A Different Language

Reading century old novels by Agatha Christie along with her autobiography has been both entertaining and a lot like going to school in a different country. Even common words seem to have a different meaning when they were used a century ago in another country. Over the years English names for food products have made their way to American tables and might show up in an international cookbook. Fashion differences are not too complicated, but sports in England and British colonies have their own vocabularies. While Agatha Christie’s books are written in English with some of the characters falling back on French from time to time, phrases like “practicing their mashies” when talking about golf were out of my league, and I never did find out what the phrase meant.

When her family or characters in the books went to the races at Ascot, I was sure these must be horse races, although actual living horses got very little mention in the mysteries or the autobiography. Most of the racing conversations were on the proper wear for Ascot which was a very dressy event with special hats for men and women, plus they carried parasols. The game of rugby was called futball, a name some countries use for soccer, but had 15 players on the team. Rules were different from football as we know it. Cricket had bats and balls so had to be their name for baseball. They played croquet but spelled the name differently. Polo played on horseback began as a game enjoyed by cavalry troops in India and then became popular with wealthy sportsmen. Both her fictional characters and her real family lived near the shoreline of the English Channel so there were many references to boating and bathing. Bathing had special dresses and shoes and was done in coves along the shore accompanied by servants.

In real life, Christie described her first husband as living, eating and sleeping golf. When he became the managing official of a new housing development with a golf course, known as The Links, she claimed he spent all of his time there. As a result, an early book (1923) was “Murder on the Links” dedicated to her husband. When the book was printed, she had specified a cover picture featuring golf equipment. The publisher did not meet her expectations on that score, but until I read the book I expected something golf-like would be in the story line. Clubs, balls and even the square wooden tees mentioned in her other books are all missing in the story line. Thinking maybe I needed a golf dictionary to understand the story, I tried looking up some of the terms and found there are three names for the kind of soil where a golf course would normally be constructed: links, parkland and moorland. Links are areas just beyond a shoreline, they might have sand, and in early times had rabbit holes. Langdon’s golf course, historically between Shell and Doyle lakes, was a sort of island surrounded by water in 1884. When the course was first acquired, roughly fifty years later, the golfing businessmen hired boys to come and shoot gophers who also tend to be associated with holes. I found nothing in later news stories about rabbits at the local course.

Modern golf is thought to have its roots in Holland and Scotland, with St. Andrew’s in Scotland the oldest remaining course. Golf was one of the first sports to let women play. A popular sport following World War II was miniature golf with their sites often crowded with women and children playing while husbands sought conventional golf courses. Sports for girls in America were not plentiful until 1974. although basketball had begun as a sport for girls in the early 1900s. Boys who saw the girls play soon claimed the sport as well. Volleyball as a team sport rather than just gym class exercise is slightly newer and also began on the American side before spreading to Europe and elsewhere.

Another interesting part of the autobiography, which worked its way into an early novel or two, had to do with aviation. In America we do know about some experimental flying done in France, but we do not hear much about English or other European flyers. To many Americans flying began with Orville and Wilbur Wright. Actually, there were Air Force units in several European nations before World War I. Agatha, at age 21, had her first airplane ride in the spring of 1911. There had been an airshow their family attended with several brave souls riding with pilots who crashed their planes and walked away to applause from the audience watching. Agatha asked her mother if she could take a ride and her mother gave her the 5 pound note for the fare. She thought it was the most exciting five minutes of her life. Apparently, she was more fortunate than Tom McGoey, who a couple of months later would show off his airplane at the Cavalier County Fair in Langdon. McGoey’s plane left the field in pieces.

While biographical sketches tell us Agatha Christie was first published in 1920, she had been writing short stories and poems which had been published in newspapers since she was a teenager. Whether her stories made it to America or not, there were serialized books and short stories in the early Langdon newspapers. Pre-printed pages would come to Langdon for the two local newspapers and their printers and publishers would put advertisements, local news, obituaries, legal notices and other features together on the front and back pages of the papers. When reading these for local history purposes in the 1970s, I saw the serialized stories, but the real local stories were of primary interest, so I never bothered to read them. Agatha wrote about the shillings she earned by this work. The pay was not enough to live on. With clouds forming for World War I she went to work in a hospital as a volunteer nurse. She spent several years working both on the wards and later in the pharmacy mixing up medicines. The many different poisons used in her stories gained their authenticity from that early war-time work.

Two or three of the characters in the stories appear to be Agatha herself. She introduces them as people working in the same jobs she had held earlier or brings in her own upbringing in their life sketches. She had written some early short stories about teenagers meeting and solving crimes together before World War I. After the war she created Tommy Beresford, one of the more popular characters in her books, after young men who had served in the war and were then selling magazines and other things door to door because veterans were not being hired. Tuppence, later Tommy’s fictional wife, appears to be Agatha herself in the early stories and to a limited extent in the stories written in the 1970s. This couple was allowed to age normally through the years and appear as undercover agents again in World War II and as retired espionage grandparents. In that last role the storyline includes antique toys that Agatha had grown up with.

In later books, sometimes with Hercule Poirot as a co-investigator, there is a character named Ariadne Oliver who is thought to be Agatha in another role. Mrs. Oliver appears about the time Agatha’s second husband died. Nursing homes, good and bad, begin to play a role in the books written in those years although she never wrote as if she were residing in that type of facility. One mystery that has not resolved itself yet has to do with the name Marston. Anthony Marston is an undercover German spy in one novel (WWII), possibly from Marston Manor in another book, a young man dating the daughter of Tommy and Tuppence in another, and the father of the three Beresford grandchildren in yet another. These sightings are after he dies in the book “And Then There Were None.” Obviously, he must have been a friend or relative of the author.

Some of the books were written with holiday themes so the next one I plan to read is called “Halloween Party” which might be one of the books she wrote just for fun.

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