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Agatha Christie in her uniform during her period as a nurse in WW1.

The Real Gone Girl

Her life, like her novels, were like an adventure.Yet Agatha Christie, the Queen of crime novel, incorporated many of her personal occurrences and dreams in her work…

Once upon a time in the middle of a bitterly cold winter, a young Gypsy man was out walking near Guildford, southwest of London, when he found an abandoned car down an embankment and reported it to the police. It was early in the morning, a Saturday, in December of 1926. When the police arrived, they were able to identify the owner of the car from an expired driver’s license left inside, indicating that it was the famous writer of detective fiction, Mrs. Agatha Christie.

Also left in the car were a fur coat and various personal belongings, which suggested that the driver may have left poorly protected against the cold.  The police paid a call to the Christie house near Sunningdale, Berkshire, to inquire as to her whereabouts and were told by her staff that she had driven off after l0 p.m. the night before with no word on where she was going.

Agatha Christie was not “rediscovered” until 11 days later. What happened in the interim? How could one of the country’s most famous writers simply disappear and no one know what happened to her? There was intense speculation about her motives throughout the rest of December and into 1927. Then a wall of silence descended for half a century. In her autobiography of 1977, published one year after her death, Christie skates past it as if it never happened.

In 1978, the subject was reopened with the publication of two books. The first, The Mystery of Agatha Christie was a biography by Gwen Robyns, and it was written without the cooperation of the Christie family, indeed it faced their active opposition.  The second, Agatha, was a speculative novel by Kathleen Tynan that was subsequently made into the Michael Apted film of 1982 starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman.  A flurry of biographies followed, notably the authorized biography by Janet Morgan in 1984, and it is fair to say that they all have different theories about Christie’s disappearance. This is one mystery that has never been solved and it is better than any of her novels. The question then is, What exactly was it that she did and why did she do it?

The Real Gone Girl: The Disappearance of Agatha Christie. The Daily Mirror’s front page dedicated to the Christie disappeareance.

The life of Agatha Christie contains a notorious puzzle that has fascinated her admirers since 1926, the year when she abruptly vanished for 11 days, creating page-one headlines across Britain and consternation among her family and friends. At the time, she was already a successful author of mysteries, though nothing like the phenomenon she became. She was 36, a wife, a mother and the loyal daughter of a highly respectable family. Why did she suddenly abandon her car, take a train from the London commuter belt to the Yorkshire town of Harrogate, register in a spa hotel under a false name and hunker down?

Her motive has always seemed clear to me. She wanted to torture her husband by making him a spectacle in the newspapers –  At the time that her disappearance was “a typical case of ‘mental reprisal’ on somebody who has hurt her.”

The man who hurt her was Col. Archibald Christie, the love of her life, the dazzling, romantic aviator who had rescued her, just before the First World War, from the string of earnest provincial suitors attracted by her Edwardian beauty. She married him despite the objections of her mother, who saw him as a potential bounder. Christie never doubted that she and Archie were joined for life, till one day he came home and told her he wanted a divorce, right away, so that he could marry a 24-year-old, Nancy Neele, a pretty secretary Agatha knew slightly. (A woman with a taste for not always relevant complications, she chose “Mrs. Neele” as her false name at the Harrogate spa.)

After publishing The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder on the Links and The Secret Adversary (in which she gives life to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford) Agatha pulled out the perfect page turner, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. All was dandy, but tragedy was waiting to play her hand.

A few life-changing events for Agatha Christie led up to her famous disappearance of December 3, 1926. Earlier that year, Agatha’s mother Clara Miller had passed away after a terrible bout of bronchitis. Agatha’s husband Archie Christie had been away in Spain when she had been ill, and as Archie hated “illness, death, and trouble”, promptly went away to London leaving Agatha to deal with her mother’s death. Clearly it was difficult to clear the family home of Ashfield, where Mrs. Miller had died, because Agatha had so many wonderful memories there. No doubt Agatha was physically and emotionally drained. She described that time as a period of loneliness (she didn’t receive any support from Archie or any visits from him) and started letting little things confuse her, getting her mind all muddled. She started having glimpses of a nervous breakdown then: she would burst into tears simply for her car not starting, or having trouble remembering her own name when signing a check.

