Thinking back over her teenage years, English crime novelist Agatha Christie (1890-1976) wasn’t sure how long she had been at her finishing school in Paris. In her autobiography, she wrote:
I am hazy now as to how long I remained at Miss Dryden’s – a year, perhaps eighteen months, I do not think as long as two years.”
Upon one point, however, she was perfectly clear. It was during her stay at Miss Dryden’s that she discovered men:
Something happened to me at the sight of Rudy [an American college boy]….From that moment forward I stepped out of the territory of hero worship….I wanted to meet…lots of real young men – in fact, there couldn’t be too many of them.”
Girls and young women of this period believed, including Agatha, that in these packs of real young men lurked their future husband, commonly referred to as “Fate” or “Mr. Right.” She says:
You were waiting for The Man, and when the man came, he would change your entire life!…In the words of old nurses, nannies, cooks, and housemaids:
‘One day Mr. Right will come along.‘”
Back then, her name was Agatha Miller. When Agatha left finishing school (1907) and returned home to her mother in Torquay, England, her dream of becoming a concert pianist had faded, but not her desire to meet men – and lots of them. She was 17, and, in her own words, good-looking. She was tall and slender with masses of thick, wavy, and golden hair – hair so long she could sit on it.
She wore it up now, in the Grecian style, because, at 17, she was ready to “come out,” and that was the proper hairstyle for a girl going from a chrysalis to a butterfly.
This was the Edwardian Era (1901-1910) in England. It was traditional then for a girl of Agatha’s upper middle class status to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood by “coming out.” A mother gave her daughter a dance. The daughter would “do a season” of parties in London. But as Agatha’s mother Clarissa was a widow and her wealth was a thing of the past, there could be nothing like that for Agatha. So, the winter of 1910 they decided to go to Cairo, Egypt, where Agatha could ease her way into society (and meet men). Travel was relatively cheap then and they would lease their house out for extra income. They were going Agatha husband-hunting.
Mother and daughter set sail for Cairo where they would join other mothers and daughters with the same purpose. They were not disappointed. Three or four regiments were stationed in Cairo. There was polo matches to watch every afternoon and, five nights a week, there were dances in the hotels. Cairo was crawling with men - exciting ones, too.
Agatha and Clarissa stayed at the Gezirah Palace Hotel in Cairo for three glorious months. Agatha was so busy that she didn’t get as far as even falling slightly in love. Despite being a poor conversationalist, she had been popular among men of all ages and backgrounds, even an Austrian count, as she was both pretty and a great dancer. In the end, two men proposed marriage to her. (Men proposed very freely back then!) Her first suitor, a Captain Hibberd, never actually proposed marriage to Agatha. He timidly told Clarissa of his interest in Agatha. Clarissa didn’t even tell Agatha about it until they were sailing back to England, which made Agatha mad, as she liked to conduct her own love affairs. Agatha’s second marriage proposal came from a young man who was six-foot-five, a nice enough fellow, she admitted, but she didn’t love him, so she turned him down. Agatha would marry for love, as she was fully romantic.
Agatha returned to England with newfound confidence in herself – and still looking for “Mr. Right.” Over the next two years, she was courted by a string of eligible bachelors and became engaged to three of them. She spread her wings. She went up in an aeroplane. She visited a friend in Florence. She dreamed of becoming an opera singer but thought better of it. Then, one day, sick with the flu and stuck in bed, bored, she decided “to try her hand at a novel.” She began to write in earnest and, before long, she had formed the habit of writing stories.
Meanwhile, she was engaged to Reggie Lucy (who hated dancing and parties) when, in December of 1912, she was asked by some family friends to attend a dance being given for the members of the Garrison from Exeter. She reluctantly agreed. She traveled the 12 miles distance by train then car to Chudleigh.
Her friend Arthur Griffiths, who was stationed at that same Garrison in Exeter, wrote her to say that, sadly, he was not one of the officers able to attend the dance but to look out for a friend of his who was indeed going,
Christie by name….He’s a good dancer.”
