In a tent in Iraq, an Englishwoman attempts to sleep as mice crawl over her body and cockroaches look on from the walls. She is exhausted, having divided her day between meticulously cleaning and documenting recently unearthed pottery from the Assyrian Empire, and writing the works of fiction that have made her a celebrity the world over. Though not yet the world’s most published author (a title she easily holds currently with over 2 billion of her books having sold), Agatha Christie (1890-1976) is at this moment, in 1935, well on her way to that status, which leads to the question, how did she end up here, beneath the heat and the mice?
The answer lies in precisely that reliably fallible human nature that was the stock in trade of her most famous creations, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, those unavoidable and irresistible inner computations that sum up in fiction to murder most foul, and in life to a steadily mounting accrual of psychological wounds that make us who we are. Perhaps if Agatha Miller had known more of those wounds when young, then Agatha Christie would have been better prepared to deal with them when they started falling vindictively upon her in the dread year 1926, but as it happened her first decade on this Earth was an idyl in every observable sense.
Her father was an easy-going, unambitious but affable character and her mother, though her love could be somewhat intense at times, was her best friend for decades to come. The family had plenty of resources, an almost fairy tale house, and servants to sand the rough edges of existence. Young Agatha had only the barest of formal instruction due to her mother’s strong feeling that children should be allowed to run free until the age of eight, to be children and form themselves however they might wish.
Agatha’s carefree world was, if not ended then significantly diminished, with the death of her father in 1901 when she was eleven years old. With his death came the revelation of how poorly he had handled the family’s finances between his negligent oversight of its investments and his devil-may-care spending habits. Though not reduced to penury, the Millers did undergo a sudden and drastic diminution to the scale of their existence. The household staff was cut to the bare essentials, and the family underwent the common early Twentieth Century economy of living in mainland Europe instead of attempting to maintain a fully lived-in estate in England. Agatha’s coming-out season occurred in Cairo rather than London, and during that time she shed some of the introverted reticence that had characterized her youth as lived under her more observably talented sister’s shadow, and came into her own.
Young Agatha’s primary dream was to become an operatic singer, if at all possible of the Wagnerian cast, but after European teachers informed her that, while possessing enough talent to become a successful concert singer, she was unlikely to ever become a fully operatic stage presence, she quietly tucked away that dream and began to write, finishing her first novel in her late teens. That book was rejected, but between the encouragements of literary editors and her mother, she kept honing her craft.
Meanwhile, she fended off a growing throng of suitors until giving in at last to a dashing pilot named Archibald Christie. He possessed a rugged intensity and direct charm that stood in stark contrast to her previous options, and an obsession with beauty that would come to cause much pain for them both. They married in 1914 when Archie was home from leave, and during the course of the war their contact with each other was inevitably intermittent. Agatha had letters from Archie from time to time, but otherwise went about her life during the war, both as a wartime nurse and dispensary volunteer, and as an author who was hitting her stride. In 1916 she wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles, inspired by the work she was doing at the dispensary with various potentially poisonous concoctions, and thereby brought to the world the character of Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot.
That novel would not be published until 1920, however, and in the meantime Agatha had to face two great changes to her life, the return of Archie from the war, and the birth of her daughter Rosalind in 1919. Archie had not wanted a child, fearful that any new presence in the house would take Agatha’s attention away from him and his needs. The next six years would be personally difficult if professionally satisfying, as Archie and Agatha moved to a town with ready access to several golf courses in order to allow Archie constant satisfaction of his now consuming passion for the game. He would not, however, go out in the evenings, which meant by the social codes of the day that Agatha could not either, and so she was left in a banal town with no friends to speak of, and a daughter she did not understand.
The tragedy was that, as devastatingly close as Agatha was to her mother, she never found a deep connection with her own child. Rosalind was matter of fact and unemotional in a way that Agatha could not grasp, with the result that large swaths of Rosalind’s youth were spent with other family members or in boarding schools so that Agatha could devote time to traveling with her more emotionally demanding husbands.
In Archie’s case, however, those trips abroad proved to be lost causes, as he steadily detached himself from a wife entering middle age who had committed the cardinal sin of no longer looking as she did when she was twenty-two, culminating in the year that both broke and made Agatha Christie, 1926. In April her mother, her best friend and confidant in this world, died, requiring Agatha to give up months of her life to putting her estate in order, months which Archie used to begin an affair with a younger woman which led to his request for a divorce in August. Agatha wanted to keep the marriage alive, but Archie was insistent that he must be free to marry the new object of his affection, and Agatha’s response was a private act of desperation that caught the imagination of the public the world over.
