Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Agatha Christie: a tour to Greenway summer house

Greenway´s gardens. From

Excerpts from Elizabeth Harryman´s article: A woman of mistery. Published at Westways, October 2010 issue.

She’s the best-selling fiction writer of all time. Guinness World Records says she’s sold more than two billion books worldwide. Only the Bible and Shakespeare outsell Agatha Christie.
So when I learned that Christie’s vacation home, Greenway, in Devon, England, had opened to the public in February 2009, I was eager to visit. I went there the following June and used the occasion to discover other Devon sites connected with the woman who, over a 50-plus-year career, wrote 66 novels, 163 short stories, and 19 plays. The Mousetrap, London’s longest-running production, is now in its 58th year. I began in Torquay, where she was born in 1890 as Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller.
Agatha´s bust in Torquay. From

I joined a group of eight, plus historian John Ridson, who gives Christie tours of Torquay, in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, now called the Barceló Torquay Imperial Hotel. Although the hotel is clad in a 1960s-era architectural shell, the lobby’s crystal chandelier and inlaid marble floor hinted at the hotel’s 1866 grandeur.
“Agatha came to this hotel for parties and social functions when she was young,” Ridson said. “Later, she featured the hotel, renamed The Majestic, in The Peril at End House.”
Ridson paused beside a 1990 bust of Christie. “When she was a young woman, Agatha would walk here and along the Strand, the city’s shopping area, with her friends,” he said. “They’d shock the locals by taking off their gloves and twirling them in the air—sounds tame to us, but in those days, it was daring. Agatha had a mischievous streak and a romantic streak that went through her life.”
In 1912, Ridson explained, she met a young fighter pilot named Archie Christie. They married on Christmas Eve, 1914. England was at war by then, and Archie had to return to the front. “But they spent a one-night honeymoon at the Grand Hotel here in Torquay,” Ridson said, pointing to a large, white building with peaked roofs at the other end of the waterfront. “Archie goes back to the Western front. Agatha, meanwhile—now Mrs. Agatha Christie—wants to do her bit for the war effort.”
The Town Hall had been converted into a military hospital where Christie was volunteering as a nurse. She later transferred to the pharmacy. “And it’s in that building that the idea of becoming a writer of murder mysteries comes to her,” Ridson said. “She’s learning about drugs and poisons and the effects they have on the human body. But, even more so, she meets some strange characters—one doctor, in particular, who used to carry around a piece of deadly poison from the South American rain forest. When asked why by Agatha, he said, ‘I like the feeling of power it gives me.’”
While working at the dispensary, Christie penned The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring a former Belgian police officer named Hercule Poirot.
“She sends the manuscript off to a publisher, and they reject it,” Ridson said. “Sends it off to another one and forgets about it.” Nearly two years later, Christie finally learned that her book would be published. “So Agatha arrives,” Ridson said.
Sadly, the Torquay site that would have meant the most to Christie—Ashfield, her childhood home—no longer stands. In 1960, the Victorian house was torn down to make room for apartment blocks. Today, the only evidence of Ashfield is a blue plaque on a granite stone.
Greenway. It was Agatha´s summer house. From

At Home in Greenway
Greenway lies off a winding tree-lined road a few miles north of Dartmouth. The Georgian-style structure sits on a grassy bluff overlooking the Dart. Christie’s first husband left her for another woman, and after her divorce, she met archaeologist Max Mallowan, who was some 14 years her junior. For more than 40 years—until Christie’s death in 1976—they enjoyed what by all accounts was a loving, happy marriage. From 1938 to 1959, they came here to relax.
“This was a much-loved holiday home,” said general manager Robyn Brown, as she showed our small group into the dining room. “And unlike most National Trust properties, you can touch some things here. You can sit on some of the chairs and walk on some of the carpets.”
Although large and beautiful, the house felt lived in. In the library, where white-painted bookcases extend across three walls, chocolate boxes and books sit on a small round table. Turkish rugs cover several of the chairs. “After breakfast, this is where the family would gather,” Brown said. “Agatha used to sit in a chair in the corner and read.”
But Greenway was not where she worked. Although she used the house as a setting in Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs, she’d write in London or while traveling—she’d accompany Mallowan on digs in Syria and Iraq—gleaning inspiration, no doubt, for mysteries such as The Gate of Baghdad.
The couple’s bedroom has ivory-colored walls, a big double bed, and a view down the hillside to the Dart. To one side is a small camping bed that Mallowan used on his digs.
Sometimes family members (her daughter and son-in-law, Rosalind and Anthony Hicks, and her grandson, Matthew Prichard) or friends would join Christie and Mallowan at Greenway.
“The family were passionate collectors,” Brown said. As she showed us through the house, we saw collections of silver, glass, ceramics, tea services, papier-mâché objects, quill-wood boxes, and pictures made of shells—just portions of a collection that totals some 5,000 items.
Most telling was the drawing room, with sofas and chairs, and a grand piano with family photos on it. Brown indicated a chair by the fireplace. “When Christie’s grandson showed us around the ground floor of the house,” she said, “he pointed to that chair and said, ‘During the summers, my grandmother used to sit there and read a chapter from the latest novel. The idea was that we all had to guess who done it. Invariably, her husband, Max Mallowan, fell asleep. Often he would wake up a few pages before the end, guess who done it, and invariably he was right.’”
Insights into her happy home life completed Christie’s portrait for me. I think one reason Christie’s work endures is that it’s accessible—like Greenway.
An adventurous spirit, a vivid imagination, and sharp observational skills made the woman a great storyteller. But she infused her works with a humanity that touched millions.
“She wrote for a living,” said Brown as our tour ended. “But there was far more to her than her stories. She was very much a human being, a loving grandmother, a friend, someone who enjoyed—loved—Devon. This was a peaceful haven.” It was. I wished Mother could have been there with me.

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