Modern matchmaker

Successful? Well off? In need of a mate? You are not alone. Serena Mackesy meets the woman who - for a thousand pounds - will set your world to rights
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"At the end of the day," says Virginia Charles - 40, blonde, throaty voice - "everybody is designed to have a mate." In her airy office, with its sculptures, lilies, copies of the social glossies and filing cabinets that look like chests-of-drawers, she chats with the comforting matiness of your most organised girlfriend.

"I've been saying since we started," she continues, "though nobody seems to want to listen. It's the educated and successful people who really have the problem. They're independent and they can afford to be choosy. Their expectations are so much higher."

Which is where Virginia helps out. Virginia owns an upmarket dating agency: personal, discreet, loaded with high-earning presentables. And expensive. Annual membership is pounds 1,145, for which you are guaranteed six dates, "though most people have upwards of 20. We run another service that costs pounds 5,000, where I will head-hunt for them. There are no profiles, no photographs. It's done entirely by me; they don't talk to any of my staff." Clients for this tend to be "international people" and the occasional household name. Big-world success, it seems, doesn't guarantee romantic contentment.

Virginia Charles is not, of course, a dating agency: it's an introduction agency. Her clients are looking for love, but not with someone they have not been introduced to. Britain's adult professionals seem to find it increasingly hard to date and mate happily. Maybe it is the fault of romantic literature, in which protagonists succeed by fighting; maybe our culture's emphasis on self-resolution hasn't developed a compensatory social structure. Whatever it is, Virginia reckons there is a problem.

The Office for National Statistics' Social Trends survey seems to back her up. At present 29 per cent of households are single, and this is set to rise to 36 per cent by 2016. Marital households, meanwhile, will make up 42 per cent. A 1995 survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found the marriage rate at its lowest in 150 years.

Many of us, of course, despite the disbelief of the breeders, enjoy unwedded bliss. Always having the best spot on the sofa, no clashes over music, never having to get permission for changes of plan: the advantages of single life are many. But they're not for everybody. For each person celebrating the joys of mashed potato dinners, there's another longing for proper meals. Never-married, widowed or divorced, they'd rather be with a partner. The situation could well call for the services of an old-fashioned matchmaker. Virtually every other culture has them, after all.

Virginia has herself experienced the problem. In her early thirties, she found herself divorced and "under a certain amount of pressure" to get back into the mating market. "I took a deep breath, and then reality hit me. I thought `Hang on. How many people have I actually met who have been both single and remotely suitable?' You're having so much pressure, but when you turn round and say, `Look, I don't meet people', they don't believe it. They look back to when they were dating in their early twenties and they think there's an ample supply there."

Initially, she joined a dating agency, a disappointing experience. "They didn't treat you as an individual. It was a tick-the-boxes thing. I don't believe you can match people like that. I gave up after meeting a couple of people: they just weren't what I wanted."

Next stop was a suitable-sounding man from Private Eye. They married three months after she answered his small ad. "It was the worst thing I've ever done. He was not as he appeared. I ended up a year later having lost everything: financially, emotionally, self-worth. It was very difficult to come to terms with the fact that I could have got something so wrong." The week they split, she spotted an identical ad in the Eye, replied under a false name and received a letter from him. He was a serial advertiser. There are many out there.

So what do you get for your pounds 1,145? Well, pragmatism. Virginia believes that common backgrounds and stability are half the battle. "The disaster stories you hear are about someone who's running their own company being matched with a truck driver." She interviews potential clients exhaustively, not only to hook on to compatibilities, but to weed out potential problems: "We can handle things like chronic shyness, but we're an introduction agency, not a counselling service." Apart from that, it's a gut thing. Virginia has an encyclopaedic memory for personality. Clients choose their dates from photographs "because if you take one look at a photograph and think `euugh', it wouldn't matter what I've written." It's only once they've expressed interest that she fills them in on details such as profession, age and so forth.

It seems to work, as well. She estimates a relationship score of two out of three clients, and the names Virginia and Charles have been appearing increasingly in the birth columns. Clients seem happy, too.

Josh Logan, 42, an investment broker, was introduced by his PA after approaching other agencies. "I was fairly horrified by what some of them were up to. They brought out photograph albums of females in various states of dress and undress." He got engaged. They have since split, but that hasn't dampened his enthusiasm. "I'd totally recommend her," he says, "100 per cent."

Penny Barker, 50, a medic, wanted to get back into a long-term relationship. None of her friends knew single people - a strange phenomenon of the married - so she tried two other agencies before Virginia's. "One sent me two people I'd met before. The other sent me two altogether. She always had excuses. Eventually she claimed that her office was being redecorated and the files were locked in the cellar. I'm trying to get my money back at the moment." Virginia initially thought she could match Penny with a dozen men; it's been at least twice that. But, of course, all the will in the world can't prevent coincidence: Virginia once matched a man up with the ex-wife of the man his ex had bolted with. "Fortunately, they had a laugh about it."

Agency dating is more widespread than one might think. A MORI poll on the subject found that 7 per cent of people admitted to having considered an agency, and 35 per cent knew someone who had. "I believe that within the next five years it will be the norm to use an agency," says Virginia, though, of course, she would. "I don't see how else we're going to do it. We're so much more mobile, we tend to stray from place to place. It's terribly difficult." She herself has remained single since her last brush with matrimony. "I'm like my clients," she says. "I'm committed to my job, I tend to work a seven-day week, and I would never date a client. I lead a fairly broad social life, and yet I never meet anyone."

Shopping for a partner may seem daunting, but once the barriers are surmounted, clients seem to leap happily into the water. "I took someone on last week who definitely falls into the `public face' category. And he wasn't bothered at all. His attitude was, `I don't have a problem with this. If I want my house done I call in an interior designer, so why shouldn't I use you?'".

Virginia Charles, The Old Brewery, Burford, Oxfordshire OX18 4SG (01993 824 500).