by Nina de Gramont
On the morning of December 3rd, 1926, Agatha Christie’s husband announced he wanted a divorce for the most heart-shattering of reasons: he planned to marry his mistress. Late that night, the thirty-six-year-old author’s Morris Cowley was abandoned at the lip of a chalk pit near her Berkshire home, her suitcase and fur coat still in the backseat. She was discovered eleven days later at the Harrogate Hotel, claiming amnesia, and registered under the last name of her husband’s lover. There launched nearly a hundred years of speculation and imaginings, including a Dr. Who episode that identifies the cause of her disappearance as a giant alien wasp. “She never spoke of it until the day she died,” says Dr. Who.
Perhaps it’s all because the word “mystery” is so intrinsically associated with our beloved Dame. Where Christie went and what she did during those eleven days is less unknown than a century of guesswork would have us believe. As Jared Cade documents in his book Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days, on December 4th Christie arrived at the precise place she would be found. She bought a new shawl, and took books out from the Harrogate library (mostly detective novels). Every day she ordered breakfast in her room, had a massage at 3:30, ate dinner in the hotel dining room, and even danced when the band played, “Yes We Have No Bananas.”
Meanwhile, all of England was searching, a thousand police officers and hundreds of civilian volunteers. Hounds and even airplanes were employed, the latter for the first time ever in the hunt for a missing person. Most mornings Christie had a newspaper delivered to her room along with her breakfast, so she would have been well apprised of the nationwide hunt. Can you imagine the horror, the embarrassment, for a proper Englishwoman, trained from infancy to never cause a fuss? No wonder the author, having ascended only a few rungs on the climb toward the unimaginable success she’d go on to achieve, feigned amnesia when she was finally discovered in her luxurious hideaway.
It’s not the story of most missing women, then or now. Think of Gabi Petito, the body discovered, the girl gone forever. For thousands of years, women have disappeared via violence—at the hands of strangers, or more often the men they loved.
The devastating stigma toward unmarried pregnancy has also caused countless disappearances. For decades women disappeared from schools, and from their hometowns. From their families and their jobs. One day they’d be sitting in a classroom, or laughing with friends, or walking hand in hand with a beau. Then, poof. Whatever happened to that girl? Don’t you remember her? Where did she go?
In America, some went to Florence Crittenton homes. In England, to Clark’s House. In Ireland, a woman who’d given birth in a Catholic-run mother and baby home might find herself moved to a Magdalene Laundry, where she could toil as unpaid labor for the rest of her life. And some women didn’t go anywhere at all. They bled to death on butcher’s tables. They jumped off bridges.
As a respectable married lady, there was no chance Christie would be discovered in a home for unwed mothers. Authorities dredged a lake near her home—ominously called the Silent Pool—expecting to retrieve her corpse, flung into its dark waters in sorrow over her husband’s defection, or else by her husband’s hands. That’s the way most stories of missing women end.
Perhaps, then, it’s not Christie’s disappearance, and her lack of explanation beyond “I forgot” that captures our imagination. Perhaps it’s the glamor of her safe return. However Agatha Christie traveled away from that chalkpit, we can assume she was the architect of her own vanishment, as she went on to become the architect of her own, grand life.
Maybe, too, we’re intrigued by the glamor of keeping a secret so perfectly, for so long. Christie may have taken the train from London to Harrogate. But how did she get from that abandoned car to London? And why did she abandon her car and belongings in the first place? Why did she never make her whereabouts known when she must have been aware the whole world was searching?
Thanks to Christie’s ability to protect her own story, no fictional account can ever get close to the whole truth. We can invent a publicity stunt, a plan for revenge, a clandestine love affair. A giant alien wasp. But we’ll never really know.
One can’t help but imagine the novel Agatha Christie might have written—if it had been some other woman who went missing, and then returned—miracle!—safe, whole, and unharmed. Her whole glorious life ahead of her.
Nina de Gramont is a professor of Creative Writing at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She is the author of The Last September (Algonquin 2015) as well as several Young Adult novels.Tags: Agatha Christie, literary history, Nina Da Gramont, The Christie Affair