If I’m not reading a mystery or romance, I’m reading a biography. I like biographies because they’re a lot like mysteries. Questions—and sometimes secrets—drive the story.
When it comes to Agatha Christie, I’ve read various accounts. I’ve read her autobiography and two or three biographies. My favorite work is Come, Tell Me How You Live. It’s a memoir about her time with her second husband, Max Mallowan, who was an archeologist. The title is perfect, isn’t it? After all, that’s what I really want to know when I read a biography. How did this person live? At Christie’s house in Devon, I got a closer look.
Twists, turns, and narrow lanes made the house hard to locate, but the challenge was worth it. Nestled in the hills of Devon, the Greenway house sits high above the River Dart on 39 acres of lush beauty. As I walked up the main drive, I imagined the many walks Christie must have taken on the property, for this was her holiday home. Though she often read manuscripts to family members in the drawing room, or edited them at the boathouse, she did not write at Greenway.
But rest is just as vital to creation as the act of creation itself (at least that’s what I told myself. I was on vacation and not writing at all). Greenway was the inspiration for at least three of Christie’s books: Deadman’s Folly, Five Little Pigs, and Ordeal By Innocence. The library may have been the inspiration for the setting of The Body in the Library. Her eclectic book collection is sure to inspire visitors. So is the unique frieze in the room, which charts the 10th Flotilla’s journey from Key West to Greenway. (The War Department requisitioned Greenway for two years during the Second World War. Christie and the family returned in 1945.)
Books were important to Christie and her family (if 5,000 titles are any indication), but so was conversation, which happened over evening meals in the dining room. According to the guide, Christie cooked many family meals herself, using the cookbooks that still line the kitchen cupboards. Great care has been taken by the National Trust to keep things as they were when Christie lived here. Her daughter, Rosalind, insisted upon it. In fact, Christie’s clothes still grace the upstairs bedroom closet. From the Steinway piano (Christie was a trained concert pianist but too shy to play in front of others) to the Damascene chest, the house reflects a home, not a museum. It’s as if the family has stepped out and might return any moment.
As I roamed the extensive grounds, it was no surprise to me that Christie called Greenway the “loveliest place in the world.” The walk reminded me of a page I read in the one of the family’s confessional albums. (Confessional albums were popular notebooks, filled by family members and friends, containing likes, dislikes, and current moods.) In it, Christie describes her idea of happiness as “sunshine” and “quietness.” She must have spent many happy days at Greenway, for sunshine and quietness abound here. No wonder she describes her perfect occupation as, “sitting in the sun, doing nothing.” Finding a quiet bench near the Bird Pond, I realized it was becoming mine, too.