Agatha Christie set many of her murder mysteries in country houses. With the help of specially commissioned drawings by Matthew Rice, Jeremy Musson looks at the architecture of the buildings she knew — and those which she imagined.
The country house is the natural setting for the great English crime novel of the mid 20th century. It provides a spacious, isolated location and a well-defined cast of dramatis personae with ample leisure time for intrigue or hanging around as the sleuthing is done. There is also the delightful social counterpoint of life above and below stairs. All this is the essence of good old-fashioned escapist fiction and, for many today, of unmissable on-screen drama.
The country-house setting was especially relished by the queen of crime herself, Agatha Christie. This interest is discussed in both Hilary Macaskill’s Agatha Christie At Home (2009) and Laura Thompson’s Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life (2018), studies on which this article draws. Beginning with her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), country houses, and the full-rig grandeur of their early 20th-century life, feature heavily in her writing (although by no means in every story). In and out of these houses, Poirot and Hastings, and, elsewhere, Miss Marple, set their sleuthing minds to work.
Born Agatha Miller in 1890, Christie herself came from comfortably-off stock. Her parents were not country-house dwellers, but certainly part of the gentrified and professional world we encounter in her novels. They moved in county circles; she enjoyed amateur theatricals at Cockington Court, and also met her first husband, a dashing officer in the Royal Flying Corps, at a dance at Ugbrooke Castle, given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.
She grew up in Ashfield, a much-loved, rambling Regency villa on the edge of Torquay (Christie sold it only in the 1930s and desperately tried to buy it back, unsuccessfully, after the Second World War, when she discovered it was to be demolished).
As was the case with so many of her generation, Christie really preferred Queen Anne and Georgian houses and she occasionally lampoons their 19th-century successors. A house called Stonygates, used by a philanthropist to bring up troubled young men in They Do It With Mirrors (1952), is deftly dismissed as ‘Best Victorian Lavatory period’.
Her memoirs, which she began writing in 1950 in a mudbrick house in Nimrud, in Iraq, are especially rich in recreating the sensation of the protected world of the servant-run English household. She was acutely aware of the company and reassurance household staff gave to children growing up in such houses; her own warm-hearted nurse dominates the pages of her An Autobiography.
Particularly revealing is Christie’s childhood fascination for doll’s houses, of which she possessed two, the second being an adapted cupboard space, with wallpapered walls and rooms on each shelf. How intriguing to imagine the childish Agatha peering into these spaces as she moved figures around in her own little domestic theatre.
Bigger houses set the tone for her novels. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Styles Court in Essex is described as a ‘glorious old place’. It seems likely that she had a 17th-century date in mind, although the form of staircase is later in character. The setting of Waverly Court, Surrey, in The Kidnapping of Johnny Waverly (1923), is an old family house that has been ‘restored with taste and care’ (the sort that would have caught the eye of Country Life’s editor, no doubt).
However, Christie’s later novels often reflect the social shift of the country house in a post-war world of uncertainty and decline. By the 1940s and 1950s, some of the homes featured are shabby and down at heel; Rutherford Hall, in 4.50 from Paddington (1957), appears as a 19th-century pile (apparently inspired by Windsor Castle) with semi-abandoned outbuildings and a dearth of servants.
The stage directions for Christie’s play The Mousetrap, first performed in 1952, described the setting — the great hall of Monkswell Manor— as a house ‘lived in by generations of the same family with dwindling resources’, with a hall-cum-sitting room furnished with old oak furniture and armchairs. The young owners, facing post-war austerity, have opened their family home as a guest house, the cue for a sudden isolating snowstorm and ensuing unconventional, and murder-ridden, house party.
Christie’s country-house descriptions have more in common with Jane Austen’s economy of style than the prolixity of Trollope, frequently taking up only a line or two of text. Indeed, P. D. James once observed that Christie had ‘the ability to conjure a world without actually describing it’. Indeed, in The Hollow, 1946, there are many references to ‘the white, graceful house’ set against an ‘amphitheatre of wooded hills’, a family home that dominates the lives and imaginations of several characters, but is never actually visited in the novel.
The impression given by grand houses is often our way into a sense of their presence. Poirot’s admiration for the elegant beauty of Nasse House, in Dead Man’s Folly (1956), is palpable, although the house is not described in any detail. That cannot be ascribed to a lack of knowledge on Christie’s part, as the fictional Nasse House — and associated boathouse (where a body is found) — is clearly modelled on Greenway, the handsome 1790s house Christie bought in 1938, with low wings added in 1815 and wonderful views over the River Dart. It had once been the centre of a small landed estate, and still had a substantial bit of land, but was acquired as more of a holiday home, surrounded by the lush, green gardens associated with south Devon.
Given jointly by her daughter Rosalind Hicks, her husband, Anthony, and Rosalind’s son, Matthew Prichard, to the National Trust, this stuccoed house remains evocatively furnished as it was during Christie’s occupation, its garden and setting carefully protected and preserved.
