Bid Time Return
Bid Time Return
“Surely for everything you love, you have to pay some price.”
Greenway House (opened 2009)
As a rule of thumb, people are not salivating to visit an isolated manor whose hostess’ specialty is poison, where random bodies turn up. While the latter scenario is the case in Agatha Christie’s novels, the author’s retreat, Greenway House, is a pastoral estate to which fans flock.
Since the nineteenth century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes ruled the mystery novel roost. The advent of Dame Christie’s spinster-sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, showed females also possessed the chops to be first-rate detectives. What remains an enigma is how Agatha and Jane, who only experienced life through their quaint villages, pried secrets from the grave.
The writer slated to become the Duchess of Death was born Agatha Mary Clarissa in 1890; her home was Ashfield, the Miller mansion in the seaside town of Torquay, Devon. Her father, Frederick Miller, an American with a trust fund, lived an indolent lifestyle that involved playing whist at Torquay’s Gentlemen’s Club. Her mother, Clara, instilled in her children, Louis Montant (Monty), Madge, and Agatha, a love of reading. Agatha reminisced, “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have had a happy childhood.” The bubble of content burst after investments went south leaving the Millers with far less affluence. When Agatha was eleven, her father, Frederick, passed away from pneumonia at age fifty-five.
In a boarding school in Paris, Agatha aspired to a career as a pianist, but excruciating shyness precluded the stage. She composed a piano waltz, “One Hour with Thee.” In 1910, mother and daughter left for Cairo, at the time a European watering hole for husband hunting. Back in Britain, the teenaged beauty basked in three marriage proposals. At a gathering at Ugbrooke House, the belle of Torquay set her sights on the handsome Archibald “Archie” Christie of the Royal Flying Corps. With the outbreak of World War I, he left for France. During a leave, Archie and Agatha married on Christmas Eve, 1914.
While her husband was overseas, Agatha volunteered at a Red Cross hospital dispensary; during breaks, she filled her notebook with stories and pharmaceutical prescriptions that doubled as agents of death. The experience led to The Mysterious Affair at Styles whose dedication page bore the tribute: To my Mother. By the time her book appeared, Agatha was busy with her baby, Rosalind, named after Shakespeare’s
heroine in As You Like It. Archie was busy playing golf. In 1922, Archie embarked on a ten-month tour to strengthen trade relations between Britain and her colonies. Agatha accompanied him, leaving Rosalind with Clara. Upon their return, they settled in a twelve-bedroom house they named Styles-after Agatha’s debut novel. A second book, The Murder on the Links, followed that bore the Dedication: “TO MY HUSBAND. A fellow enthusiast for detective stories and to whom I am indebted for much helpful advice and criticism.”
As her literary star ascended, Agatha’s life plummeted. Agatha’s brother Monty failed at every get rich scheme, and he returned to Ashfield. For entertainment, he fired bullets from his bedroom window. After shooting his pistol at one of his mother’s friends, he explained to Agatha, “Some silly old spinster going down the drive with her behind wobbling. Couldn’t resist it.” To preserve their mother’s sanity, Madge–who had married into wealth, and Agatha–affluent from her books, bought their brother a cottage named the Crossways and hired Mrs. Taylor as his caregiver. Agatha remarked, the “£800 for the Dartmoor bungalow was a cheap price for Madge and me to have paid.” Matters further deteriorated in 1926, her annus horriblis. Clara, who suffered an agonizing end, passed away. Then Agatha discovered why Archie was always playing golf: he had fallen for a younger woman, fellow golf enthusiast, Nancy Neele. The revelation might have made her want to include Archie in Murder on the Links.
There is only one “cold case” in the Agatha Christie canon; in 1926, Agatha became the original gone girl. The evening after Archie had dropped his bombshell that shattered his wife, a despondent Agatha left Styles in her beloved green Morris Cowley roadster she had purchased with earnings from her novels. She left behind eleven-year-old Rosaline, and Peter, her terrier. The following morning the abandoned car lay near a body of water called “the Silent Pool,” the setting of a Christie novel. Her fur coat was on the seat; there was no trace of Agatha. A tabloid frenzy ensued, and police, along with between 10,000 and 15,000 people, as well as bloodhounds and Peter, joined in the search. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle employed an occultist to help. The public’s consensus was amnesia, suicide, or murder. When questioned, Colonel Christie stated, “My wife has never made the slightest objections to any of my friends.”
