02 April 2011

Agatha Christie's greatest mystery: her husband's sex life

Young Agatha Miller had a happy adolescence. She enjoyed swimming, horse riding, dancing, reading and roller-skating. She used to go to Devon’s Princess Pier in Torquay, where she ran or skated down the length of the pier. This pleasure pier had lovely wrought iron and timber seats, and ornate lamps, running the full length on both sides. When the Islander Amusement Centre was built, young Agatha enjoyed being in the concert room at the end of the pier in the wintertime. Next to the Princess Gardens stood the beautiful Georgian building, The Pavilion, where Agatha regularly attended concerts. Life was good.

In Jan 1913 Agatha went to the Pavilion with a young man who she had met a few months earlier, Colonel Archie Christie. After the concert they went back to Ashfield, and Archie proposed to Agatha. Despite it not quite being the love affair Agatha had hoped for, they married Christmas 1914. The Grand Hotel was the splendid location of their honeymoon; just one night with her aviator husband. He had come home on leave from his war work in the Royal Flying Corps in France, and returned the next day.

Agatha and Archie Christie on their wedding day, 1914

During WW1, Agatha worked at a hospital as a nurse and loved the work. She later worked at a pharmacy, a job that might have influenced her later stories, as many of her murders were carried out with poison.

The couple had one beloved child, a daughter called Rosalind (later Hicks). The family lived in Sunningdale Berkshire in the 1920s and then moved to Styles. The decade was very productive, starting with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. This was the novel that introduced the long-running character detective Hercule Poirot, who appeared in dozens of her novels and short stories. In 1924, she published some mystery and ghost stories, The Golden Ball. Her other well known character, Miss Marple, was introduced in a short story The Tuesday Night Club in 1927, and life for the writer seemed both creative and financially rewarding.

Then the wheels fell off. In late 1926 Archie told Agatha that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. In Dec 1926 the couple had a huge argument and Archie left their Berkshire home to spend a hot and sweaty weekend with his mistress in Surrey. That same evening Agatha disappeared from her home, talking to noone and leaving her staff with the skimpiest of notes.

The next morning her car was found abandoned several kilometers away, with some of her clothes and documents scattered and disordered in the car. Her disappearance caused an outcry from the public, particularly from her novels’ fans. The police, who were half expecting either suicide or murder, got thousands of volunteers to search the land and dredge the lake in the area she loved most.

The Daily News of 11th Dec 1926 had three photos of Mrs Christie, showing the public how she might have disguised herself to avoid detection. The handsome but shifty Archie Christie, who forgot to tell reporters that he was having it off on the side, wrote “my wife stated that she could disappear at will if she liked. And, in view of the fact that she was a writer of detective stories, it would be very natural for her to adopt some form of disguise to carry out that idea”. Phantoms & Monsters blog reported that Archie told the newspapers "I would gladly give 500 pounds if I could only learn where my wife is."

Swan Hydropathic Hotel, Harrogate (now the Old Swan Hotel)

A nationwide  manhunt followed that even drew in the talents of fellow crime writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers. Despite her face being very well known, it took 11 days to find the author. Agatha Christie was located in the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire where she was signed in as a South African tourist who wanted to use the hotel’s health care facilities and Turkish baths. Christie could not, or would not explain what happened. Was she truly amnesiac?

Personally speaking, if my beloved mother had died and my husband had been bonking a bimbo in the same year, I too might have run away to a Yorkshire health resort hotel in secrecy, or worse. But the public did not know about either source of sadness. The public reaction did not seem to be very supportive of Agatha Christie, assuming it was some sort of elaborate publicity stunt to sell more detective novels.

Appropriately Agatha and Archie were divorced in 1928.

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, published in 1977 by Collins

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (published after her death) certainly discussed some of her painful life experiences, so it fascinates me that the author wrote almost nothing of these events. She briefly mentioned the death of her mother, her slow breakdown, her husband’s adultery and the end of her marriage, saying “The next year of my life is one I hate recalling” and “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair, and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it. I stood out for a year, hoping he would change. But he did not. So ended my first married life.”

22 comments:

the foto fanatic said...

Well done, Agatha, for finally leaving the deceitful bastard. I imagine divorce was frowned upon in 1928, and for a woman to leave her husband could have been no easy thing.

BigJack said...

We took the children to see her lovely house and grounds, but which house was it - the caddish first husband's?

FIXED BAYONET METAL SOLDIERS said...

archie just found another woman to have sex with.problem?

Hermes said...

She seems to have been happy with Max though and wrote much better books in my opinion. I like your 'hot and sweaty' weekend. Worthy of Miss Marple herself!

Hels said...

foto fanatic,

not only was divorce frowned upon in certain circles, there was the risk that Agatha would lose her much loved only child. I know it was Archie who wanted the divorce, but it seems that Agatha was the party who was given the divorce (on the uncontested grounds of adultery). What a mess.

Hels said...