Christie’s principal residence, from 1934, was early-18th-century Winterbrook House in Wallingford, close to Oxford — her archaeologist husband, Sir Max Mallowan, was later appointed a fellow of All Souls. The Oxford academic A. L. Rowse especially admired the ‘cosy, warm hospitable middle class interior’, of Winterbrook, the furniture, china, silver and ‘too-large billowing chairs’.
Christie’s memoirs show that she was interested in the potential of houses and willing to make the effort to improve and restore them. Her An Autobiography reveals how she employed a young Australian architect, Guilford Bell (the son of a friend), at Greenway, and it was he who persuaded her to sweep away later additions, including a billiard room, an estate office and a study, to make the house lighter and easier to manage.
Architects occasionally feature in Christie’s novels, including a young, headstrong and handsome figure in the fictional Nasse House of Dead Man’s Folly. In Endless Night (1967), ailing Continental superstar Rudolf Santonix designs an elegant Modernist villa on the site of a ruined Victorian country house called The Towers, but its beauty offers no protection against wickedness.
Architects also appear in Murder is Easy (1939) in which self-made newspaper magnate Lord Whitfield (with echoes of Lord Beaverbrook) brags of sacking one architect and finding another who he can bend to his will to produce an extraordinary house. Architectural re-styling offers a clue to the character of the vainglorious peer, as Lord Whitfield proclaims ‘I always had a fancy for a castle’, but readers are informed that, at its core at least, Ashe Manor remains discernibly a Queen Anne house, albeit one encased in ‘florid magnificence’.
Christie’s ability to conjure a world, despite resisting direct description, means the identities of her houses are conveyed more obliquely: their grandeur indicated through the roll calls of drawing rooms, dining rooms, smoking rooms, libraries, and the near constant presence of household staff, especially in the earlier novels, from taciturn butlers to faithful maidservants. This inference of detail underlines the presentation of country houses in both novels and short stories, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and later imagine it was all the author’s work.
In The Body in the Library (1942), the story begins by evoking the unobtrusive noises of the morning routines of the servants of Gossington Hall, St Mary Mead. The lady of the house lies dreaming in her bed, half aware, even in sleep, that she is waiting for her maid to bring her early morning cup of tea. It is this kind of titbit, conveyed in Christie’s straightforward, uncomplicated language, which gives such a realistic tone to her stories and settings. The traditional library of Gossington Hall is ‘dim and mellow and casual’, making the sudden appearance of a corpse in a vividly coloured dress an especially incongruous addition.
Significantly for Christie, in 1902, her older sister Madge married James Watts, the heir to Abney Hall, near Cheadle, a huge, gabled, red-brick Victorian pile, built in 1847 and remodelled in the 1850s for the Watts family by architects Travis and Magnall, and further extended in the 1890s. It is thought to have been the inspiration for a house called Chimneys, the seat of the Marquess of Caterham in The Secret of Chimneys (1925); the same house reappears in a sequel, The Seven Dials Mystery (1929).
Christie often stayed at Abney Hall, recalling it fondly in her memoirs with its long passages, staircases and alcoves, brocade curtains and tapestry hangings. It served as the model for Enderby Hall in After the Funeral (1953), which Christie dedicated to her nephew, also James Watts. Here, servants once again help define our view of the house, with a harassed cook referring to the hall as a ‘proper old mausoleum’ and complaining about the huge kitchen, scullery and larder. But post-war Enderby Hall has been restored to a nostalgic vision of a fully staffed house — Christie’s autobiography records her sister’s heroic attempts, during the 1940s, to keep up impossible standards in Abney Hall with the help of only one part-time cook.
The great pre-war Christmas feasts, before Abney Hall became difficult to manage, are evoked in a collection of short stories, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées (1960), which the author dedicates to the hospitality of the house, about which she reminiscences in the foreword.
In the title story, Poirot is invited (via a discreet police official) to spend Christmas in an English country house and literally shivers at the thought. Compared with the ‘mod cons’ of his own apartment, the very idea of staying in a 14th-century manor house in winter fills him with apprehension. On arriving at King’s Lacey, he is pleasantly surprised to find hot water and central heating have been installed, paid for by land sold for development, although the other Christie-country-house discomfort of crime remains stubbornly present.
When Poirot rents a country retreat — Resthaven — himself, in The Hollow, it is decidedly a convenient ‘severely modern’ box with a roof. It is sited opposite ‘Dovecotes’, newly built but ‘a riot of half-timbering’, in an area where ‘a national trust’ dedicated to the preservation of the beauties of the English countryside has stopped further new development. The witty contrast of these two buildings has something of the hallmark of an Osbert Lancaster cartoon.
The owner of Abney Hall, Christie’s brother-in-law Watts, once complained there was a lack of blood in her stories, and was rewarded with a dedicated novel, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938). The book repeatedly references a quotation from Macbeth: ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’
Early on, it features the discovery of the owner of Gorston Hall, Simeon Lee, lying dead in front of a roaring fire, surrounded by over-turned heavy furniture and smashed china vases, with blood everywhere. The room is his study and it is locked from the inside.
Here, within a reassuring familiar setting, are all the agreeable ingredients of a murder mystery, with Poirot, making his 19th appearance since The Mysterious Affair at Styles, once again fortuitously on hand to solve the gruesome puzzle.
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