VISIT | Finding Mrs Mallowan – the Queen of Murder Mystery Agatha Christie | Oxfordshire
Agatha Christie's Final Chapter
Learn about the woman behind the mantle of the Queen of Crime – Agatha Christie
Discover the archaeologist Max Mallowan and his relationship with Agatha
Make a pilgrimage to Cholsey to pay tribute to a remarkable woman and a remarkable man
"...the last chapter of Agatha Christie's story..."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have.
The older she gets the more interested he is in her.
I think for most people if the name Agatha Miller came up in conversation. Few would know who this person was. If I asked about Agatha Mallowan? Lady Mallowan? Possibly the same response. But if I said the name of her pen name and the name from her first marriage, how many then?
This name - Agatha Christie.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was her first popular novel – it began the life story of a character famed for his quirky personal style and his Belgian nationality – Hercule Poirot. And was followed up with many, many murder mysteries and whodunits. With superlative character development and intriguing plot twists. Who would have created a little old lady with a sharp analytical mind that could digest motive and sinister behaviour, just from the experiences of the small English village that she inhabited? Miss Jane Marple.
She remains seemingly the third most published author in history behind the Bible and William Shakespeare. Her stories having been translated and portrayed in a multitude of different languages and cultures.
But for the woman that died as Lady Mallowan, and as Dame Commander of the British Empire for her contribution to literature, she remained a little obscure. Even now.
But let us know a little more of Max Edgar Lucian Mallowan. A good decade younger than Agatha. Max went to Lancing College, from thence to Oxford University to study archaeology specialising in Ancient Middle Eastern history. He was chosen as assistant to Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, renowned archaeologist in Mesopotamia on a joint expedition.
Max Mallowan had been engaged on excavation at Ur, Nimrod and Ninevah. On one of his returns to Britain in May 1929, he met Agatha Christie; who was also intrigued in archaeology. The relationship must have been intriguing for both, and a wedding followed at St Cuthbert’s church in Edinburgh in September 1930. The honeymoon was planned for Greece, followed by continued excavation work at Ur in the Middle East. He was an archaeologist. A man of interest in his own right.
Agatha had been married before. In 1914, she had married Archibald Christie, a military man and then city professional. A daughter followed. Her writing flourished. But in 1926, her mother died. It rocked her world. Her mother had been the corner of her life; particularly as her father had died in 1901 when she was just 11 years of age. Financial difficulties and making a life for themselves forged them into a unit. So, when her mother died, the grief overwhelmed her. And then, her husband announced that he was leaving her for another women. With her life under stress, Agatha Christie famously disappeared…
In December 1926 at Newlands Corner near Guildford, Surrey, Agatha’s car was found in a bush abandoned. A search was organised in the local area. Thousands of volunteers turned up to try to help in her discovery. Her celebrated literary friends joined in the attempt to find her; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even took a glove of her to a psychic to identify what had happened.
She was finally identified at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate (now known as the Old Swan Hotel). Two of the musicians were able to identify Agatha Christie despite the fact that she had checked in the false name Teresa Neele. And apparently identified as South African.
She was said to be suffering from amnesia or in a fugue state brought on by the grief and stress.
Agatha was divorced from her first husband with her daughter and her pen name. She recovered on the Canary Islands with sun in her eyes and sea air in her lungs. It was in the background to all this that Agatha met her Mr Mallowan.
Agatha was not the type of woman to sit at home whilst husband went off to play archaeologist. She journeyed to the Middle East in her own right; she seemed equally happy in a tent than a hotel. She was intrigued by the history, the culture, the food, the people. She was interested in the archaeology, the process, the task. And these places led to her own creativity.
Whilst Max was excavating in Nimrud in Iraq, Agatha wrote Murder in Mesopotamia with her star character Hercule Poirot. Other works followed. Death on the Nile. Murder on the Orient Express.
Max served during the war in North Africa but with limited military exposure. But the war had not been so kind to all, her son-in-law Major Hubert de Burgh Prichard was killed in action in France in 1944 serving with the 6th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers. Her daughter a widow in just a few short years.
But in 1946, Agatha published a humorous ditty of her time with her husband abroad called ‘Come tell me how you live’ published in 1946. One of only a couple of her words published under full name Agatha Christie Mallowan. It chronicled her travels with her husband in the 1930s seeing such places as the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (now utterly destroyed by terrorists in 2016), the tomb of Sheikh Adi near Mosul and Palmyra, the world heritage site in Syria (Devastated by terrorism also in 2016). Mallowan had identified remains such as a three story observatory dating from 2000 B.C..
After the war Max took his wife to Baghdad in Iraq where he was part-time Director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq.
Home for them was the Greenways Estate in Devon and then the house in Winterbrook on the edge of Wallingford in southern Oxfordshire. Max Mallowan was knighted in 1968 but they were one of very few couples that could be styled by their own title not by their partners. Agatha continued to live a quieter life; she was patron of the local theatre group.
On the 12th January 1976, age 85 Agatha Christie Mallowan died from natural causes at home. It seemed entirely unthinkable that the remarkable penmanship of this author should cease to be. She gave the world stories rich in character, remarkable in plot and intrigue and beguiling in their intelligence. People loved her characters. She was one of a kind; not bad for a Victorian girl from Torquay. But if anything her life tells us, is that the writing was merely an illustration of the sharpness, the vivacity and curiosity of life, of people, of motive. Her life as Mrs Mallowan was, it seemed, full of adventure and uncomfortable travel. She was prepared to sit on the side lines soaking in the settings of Max Mallowan’s historical enquiry.
Her funeral was awash with media, flower and wreaths galore. Respect paid.
But given all this, what makes this old writer relevant? Because Agatha Christie still remains relevant. Her analysis of people, and her plots continue to make new readers and watchers, fans of her work.
And so in a quiet corner of Oxfordshire, in the village of Cholsey, there lies a less than spectacular final farewell to Agatha Mallowan and her husband Max Mallowan (who died in 1978). It is a fitting grave for a couple who inspired others and each other. The Queen of Crime. The Archaeologist.
Something brings people here, to stand and stare at her grave. But it would wrong indeed, to not recognise the life that they brought to each other, of novels and murder, of new cultures and exotic locations. Where does inspiration come from?
But here at Cholsey, it gives us an insight into this adventurous woman, inspired by the world, inspired by overseas climes and languages, of cultures and art. This was Mrs Mallowan.
“We are on our way to spend Christmas in Ceylon. But we may not… we may only get as far as Beirut. One never knows…”
Agatha Christie Mallowan 1959
Directions and Map |
Find Cholsey church on the outskirts of the village of Cholsey near Wallingford