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The Finished Portrait
By Andrew Norman
The History Press Copyright © 2010 Dr Andrew Norman,
All rights reserved.
The Miller Family
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller (who became Agatha Christie) begins her autobiography by declaring that one of the most fortunate things that can happen to a person in their lifetime, is to have a happy childhood. Her childhood, she describes as 'very happy'. She loved her home and her garden; her nanny was 'wise and patient', and because her parents loved one another, this meant that they were successful, both in their marriage and in being parents.
Agatha was born on 15 September 1890 at the Devonshire seaside resort of Torquay, an event which came about in the following way. Agatha's mother Clarissa ('Clara'), whose family came from Sussex, was born in Belfast in 1854. When Clara grew up she married Frederick Alvah Miller, an American who had moved to Manchester. (In fact, Frederick and Clara were related by marriage, Clara's Aunt Margaret being the second wife of Nathaniel Frary Miller, and Frederick being Nathaniel's son by his first wife Martha). At the time of their marriage in April 1878, Frederick was aged thirty-two and Clara twenty-four.
The couple set up home in Torquay, and it was here, in 1879, that Agatha's sister Margaret – 'Madge' – was born. Finally, having returned to America, where in 1880 Agatha's brother Louis Montant – 'Monty' – was born, Frederick suggested to Clara that she set up home permanently in Torquay, where he would join her after concluding his business arrangements in New York. Using the money from a legacy, Clara promptly bought 'Ashfield', described as a sizeable mansion standing in extensive grounds which included 'an orchard, conservatories, a tennis court, and croquet lawn ...'. This is the house where Agatha was born, and around which her early life was centred, for as will be seen, her mother did not for some years consent to her attending school.
Of Agatha's love for her parents, there is no doubt. However, she describes her mother Clara as someone who had a habit of seeing the world as a drama, or even as a melodrama. Because of the creative nature of her imagination, she was never able to visualize places or events as being 'drab or ordinary'. She was also highly intuitive, which meant that she was often able to deduce the thoughts of others.
Those who subscribe to there being a genetic basis for behaviour would argue that Agatha's own imaginativeness and creativity was inherited from her mother.
As for her father Frederick, she describes him as a lazy man of independent means; a collector of fine furniture and china, glass and paintings, who spent mornings and afternoons at his club, and, during the season, days at the cricket club – of which he was president – in Torquay. Nevertheless, Agatha acknowledged that Frederick had a loving nature, and was deeply concerned for his fellow men. Frederick also possessed an extensive library which included comprehensive editions of the novels of the nineteenth century. This facility would be of great benefit to Agatha in the years to come, in her own literary career.
Despite her father's undoubted inadequacies, Agatha had this to say about fathers in general Everyone found the phrase 'father knows best' amusing, but nevertheless, it did epitomize the view that was prevalent in Victorian times. In other words, the father was 'the rock upon which the home was built.'
Two other members of the family who would feature prominently in Agatha's life were Mary Ann Boehmer (née West), Agatha's maternal grandmother; she lived in Bayswater, London and was known as 'Grannie B'. Also, Mary Ann's sister Margaret Miller (née West), Agatha's maternal great aunt, who, after the death of her husband Nathaniel, moved from Cheshire to Ealing, Greater London. She was known as 'Auntie Grannie'.CHAPTER 2
In Agatha's early years, home and family were paramount, and it is, therefore, not surprising that she became deeply attached to those who were assigned to look after her.
At Ashfield, Agatha's parents employed a nanny for Agatha. She was known as 'Nursie' and described as elderly and rheumatic. Agatha was devoted to Nursie, with whom she shared so much, for example, being allowed in the kitchen in order to help with the making of her own little bread loaves and plaited buns. When Nursie retired, Agatha described this as the 'first real sorrow of her life ...'. There was also a cook, Jane Rowe, who remained with the family for forty years, and several house-maids and a parlour-maid. In this seemingly idyllic world, however, all was not entirely sweetness and light. It was when she was about 5 years old, recalled Agatha, that her father first began to have money worries.
Her grandfather had invested his money in a series of trust funds, intended to provide income for his relatives after his death. However, the money that was due to come to Agatha's father did not materialize, either because of 'sheer inefficiency', or because one of the four trustees had managed to manipulate matters to their own advantage, which, Agatha did not know. Agatha was at pains to stress, therefore, that although her father was an American, and all Americans were supposed to be rich, her family was not particularly well off. They had no carriage and horses; no butler or footman, and only three servants – which was a minimum in those days. However, poverty for the Miller family was only a matter of degree, because Agatha goes on to describe a typical meal served at Ashfield as including soup, boiled turbot or fillets of sole; followed by sorbet, saddle of mutton, lobster mayonnaise, pouding diplomatique and charlotte russe!
