Mary Westmacott, Agatha Christie’s alter ego

July 1, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Agatha Christie’s reputation, as well as the body of work, as a mystery writer so overwhelms anyone who takes a look at her life that it’s easy to miss the fact that she wrote six novels — none of them mysteries — under the pen name of Mary Westmacott.

Like many other novelists, Christie found that writing in one genré, particularly one as rule-bound as mysteries, was too restrictive for her fertile imagination. She wanted to explore people and relations in other venues and settings even though she was well on her way to making a name for herself in the mystery and detective corner.

And also in common in other writers who did not want to take advantage of any fame they might have achieved, Christie wanted to keep her identity a secret. So in 1930, she asked her publisher, Collins, to publish her non-mystery novel, Giant’s Bread, under her nom de plume. They did so but reluctantly. “Agatha Christie” meant money for them; “Mary Westmacott” did not.

Still, the book was published, and no one guessed who the author was. It was well-reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic and sold reasonably well.

Here’s part of what the New York Times said about Giant’s Bread:

“Whoever is concealed beneath the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott may well feel proud of Giant’s Bread. The blurb lends mystery to Miss Westmacott’s identity. She has written half a dozen successful books under her own name, it says, but they have been so different from Giant’s Bread that she decided to have it ‘judged on its own merits and not in the light of previous success.’

Who she is does not matter, for her book is far above the average of current fiction, in fact, comes well under the classification of a ‘good book.’ And it is only a satisfying novel that can claim that appellation. In Giant’s Bread there are traces of the careful, detailed writing of the English novelist, and there are hints of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s methods of mentioning a finished episode and explaining later how it all happened. . . . Each figure is well conceived, human and true.”

After that, Christie followed up with five more Mary Westmacott novels: Unfinished Portrait (1934), Absent in the Spring (1944), The Rose and the Yew Tree (1948), A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952), and The Burden (1956).

These books might best be described as psychological explorations in which Christie examines love in its various forms, from the romantic to the familial. Her daughter Rosalind described them as “bitter-sweet stories about love.”

The book that gave her the most satisfaction as a novelist was the third, Absent in the Spring, published during the war in 1944. The following is from Christie’s autobiography:

“Shortly after that, I wrote the one book that has satisfied me completely. It was a new Mary Westmacott, the book that I had always wanted to write, that had been clear in my mind. It was the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken. Through her own actions, her own feelings and thoughts, this would be revealed to the reader. She would be, as it were, continually meeting herself, not recognising herself, but becoming increasingly uneasy. 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.

“I wrote that book in three days flat…I went straight through…I don’t think I have ever been so tired…I didn’t want to change a word and although I don’t know myself of course what it is really like, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy and author can have.”

Her daughter Rosalind had this to say about the book: “I think Absent in the Spring combines many talents from Agatha Christie, the detective story writer. It is very well constructed, compulsive reading. You get a wonderfully clear picture of all the family from the thoughts of one woman alone in the desert – really quite a triumph.” (https://www.agathachristie.com/about-christie/family-memories/the-mary-westmacotts)

Although Collins had published her first four novels, they were not enthusiastic about them and made that clear to the author. For her fifth, A Daughter’s A Daughter, Christie asked her agent to find a new publisher, and Heinemann took them on, publishing A Daughter’s a Daughter  in 1952, and The Burden in 1956.

The best roundup of these novels that I have found is from the Shedunnit podcast by Caroline Crampton. You can listen to her episode about Mary Westmacott at this link.

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