In 1930, any serious fan of detective fiction would have been able to tell you that Agatha Christie published just the one novel that year — The Murder at the Vicarage. This was a significant one for her, a step up in her already successful writing career. It was both the first full length Miss Marple story, and it also marked a return to the true whodunnit form after a few more thriller-esque books, like The Big Four and The Seven Dials Mystery.
Nobody could accuse Christie of being unproductive, either. As well as this novel, she also had a volume of short detective stories published in 1930 too — The Mysterious Mr Quin. Just in case anyone thought she was slacking.
But in actual fact, Agatha Christie had three books published in 1930. It was just that at the time, nobody knew that Giant’s Bread, a novel about family tension, emotional abuse and career obsession ostensibly by an unknown first time novelist, was actually penned by the Queen of Crime herself. Christie managed to keep this literary sideline secret for nearly two decades.
Today, we’re going to meet Mary Westmacott.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Writers publish under names other than their own for all sorts of reasons. They might do it for fun, or to keep different kinds of work separate, or to reach new readers, or to conceal something about themselves. Of course, there’s a long history of women writers choosing overtly male or gender ambiguous pseudonyms. Mary Ann Evans, who wrote as George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, aka Currer Bell, are just two of the most famous examples. They did this because of prejudice against women both in the publishing industry and among the reading public.
But that’s not why Agatha Christie decided to debut a pseudonym almost a decade into her writing career. After all, she chose another woman’s name, so she clearly wasn’t that interested in concealing her gender, although some early drafts do show that she toyed with being “Nathanial Westmacott”. Ultimately, though, she didn’t stray that far when picking the name itself. Mary was one of her middle names, and Westmacott was a name she borrowed from some distant relations. No: for Christie, the pseudonym was about escaping her growing reputation as a mystery writer. She wanted to explore a different kind of writing, unencumbered by expectation. Supposedly, the two styles and personas were so distinct in her mind that she even used a different kind of handwriting when for the Mary Westmacott manuscripts.
Giant’s Bread is a novel about obsession and the havoc it can wreak on emotional life. The central character is one Vernon Dayre, who we first meet as a small child growing up at his father’s estate in the country. Unusually, the first few chapters are actually told from the perspective of this child in the present tense as it were, rather than with the adult looking back on his early years. Christie actually manages this surprisingly well, making Vernon’s life of nurseries and nannies quite engaging. Vernon then grows up into a discontented student obsessed with modern music, who ultimately destroys his own chance at love through his fixation on his work.
Although the protagonist is a man, there are plenty of well fleshed out female characters in this book. Vernon’s mother is shown as a clingy, self-obsessed woman who is very good at creating her own version of events and sticking to it, despite all evidence that an argument or incident actually happened a different way. His cousin Josephine grows up alongside Vernon into a “modern” young woman who is constantly having new artistic enthusiasms and idolises unavailable older men. And Nell, the love of Vernon’s life, is a beautiful but unintellectual young woman who is under pressure to marry a man with money so that she and her mother can live in the wealthy style to which they are accustomed.
There’s very little here of the exquisitely plotted whodunnits with which Christie made her name, but Giant’s Bread does have a certain verve to its style — the first time I read it, I kept turning the pages as I would with a mystery, keen to find out how Vernon’s problems with his music and with Nell and Joe would work out in the end. It should also be noted, I think, that this book is one of several of Christie’s works that includes some unpleasantly anti Semitic stereotypes. Vernon and Joe’s childhood friend Sebastian is from a wealthy Jewish family, and his treatment is not always very pleasant, although it is clear in the book that those who shun him are not very admirable people.
The critics were impressed by Mary Westmacott’s first effort. The Observer called it “ambitious and surprisingly sentimental” and expected that it would be “very popular”. Across the pond, the New York Times praised it with the weirdly backhanded sentence “her book is far above the average of current fiction, in fact, comes well under the classification of a ‘good book’”. The critic noted that although the blurb teased readers with the fact that the author had already published half a dozen successful books under her own name, “who she is does not matter” because of the novel’s quality.