In order to economize, the Millers decided to let Ashfield, and spend the winter of 1895 in France where the cost of living was lower. Having crossed the Channel, Agatha described the excitement of going to bed in the train which would take them to Pau in the South of France, where they spent about six months. It was here that she went horse riding, and with the help of Marie Sijé, an assistant fitter whom they met in the dressmaker's shop, improved her French. Soon Agatha was able not only to converse fluently, but also to read books in the French language. When Clara asked Marie if she would care to accompany the family back to England, the latter was delighted. Then they left for Paris, to find the streets 'full of those new vehicles called Automobiles'. They returned via Brittany and Guernsey.
These early experiences on the Continent would leave an indelible impression on Agatha; to the extent that she later chose to make her famous male detective a Belgian, whose charm was that he could view the British, and particularly the English with their traditions and eccentricities, from a Continental standpoint.
Although Agatha's elder siblings, sister Madge and brother Monty, had attended boarding school, their mother Clara became convinced that the best way to bring up girls was to give them as much freedom as possible, with good food and an abundance of fresh air. Their minds were not to be 'forced' in any way. Boys, of course, were an entirely different proposition. For them, education had to be along rigidly conventional lines.
Clara also believed that children should not be permitted to read before they attained the age of 8 years, as this was better, not only for their eyesight, but also for their minds. Despite this, Agatha had learnt to read by the age of five, which opened up 'the world of story books' for her from then onwards.
Nevertheless, Clara's action in keeping Agatha from school would be to her detriment, and would contribute to the serious psychological problems from which she suffered in her adult life, as will shortly become apparent.
A clear echo of Agatha's family home in Torquay – 'Ashfield', which was situated near the coast (and, incidentally, was poorly maintained through lack of funds), is to be found in a detective novel which she subsequently wrote entitled Peril at End House. This is a dwelling which a pretty young lady called Nick Buckley has inherited on the death of her brother. Nick refers to it by saying how much she loved it, despite the fact that it was 'tumble-down', and in an increasingly poor state of repair. Also, after an alleged attempt on her life, Nick describes a 'scrambly cliff path' leading down to the sea which she takes when she goes to bathe.
Agatha's father Frederick died on 26 November 1901, when she was aged eleven. His health had gradually deteriorated, but despite this fact, no diagnosis had ever been made as to the exact nature of his illness. (Agatha's mother Clara's perception of doctors as being, in the main, ignorant and incompetent is a theme which runs through Agatha's autobiography).
In September 1902, Agatha's sister Madge married James Watts, grandson of prosperous Manchester businessman Sir James Watts of Abney Hall. The couple set up home at nearby Cheadle Hall, and each Boxing Day the two families, traditionally, came together to attend the pantomime in Manchester.
When in 1903, Madge and James had a son, he was christened James, after his father and grandfather. James, or 'Jack' as he was known, with his blushing cheeks and golden hair, was an unending source of joy to her, said Agatha. Meanwhile, back at home in Torquay, roller skating on the pier at the Assembly Rooms, or at the Bath Saloons (where at other times, the important dances were held), were favourite pastimes. However, at the Torquay Regatta, it was the accompanying fair, rather than the yacht racing, which attracted Agatha. She also describes garden parties where everyone was dressed up 'to the nines ...'.
It is recognized today, that a child develops his or her intellectual and inter-personal relationship skills more quickly when in the company of his peer group, say in nursery and junior schools and crèches, more than in isolation at home, and Agatha was undoubtedly deprived in this respect.
Also, it is sad to think of her as being lonely in her childhood, which by her own account she undoubtedly was, not only by being prevented from going to school, but also because her siblings Madge and Monty were a decade older than herself. She describes being particularly lonely after the retirement of Nursie, and later when her French governess Marie Sijé left and returned to France, having been with the family for three years. Equally detrimental to her well-being was the fact, that her upbringing in no way prepared her for the rough and tumble of adult life; a fact about which she would later complain bitterly.
On the other hand, had Agatha not been lonely, then perhaps she would have failed to develop that wonderful imagination with which she entertained herself, and which would one day stand her in such good stead when she embarked on her writing career.CHAPTER 3
A Love of Storytelling
That Agatha, from an early age, absolutely loved being read to can be deduced from her semi-autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait (published in 1934, where the character of Agatha is represented by 'Celia'). Celia would ask her mother, Miriam, to tell her a story. She loved her mother's stories which were so different from those told by other people. To hear from them about Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Red Riding Hood, was all very well; or from Nannie about Joseph and his brothers, or Moses in the bulrushes; but Mummy's stories were something quite special!
Part of the joy of listening to them was that one never knew what they were going to be about. The subject could be mice, children, princesses. ... The problem was that she told her stories only once, and if you asked her to tell them a second time, she made the excuse that she could not remember. Then, with serious fact, but bright and shining eyes, she would gaze across the table, as she waited for inspiration to come to her. Suddenly, she would emerge from her trance-like state and proceed to tell a new story. It was to be called The Curious Candle. At this, Celia would draw in her breath with eager anticipation. Soon, she would not only be positively intrigued, but quite spellbound!
