I'd never read much of Agatha Christie's work until our daughter, a big Christie fan, sharpened my interest a few year ago. Then I finally sat down and read all the Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries one after another, marveling (as readers have done since the 1920s) at Christie's extraordinary skill in piecing plots together like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Christie grew up in Torquay, on the south coast of Devon, and later owned a country estate called Greenway in Glampton, on the River Dart. The estate is now owned by the National Trust, and we've long talked about visiting it one day. Last month, on the weekend before our daughter's birthday, we finally did.
The countryside around Greenway is still quite rural, approached by Devon's famously narrow lanes, and in Agatha's day, when motorcars were few, it was a remote country haven indeed. The best way to get there would have been by the steam trains routes that once ran all across the West Country -- and in fact one of those trains remains, running down the coast from Paignton to Kingswear. Since these trains are such a feature of Agatha's fiction, that's how we decided to go.
In addition to Victoria, we took along two of her friends: a trio of women now in their 20s who have known each other since childhood. I think of them as the Three Graces, for in intelligence, talent, and beauty (inner and outer) they could teach even those Greek goddesses a thing or two -- but they will appear today only in this acknowledgement of their lovely presence on our journey, as I don't want to infringe on their privacy by posting their pictures without permission.
When we left the house, it was autumn on Dartmoor, but the season shifted back to late summer as we drove south to Paignton...and then time itself shifted as we boarded the train, taking us back to the 1930s. One of my dresses happens to be from that era (bought years ago at a vintage shop), so I wore it that day in Agatha's honor and imagined our party as characters in her books...preferably without the murderer or murder victim in our midst.
The train runs along the edges of the southern coastline, winding between the fields and beaches of Torbay. The views are rather spectacular, and the steam trailing past and the hooting of the whistle seem familiar from so many old films...
The train makes a stop at Greenway Halt in the valley below the Greenway estate. Howard and the Graces exited there, then continued on foot through the Greenway woods -- but, alas, I was walking with a cane that day, so I caught the decidedly less romantic shuttle-bus instead. I'd read Janet Morgan's biography of Agatha just the week before, so I thought about her remarkable life as I made my own up to the house. I imagined her beside me, with her much-loved dogs, walking and talking with the formidable energy she sustained into old age...and since this was my daydream, I was hale and hearty, walking just as energetically too.
Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, née Miller, came from a privileged background (her father had inherited a fortune) and was raised in a large house in Torquay, a seaside town more elegant and exclusive in her day than it is in ours. Although a large portion of the money was gone by the time her father died when Agatha was 12, she was nonetheless used to a world of large houses, servants, and friends with titles before their names...a world she would later portray (and dissect) so well in her various books. She was a shy, quiet girl who loved animals, music, and the Devon countryside; she loved to swim (and did so all her life) and to tramp across the wilds of Dartmoor. She never had a formal education (and barely any schooling at all), a fact that somewhat embarrassed her. Instead, she educated herself by reading her way through her father's library, and then trained as a pharmacist as part of the war effort during the years of World War I. (This gave her a useful understanding of toxic substances!)
Agatha left her beloved Devon for London during her first marriage to Archie Christie, a pilot and war hero -- but the marriage ended abruptly and traumatically when their only child, Rosalind, was seven. Agatha's mother had contracted an illness and died, and while Agatha reeled from this sudden loss, Archie announced he was in love with someone else and wanted a divorce. Divorce was still uncommon then, so this involved public scandal as well as heart-break. In a state of shock from both of these blows, Agatha disappeared for ten dramatic days following a mental breakdown in which she'd lost all memory of who she was. Since she was already a popular novelist at this point, the newspapers went wild over her disappearance -- even going so far as to speculate that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, although this intrusively personal publicity was precisely the kind she loathed.
Agatha's second marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan, was a much happier one. She'd been very young when she married Archie Christie on the eve of World War I (a time of many over-hasty marriages), and in Max, she'd found a partner who was considerably more compatible: intellectual, adventurous, and interested in everything, just like Agatha. (Archie, by contrast, was a stockbroker whose only real passion was playing golf. He left Agatha for a fellow golfer.)
Agatha and Max met on an archaeological dig in southern Iraq: she was there by invitation (a friend was running the dig); he was a member of the working team. She was 39 years old and already famous; he was 26 and at the start of his career. This unlikely couple fell in love while sharing a harrowing train-and-boat journey back to England, married later that year, then forged a long and successful life together -- divided between periods in Oxford (where he taught), London (where she wrote for the theatre), summers with Rosalind and her family at Greenway, and winters at Max's archaeological digs in the deserts of Syria and Iraq. (Agatha could work anywhere, and simply took her typewriter along.) He went on to become as well regarded in his field as she was in hers, and received a knighthood for it.
Max and Agatha bought Greenway in 1938. "‘One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young," Agatha wrote in her autobiography. "So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees -- the ideal house, a dream house...."
Although they didn't live there year-round, Greenway was always bustling with life: Rosalind and her family spent a great deal of time there, family friends were urged to go and stay (Agatha had always been generous this way), and the staff was encouraged to make use of the whole house whenever the family wasn't around. Agatha often said that Greenway was her true home.
Agatha died at the age of 86, world famous, much loved, and with her family around her. Max died two years later, and the Greenway estate was passed down to Rosalind and her son. They, in turn, passed the house and all its contents to the National Trust, under strict conditions: It was not to be turned into a commercial "Agatha Christie theme park," but left to look just as it did when Agatha lived and worked there -- the same books on the shelves, the same art on the walls, the same dishes in the cupboards of its large country kitchen, the same black typewriting poised on the desk, ready for her next story
Although grand from the outside, when you step through Greenway's door it doesn't feel like a show piece; it still feels like a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit the home of an unusually well-traveled family, stuffed with curios and artifacts gathered from all around the word.
Despite Greenway's spaciousness, Agatha's office is squeezed into an endearingly small room...although in fact she wrote all over house: in the library, in the corner of the bedroom, in the living room amid the tumult of family life.
One of the things I admire about her is that she wasn't precious about her writing. She took it seriously (and expected others to do so too), yet she was always a consummate professional: she simply sat down and worked -- in trains, on boats, in hotel rooms, in tents under the Middle Eastern stars. Wherever she was, she observed life around her, took it all in, and then sat down and turned it into stories.
"There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional," she wrote in her autobiography. "I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well."
But she always wrote well, at least until the final years when her powers began to fail -- and even then, she concocted characters and plots so vivid that even her lesser works are engaging, suspenseful, and well worth reading.
After wandering through the house, Howard and I found a bench outside and sat in the warmth of the lowering sun, while from the house we could hear the faint notes of someone playing Agatha's piano. We wondered aloud what it would be like to live and work in place so peaceful, so beautiful....
And then we remembered that we do. Okay, ours is a plain little house, a simple, sturdy workman's dwelling from the Edwardian era, so small that the entire thing could probably fit into Agatha's living room. But we, too, are surrounded by the green beauty of Devon; and we, too, step through the door into a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit a much more humble one.
And suddenly we were eager to head back there. We gathered the Graces, and made for the train.
Photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The majority of the photographs are mine, but when they're not, credits are listed. A related previous post: "On Poirot and the Pup" (2012).