I grew up on a diet of Agatha – the books and films. To join in her week long birthday celebrations, I asked cosy crime writer and Agatha expert, Isabella Muir, about Agatha’s childhood. It turns out we share some of our favourite childhood books – I’m actually about to re-re-read The Phoenix and the Carpet. And did you know she was home educated but her sister wasn’t? Interesting. Anyway, over to Isabella …
Agatha Christie – a child of her time
As we are about to celebrate the birthday of Agatha Christie – that famous Queen of Crime – I’ve been reading about her childhood – what would life have been like for the young Agatha – strange to think that she lived her first ten years in the 19thcentury!
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on 15 September 1890 into a wealthy upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon. She was the youngest of three children born to Frederick Alvah Miller, an affluent American stockbroker, and his Irish-born wife Clara.
Agatha’s sister, Margaret was also born in Torquay, eleven years earlier and her brother, Louis, who was born in New York, while Frederick and Clara were on a business trip, was ten years her senior. When Frederick’s father Nathaniel died, he left his daughter-in-law Clara £2000 and it was this money she used to buy ‘Ashfield’, a villa in Torquay where her third and final child, Agatha, was born.
Ashfield was a much loved spacious home, with well-kept gardens, a conservatory ‘full of wicker furniture and palm trees’ and a greenhouse. The gardens became Agatha’s playground, as although Agatha’s sister, Margaret, was sent to Roedean School in Sussex for her education, Clara decided Agatha should receive a home education.
Clara believed that starting education too early was not a good thing, suggesting: ‘…no child should be allowed until it was eight years old, since delay was better for the eyes as well as the brain.’ (from Agatha Christie: a biography by Janet Morgan.
But Agatha had different ideas! By the time she was five years old she had taught herself to read and went on to enjoy books by Mrs Molesworth, including Christmas Tree Land(1897) and The Magic Nuts(1898). She also read the work of Edith Nesbit, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers(1899), The Phoenix and the Carpet(1903), and The Railway Children(1906). Once she was a little older, she moved on to reading the verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, which inspired her at the age of 10 to write her first poem, ‘The cowslip’.
The Cow Slip
There was once a little cowslip and a pretty flower too. But yet she cried and fretted all for a robe of blue.
Now a merry little fairy, who loved a trick to play, just changed into a nightshade, that flower without delay. The silly little nightshade thought here life a dream of bliss, yet she wondered why the butterfly came not to give his kiss.
Agatha grew up at a time when wealthy families employed servants. Her ‘wise and patient’nannie, ‘Nursie’, took on the main responsibility for Agatha’s upbringing in those early years, while ‘Five-course dinners were prepared daily by Jane, the cook, with a professional cook and butler hired for grand occasions…’
Nursie took Agatha off to dancing classes and her parents taught her arithmetic, which she loved, and she learned to play both the piano and the mandolin. She also had a passion for dogs – one of the earliest known photographs of Agatha depicts her as a little girl with her first dog, whom she called George Washington.
From her early years it was clear that Agatha had a love of language and a vivid imagination. Janet Morgan describes her as being ‘fascinated by words and phrases’. She had little or no contact with other children until the family decided to spend winters in Europe. This was a time when upper middle-class families found it cheaper to let the house out in England with its cold climate, and enjoy the benefits of warmth and sunshine in southern France and Italy – even though they would be paying to stay in hotels. It was here she started to form friendships, as well as gain a good grasp of French and a love of travel that would stay with her throughout her life.
Her father was often ill, suffering from a series of heart attacks and when he died in November 1901, aged just 55, money was tight, but Clara and Agatha continued to live together in their Torquay home.
Agatha and her mother, Clara, lived a relatively comfortable life. In her biography of Agatha’s life, Janet Morgan writes: ‘There was a comfortable order and predictability to life…her world was private and safe.[…] She was given responsibility for amusing herself and looking after her animals and birds…
However, Agatha later claimed that her father’s death marked the end of her childhood, as in 1902 she was sent to receive a formal education at Miss Guyer’s Girls School in Torquay.
Up until her father’s death Agatha and the rest of her family were fortunate to enjoy financial comfort. Even after that time, the financial struggles they experienced were nothing compared to many during the late Victorian era who were not so lucky. This was a still a time when the fear of the workhouse loomed large for anyone who was unemployed and living in poverty.
But the spark of imagination that was evident from Agatha’s very early years led on to her prolific output of novels, short stories and poetry. She wrote more than sixty detective novels, as well as romance under the name of Mary Westmacott and her own autobiography, which was published in 1977, after her death. She started writing as a child and continued into her eighties. No wonder then that she is said to the best-selling author of all time, outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible.
It has been fun researching Agatha Christie’s life, which I was inspired to do as I developed my Sussex Crime series, which introduces readers to the fictional world of Janie Juke, the young librarian and amateur sleuth who sets out to solve crimes and mysteries.
It is Agatha’s wonderful detective, Hercule Poirot, that Janie Juke sets out to emulate as she develops her sleuthing talent in the sleepy seaside town of Tamarisk Bay.
This blog post is one of a series, which leads up to Agatha Christie’s birthday and national #cozymysteryday on 15th September, as I enjoy the opportunity to be Chindi’s ‘Author of the week’. Chindi is a network of authors, both traditionally and independently published, based largely in West Sussex. Between us we publish a wide range of books, from historical and crime fiction to romance and children’s books, from humour to self-help.
To find out more about the great Queen of Crime and help to celebrate Agatha Christie’s birthday, then look out for the other blog posts in the series:
Agatha Christie and Isabella Muir https://isabellamuir.com/blog/
Agatha Christie and the sixties https://patriciamosbornewriter.wordpress.com/daily-blog/
What is a cosy mystery? https://www.carol-thomas.co.uk/blog/
The good, the bad and the ugly https://samefacedifferentplace.wordpress.com/
Investigating the past https://rosemarynoble.wordpress.com/
Agatha Christie and Janie Juke https://isabellamuir.com/blog/
And as a present to you, on Agatha’s behalf, I am pleased to announce that the first book in my Sussex Crimeseries – The Tapestry Bag– will be available on Kindle for just £0.99p for one week only – grab it while you can!
Plus, there’s more! You can get a free copy of her novella, “Divided We Fall“, when you join here
Isabella Muir is the author of the Sussex Crime Mystery series:
BOOK 1: THE TAPESTRY BAG
BOOK 2: LOST PROPERTY
BOOK 3: THE INVISIBLE CASE
Her latest novel is: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN
She can be contacted via:
Or on Goodreads