Agatha wanted Archie to help her, but she didn’t find in him the support that she wanted. Archie was living a dreadful existence himself; trapped in a boring job while his ego was taking a thrashing being the husband of a famous and talented author.

Agatha knew that her husband was cheating on her with a younger woman, Nancy Neele, but pretended as if everything was fine for the sake of her little daughter, Rosalind. But this pantomime didn’t go on forever; on the morning of December 3rd, 1926 Archie asked Agatha for a divorce, packed his bags and left.

They had separated, but Archie returned to Styles for a “trial reconciliation”, of which Agatha described as a “mistake . . . a period of sorrow, misery, heartbreak.” In the late summer through the fall of 1926, Agatha wasn’t in the proper shape to write a new book. Her brother-in-law Campbell Christie suggested that she take the short stories printed in the Sketch magazine and fill in the gaps between each story with narration. This produced the Captain Hastings-narrated novel “The Big Four”, later released in 1927.

So… Archie had announced to Agatha that he was in love with another woman, a Nancy Neele, former secretary of Major Belcher’s (from the world tour days of the Christies’). He then proceeded to demand a divorce right away. Later on the same day, Agatha got on her bottle-nosed Morris Crowley and left her house.  The following morning her car was found abandoned near Silent Pool at Newlands Corner.

In the vehicle was left behind her coat, expired driving licence and her hand bag. The mystery of her disappearance had begun.The hunt for her started as soon as her car was found and, just like in her books, the first suspect was her husband. The entire nation was intrigued by this real life mystery; newspapers were publishing mocks of her disguised in different ways, 15,000 volunteers participated in a research in Surrey and various ‘witnesses’ claimed to have seen her around the country, alone or in the company of people, dressed and sometimes half naked, walking in the dark.  Things got serious when airplanes were involved in the search (the first time that it was done in England) but nothing was found. People started to think that all of it was just a publicity stunt.

The plot thickened when a rumour of a letter sent to the Surrey police by Agatha started circulating which claimed that her husband was dangerous and that she feared for her life, which put Archie in the spotlight. Apparently she also sent a letter to her best friend, Caro and one to Archie as well. He destroyed it after reading it and till today the contents of that letter are unknown.

One of the first journalists to investigate was the 20-year old Lord Ritchie Calder. Although his job was to be curious about Christie’s disappearance, he also knew a good story when he heard one. Christie was a household name after her mystery novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd became a cause célèbre earlier in the year. So the press gave her disappearance banner headlines in every newspaper in the country.

By the time Calder got on to the story, the police were dragging a small lake near where the car had been found and thousands of volunteers were fanning out over vast areas of Berkshire, Surrey and other counties. This particular lake, known as the Silent Pool, was interesting because it had put in an appearance in an earlier Christie story and on that occasion a young woman’s body had been found in it. Was Mrs. Christie staging one of her stories or was she in the pool, Calder wondered? The police dragged and dived it twice but came up empty. Calder knew from reading Roger Ackroyd that the story begins after a woman has committed suicide.

At the same time, there were dozens of eyewitness reports, all of them contradictory, just like in a good Christie mystery.  The press, the police, and the public were considering three possibilities at this point:

(1) that the author of Roger Ackroyd had disappeared because she wanted to stage a publicity stunt that would further her own career, or

(2) that she had committed suicide, or

(3) that her husband had murdered her.

Calder relished that last possibility — imagining the Queen of Fiction murdered by her husband and her body hidden away behind the vicarage.

It wasn’t long before the police and press knew that Christie had suffered setbacks during the past year. Her mother, to whom she had been very attached, had died a few months earlier and Christie had gone to live in the old family house in Torquay while it fell apart around her. You could almost say that the house stood in as a metaphor for her own life; perhaps she suffered a partial breakdown? This was seen as nothing unusual for a woman of 36; most people experienced it at some stage of their lives. At the same time, her marriage to Archie Christie was coming apart. They had married during the Great War and Calder wondered if they had really been that compatible in the first place.  After 12 years of marriage the Christies had a 7-year old daughter and financial security but absolutely no chemistry. By November, not long before her disappearance, Agatha Christie knew Archie was having an affair with Nancy Neele, whom Agatha had met once or twice.