Jack,

Hilary Macaskill in her book, Agatha Christie at Home, says Christie owned at least eight houses at one stage or another. Agatha, Archie and their daughter moved to Scotswood, Sunningdale where they stayed for two years. A larger house was bought nearby and called Styles. Agatha also had a flat at 8 Addison Mansions Kensington, for business purposes.

The Greenway Estate in Devon was acquired in 1938 as a summer residence by Agatha and her second husband. The most influential of the homes, literary-wise, was Abney Hall in Cheshire, which was owned by her brother-in-law but used often by Agatha. And by 1971 most of her time was spent at Winterbrook House, in Wallingford.

I am guessing that you went to the Greenway Estate, especially if you clearly remember the beautiful woodland gardens.

Hels said...

fixed bayonet

spouses can have it away with anyone they like, and do. The dilemma here was that Agatha had no idea that Archie was seeing anyone else, let alone planning to marry them as soon as possible.

Agatha might have been an innocent, she might have been in wilful denial or she might have been deeply depressed immediately following her mother's death. She only said that she was fragile, and in shock at Archie's betrayal.

Hels said...

Hermes,

After the divorce in 1928, Agatha went to southern Iraq to join in some sort of theraputic activity, at an archaeological dig of all things. There she met the archaeologist Max Mallowan and married him.. in Sept 1930!

God bless him. Mallowan seemed like a very scholarly type in his own profession, and very supportive of Agatha in hers.

maria said...

but you are judging someone with hindsight and above all with a lack
of being there at the time

maria said...

witch hunts begin like that

Hels said...

maria

Agatha was found in Yorkshire, crying, depressed and with total amnesia. She had clearly responded to her husband's departure with terrible shock and didn't cope very well at all. The woman may have been incredibly naive, but we have to believe her when she said she had no idea he wanted to marry someone else.

M said...

By complete coincidence, yesterday I was reading about Agatha Christie's disappearance on the back of a box of cereal (as part of a trivia game focused on famous writers). The cereal box gave an incorrect fact, though, stating that Christie had disappeared for five months. Glad that your blog corrected that error for me! From now on, I'll be more wary of the historical facts presented by cereal companies!

Hels said...

M
not just cereal boxes..even other bloggers might have got it wrong :)

I have had to check my facts from lots of different sources and even then, Agatha Christie didn't help AT ALL. I suppose for the second most famous woman in Britain after the queen, she just wanted privacy.. and escape from her humiliation.

ChrisJ said...

I agree with Hermes - her books written with Max are better, but then she was also a more experienced writer.

People seemed so much more dramatic in modernist times, didn't they?!

Hels said...

Chris
melodramatic in Agatha's case :)

Two fortunate things to observe:
a] Agatha had an excellent income stream of her own, something most divorced women had no access to and
b] She was able to remarry very quickly, something most divorced women with dependent children could not do.

The Clever Pup said...

Poor Agatha, I can completely relate. (If I run away I'll be hiding at the Hotel Orphee in Regensberg)

Hels said...

Pup
I hope you don't run away and hide, but if you must, at least do it in style. It is just as easy to be miserable with expensive massages, aroma therapy, turkish baths, facials, herbal remedies and champagne cocktails as it it is to be miserable in a cheap place.

M said...

Last night I came across another interesting tidbit about Agatha Christie (this time not on a cereal box, but in a book by art historian Noah Charney) which not only furthers the story of her married life but also might be of interest to art historians who frequent this site. Christie remarried in 1930, to an archaeologist named Max Mallowan. Mallowan was an assistant to the well-known Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavation of Ur! Apparently Christie and Woolley became good friends, and she greatly admired the archaeologist's passion for his work.

Since I know you are interested in WWII history, Hels, you may already be familiar with Woolley's role with the Archaeological Adviser's Branch in Britain. The branch (which originally was a one-man operation run by Woolley) was established to deal with the recovery and protection of art objects during the war.

Hels said...

M

It is so interesting that you would mention Sir Leonard Woolley in connection with Max Mallowan and their dig in Ur. No wonder Agatha Christie became so impressed with archaeologists and their work in unlikely places like Mesopotamia.

But I had never heard of Sir Leonard Woolley’s connection with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Allied armies. Even though I wrote a previous post called Plunder of the Arts: The Monuments Men
http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2009/09/plunder-of-arts-monuments-men.html.

I will go back again to Edsel and Nicholas, and have a specific look for Woolley this time around. The worlds of art, literature and history collide in the most fascinating ways.

Heather on her travels said...

I'd heard before about this mystery - I think any sane woman might have escaped to a decent hotel for some quiet time in the circumstances

Hels said...

Heather
nod... or something even more pointed :) If only Agatha had put a paid ad in the local newspaper, suggesting that if women want to avail themselves of Archie's services, they should sent their requests to Surrey, not Berkshire.

I am just sorry about the tens of thousands of policemen, volunteers and fans who truly feared the worst for Agatha.

Hels said...

I added a reference to a note in History Today, Dec 2012. A cutting from the Daily News, 11th Dec 1926, showed how Agatha Christie may have disguised herself when she disappeared.