It must have been extremely gratifying to Christie to read these kind of reviews, which acknowledged her novel’s worth while completely unaware of her existing literary reputation. But reading them today, knowing who actually wrote them, it’s very easy to think about the Mary Westmacott books in light of Christie’s own biography, rather than evaluating them on their own merits. Plenty of what happens to Vernon in Giant’s Bread has uncanny parallels in Christie’s life, including his musical training and the fugue state or amnesia that he experiences after an accident during the First World War. Christie had some musical talent herself and studied singing in Paris in her late teens, and it seems plausible that she intensified this experience for use in the book. And of course, a fugue state was the explanation given for her infamous disappearance in December 1926, when she vanished for 11 days and eventually turned up staying in a Yorkshire hotel under a false name.
I talked more about that in the fourth episode of this podcast “The Lady Vanishes”, but without getting into too much detail here, let’s just say that many biographers down the years have made the obvious connection between Christie’s amnesia and Vernon’s. Christie never publicly wrote about that episode. She even draws a discreet veil over it in her autobiography, merely saying “so ended my first married life”, rather than getting into any specifics. It’s not surprising, therefore, without any more details, that people have turned to Giant’s Bread for some hint of what really happened during those 11 days when Christie was unaccounted for.
All of the Mary Westmacott novels are difficult to slot into any one genre. They often get referred to in passing in blurbs as “romances”, but I think anyone who has read these books would agree that that’s not an accurate description, since there’s a lot more heartache, loss and despair in these stories than is usual in romantic fiction. They’re not historical, they’re not comic, they’re not thrillers, and they haven’t ever been given that elusive designation of “literary fiction”. Neither are they whodunnits. Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks referred to them as “bitter sweet stories about love”, and I think that’s about the best way of characterising them. They’re about women with turbulent emotional lives who usually end up having to face the harsh realities of life, and they rarely have neat or happy endings.
After the break: Mary Westmacott is unmasked.
After the relative success of Giant’s Bread, Christie did not wait long before returning to the Westmacott pen name and style. Unfinished Portrait was published in 1934, and again has been read by biographers as a loosely disguised comment on the author’s personal life. It concerns Celia, a woman who at the start of the novel is on the brink of taking her own life, and is only saved by a chance encounter with the male artist, Larraby, who narrates the book. It has a strong metatextual element, with Celia telling her life story to Larraby, who is then writing it out for another intended reader. Like Christie, Celia has been married to a man who swept her off her feet, only to leave her a few years later for another woman.
In a direct parallel to Christie’s own experience with her first husband Archie, Celia’s husband Dermot asks her not to cite his mistress in the divorce paperwork, prevailing once again on the kindness of the woman he has deserted. By this time, Agatha had been happily married to the archaeologist Max Mallowan for several years — if we were to indulge in a bit of psychological speculation around this book, we might say that perhaps she was finally ready to process what had happened with her failed marriage in the previous decade, and Unfinished Portrait is the result.
The next Mary Westmacott novel, Absent in the Spring, was published ten whole years later. Of course, Christie was under no pressure to produce Mary Westmacott novels. But something was driving her to keep writing them. In that intervening decade, Christie had produced a string of now-classic crime novels including The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None and The Body in the Library, but she still had capacity for more and there were things she needed to put out that could not be said within the confines of crime fiction. In her autobiography, she calls Absent in the Spring “the one book that has satisfied me completely” and “the book I had always wanted to write”. She wrote it in a frantic three days, on the third day excusing herself from her shift at the hospital dispensary where she was doing wartime volunteering work because she dared not stop before all 50,000 words had poured out of her onto the page.
This story of a woman who has a very decided view of herself and her own life, only to have her entire self conception shattered when she finally has five days alone to herself is probably my favourite of the Westmacott novels, and not just because the writer in me is in awe of the fact that Christie wrote it in such a short time and apparently barely had to edit it all before publication. It’s a strange, angular book all told in the past tense — the heroine, Joan, is extremely unlikeable and there isn’t much plot. Yet I still had that same frantic page turning experience with it as I did with Giant’s Bread. Even when in disguise as Mary Westmacott, Agatha Christie knew how to hook her readers in.
Her longtime publishers, William Collins, were never that enthusiastic about Mary Westmacott. After her editor completely misunderstood the plot of the fourth novel, 1948’s The Rose and the Yew Tree, Christie begged her agent to find these books a new home. “Collins have never appreciated the lady,” she wrote to him, and in her autobiography she says that “They hated Mary Westmacott writing anything.” However, Heinemann were delighted to have the new book, and published subsequent Westmacott novels with enthusiasm, while her crime fiction stayed with Collins. Christie and Westmacott had different publishing requirements, it seems.
Christie also writes in her autobiography that although one of her friends had guessed the identity of “Mary Westmacott” after reading Unfinished Portrait back in the 1930s, nobody else had twigged. That friend had recognised the way Agatha talked in some of the novel’s dialogue, but she was alone in that. Perhaps there wasn’t much cross over between fans of her mysteries and the readers of these new novels, or maybe it just was very hard to tell. From the vantage point of hindsight, I find it impossible to judge whether I would have been able to work out that Murder on the Orient Express and Unfinished Portrait were written by the same person, had I seen them side by side in a shop when they came on in 1934. My hunch is that I would have had no clue, though.
Although Christie even used another pseudonym — that of Daniel West — for the Westmacott publishing contracts, she wasn’t able to keep the secret forever. The true identity of Mary Westmacott was revealed in 1946, in an American review of Absent in the Spring. Biographer Gillian Gill writes that Christie was “wounded and outraged” that the author’s wish for anonymity could not be respected. She wrote to her agent that she really minded most about her friends knowing, because it was “cramping to one’s subject matter”. She did not, however, abandon the Mary Westmacott name and re establish her anonymity through other means. Three more Westmacott novels followed over the next decade, with the last one, The Burden, published in 1956.
There is relatively little academic scholarship about the novels of Mary Westmacott. Maybe that’s because they have been dwarfed by the edifice that is Christie’s crime fiction. Or perhaps it’s because their status as “romance” books has made them seem unworthy of serious treatment. However, in a journal article from 2011 titled “A Hidden Body in the Library“, the American scholar Sarah E. Whitney makes a persuasive case that the Westmacott novels should not be seen as separate from the Christie whodunnits, but rather an extension of them. The difference, Whitney argues, is that in the Westmacott stories, 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 think this thesis applies especially to Absent in the Spring, in which Joan Scudamore is force to reconsider her whole life in light of new revelations. She’s essentially a sleuth trying to solve the case of her own feelings.
These are also, in their way, novels about violence. It’s just not the “blunt instrument” kind of violence, but rather a more subtle but equally deadly force that can be exerted by twisted love and jealousy. Mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives — they all make each other miserable and in some cases drive each other to the brink of self harm with the ferocity of their feelings. The women in these books are victims too. Who needs actual murder when you have a husband who refuses to speak to you and a child who both hates you but also won’t let you live your own life?
The American crime writer and critic Dorothy B Hughes once wrote that the Mary Westmacott novels are “six books which encompass some of the best of Christie’s writing”. And in my time exploring them, I found that they deepened my understanding of Christie’s work as a whole. There is sometimes a tendency to dismiss Agatha Christie somehow as a lightweight writer and acclaim her only as a master of clever plotting. But I think these six novels demonstrate that there was a lot more to her skill than just ingenuity with alibis or motives.
Now that I’ve had time to truly appreciate them all, I don’t think you can truly understand Agatha Christie without getting to know Mary Westmacott too.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/marywestmacott where there will also be links to all the books mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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I’ll be back on 8 July with another episode.