The inference is obvious. This, in reality, is Agatha speaking about her mother Clara, who had no need to refer to a book because she carried all her stories in her head. Again, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Agatha inherited the same gift, for when she came to write her detective novels, she could juggle as many as eight or more characters in her mind, all interacting with each other, and everyone with motive and opportunity to commit the crime.
Agatha particularly enjoyed stories from the Old Testament and said that attending her local parish church of Tor Mohun was one of the highlights of her week. Having learned to read at an early age, she was also able to enjoy the collections of fairy and animal stories given to her by Margaret Miller – 'Auntie Grannie'. She read these over and over again, and co-opted Marie her governess to re-enact various fairy stories with her at performances staged after dinner, in front of her parents Clara and Frederick. In fact, drama was to play a large part in Agatha's upbringing, and she described visits to the local theatre in Torquay as one of the great joys of her life. Auntie Grannie also fired the imagination of the young Agatha, by requesting her to recite juicy details of real life murder cases to her from the newspaper; this being a preoccupation of the Victorian and Edwardian press.
Madge, her elder sister, was also instrumental in feeding Agatha's imaginative young mind, and it was she who told her her first Sherlock Holmes story. After that, she pestered her for more, and confessed to enjoying all of them – Madge being a splendid storyteller. Among the great quantity of books which Agatha worked through were the novels of GA Henty, Stanley Weyman, and also the entire collection of Jules Verne in their original French. (Agatha's first lessons in French had been given to her by her sister Madge on the latter's return from finishing school in Paris. Agatha was only five at the time). Later she progressed in her reading to Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, William Thackeray and Alexandre Dumas, authors of books which her mother enjoyed reading to her, just as she enjoyed being read to. An added bonus was that American novelist Henry James, and also English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, were among those people who called at the house during Agatha's young days.
Agatha read voraciously, and absorbed the stories told to her by members of her family as blotting paper absorbs ink. However, it was the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, read to her by Madge, and the current criminal trials, which she in turn read to Auntie Grannie at the latter's request, which appear to have had the greatest impact on Agatha as a future writer.CHAPTER 4
A Creative Imagination
Time and again in her autobiography, Agatha alludes to the fact that it was her childhood loneliness which was the catalyst which led her to use her imagination to invent imaginary playmates and dramas. Nursie (her elderly nurse) was involved in the games which she enjoyed as a child, even though she was not always a participant in them. In fact, all the games were make-believe. From as early as she could remember, the imaginary companions that featured in these games were ones that she chose herself. She then goes on to describe 'The Kittens' whose names were 'Clover' and 'Blackie', and whose mother's name was 'Mrs Benson'. Later, there was 'Mrs Green' who had a hundred children: the important ones being 'Poodle', 'Squirrel' and 'Tree'. To supplement these imaginary creations were Nursie's repertoire of six stories, all of which revolved around the various children of the families by whom she had previously been employed. Agatha said Nursie, to her, was the epitomy of a 'rock of stability' in her life. So here was Nursie, in company with Agatha's mother, sister, and grandparents, adding to the child's memory bank of stories.
By the time she was aged five, Agatha had created more imaginary characters, including 'Dickie' (based on Goldie the canary) and 'Dicksmistress' (based on herself). On her fifth birthday, she was given a dog, a four-month old Yorkshire terrier puppy which she named 'Toby'. The event, she said, gave her such unimaginable joy, that it left her practically speechless. Toby, as the character 'Lord Toby', was now given the special privilege of being admitted into what Agatha described as her 'new secret saga'. She and Toby would now sit together under the dining room table, there to have imaginary adventures in equally imaginary locations such as underground cellars and such like. Dogs would play an important part in Agatha's life, and one in particular, not Toby but 'Peter', would be a source of comfort to her in the troubled times ahead.
Meanwhile, even inanimate objects could be transformed. For example, it was her hoop, said Agatha, which gave her most pleasure in childhood. It could represent to her such objects as a horse, a sea monster, or a railway train. She imagined herself to be alternately engine driver, guard, or passenger on three railways which were of her own invention. It was the hoop which solved Agatha's problem of being at a loss for a playmate when Nursie retired. She now retreated into her own little world with her hoop as her playmate. Other toys included a rocking horse, a dolls' house and a painted horse and cart – driven by pedals – all of which, also, doubtless featured in her make-believe adventures. When Agatha grew up and married, and had a daughter of her own, she could not understand why the child did not enjoy such simple pleasures as she had done in her own childhood.
Excerpted from Agatha Christie by Andrew Norman. Copyright © 2010 Dr Andrew Norman,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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