What were the things in Agatha’s life that had the biggest influence on her writing career?
What impact did a solitary childhood have?
And how did she first come up with the idea of writing a detective novel with poison and its method of murder?
Her Childhood and Imagination
The youngest child of three, Agatha Christie spent much of her childhood alone as her two elder siblings were away at boarding school, and there were few neighbours with children of her age. She was also a very shy child who didn’t go to school. Her mother who had been passionately enthusiastic for education for girls and had sent her sister to boarding school, then swung characteristically to the opposite view and kept Agatha at home.
Like her mother, Christie had an extremely creative and vivid imagination. In her autobiography, Agatha admits she was always over burdened with imagination – but it served her well in her profession.
Growing up therefore she created a host of imaginary friends and creatures to keep herself amused. Her games were based on make-believe, and from as early as she can remember, she always had companions of her own choosing. Her first recollections were “The Kittens” – Clover, Blackie and three others; then there was Mrs Green who had a hundred children including Poodle, Squirrel and Tree, and they accompanied Agatha on all her exploits in the garden.
At about the age of 9, Agatha Christie invented a school and a set of friends who attended the school. There were seven girls of varying ages and characters – some she liked such as Annie Gray, a shy nervous girl easily reduced to tears, who was 9 years old with pale flaxen hair and blue eyes; others she disliked, such as Isabella Sullivan – a rich golden haired girl with brown eyes aged 11 who gave herself airs and boasted about being rich – and Agatha used to organise tournaments and hope that Isabella wouldn’t win.
“The girls” stayed with Christie for many years, changing their characters as she matured. Even at the time of writing her autobiography, Agatha still sometimes would put a dress in a cupboard saying to herself “Ella would look very nice in that”.
The Society She Lived In
Agatha Christie was born in the era of Victorian England in 1890, where it was usual to have servants. Agatha grew up with servants – they were not a particular luxury at the time – it wasn’t a case of only the rich having them, the only difference was the rich had more. As a family, they were comfortably well off with 3 servants which was considered the minimum at that time.
Christie therefore wrote about the society she was born into and therefore knew well, and a large number of her books were set in country houses. Servants invariably play a part in her plots, blending into the background, but usually a vital source of information from overheard conversations (see also Plot Devices).
Agatha also reflected contemporary events that were occurring at the time of writing her books. Her decision to make her first detective, Poirot, a Belgian was a reflection of the fact that the district of Tor where she lived there was an influx of Belgian refugees, following the invasion of Belgium by the Germans. Many other contemporary events are reflected in her novels, most notably a German measles epidemic which occurred at the time of writing The Mirror Cracked, and which plays an important part in the book’s plot.
Poisons and the Dispensary
During the First World War Agatha Christie worked as a nurse in the local hospital. After about two years she went to work in the hospital dispensary where she was to spend the next two years working. Christie didn’t enjoy dispensing as much as nursing which she felt she had a real vocation for. However she studied for her Apothecaries Hall examination, and in the process learnt all about drugs and poisons and their effects.
Agatha had a nervous horror of making a mistake with the poisons, and even awoke in the middle of one night worried about what she had done with the ointment pot lid that she had put some carbolic in – had she put the lid on top of another ointment which would then have a layer of carbolic in the top? She was so worried that she got dressed and walked down to the hospital in the middle of the night to double check.
There were a total of 83 poisonings in her books.
Other Detective Books
Agatha Christie grew up reading many books, including detective stories written by Conan Doyle and Gaston Le Roux. Indeed, she believes it was The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Le Roux that first sparked the conversation between herself and her sister Madge about writing a detective novel.
The Christie sisters talked about the book a lot, discussed their views and agreed it was one of the best. Agatha describes this book as a particularly baffling mystery, well worked out and planned “of the type some call unfair and others have to admit is almost unfair, but not quite; one could just have seen a neat little clue cleverly slipped in”.
Agatha told Madge she would like to try her hand at a detective story, and her sister told her she didn’t believe she could do it because they were so very difficult to write. However the seed was planted, and somewhere in the background, Agatha knew that some day she would write a detective story.
The crime novels she grew up with were also to have an impact on her writing. In her Autobiography Agatha Christie admits to writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, with an eccentric detective (Poirot), a stooge assistant (Hastings) and a Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective (Inspector Japp). However Agatha was very keen that her detectives should be significantly different (see also Detectives).
As a relatively young child, the Christie family spent some time in the South of France whilst their house in Devon was rented out over the summer. At the age of 15, Agatha’s mother decided that they should both go to Paris where Agatha was enrolled in the school where Madge had gone. Her ability to speak fluent French no doubt helped in her choice of her Belgian, French speaking detective, Hercule Poirot; and her third book, Murder on the Links, was also set in France.
Agatha Christie’s beloved Devon also features heavily as the background setting for many of her novels, including The Sittaford Mystery and Then There Were None.
Following her divorce from Archie Christie, she went alone on a trip to Baghdad on the Orient Express, and spent several weeks touring the region. Later during her marriage to Max Mallowan, she spent long periods in the Middle East, whilst Max worked on archaeological digs.
These travels inspired not only Murder on the Orient Express, but also Murder in Mespotamia, Death on the Nile, Death Comes as the End and Appointment with Death. Indeed Agatha later wrote some travel narratives under her married name of Agatha Christie Mallowan.