The lady who vanished just as suddenly appeared. Eleven days later, two members of a band from the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, informed the police that a guest bore a striking similarity to the missing celebrity writer. She had registered under the name Teresa–and the surname of the other woman, Neele. When Archie burst into the Swan, Agatha remarked, “Fancy, my brother has just arrived.” The author refused to discuss the chapter. As she had once observed, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.” Motives for her actions range from: a publicity stunt, a fugue state caused by a concussion from the car crash, a nervous breakdown.
Their divorce two years later left Agatha at loose ends. Archie had two sons with his second wife; Rosalind rarely saw her father and never met her stepbrothers. During a dinner party, Agatha met a man who told
her of his travels on the Orient Express. Although women of the era did not travel alone, Agatha booked her berth. Mutual friends Leonard and Katherine Wooley introduced Agatha to archaeologist Max Mallowan at a dig site near the pyramids. Max and Agatha married six months later and moved to Winterbrook House in Oxfordshire. Max’s profession led to Agatha’s quip, “An archaeologist is an ideal husband because the older you are the more interested he is.” Agatha refused a damehood so as not to outshine Max; however, when he became a knight, she became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. A fly in the marital home was Agatha’s strained relationship with Rosaline who felt her mother had paid more allegiance to her father, stepfather, writing, and travel than to her. When asked about Max, Rosaline offered, “He didn’t beat me.” In contrast, Agatha shared a loving bond with her grandson, Matthew Prichard, who she took for drives in her Rolls Royce.
In 1971, Agatha was hospitalized with a broken hip. She spent her last Christmas at Greenway, the home closest to her heart. Only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more copies than the mystery writer. Agatha profited more from murder than even Lucrezia Borgia.
The estate where Agatha Christie dreamed up murder was the eighteenth-century Greenway House nestled in a woodland garden with a view of the River Dart. She described her retreat as “the loveliest place in the world.” Mrs. Mallowan, the name the villagers called her, vacationed in Devon with her family where they played croquet, and the chatelain read aloud her latest mysteries. Greenway served as muse whose boathouse was featured in Dead Man’s Folly.
The dominant feature of the Morning Room is a portrait of the author at age four holding her doll, Rosie, entitled Lost in Reverie. The actual Rosie-who hailed from France- sits under the portrait. Walking through the drawing room affords visitors to see items Agatha brought from Ashfield. In pride of place is a Steinway piano fashioned in the late 1800s. Agatha’s bedroom has sweeping views of the River Dart and showcases a mother-of-pearl inlaid chest, a souvenir from Damascus. The library holds 5,000 books, and a frieze of history. During World War II, the British admiralty requisitioned Greenway where the United States Coast Guards stayed until the D-Day invasion. Lt. Marshall Lee painted twelve murals on the library’s cream-colored walls depicting World War II battles. Before their departure, the officer in charge offered to paint over it, but Max and Agatha decided to keep the historic memorial. However, Agatha did request they remove the fourteen latrines. The bathtub was where the author relaxed with a book and ate apples.
The collection of fascinating objects makes the house truly a museum. One startling piece is a skull tobacco jar with a ceramic from on top of its lid. From their archaeological travels, Agatha and Max brought home ancient artifacts such as ceramic pieces discovered in a buried temple at Tell Brak that date from 3500 B.C.
One of the draws for Greenway is it was a snow globe of Agatha’s youthful memories. She had first become enamored of the estate when she had seen it as a child, as it is situated fifteen miles from Ashfield. After she sold her family house, she brought its most cherished items to Greenway. While in its confines, the mansion served as a Proustian madeleine and conjured William Shakespeare’s quotation from Richard III, “O, call back yesterday/Bid time return.”
The View from Her Window: Looking out of Greenway, a clay tablet with cuneiform writing, evacuated by Max in West Asia set on the outside wall of Greenway.