The “Lost Days” of 1926 have become a piece of popular culture, even working their way into a David Tennant episode of Doctor Who as the central framing device, but to Agatha they were eleven days of personal disaster slowly unfurling with dread purpose. On December 3, she left her home, pushed her car off the side of the road, and made her way to a spa, after having first posted a letter to Archie’s brother which she was sure he and Archie would read and subsequently figure out the clues she left to where she had gone. Archie, after feeling the panic of her potential death, would surely then rush to the spa and agree to give the marriage another try.
It did not work out that way.
Archie and his brother took eleven days to figure out where Agatha had gone, and in the meantime the press had run wild with speculation that she had killed herself, that Archie had murdered her, or that it was all a publicity stunt, which made Agatha Christie a household name, but which brought scrutiny on Archie and his burgeoning affair. Archie eventually arrived at the spa in a simmering rage, and the official story was floated to the world that Agatha Christie had suffered an amnesiac event. Agatha and Archie were subsequently divorced, and Agatha was left to make her way on the strength of her pen without the two people who, in her estimation, meant the most to her in the world.
Which brings us, at last, to the heat and the mice. In 1928, Christie had every intention of treating herself to a trip to the West Indies, when she was convinced to try Iraq instead. She was invited by the eminent archaeologist Leonard Woolley to visit the site of his dig at Ur on the strength of his wife Katherine’s adoration for Christie’s 1926 classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Woolley had been excavating at Ur since 1922, unveiling fantastic new evidence of life in the third millennium BCE, and here, after a trip on the Orient Express, Christie came in contact with a rhythm of existence and a consideration of the breadth of human history utterly at odds to what she had known all her life.
She returned in 1930, and this time around met a member of the team who had missed the last season due to health issues, Max Mallowan. He was twenty-five, she was approaching forty, and a friendship developed between them that Agatha had no reason to expect would develop into romance, given the gap in their ages and the reigning social codes. When Agatha received word, however, that Rosalind had taken severely ill, Max volunteered to accompany her on her emergency return trip to England, and there proposed to her.
Mallowan was at that time a not terribly attractive, not at all dashing figure who was just starting to make his way up in archaeological circles, but he was eager to please and, perhaps most important of all, safe. He did not passionately love Agatha, and she did not passionately love him, but then again, what had passionate love ever gotten her but heartache and remorse? The couple married in September 1930.
Here began Agatha Christie’s dual life as author and archaeologist as, under Mallowan’s instruction, she began to acquire an increasingly refined archaeological skill set. In 1931, the couple worked at Nineveh with Dr. Campbell Thompson, but her on-site work really began when Mallowan was placed in charge of his own dig, at Arpachiyah in 1933, and then at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak from 1935 to 1938. Christie began as a sort of camp manager, overseeing the purchase of food, the running of the kitchens, the tending of minor injuries, and the dispensing of advice to local women, but as she studied drawing more intensely and learned the fine art of archaeological cataloguing, she was entrusted with the illustration and recording of the dig site finds while learning the rudiments of artifact cleaning and restoration.
Her archaeological work was always only secondary to her primary occupation as a writer (which was sufficiently remunerative and well-known to grant Max the funding and prestige to secure the jobs he wanted to do), and it was during these years that Christie wrote what are generally deemed her greatest works, Murder on the Orient Express (1934), The ABC Murders (1936), Death on the Nile (1937), and And Then There Were None (1939) being only a few selections of her voluminous 1930s output. Being away from England, working half the day at the routine tasks of archaeological discovery, gave her the freedom from Being Agatha Christie that she needed most after 1926.
