In 1922 Agatha Christie set sail on a 10-month voyage around the British Empire with her husband as part of a trade mission to promote the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition. Now, for the first time in 90 years we are able to see her extensive and previously unpublished letters, which are accompanied by hundreds of photos taken on her portable camera as well as memorabilia Agatha collected along her journey. This eye-opening trip, which took place just after only her second novel had been published (the first leg of the tour to South Africa is very clearly the inspiration for the book she wrote immediately afterwards, The Man in the Brown Suit). The letters are full of tales of seasickness and sunburn, motor trips, surf boarding and dinners with dignitaries all the way from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Canada.
Agatha’s first letters to her mother can be seen below, these are from the first leg of her journey from Madeira to Cape Town.
R.M.S ‘Kildonan Castle’
First day: 20 January 1922
Everything very comfortable – nice cabin with lots of room.
I do love my violets. Take care of yourself, darling – I do love you so much.
Will write again from Madeira.
I couldn’t send you an amusing and cheerful letter from Madeira because I was laid low, and nearly dead! I was terribly ill – it was very rough and everyone was ill. Archie, Belcher, and Hiam were all right, of course but ‘the ladies’ and Mr Bates were very sorry for themselves. I was quite determined to get off at Madeira and come straight home, or take a Villa there for the winter. The day before we got there, I was very bad. Sick without ceasing, having tried everything from champagne and brandy to dry biscuits and pickles, and my arms and legs were all going pins and needly and dead, so Archie fetched the doctor along, and he gave me teaspoonful doses of something or other, chloroform stuff , which stopped the sickness, and nothing to eat for twenty four hours, and then Brand’s beef essence. When we got to Madeira, Archie got me up on deck, and fed me with it, whilst I almost wept because Madeira looked so beautiful! I’d no idea of it. It looked like Kinderscout put bang on the sea, green hills and ravines with houses perched on them like Upper House, or rather like Dartmouth. It was grey weather too, so it must look even more beautiful in sunshine. I couldn’t go ashore of course, which was rather disappointing.
But since then, I’ve been quite all right, and am now enjoying myself hugely, feel perfectly well, have baths and meals, and get up in the morning just as though it was dry land.
From henceforth I shall write you a kind of diary, a little every day. I need hardly say that Belcher was at once made chairman of the Sports Committee on board. The boat is not very full. There is rather a nice sailor lad called Ashby going out to join a ship at Cape Town, who went with Mrs Tweedale over the haunted
house in Torquay, a delightful woman, Miss Wright, belonging
to some college out in South Africa who is most amusing, a Miss Gold who is the thinnest girl I have ever seen and like a Botticelli Madonna, and a particularly fat fellow called Samels with a very nice wife and kiddies. He’s a great ostrich person, and the Mission is fixing up a meeting with him out there. We have trained the Chief Engineer, at whose table we sit, to drink ‘Success to the Mission’ every night, which he does, murmuring. ‘But I’m still not sure what kind of a mission it is. They say it’s not religious.’
The Hiams are nice, but dull. Won’t do anything – enter for quoits or take part in things. Archie and I entered bravely for everything, had our first contest yesterday, when to our utter surprise, we knocked out two Belgians who have infuriated the ship by hanging on to the quoits and practising all day long. It was a most popular victory. Everyone kept coming up to us and saying ‘I hear you’ve knocked out the Dagoes! Splendid.’
Belcher gave us a screaming description of his visit to the King. Whilst airily chatting to Wigram on arrival, a super footman approached and murmured ‘which links would you wish to wear this evening sir?’ ‘Oh any links, any links,’ said Belcher, to which the footman hissed in an agitated whisper: ‘I can’t find any.’ ‘And then, of course, I had to take the brass ones out of the shirt I was wearing and hand them to him. Most unfortunate!’
The King was charming and most natural, and the Queen had a full description of all the ladies accompanying the Mission, and made a note of my book. Princess Mary was not at all a dump,
but very jolly, but Lascelles was a dull dog, who said little, and drank champagne in enormous quantities! They talked a good deal about ‘their boy’. The Queen said ‘My boy has had thirty five wooden caskets presented to him when he was in Australia, and of course he doesn’t know what to do with them. Lovely wood, but hideously made.’ The King told a story of Hughes starting out to drive with the Prince through Sydney. ‘He started in a topper, but when they got to the suburbs, he hid it under the seat and produced a bowler, and by the time they got to the slums be was wearing a check cap!’ He spoke very warmly of Smuts, and said Belcher reminded him of Redmond, and that Ireland would not be in the state it was if Redmond had lived. Two braces of pheasants were presented to Belcher on leaving, and we ate them on board last night, served with great éclat and ceremony!
Very hot now and lots of porpoises leaping, and I’ve just seen a flying fish! We passed the Grand Peak of Tenerife on Wednesday, and saw the Cape Verde lights last night. No more land now until Cape Town.
The Grand Tour will be published on April 26th.