Dame Ngaio Marsh was—along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers—one of the Queens of Crime, a group of women writing during the Golden Age of the Detective story. In addition, she was an artist and an enthusiast for the theatre, becoming recognised as much for her services to New Zealand theatre as she was for her detective novels. And yes-she was a New Zealander. In fact, she lived in Christchurch most of her life. And it never occurred to me that her house might still be here and that you can visit it.
Turns out her house is here in Christchurch and you can visit it. You simply need to arrange a time and date with one of the tour guides and off you go (http://www.ngaio-marsh.org.nz)! I e-mailed and have been binge-reading Ngaio Marsh any free moment I got since.
I was lucky enough to join an already booked group, and visit on a day when a guide was being trained, so there were five of us Ngaio Marsh enthusiasts in the same place. This never happens! It was hugely exciting–as exciting as her house.
By modern standards it’s small–but full of treasures. Ngaio was an only child, so she inherited a few family heirlooms from both sides of her family, as well as those she collected herself in her travels. Some of her dresses still hang in her wardrobe, and her the furnishing are just as they were when she lived in the house–with a few exceptions (there were some breakages because of the earthquake and a few repairs).
What I found most interesting is how the rooms were used. There was no spare room, no office. In this lovely dining room, Ngaio Marsh entertained visiting celebrities including Laurence Olivier. This room is the least altered from the house’s original appearance. Marsh’s parents built it, and originally the entire house was this dark wood.
Her kitchen was practical, small (despite being enlarged from its original size), and an amazing collection of seventies style. Our guide was not a fan. I thought it looked neat–but then, I didn’t have to try and cook in it!
Ngaio’s bedroom was fantastic. It blended her theatrical and artistic sides. Her passport is there, along with her travelling trunk and there were hatboxes stacked on top of the wardrobe. I was happy to spot some Japanese woodcuts in one corner, but my favourite discovery was the copy of Lord of the Rings on the shelf.
The long room. It was a combination living room and office. I gravitated to an impressive looking typewriter, but it turns out Ngaio wrote longhand sitting in her green armchair. Later her secretary typed things up for her.
Towards the end of her life, Ngaio had her basement converted into an office/bedroom/bathroom/studio so that she wouldn’t have to climb the stairs to her house.
The tour takes an hour, but after it finished, we must have spent a good thirty minutes just talking with our guide. The gentleman visiting with his wife seems to know a lot about New Zealand theatre, going to school with a few of the successful actors that Ngaio promoted, and he and our guide reminisced about people they knew connected with Ngaio. I felt really glad that I timed my visit to coincide with another group, as I feel I got more of an insight into that side of her life.
I took a lot of photos, but I feel hesitant about sharing all of them. Instead, here is my highlight—the moment I got to sit in the chair where Ngaio Marsh wrote her mystery novels. The bookcase directly in front of me had all of her first editions. Actually, she had bookcases in every room we visited. It was definitely my kind of house. Any Christchurch visitors (M. Caspian, what do you think?): Just so you know, I will totally return to this house and tour with you anytime.