There are varying reports on what happened next but it appears that on the morning of Friday, December 3, Christie and her husband had an argument and he packed his bags to spend the weekend with Miss Neele in Godalming. Archie had apparently asked Agatha for a divorce and she had rejected it. She didn’t believe in divorce but she was unable to find a way to break the impasse.

Photograph showing the abandoned motorcar at the edge of a Surrey chalk pit, near Newlands Corner, which Agatha Christie had driven before disappearing on 3rd December 1926. Christie (1890-1976), the English novelist and playwright, turned up safe and well in Harrogate a week later. Date: 11/12/1926

So everybody waited… and waited. It was nearly a week later before word came in that Christie might be in Harrogate in Yorkshire. Calder was able to learn that several staff and guests at the Hydropathic Hotel, one of the larger establishments in this old spa town, felt that one of their fellow guests, a Mrs. Teresa Neele of South Africa, bore a striking resemblance to the photos of the red haired Mrs. Christie published in the newspapers. Apparently this Teresa Neele herself agreed with other hotel guests that there was a resemblance to Mrs. Christie and they laughed it off, but all the same she took a keen interest in the latest newspaper reports on the search.

Calder hurried up to Harrogate ahead of the police and confronted “Teresa Neele” in the Hydro Hotel before Christie’s husband got there to check for himself. The woman did not deny being Mrs. Christie, but claimed to be suffering from amnesia, a story Calder did not buy. As he later stated publicly, there was no “Teresa Neele” lurking in the self-possessed woman he met. This is supported by the fact that Mrs. Christie had apparently lost a diamond ring at Harrods in London the week before, and she wrote to them from Harrogate describing it and asking it to be forwarded to Mrs. Teresa Neele at her hotel, which Harrods duly did. She would have lost the ring as Agatha Christie, so why was it Teresa Neele who retrieved it from Harrods? Calder also discovered that she had a money belt on her, which not only explains her spending freely in Harrogate but also some premeditation. The press, the police and Archie went to the hotel to confront Agatha, who at first recognised her husband as her brother.  She did not deny being Mrs. Christie, but she continued to claim she was suffering from amnesia and that she had no idea how she came to be in Harrogate. After an awkward dinner Agatha understood where she was and, escorted by her husband, headed back to London.

Calder had no doubt that a gifted writer like Christie could pull off a stunt surrounding her disappearance.  The press have always been a fairly cynical bunch, but that’s based on experiences close up with human nature, such as it is.  Calder also knew that Christie had begun a relationship with Collins, a very savvy publishing firm, who knew the value of good publicity.  Like most of the press, Calder assumed that the sharp intelligence displayed in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd must be at the root of her disappearance, and this was supported by a most unlikely source — her husband — in the week that followed.  He declared to the Daily News: “My wife said to me, some time ago, that she could disappear at will and would defy anyone to find her.  This shows that the possibility of engineering her disappearance was running through her mind.”  The fact that he said this to the press upset a lot of people but he had one advantage they didn’t: he knew he hadn’t murdered his wife.  Archie Christie also told the press that suicide was not part of his wife’s moral philosophy of life and was therefore out of the question. Archie turned out to be right, though he was roundly criticized for his tactlessness, so the point is, she did know how to stage her disappearance.

But how did Agatha get to Harrogate? Why did she check into the hotel using her husband’s mistress’ name?  How did she fund herself if she left her hand bag in the car and she didn’t use any of the money deposited in the bank? What did she do in those 11 days? Did she try to put her husband on the spot and make him a suspect of for her murder?

Not your usual rush hour at King’s Cross. This was the crowd that gathered to see Agatha returning after the 11 days of her disappearance.

Agatha with husband Archie Christie during World War I (they were married in 1914)

While everyone was looking for her, Christie may have been sitting in her hotel room with her feet up and a little champagne to celebrate how well things were turning out! She had planted her clues: several letters she had written before driving off into the night, one of them to her husband, and one of them to her secretary asking her to cancel her appointments for the following week.  When she crashed the car she was fairly close to where her husband and Nancy Neele were staying.  Was she driving there to spy on them, to satisfy in her own mind that her marriage was truly over?  Did she crash the car deliberately within a reasonable proximity of their house to draw the media’s attention to it when she disappeared?

