Julia Upton

The Agatha Christie Indult*

*in Catholic canon law, permission to do something that would otherwise be forbidden

Around 1970, major liturgical changes were being introduced in the Catholic Church under the papacy of Paul VI. Over fifty prominent figures in British society signed a petition to the Vatican requesting the continued use of the Tridentine rite where wished in England and Wales. The letter noted its exceptional artistic and cultural heritage. Leo Darroch, in a speech, recounted the story that the Pope read through the letter in silence, then suddenly exclaimed, “Ah, Agatha Christie!” and then signed it. Ever since the granting of the Indult in 1971, it has been known informally as “the Agatha Christie Indult “.

I am standing in a short queue of genteel women of a certain age at the bar of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate. The customer ahead of me asks the barman tentatively, “Can I use money here?”. I have some sympathy . Here in the Montpellier Quarter, there is a general air, on a Sunday afternoon in January at any rate, of treating everyone as a convalescent until proved otherwise. The currency is in question.

In 1926 this hotel was known as the Hydro. At the end of that year, which had seen a General Strike in the UK, Agatha Christie was not petitioning anyone. In particular, she was not petitioning for divorce, despite her husband’s affair with a woman he was eventually to marry. On the evening of Friday 3rd December, she in some way reached her emotional limit, and fled to the stately cosiness of the Harrogate Hydro. On Wednesday 8th December, the Daily Sketch carried the headline, “SAID SHE WAS GOING FOR WEEKEND VISIT TO A YORKSHIRE SPA”. The line beneath ran: “No evidence that she went there”.

As late as February 1928, Agatha’s disappearance (she left staff to manage her 7 year old daughter), was a byword for duplicitous conduct. During a libel action, reference was made by the prosecuting counsel to “a woman who played a foolish hoax on the police”. Dame Agatha’s biographer, Laura Thompson, explores exhaustively the circumstances around Agatha’s disappearance from her ordinary life. She writes: “Her eleven days in the wilderness are a myth, a poem. They exist in a different sphere from that of theories and solutions.”

As a child, Agatha feared for the soul of her father, who played croquet in the garden on Sundays. By the time she was 36, and in desperate need of healing for her wounded heart, one feels she would have granted him the freedom to negotiate the hoops in any way that lay open to him.