Picture this: A pleasant evening during which a young shy woman plays the piano in front of a group of Belgian refugees and their host, Mrs. Alice Graham Clapp.
Afterwards the pianist meets one of the Belgians, who has come to England with his teenage son. As they converse, it is to anyone’s guess how brief or how long the conversation would have been. It might have been exchanging pleasantries in French and yet there could be some kind of interviews into the sleuthing line of work of an ex-police officer. Perhaps she also mentions her then husband who is in RAF.
Whatever that has passed between them has left a deep impression in her, whilst it would never occur to his mind that in a few years’ time she would make him a rising star and an immortal character in English crime literary world.
In the recreation room at Dunham Massey, standing in front of the grand piano, I can see Agatha Christie’s fingers dance on the keys (pray she does not play Handel’s The Dead March like David Lee in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas).
Dunham Massey is the home of Countess of Stamford, which is transformed as a convalescent hospital between 1917 and 1919, during which 282 soldiers are treated and cared for.
I wonder if Christie heard about it, for she used to come to Abney Hall, the home of her elder sister Madge and her husband James, just 12.3 miles away. Moreover, it could have been a place of great interest for the budding writer, having joined VAD following the outbreak of the Great War.
Lady Penelope Grey the Countess of Stamford, the driving force behind the premises coined as ‘the sanctuary from the trenches,’ may share a number of similar traits with Mrs. Clapp. Both are widows and generous; after her husband’s untimely death in 1910 Lady Grey manages the Dunham Massey estate herself until her son Roger Grey (10th Earl of Stamford) came of age in 1917. While Roger is required to fulfil his war duties as an aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General Sir Francis Lloyd, her mother pulls all the stops for the running of the hospital.
And therefore Christie’s inspiration for Emily Inglethorp; a wealthy widow who marries a much younger man in her seventies. In the novel Arthur Hastings describes the former Mrs. Cavendish (whose step son John Cavendish is Hastings’ old friend) as follows: ‘…I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable fortune of her own.’
The crime Christie has plotted round Mrs. Inglethorp’s death speaks volumes of her vivid imagination as a writer and her understanding of human’s strength and weakness. On the one hand, Christie seems to be impressed by the deceased’s half-full glass attitude to life. On the other, despite Mrs. Inglethorp’s age, she would have lived until ninety while her fortune is a magnet for those whom have known her.
As I go round, I am curious what would Christie have to stay about the home. She would have been fascinated by the ‘operating room,’ which is situated under the great stairs as there is a pantry nearby for running water and sterilising the equipments (see the right image).
What is more, a lighthearted prose about VAD pinned on the notice board by an anonymous soldier. Also, the magnificent library that has over 3,000 titles and an 18th century Celestial Globe made by Thomas Earnshaw. Given the circumstances, she might not have been able to come as a visitor at that time.
At the end of the tour I step out into a fine afternoon in August with Lady Jane Grey’s words linger in mind: ‘My word, what those poor men suffered.’ By the time the hospital is closed, she has felt very differently about the war from the young girl who saw it in at the age of 16. Just as the wife of a war hero Agatha Christie from the newlywed woman at the beginning of the war.
Note: all photographs are mine and the boy appeared on one of them is my son.