Later, when Agatha was at the dance, she said:
Christie came my way quite soon in the dance. He was a tall, fair young man, with crisp curly hair, a rather interesting nose, turned up, not down, and a great air of careless confidence about him….We got on together very well; he danced splendidly…I enjoyed the evening thoroughly.”
Ten days later, back in Torquay, Agatha was having tea with the Mellors across the street from her home. She and Max Mellor were practicing the tango. The phone rang. It was Agatha’s mother asking her to “Come home at once, will you, Agatha?” A young man was waiting for her in the parlor. Clarissa didn’t give his name.
Agatha was irritated at having to abandon her fun at the Mellors; she felt sure that her gentleman caller was a “rather dreary young naval lieutenant, the one who used to ask” her to read his poems. She left sulkily for home.
But it wasn’t the dreary young naval lieutenant standing nervously in the family drawing room. It was Archie Christie (1889-1962), the man from the dance. He made up some lame excuse about having been in the neighborhood and deciding to look her up, but it was clear he was taken with Agatha. They chatted uncomfortably at first, then, after a few minutes, it got better. The afternoon wore on. Clarissa asked Archie to stay for a “scratch dinner” of cold turkey, cheese, and salad. For the next several weeks it was like that, him arriving unexpectedly on his motorbike, spending the day, then motoring off “in a series of explosive bumps to Exeter.”
Agatha’s interest in fiancé Reggie Lucy was waning. Within a month, she broke that engagement and became engaged to Archie Christie. Now he was “Mr. Right.” They broke the news to Agatha’s mother. Clarissa knew that it would be hard for them, with Archie’s meager salary as a soldier and Agatha’s even more meager allowance of 100 pounds a year from her grandparents’ estate. She counseled then to wait, but did not object to the marriage. She could see that the two of them were terribly in love.
It was Archie’s mother Peg Hemsley who went and spoiled it all.
Agatha recalled the scene when Archie told his mother he was engaged to her:
‘Would she now be one of those girls that’s wearing one of these new-fangled Peter Pan collars?’
Rather uneasily Archie had to admit that I did wear Peter Pan collars. They were rather a feature of the moment.
We girls had at last abandoned the high collars to our blouses, which were stiffened by little zigzag bones, one up each side and one at the back, so as to leave red, uncomfortable marks on the neck. A day came when people determined to be daring and achieve comfort.
The Peter Pan collar was designed, presumably, from the turned-down collar worn by Peter Pan in Barrie’s play.
It fitted round the bottom of the neck, was of soft material, had nothing like a bone about it, and was heaven to wear.
It could hardly have been called daring. When I think of the reputation for possible fastness that we girls incurred, just by showing the four inches of neck from below the chin, it seems incredible….
Anyway, I was one of those go-ahead girls who, in 1912, wore a Peter Pan collar.
‘And she looks lovely in it,’ said the loyal Archie.
‘Ah, she would, no doubt,’ said Peg.”
Regardless of Peg’s disapproval, Archie and Agatha did marry – two years later. It was at Christmas and England was at war with Germany (1914). Archie was on leave; he was then a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. They were staying at Bristol with his mother and stepfather. Archie decided that getting married was the only sensible thing to do. They hunted down the vicar and, outside the church, saw a friend of Agatha’s who agreed to witness the wedding. Agatha was wearing an ordinary coat and skirt with a small purple velvet hat, and hadn’t had time even to wash her hands and face. The ceremony was performed with only bride, groom, witness, vicar, and organist present. The newlyweds then had two days together before Archie returned to France and the dangerous business of being a fighter pilot in the First World War (July 1914-November 1918).
It would be six months before Agatha would see her husband again. She resumed volunteer work at the hospital in Torquay – and, more importantly, writing story after story at home, and seeing them published. In good time, Agatha Miller – now Agatha Christie - would be regarded as the world’s best-selling novelist, her literary success having been made possible despite “Mr. Right,” not because of him, contrary to what she had been brought up to believe.