Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill
Author: Hilary Macaskill
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Ltd
Copyright Year: 2014
Review By: Janet Walker
Though she owned several houses, Agatha Christie had one surpassing favorite: Greenway, on the Dart estuary in Devon. She was born nearby, bought it in 1938, and spent all her summers there until her death in 1976. It was, she wrote, “the loveliest house in the world.” Greenway makes a thinly disguised appearance in at least two of her novels, and nearby settings also play a crucial role in her books. This book explores and illustrates the significance of Devon in Christie’s work, and of Greenway in particular — its magnificent gardens, its beautiful setting on the estuary, and her relationship with its servants and staff. Richly illustrated with rare archival images and evocative photographs of Greenway and the surrounding countryside,
At age 12, Agatha Christie took over my life; her intriguing mysteries, a guilty pleasure which made me forget homework and household chores. As a result of this, I landed in terrible trouble with my mother and time with Agatha became strictly rationed; only to be indulged after the two “h’s” had been completed. Teen years came and my passion for the Queen of Crime gave way to Georgette Heyer and Daphne Du Maurier – two grand gals of English literature. I have never though, forgotten the pleasure Agatha Christie’s books gave to me; pleasure that has been revisited by reading Hilary Macaskill’s lovely book, Agatha Christie At Home.
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 to Frederick and Clarissa (Clara) Miller at their home, Ashfield, in the English county of Devon. Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, writes in his foreword to Agatha Christie At Home that his grandmother loved Devonshire – something of a ‘collector’ of houses; Ashfield in Torquay, where Agatha grew up and Greenway on the River Dart were homes that held special places in her affections.
Educated at home, Agatha taught herself to read before the age of five and with a much older sister, Madge and brother, Monty (ten and eleven years) led a rather solitary existence at Ashfield, creating imaginary companions to fill the rooms of her treasured doll’s house and accompany her on rambles in the garden, an expanse of lawns, woods and secret places (perfect for a girl who would become the world’s biggest selling novelist).
Hilary Macaskill’s description of Agatha Christie’s childhood is a delightfully happy one where good manners and the conventions of the day were observed with a graciousness which (sigh) didn’t survive much past the 1950’s. The book’s early photographs of Agatha show her as sweet faced and serious, included is a photo of the possibly teenaged Agatha in her dance class, posed in loose flowing robes, the group’s air of innocence is charmingly evocative of the early twentieth century.
Agatha married Archie Christie in 1914 when he was on leave from the Royal Flying Corps. The marriage produced a daughter, Rosalind, but ended unhappily in 1926; Archie was unfaithful and demanded a divorce, Agatha, distraught at his betrayal, disappeared, and was the subject of a police search which attracted widespread media attention. Life with Archie, did though produce one happy outcome – it kicked off Agatha’s career as a home owner, renovator, interior decorator and on occasion: landlady.
Agatha Christie At Homefocuses on the houses that Agatha and her family and later, second husband, archeologist, Max Mallowan lived in. Before WWII she owned eight houses; some purchased as investments, some to call home, all renovated with flair, the interiors planned with a keen eye for design and a delight in the purchase of items that make a house a home.
Author, Hilary Macaskill skillfully links Agatha Christie’s residential purchases with the creation of her mysteries; houses and gardens where she resided or holidayed became the settings for new books, residents of nearby villages appropriated for characters. Agatha, a hardworking author, while enjoying the creation of her exciting mysteries was a woman of great practicality, she liked writing but also liked the rewards it brought her – if one of her houses needed a tweak, perhaps a conservatory could morph into a loggia, money from book sales spent on renovating was in Agatha’s opinion: money well spent. A thoughtful, generous woman, she nurtured her houses in the same way she nurtured her family and friends – with loving care.
Agatha Christie At Home, a soft covered book, approx 10” by 10”,is illustrated with photos of Agatha and her family (some rare), interior and exterior shots of her homes and glorious colour images of Devon, most particularly views of the River Dart and Greenway, Agatha’s home.
Bought in 1938, Greenway provided Agatha Christie with inspiration for her books and a happy haven for her family and friends. Greenway is now owned by The National Trust – Oh, to be in England and visit Greenway in the spring! Something I would really like to do.
Properly appreciative of the role servants played in her homes, Agatha bemoaned the difficulty of finding domestic help for her homes. She did though find staff, most of whom stayed for years, becoming friends of the family. Contained in the book are some delightful recollections of life with the Christie family by a former butler.
Hilary Macaskill, a London based journalist and travel writer, has used wide ranging research skills to create Agatha Christie At Home; source material is drawn from family, friends, professional colleagues and Agatha Christie’s biography, the text illustrated with archival images and fascinating glimpses of the interior and exterior of Agatha Christie’s houses and surrounding gardens.
As I was reading this book I had a lot of: ‘Gosh! I didn’t know that’ and ‘How interesting’ moments. Stuff that really surprised me included: As a young woman, Agatha Christie trained as both a concert pianist and an opera singer but decided that she didn’t have the personality necessary for a ‘show biz’ career and was encouraged by her sister to take up writing (crime readers everywhere, glad she took Madge’s advice). During WWI, Agatha Christie worked as a nurse and received a certificate from the Society of Apothecaries, qualifying her to compound and dispense medicines – she really did know the intricacies of chemistry, using it to good effect in her deftly plotted murder mysteries.
As much as being a record of the private life of Agatha Christie and her homes, Agatha Christie At Home is also a social history of England’s middle bordering on upper class society in the period between the turn of the twentieth century until Dame Agatha Christie’s death in 1976 – the details of this timeline, well written and absorbing.
This review first appeared on the Culture Concept Circle website www.thecultureconcept.com/circle and we thank them for enabling us to provide it to Sisters in Crime.