And why choose the name Teresa Neele unless it was to ensure that her rival’s name became known all over the country?  Hardly a coincidence.  Archie Christie, who was known to hate “fuss,” now found his unfaithfulness slyly hinted at in every paper in the country.

Agatha Christie believed in Justice rather than the Law: in her heroes Poirot and Marple rather than policemen like Inspector Japp.  Even murder was justified if it removed a more dangerous threat to society, and the idea is there in most of her novels, notably her final Poirot novel Curtain (1975), published the year before she died.  She would have felt that Archie needed to suffer, not because he had personally betrayed her, which would have been purely selfish on her part, but because he had recklessly embarked on an affair and ended a marriage that, like it or not, was founded on the principles that held society together.  She hated divorce and was especially concerned about the children affected by it.  Does this make Christie a social conservative?  Not necessarily, or perhaps only in the libertarian sense where individual actions may be morally justifiable if they right a wrong.  The unfolding of events showed her to be an unselfish and ethical woman whose behaviour was entirely praiseworthy.  She just did it with greater style than most of us are capable of.

The mental breakdown story that followed was concocted for public consumption so as not to humiliate her husband and his family more than was necessary. It seems equally likely that the immediate family never knew her true motives, and she may never have confided in them, partly to avoid hurting them further and partly because she no longer felt she had to tell them anything at all. Let bygones be bygones.

Agatha Christie

Agatha posing for a picture with a theatrical company in Torquay.

1910:  The Victorian era is over and with it all the austerity of sort. Europe, and the rest of the world is on the brink of war. The 20th century began with new resolutions but unfortunately not all expectations for what the future might have brought went as planned. Agatha knew this well, because in 1901, when she was just 11, her father, Frederick Miller, died of heart complications.

“One picture remains etched in my mind. It was afternoon; I was standing on the half landing. Suddenly the door of father’s and mother’s bedroom opened. My mother came out in a kind of rush, her hands held to her head over her eyes. She rushed from there into the adjoining room and shut the door behind her. ” That’s how Agatha described the moment of her father’s departure in her biography. And with his death, another shadow fell over the Miller family. As many other gentlemen during that time, Frederick never worked and the family fortune was almost inexistent. To make up for this, Agatha’s mother, Clarissa decided to rent the family house in Torquay to make some money and move to Cairo, Egypt. Life was cheaper in Egypt and Agatha could make her societal debut.

Agatha’s experiences in Egypt, proved very significant for her. Cairo was where she attempted to write her first novel Snow Upon The Desert (does it sound familiar?) and where she had her first encounter with the opposite sex.  She wasn’t a child anymore, she was a lady, ready to be married. Long ginger hair, Roman nose, kindly manner and a lovely face made Agatha a very good looking lady. Her dance carnet was always full; young soldiers and many other young men of the British army were fascinated by her charming demeanour. Many proposed as well but she wasn’t ready to settle just yet; she was looking for her prince charming.

On her return to Britain, Agatha continued looking for a husband. She had four short lived relationships and almost married one of them. But then, one day, at a party organized at a house near Torquay, Agatha found her Prince Charming.

In 1912, 22-year-old Agatha attended a local dance where she met and fell in love with Archibald ‘Archie’ Christie, a qualified aviator who had been posted to Exeter. Archie was sent to France when the First World War broke out in 1914 but the young couple married on Christmas Eve the same year when he returned on leave.

Three years before, being a dare from her sister, Agatha wrote her first mystery novel titled The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was later published in 1920 by Bodley Head, selling 2,000 copies after six publishers rejected it. True success came in 1926 when she published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (selling 5,000 copies the first printing), and with it came many opinions and controversy for how she changed the rules of detective fiction.

Agatha Christie as a child.

Young Agatha Miller riding a donkey in the desert. Normal activities in the British colonies.

In a biography  that appeared in 2006, The Finished Portrait, author Andrew Norman claims that she had vanished due to  a case of  dissociative escape. In her first years as a writer, Christie wrote under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott publishing several poems in The Poetry Review, but her short stories and fictional biographies  sent to various publishers were regularly rejected. Her pen name brought her more luck with the romance novels published between 1933 and 1956. But real success came in the middle of World War One.