Springtime in the Middle East, with all of its intendant hardships and freedoms, came to an end for Christie and Mallowan with World War II, much of which Mallowan would spend far from England, while Agatha remained behind, her primary residence put at the disposal of the government while she continued her writing, picked up work at the University College Hospital Dispensary, and survived the German bombing attacks of 1940 and 1944. It was not until 1949 that Agatha and Max got back to archaeology, at Nimrud in Northern Iraq, a site untouched by archaeologists since 1879 which had been the capital of the Assyrian Empire in the 9th century BCE. Here they would return every year until 1958, when revolution broke out in Iraq and made further work impossible, and here Agatha developed crucial restoration skills that employed the strengths of her creative and analytic mind. She devised a means of restoring ancient ivory figurines using the chemical properties of cold cream, and also methods of gradually changing the humidity of the containers that such artifacts were kept in, in order to habituate them to the heat of the Middle Eastern spring after centuries buried in the deep wet ground. By these methods, in 1953 alone she was responsible for the restoration and reconstruction of over thirty ancient writing boards. She took and developed photographs of archaeological finds in an absurdly small purpose-made dark room, and took video as well to aid in the process of categorization and cataloguing, which tasks she also undertook.
She wrote no archaeological papers of her own, and it is the opinion of at least one biographer that the only reason she was in Iraq at all was to keep Max happy while simultaneously avoiding the difficulties of being famous in England, with the resulting conclusion that passages like the following, written in 1935, were deceptions to try and convince Mallowan, and perhaps herself, that she was happier doing archaeology than she was:
These autumn days are some of the most perfect I have ever known. Here, where nowadays only the tribesmen move with their brown tents, was once a busy part of the world. Here, some five thousand years ago, was the busy part of the world. Here were the beginnings of civilisation, and here, picked up by me, this broken fragment of a clay pot, hand-made, with a design of dots and cross-hatching in brown paint, is the forerunner of the Woolworth tea cup out of which this very morning I have drunk my tea.
If facade is all this is, it is a rather convincing one. The truth seems to be that archaeology was something that kept Max and Agatha together, a shared interest that bound them in a way that she and Archie never were, and so represented for Christie not just intriguing puzzles centuries old and the chance to develop and apply new skills, and not just a physically demanding change of pace from her authorial life and persona, but a means to keep happiness and security alive in a world often sorely lacking them. Archaeology was an intersection of her intellectual, historical, and creative impulses with her drive for anonymity and intimacy, and she kept to it as long as her age and the political circumstances allowed over the course of three formative decades both for herself and the practice of archaeology.
Christie did not return to the field after 1959. She was by that time entering her eighth decade of life, and was mired in constant tax trouble in both the United States and the United Kingdom that meant that the world’s most successful author, though never out and out broke, did not feel herself to be truly and completely financially secure until very near the end of her life. Her old books continued to sell well, and in 1952 her play The Mousetrap began its record-shattering run that was only broken by Covid itself in 2020, but through the 1960s and early 1970s, in spite of some flashes of brilliance and an unexpected ability to engage with the concerns of new eras in books like Endless Night (1967), Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), and Nemesis (1971), her plays were being routinely panned by the critics and ignored by the audiences, and her books required the attention of others to be marketable.
These were the years when Agatha Miller slipped increasingly behind the shield of Agatha Christie, the Queen of Mystery, the Duchess of Death, as the world she had known, the world where her characters lived and thought, was coming apart all around her. The world still bought its regular “Christie at Christmas” (and many still keep the tradition, there being 66 books to choose from), but for tax purposes she was but an employee of Agatha Christie Limited, an organization run by her daughter to shelter her earnings but also to regulate them so that they wouldn’t end up devoured by Mallowan’s taste for luxury. She had her suspicions as to Mallowan’s fidelity, which were perhaps born out by his marriage shortly after her death to his archaeological assistant, Barbara Parker. She paid for the upkeep of the family, and they in turn were expected to devote their lives to the performance of the tasks she required, a formula for resentment and suspicion during the years that should have, in a kinder world, brought rest and comfort to England’s most famous and successful author since William Shakespeare.
Dame Agatha Christie died on the 12th of January, 1976.
FURTHER READING: Amanda Adams’s Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and their Search for Adventure (2010) devotes a chapter to Christie, which you can fill out with one of the several Agatha Christie biographies out there, of which Laura Thompson’s Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life (2007) is, at its best, a masterly analysis of Christie’s life and mind which are well worth the more uneven sections of the book. Christie wrote of her archaeological life not only in the Autobiography published in 1977, but more specifically in 1946’s Come, Tell Me How You Live, which features the famous scene of her mouse-traversed bed and cockroach-bestrewn walls. And if you’ve never read Christie’s fiction before and want to get a start, well, here’s a pretty good guide for how to go about that!
Lead image credit: Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan at their Winterbrook House, 1950, by Unknown – National Portrait Gallery, London, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons