“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity. It dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”
— Agatha Christie
The Queen of Crime fiction was born in 1890, the youngest of three children. Her older brother and sister were much older than her and often away at school, so Agatha spent a great deal of time alone. By the time Agatha was born, her mother Claire had adopted new ideas of child development and decided not to send her to school. Based on concern for her eyes and brain maturity, Claire did not plan to teach Agatha to read until she was eight, but the child taught herself to read anyway by the age of five. She at first read by identifying the whole word. It took longer for her to recognize individual letters such as “B” and “R.”
Their house in Torquay, England was full of books. Young Agatha loved the familiar authors Edith Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter, Louisa M. Alcott, Robinson Crusoe, and others. After she had learned to read, her father decided to teach her to write. She started with a pencil, and by the time she was seven was using ink and an italic nub, writing with a large, legible hand. Her older sister Madge made a copybook for her with sentences to copy such as: “Jealousy is a green-eyed monster,” “Pork pie is made of pig and paste,” and “I was an idler, who idolized play.”
Every morning after breakfast, her father taught her arithmetic. He gave her word problems involving apples, pears and bathsful of water. She loved it and was very good at math. She also took mandolin and piano lessons and had a wonderful voice. She was so good that for a while she dreamed of becoming a concert pianist or an opera singer.
Agatha was lucky to grow up in a comfortable house, with orderly, thoughtful and kind parents. Her father was a friendly, easy going, upper-class American who enjoyed collecting art and antiques. Her mother was imaginative, very playful and enjoyed trying new things. She experimented with religion, including Zoroastrianism, and was interested in the supernatural (this was not too unusual for the Victorian socialite class). Unfortunately, Agatha’s beloved father died when she was only 11. With her husband gone and the family’s finances depleted, Claire’s health deteriorated as she struggled to make ends meet.
Despite the tough circumstances, Agatha continued to learn at home. Her mother hired a series of governesses to try to teach her French but none of them worked out. Finally she hired a sweet, dependable French girl named Marie to keep Agatha company and teach her the language. She also began attending classes two days a week at Miss Guyer’s Girl’s School in Torquay to learn algebra, grammar and spelling, but she did not do well here.
Agatha continued to read everything she could get her hands on: Jules Verne, G.A. Henty, George Eliot, Mrs. Henry Wood, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Trollope, Bryron, Kipling, the Bronte sisters, Marion Crawford, Oscar Wilde, and various French classics. She also loved “How-To” books, nonfiction, and riddle books.
Much has been said of the fact that Agatha did not have any close playmates as a child, but this always annoyed her. She did not feel lonely nor did she regret her lack of formal education. She was very close to her mother, a nanny, and two spirited Grandmothers. She also loved her pets: a cat, a terrier and a canary; and a creative collection of imaginary friends. She invented a school full of imaginary girls with names and individual personalities, plus a dynasty of make-believe kings and queens. She liked to roller skate, ride horses, and swim in the ocean.
Later, at age twelve, she began to make local friends, putting on performances and dances. At fifteen, she went to a series of boarding schools in Paris where she tried to learn the refined skills of drawing, pouring tea, singing, French history and more piano.
Agatha wrote a poem at age eleven, which was published in the local paper, and she later wrote a waltz. But it was not until she was 18 and recovering from the flu in bed that her mother suggested she try writing a story. She did write many stories and sent them into publishers but all were rejected. When WWI began, she worked at a hospital and started training to be a pharmacist (here is where she picked up all her knowledge of poisons), all while writing stories. She finally tried her hand at writing a detective novel and it was published in 1920.
By 1923, Agatha’s novels were becoming more popular and she was well on her way to becoming one of the world’s most beloved authors.
Reference: Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie: A Biography. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.