Like all upper class girls Christie started working at  Torquay’s hospital to assist wounded soldiers. There, the Queen of crime novel learnt a great deal about poisons and medicines, all notions that would have been very useful when writing her intricate plots. In 1920 she wrote her first crime novel: The Mysterious Affair at Styles, creating Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot, one of her best-known characters. 1930 was a lucky year: during a trip to in Mesopotamia she met Max Mallowan, an archeologist  who became her husband shortly after. With him she started traveling and developed a passion for the Middle East, which will inspire many successful novels such as Death on the Nile. A true gem for the bookshelves of die-hard fans is Agatha Christie’s Secrete Notebooks published in 2010 by John Curran: an essay that describes the  creation of all the writer’s novels through the analysis of her notes, found in the  attic and published entirely. Christie’s success was so big that in 1947 Queen Mary, to celebrate her own 80th birthday, asked Christie to write a story for her: the famous play Mousetrap.

Archie (far left) and Agatha (far right), pictured in 1922.

Agatha May Clarissa Miller was born in 1890 along the Devon coast in the town of Torquay. The third child of a wealthy American, she was educated at home until 1906, at which time she went to a finishing school in Paris. She was a talented piano player and singer when she was young.

During her teenage years Agatha’s biggest wish was to become an opera singer. This is why in 1906 at 16 she moved to Paris to study singing. The Parisian experience, however, did not turn out as she wished and after a short while she went back to England,  dedicating much of her time to social events.

Christie was born a Victorian but grew up in a time when women had one foot in a crinoline and the other down a trouser leg. The Great War came and people started toppling off their Victorian pedestals into a steadily germinating modernity. More and more women were learning how to drive, volunteering as aid during the war, running establishments and basically entering what were predominantly patriarchal roles; finally, sexual stereotypes and gender roles were being renegotiated.

She was a very private person and gave such few interviews, she was never seen as opinionated; her personal views on politics, feminism, race etc could only be gauged by careful scrutinisation of her work. She was left out of a lot of literary criticism for this reason and only recently (over the last 3 decades) is she finally being studied as the most successful crime writer of all time who no doubt played a pivotal part in shaping a cultural phenomenon, the hangover of which has lasted till today and will continue to do so in the future.

Christie is not your typical feminist icon. She did not go out in the streets and fight for women’s rights, she did not (I am assuming) burn any of her bras nor did she openly admit to being a feminist. Her work however, tells a different story. Not only was she a published female author in the 1920s (which in itself is a feminist act) but within her pages she created strong, compassionate, independent and intelligent women who stood shoulder to shoulder with the men she wrote. A lot of Christie’s women were stereotypes ranging from the older single women to “foreigners” to the young, 20-something secretaries and neither of them were mere sub-plot devices. Her predecessors placed women in their novels as purely ornamental and would more often than not kill them off in the first 30 pages. But not Christie; her women were killed off as often as the men and they were by no means portrayed as weak or unimportant.

Archibald Christie was born in India. He was an army officer and one of the first RAF Pilots.

The world’s foremost mystery writer of all time, Agatha Christie’s books have been translated in over 40 languages and sold over two billion copies. Only the Bible and Shakespeare have outsold her. She wrote 78 mystery novels, 19 plays, and over 100 short stories. Christie also wrote six romance novels (under the name of Mary Westmacott), 2 books of poetry, a children’s book, and 2 autobiographies. Christie managed to write an average of two novels a year through most of her life. She wrote them longhand at first and later started using a typewriter for her manuscripts. She wrote anywhere: in the bathtub, on a washstand, on the dining room table, or on a makeshift table in the Middle East. From 1958 until her death she served as the co-president of the Detection Club of London, a private club for leading crime writers. She was known to love eating apples, playing golf, and playing the piano.

The truth of what happened in her disappearing act in December 1926 is actually less interesting than the squabble that has developed over it since then. The more that is written about Agatha Christie’s disappearance, the less we know for sure. There is no official view on what happened and the biographers are split across the three explanations: the publicity stunt, the desire to get revenge on her husband, and the psychological breakdown. They are all persuasive and all three were probably true to some degree.

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Agatha Christie – MysteryNet.com

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