On This Day in History is our effort at Chronos to shine light on people and events from our shared human heritage. Today we celebrate the birthday of a woman who, over the course of her life, was a pharmacist, author, surfer, missing person, suspected spy, playwright, and holder of two Guinness world records. We wish a happy 127th birthday to Dame Agatha Christie!
Agatha Christie remains the record holder as the best selling author of all time, and additionally holds the record for the longest running play. She survived two world wars, two husbands, a mysterious disappearance, and even, if you can believe it, stand-up surfing.
Agatha was born in 1890 in Devon, in southwest England. Remarkably, she was so inquisitive as a child that she had taught herself to read by the age of five. She devoured books, and by the age of 18 she had begun writing works of her own.
Shortly before the outbreak of WWI, Agatha met Archibald Christie, who was to be her first husband. Archibald was sent to France when the war started, and the two married on Christmas Eve 1914 while he was home on leave.
Archibald returned to the war, and Agatha joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment as a nurse. During the war, she received training as an apothecary’s assistant and spent the remainder of her time in that pursuit. It was this work that prompted the inspired use of poisons in her novels. Agatha continued her writing all through the war, though it wasn’t until 1920 that her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published.
In 1922, after publishing multiple novels, Agatha and Archibald left their daughter Rosalind in England in order to travel the world to promote the British Empire Exhibition, an event showcasing the fruits of the British Empire. In the waves at Waikiki Agatha became the first known British woman to enjoy surfing while standing upright, an accomplishment she was quite rightly proud of.
Unfortunately, Agatha’s relationship with Archibald in the subsequent years became strained; Archibald had fallen in love with another woman and wished to leave Agatha. On December 3, 1926 Archibald left their home, and Agatha, alone. Agatha, distraught, took off in the night. The next day her car and belongings were found, but she was nowhere to be seen. Agatha was missing for ten days, during which time there is no record of her actions and of which she never spoke of. She was found in a hotel under a different name suffering from amnesia. The disappearance of such a famous mystery writer naturally sparked many rumors as well as many rather creative fictions, including a movie plot supposing she aimed to frame her husband’s lover for her “murder,” and a notoriously amusing episode of Doctor Who involving a human-sized wasp.
Agatha and Archibald divorced in 1929, after which Agatha travelled to Baghdad on the Orient Express. In Baghdad she met a young archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and the two fell in love. The couple married in 1930 and travelled extensively for years. These travels became the basis for settings and themes in many of her novels.
During WWII Agatha wrote N or M? as her contribution to the home front war effort. Surprisingly, the novel drew the attention of British central intelligence, M15, as Agatha had named a character in the novel Major Bletchley. Unbeknownst to her, the British effort to decrypt the Enigma code was occurring at Bletchley Park, where one of Agatha’s acquaintances worked. M15 was concerned that Agatha had a spy on the inside, but when questioned about the choice of name for the character, Agatha responded, "Bletchley? My dear, I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters."
Following the war, Agatha focused on writing plays. Her play The Mousetrap opened in 1952, and it remains in production to this day. In recognition of her outstanding literary achievements over the course of her life, Agatha was granted the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1972.
On January 12, 1975 Agatha passed away at the age of 85. She lead a full and compelling life and left behind an unparalleled legacy of literary achievement.