comes from a vanished era of servants, country houses, tea and vicars. It all looks so comfortable, so sweet. But as Agatha shows us time and again, the veneer of civilisation is terribly thin.
Photographs of Greenaway taken with the kind permission of the National Trust.
In her youth, Agatha Christie showed great promise as a concert pianist and used to practice seven hours a day. She could play the Etudes and Waltzes of Chopin, his Fantasie Impromptue, the Sonatas of Beethoven and lighter pieces such as Romance of Fauré and the Barcarolle of Tchaikovsky. But crippling performance anxiety forced her to abandon her aspirations. While this was a disappointment at the time, she later wrote:
It is obvious I chose the right career. The most blessed thing about being an author is that you do it in private…you do not have to stand up and make a fool of yourself in public.
I noticed a pile of sheet music on Agatha’s Steinway piano in Greenway which I could not resist leafing through. There I found the music for Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances with the Opus 72 underlined in red pen. Could this have been a favourite piece of hers, I wondered? In any case, the music seems to have the right feeling: grand and romantic and perfect for the leisured classes she wrote about.
Agatha Christie was a founding member of The Detection Club, formed in the late 1920s by a group of mystery writers including Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Ronald Knox, Hugh Walpole and G.K. Chesterton who was the first president.
Members agreed (tongues firmly in cheek) to abide by Knox’s Commandments which specified the conventions all classic detective stories should observe. These were basically rules of fair play, such as not concealing vital clues from readers or relying on mysterious poisons unknown to science. Members helped each other overcome technical difficulties and met regularly for dinners in London, occasionally at the Garrick Club or the Café Royal. Sometimes they invited a judge or senior policeman to talk about the finer details of their professions.
Members had to go through ‘the Ceremonies’ devised by Dorothy Sayers, such as ‘Eric the Skull’, which was borne into the room on a black cushion, with glowing, battery operated eyes. Agatha succumbed to an initiation ceremony and took an oath on poison (probably suppressing a fit of giggles). She was never a joiner and did not particularly like talking shop. But as someone who felt deeply uncomfortable with literary types, it must have felt good for her to be a member of a group that included authors like Margery Allingham, who she greatly admired. Agatha also agreed to become president (1957-1976) on condition that she would never have to make a speech. The club continues to meet to this day.
The 1930s and 1940s were a golden age for the classic detective story. A now literate public wanted exciting books that were not too demanding. Agatha’s books were readily accessible from well-stocked book stalls at railway stations, making them cheap and portable entertainment for the long periods of waiting or lengthy journeys characteristic of wartime. During these decades of turmoil and economic depression, people looked for escapism. The way in which darkness is conquered and order is restored in her novels soothed a deeply anxious nation. Crime fiction was the soap opera of its time and regular characters like Poirot and Miss Marple, who could always be counted on to right terrible wrongs, became deeply loved characters.
Greenway was given to the National Trust by Agatha’s family in 2000 but it was not until 2005, after the deaths of Agatha’s daughter Rosalind and her husband Anthony, that a restoration programme could begin. Agatha’s grandson Mathew Prichard said at the time, ‘It was a house full of people, and when people are running through it again, then I will be able to remember it well.’
So many of Agatha and Max’s possessions remain at Greenway. They were avid collectors of chinoiserie, papier-mache tables, Bargeware, Souvenir ware. The National Trust cleaned and catalogued about 5,000 items, as well as over 4,000 books, including every single edition Agatha ever wrote. The books she read as a child are still in the library, her china is in the cupboards, and the trees she and Max planted grow in the garden. This house contains so much of her life that it feels as if Agatha has just popped out to the garden and could be back any minute. Her grandson remembers that people were always very relaxed and happy visiting Greenway, and the house has a warm and friendly feeling.
As you can see from my photographs, the magnolia trees that Max had planted were coming into bloom. While rambling through the expansive grounds I came across intriguing surprises: a pet cemetery for Agatha and Max’s well-loved dogs; an exquisite Buddhist sculpture by a pond, walled gardens and greenhouses.
The number of paths through the woodland gardens to the river confused Poirot in Dead Man’s Folly: ‘So many paths, and one is never sure where they lead. And trees, trees, trees’. One path leads to the Battery with its two cannons that Agatha used as the murder scene in Five Little Pigs. Another leads to the boathouse, scene of the crime in Dead Man’s Folly. Mathew Prichard remembers coming down here with his grandmother to watch the steamships ply their trade up and down the River Dart.
I still remember the names – Western Lady, Brixham Belle, Pride of Paignton, Kiloran . . . and then we would go back and have a Devonshire cream tea. My grandmother loved drinking cream.
Opening times for Greenway and other details can be found on the National Trust website. Do note that you need to book ahead if you intend arriving by car. Greenway has four holiday cottages and guests have access to the garden after hours.
Mathew Prichard, philanthropist and advocate for the arts, has made a number of videos about his grandmother. Here he talks about her writing
And her legacy.
A clip from the BBC’s 2013 adaptation of Dead Man’s Folly starring David Suchet as Poirot and Zoë Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver. It was one of the final episodes of this long running series and Suchet said filming at the house was especially moving because it reminded him of the time he was invited there by the family in 1987.
Anything you want to know about Agatha Christie can be found here at the Home of Agatha Christie website.
John Curran talks about feeling like a child in a sweetshop when he was granted access to 73 of Agatha Christie’s notebooks.
In Agatha’s own time, and for many years after her death, there was a tendency for screen adaptations to be excessively cosy and nostalgic. Agatha loathed Margaret Rutherford’s comedic take on Miss Marple, saying she felt ‘sick’ and ‘ashamed’ for having sold the rights to MGM. But recent adaptations by the BBC have restored some darkness and edge:
And Then There were None (2015)
The Pale Horse (2020)
Details about the accommodation and Agatha Christie related sites around Torquay on the English Riviera Website
And an Agatha Christie tour
Altman, Dennis. ‘Reading Agatha Christie’, Inside Story, 5 January, 2009
Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie, HarperCollins, 1980
Christie, Agatha. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. William Collins, 1997
Christie, Agatha. Deadman’s Folly, HarperCollins, 2010
Curran, John. Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, HarperCollins, 2010
Currey, Mason. Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, Picador, 2013
Macaskill, Hilary. Agatha Christie at Home. Frances Lincoln, 2014
Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie, HarperCollins, 1997
Mundow, Anna. ‘Agatha Christie Review: The Queen of the Cozy’, The Wall Street Journal, 2nd March, 2018
Thompson, Laura. Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, Pegasus Crime, 2019