Afternoon Tea with Agatha Christie – Part 1, Miss Marple’s Tea Room

This post contains spoilers for Agatha Christie’s After The Funeral, the TV adaptation starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Murder at the Gallop, a 1963 film, starring Margaret Rutherford.  

The interior of Miss Marple’s Tea Room

My encounter with Miss Marple’s Tea Room

Driving through the little village of Sassafras on the outskirts of Melbourne, we came across Miss Marple’s Tea Room.  The Tea Room is in a mock Tudor building with a garden full of annuals.  It served cream teas and ice cream sundaes.  Its waitresses were dressed in crisp black uniforms white aprons.  A high mock Tudor beam around the walls displayed a large collection of willow pattern cake plates.  Margaret Rutherford, the funniest screen Miss Marple, is everywhere, peering at customers through a comedy magnifying glass, from the signs, the walls and the menus.

The whole place is designed to look as if Miss Marple, in the form of Margaret Rutherford, has retired from sleuthing, immigrated to Australia and set up a tea shop in which she can showcase pictures from her detective career and her excellent collection of willow pattern china.

The Menu of Miss Marple’s Tea Room

I do not believe Miss Marple would have a tea room

I am very, very fond of Miss Marple but I don’t believe in the concept of Miss Marple’s Tea Room.  Miss Marple would never retire, establish a tea room and display her collection of willow pattern plates.

Having a tea room was a 20th Century Food Dream

Setting up a tea room or tea shop was the food dream in interwar Britain.  It was the early 20th century equivalent to Amy Schumer’s (NSFW) bakery in Maine.

In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed–which she seems to do on the slightest provocation–she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea-shop in the West-End, which she calls Ye Oak Leaf;  Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye Snug Harbour, according to personal taste.  PG Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress, 1919.

A tea shop owner in Agatha Christie 

Agatha Christie explores this phenomenon with hindsight in After The Funeral which is set in the early 1950’s.  One of the key characters, Miss Gilchrist, owned a genteel tea shop before World War II.

Looking at Miss Gilchrist, Mr Entwhistle felt a sudden stab of recognition –a composite picture of hundreds of ladylike figures approaching him in numerous Bay Trees, Ginger Cats, Blue Parrots, Willow Trees and Cosy Corners, all chastely encased in blue or pink or orange overalls and taking orders for pots of china tea and cakes. Miss Gilchrist had a Spiritual Home –a lady-like tea-shop of Ye Olde Worlde variety with a suitable genteel clientèle. Kindle Edition, at p 40

Even when Cora  Lansquenet, the bumbling old lady for whom Miss Gilchrist serves as companion and house keeper, is brutally murdered, Miss Gilchrist never stops talking about her tea shop:

When my little tea-shop failed –such a disaster –it was the war, you know. A delightful place. I called it the Willow Tree and all the china was blue willow pattern –sweetly pretty –and the cakes really good –I’ve always had a hand with cakes and scones. Yes, I was doing really well and then the war came and supplies were cut down and the whole thing went bankrupt –a war casualty, that is what I always say, and I try to think of it like that. I lost the little money my father left me that I had invested in it, and of course I had to look round for something to do. I’d never been trained for anything. Ibid

Agatha Christie presents Miss Gilchrist’s tea shop as an expression of herself, not a means of earning money.  Another character, Susan is married to a man who works in a chemist’s shop   Miss Gilchrist does not really approve of the chemist’s shop

A husband in the retail trade did not quite square with Miss Gilchrist’s impression of Susan’s smartness . . . Ibid at p 111

When Susan retorts “You kept a tea shop, you said didn’t you“.  Miss Gilchrist is surprised at the comparison:

‘Yes, indeed,’ Miss Gilchrist’s face lit up. That the Willow Tree had ever been ‘trade’ in the sense that a shop was trade, would never have occurred to her. To keep a tea-shop was in her mind the essence of gentility. She started telling Susan about the Willow Tree.  Ibid 111

At the end of the book it is revealed that Miss Gilchrist murdered her employer, so that she could establish a new tea shop.

‘You killed her –in that brutal way –for five thousand pounds?’ Susan’s voice was incredulous. ‘Five thousand pounds,’ said Poirot, ‘would have rented and equipped a tea-shop . . .’ Miss Gilchrist turned to him. ‘At least,’ she said. ‘You do understand. It was the only chance I’d ever get. I had to have a capital sum.’ Her voice vibrated with the force and obsession of her dream. ‘I was going to call it the Palm Tree. And have little camels as menu holders. . .”

Why does this mean Miss Marple wouldn’t set up a tea shop full of momentos?

Miss Marple is Agatha Christie’s creation. And Agatha Christie was a practical person, she likes trade to be trade.  For Agatha Christie, Miss Gilchrist’s tea shop is a vanity project.  Miss Gilchrist never focusses on making money from her excellent baking, she focusses on  the gentility of the decor and her customers.  She lives in a fantasy in which she is never at fault.  Her vanity and lack of empathy lead her to murder.  Her desire to keep up appearances as a genteel person also conceals her huge resentment against the reality of her life which she never expresses except in the brutal way she murders her employer.

Miss Marple is Agatha Christie’s representative.  She might bake cakes, she might work in a chemist’s shop if she had to, but she wouldn’t establish a business as a monument to herself.