Legendary novelist Agatha Christie enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Torquay, Devon, after being born into a wealthy, upper-middle-class family on 15th September 1890.
She went on to become one of the most celebrated and prolific crime writers in the world, completing 66 crime novels and 14 short story collections. She is listed as the best-selling novelist in history by Guinness World Records.
In later life, she enjoyed spending time at her marital holiday home, Greenway, located by the River Dart, near Galmpton. The National Trust now owns the historic house and gardens, which is said to be the inspiration for some of the settings of her novels.
Agatha Miller was the youngest of three children born to American stockbroker Frederick Alvah Miller and his Belfast-born wife, Clara. In later life, Christie often spoke of her very happy childhood, dividing her time between her family’s Devon home, her grandmother’s house in London and on family holidays in southern Europe.
She enjoyed reading as a child and was said to particularly enjoy The Railway Children, published in 1906, the verses of Edward Lear and novels by Lewis Carroll. She wrote her first poem at the age of 10, entitled The Cowslip. She divided her spare time between reading, writing and looking after her pets, whom she adored.
Early literary work
Her father’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1901 (when Christie was only 11) left the family devastated and in later life, she said it marked the end of her childhood. Finding it hard to adapt to the highly disciplined atmosphere at Miss Guyer’s Girls’ School in Torquay, she was sent to finish her education in Paris.
On returning to the UK in 1910, she took a three-month holiday to Egypt with her mother. They spent time in Cairo – a retreat for wealthy Brits. On returning to Britain she began writing in earnest, although she had little commercial success at first – suffering six rejections.
She met her future husband, Archibald Christie, an army officer and the son of a judge, just before the outbreak of the First World War. They married before he was sent to France on active duty. Whilst he was away, Agatha worked as an unpaid nurse in a Torquay hospital, caring for wounded soldiers.
She qualified as an apothecary’s assistant (known as a dispenser today) in 1917. She continued to write, finally having her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, published in 1920.
Archie asked Agatha for a divorce in 1926, as he had met and fallen in love with someone else. The Christies divorced in 1928 and Agatha went on to marry archaeologist Max Mallowan, whom she met on a trip to Istanbul in 1930. This was a happy marriage that lasted until her death in 1976, at the age of 85.
There has been a luxurious dwelling on the site of Agatha Christie’s one-time holiday home since the 16th century. The original Greenway was a Tudor mansion, built by the Gilbert family. Sir Walter Raleigh was Humphrey Gilbert’s half-brother and he spent time there.
Built in the 18th century, the current house was bought by Max and Agatha in 1938 as their holiday home. They adored the place, spending time there in the spring and summer and usually at Christmas, inviting family and friends to stay.
Agatha had seen Greenway when she was a child, and on learning it was for sale, she and Max went over to view the house and grounds. She described the white Georgian house as “very beautiful.” Surrounded by woods that swept down to the River Dart, with thick shrubs and trees, it was Agatha’s “ideal dream house”, she said.
The couple made a few refurbishments to the house, using the services of an architect, while they also used their gardening knowledge to maintain the existing planting schemes.
During the Second World War, Greenway was requisitioned to provide a safe home for child evacuees. Between 1944 and 1945, it was used by the US Coast Guard, whose occupation of Greenway is commemorated in the library, thanks to a frieze painted by Lieut Marshall Lee.
Greenway and crime novels
It’s often said that Greenway – where the atmosphere is relaxed on sunny summer days, but can feel eerie on a misty winter’s morning – inspired the author to write some of her best crime novels. These included Dead Man’s Folly, published in 1956.
The plot revolves around Sir George and Lady Stubbs, who hosted a village fête at their luxurious home, Nasse House, including a mock murder mystery night. However, when events take a turn for the worse, Inspector Poirot is called in to investigate the sinister goings-on.
Greenway house and its gardens, boathouse and the local area are described in great detail in the novel and in 2013, a TV adaptation by ITV was actually filmed there with David Suchet playing the quirky Belgian detective.
Other Christie novels said to be set at Greenway include Five Little Pigs in 1942, where the house, the battery with its two cannons and the path leading there are integral to the plot. In fact, the murder actually occurs at the battery.
In Towards Zero in 1944, Greenway estate, the village of Dittisham and the River Dart play an important part, not only in relation to one of the suspect’s nightly swims but also with regard to an alibi.
The author often used her own life and experiences as a basis for her books – for example, Murder on the Orient Express in 1934 was said to be based on her trip on the famous railway line in 1928, when she travelled to Istanbul following her divorce from her first husband.
Agatha’s daughter, Rosalind Hicks, bought Greenway from her mother in 1959, only moving in after Agatha and Max died in 1976 and 1978 respectively. Rosalind and her husband Anthony then lived at the estate, cultivating the gardens by introducing a collection of rare plants from around the world.
They gave Greenway to the National Trust in 2000. Although Rosalind and Anthony continued to live there until their deaths in 2004 and 2005 respectively, they allowed the garden area to be opened up to the public from 2000.
Greenway continues to be a popular attraction on Devon’s tourist trail today, not only because of its rich history dating back to the 16th century, but also because of its links with the most successful crime writer in the world – her novels are third in the list of the world’s most widely published books, behind Shakespeare’s works and the bible. There are 300 million copies of her books in print, making her the 3rd best-selling author of all time.
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