Agatha Christie, who passed away today (January 12), 46 years ago, is usually one of the first names to come up while talking about detective fiction. She's so popular that when she wanted to divert from the genre and write more romantic, introspective novels, she started publishing under a different name: Mary Westmacott. This isn't something uncommon (after all, lots of authors have done this to take away the hype and pressure of living up to their popularity- most recently J. K. Rowling). What sets the Mary Westmacott novels apart is how different they are from Christie’s usual Poirot/Miss Marple fare and also how little they're studied and discussed. It might be because, in typical Christie style, she managed to keep her identity as Westmacott a secret from the general public for almost 20 years.
Christie wrote six novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. These were (chronologically) Giant's Bread, Unfinished Portrait, Absent in the Spring, The Rose and the Yew Tree, A Daughter's a Daughter, and The Burden. Many critics have called these books semi-autobiographical, and Christie's daughter herself described these as "bitter-sweet stories about love". In these books, Christie explores,among other things, a passion for music and artistic genius (Giant's Bread), mother-child relationships (A Daughter's a Daughter), and how quickly love can turn to hate (The Burden). All these books are set in a world Christie knew very well: they are set in the First World War, for instance, or with the background of a rapidly-changing England in the early to mid-1900s. The first of these books, Giant's Bread, was published in 1930; The Burden in 1956. Critics have, over the years, also pointed out the similarities between Christie's own life and what's happening in the books (the heroine of Unfinished Portrait, for example, has been left by her husband for another woman; Christie's first marriage, too, ended in heartbreak).
Reading them together, you don't just get a very clear picture of Christie's own understanding of love and human emotions but also of a world that was constantly changing to keep up with the simultaneous modernisation.
Love is the central theme of each of these novels— often, it is the burdensome and terrifying aspect of love that she explores. Love as something that can easily turn to passionate hatred, as a dangerous feeling in itself is not new to Christie's readers: in fact, many of the detective stories she wrote were crimes of passion, motivated more often by love rather than hatred (Five Little Pigs, The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side). In Crooked House, she even has a character say, "I think people more often kill those they love, than those they hate. Possibly because only the people you love can really make life unendurable to you."
It is this core belief that I think she tries to explore through the Mary Westmacott novels.
While the Westmacott novels are different in their outer shedding from Christie's more famous works, there are many similarities between the books. The writing style will be familiar to anyone who's read her books— they are fast-paced and thrilling, you want to know what happens next. The stories are planned meticulously and beautifully; the characters are some of the most nuanced and complicated characters I have read, and yet extremely relatable. Christie is still a master at bringing up complex ideas within a simple story. In an article in Clues: A Journal of Detection, the American scholar Sarah E. Whitney says that the only difference between Christie’s detective fiction and the novels written as Westmacott is that "the characters are made to apply all the discipline and diligence of detection to their own internal emotional lives, rather than to an external murder case."
I read the Mary Westmacott novel in my teens: my mother's library had a Collected Works with all 6 in one book. Maybe because I read them all together at a time in my life when I also regularly read Christie, I was able to pick up on the similarities with so much ease. A couple of years back, as a personal reading project, I re-read all the Christie novels chronologically (in order of publication). These included the Mary Westmacott novels. I was surprised to see how much they still resonate, how easy they are to read, and how much I still love them.
Absent in the Spring (1944) is my favourite of these novels. Christie herself has said of the novel that this was "one book that has satisfied me completely." She wrote the book in just three days according to agathachristie.com. The book has an aging woman who finds herself stranded due to bad weather on her way home to England from visiting her daughter in the middle-east. She has nothing to do (for the first time in very long) and plenty of time to think. Her reminiscences give us an insight into her world and her family. What has kept them apart, and what has held them together. It shows how dangerous our actions can be, even when motivated by love. It is also a breakdown of a single character: a contrast between what the character is and what she thinks of herself. The prose is poignant, and the story is an excellent exploration of how we see ourselves.
I think the Mary Westmacott novels fit so well in the Agatha Christie Universe (ACU, if you must) because these complex novels perfectly complement her crime novels. The demands of the detective novel don't allow Christie to really delve into themes and characters as she does here.
Reading these books is vital to understanding exactly what Christie thought of humans and how humans behave. It provides a great insight to the characters who find themselves embroiled in Poirot and Miss Marple’s cases- both from the aristocratic and lower-classes, who, irrespective of gender, background, location, and age, find themselves motivated by jealousy, insecurity, passion, and hatred.
Forty six years after Agatha Christie’s death, the world looks vastly different from the one she lived in. But these novels still work, because how humans love has not changed.
Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter.