Agatha Christie and her perfectly plotted whodunits will always be catnip to adapters. But what about Christie’s secret second writing life as a romance novelist under the nom de plume Mary Westmacott?
Today, as Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, says, using a pseudonym allowed her to “better explore the human psychology she was so intrigued by, freed from the expectations of her mystery fans”.
Published in 1930, the same year as her first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, Giant’s Bread is about Vernon Deyre, a young man who is so short of money that he can’t afford to live in his family home. He’s forced to work for his despised uncle, a self-made man who runs a manufacturing business in Birmingham.
However, after seeing a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Vernon becomes enamoured with music. He falls in love with Nell, despite the objections of her fortune-hunting mother, and also develops feelings for singer Jane, who encourages his ambitions as a composer. The outbreak of the First World War further complicates this romantic imbroglio.
Perhaps understandably, Christie’s publishers Collins (now part of HarperCollins) weren’t terribly enthused about her departure from lucrative detective fiction. But they needn’t have worried: reviewers were impressed by Giant’s Bread, giving Christie the kind of literary adulation she’d been craving. In The New York Times Book Review, the critic was fascinated by Westmacott’s true identity, noting that the book’s blurb claimed she had written “half a dozen successful books” under her own name, but wanted Giant’s Bread to be judged “on its own merits”. (‘Mary’ was Christie’s middle name and ‘Westmacott’ borrowed from relatives.)
But the author’s identity didn’t really matter, the critic concluded, since this new novel was “far above the average”.
That authenticity, notes Prichard, was probably because his grandmother drew on her own experiences. She learned the piano and mandolin as a child, and in 1905 she went to Paris to study music... Although she subsequently abandoned that goal, she had plenty of knowledge of the musical world.
She also shared her protagonist Vernon’s intense obsession with the act of creation. In his determination to make music, we can read Christie’s true feelings about what it meant to her to be a writer – how it shaped her identity, gave her purpose, and allowed her to express herself.
The book is dedicated to “the memory of my best and truest friend, my mother”, and seems to reference her own childhood in the vivid depiction of Vernon’s upbringing in the countryside, blighted by the family’s financial woes. Christie’s first husband Archie was deployed to France when the First World War began, just like Vernon, while Christie worked as a volunteer nurse, like Nell.
But the most notable parallel is Vernon’s amnesia. Christie makes no mention of her sensational disappearance in her own autobiography, but we get hints of it in Giant’s Bread. In 1926, Archie asked Christie for a divorce after falling in love with Nancy Neele. Christie then disappeared for 11 days. Following massive press attention, the offer of a £100 reward, and searches by over 1,000 police officers and multiple aeroplane pilots – plus Arthur Conan Doyle using one of Christie’s gloves to consult a spirit medium – she was eventually found at a hotel in Harrogate, registered under the name of her husband’s lover. Was it a revenge plot gone wrong? A nervous breakdown? Or a fugue state with memory loss?
The latter feels more likely when you read Giant’s Bread, in which Vernon suffers that fate after he reads that his paramour has married someone else and hurls himself into the path of a truck. He survives but is left with amnesia, causing him to temporarily forget his real identity. You don’t need Poirot’s “little grey cells” to conclude that this was Christie’s way of covertly confessing what happened to her.
And there are further clues to Christie’s state of mind in her second Westmacott novel, Unfinished Portrait, published in 1934. The protagonist in this book, Celia, feels suicidal after the breakdown of her marriage, but then changes her mind following a chance meeting with an artist. Christie, one could surmise, also had suicidal thoughts but was saved by her art.
The next Westmacott novel, Absent in the Spring, followed 10 years later, in 1944. Christie had kept busy in the intervening years producing many of her most iconic volumes: Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Evil Under the Sun. But, with the true identity of Westmacott still a secret, Christie was again keen to take advantage of the anonymity to write a personal book, this one about a woman who becomes stranded in Mesopotamia after visiting her daughter and reflects on her marriage and family.
“It was the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken,” Christie wrote in her autobiography. “What brought about this revelation would be the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone – completely alone – for four or five days.” She added that the starting point, which she’d always known, was the image of the woman’s husband walking down a platform as she departed aboard a train “like a man who was terrifically relieved, who was released from bondage, who was going to have a holiday”. That lingers in her mind, causing her to question everything. As Christie puts it: “the sort of feeling one has of, Who am I? What am I like, really? What do all the people I love think of me?” She wrote the novel in just three days. It had, she notes, been with her a long time. She sums up: “It was written with integrity, with sincerity, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy an author can have.”
When an American writer connected the dots and unveiled Mary Westmacott as Agatha Christie in 1946, the author was “wounded and outraged” and told her agent that her friends knowing the truth would “[cramp] one’s subject matter” – implying perhaps just how much material she took from her real life.
Mary Westmacott will never be a world-conquering name like Agatha Christie, of course. But it was a vital outlet for Christie. As adapters continue to feverishly mine the Christie canon for films, plays and TV series, why not dig into the Westmacott material too? It could be revelatory for die-hard Christie fans. And for casual audiences, there are plenty of the author’s familiar period settings and shrewd observations. Just fewer dead bodies.
The Daily Telegraph