Agatha Christie fans will already know the full extent of her writing, but casual readers may be surprised to learn that her repertoire extended beyond her renowned whodunnits.
Writing under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, Christie explored the relationships between friends and family, and how they are influenced and shaped by other people and events – situations when love is absent where people expect to find it, or when love becomes a duty followed by resentment.
She tells of husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, lifelong friends – characters who love each other or come together through a shared history. But love and history do not always equal respect.
Westmacott’s characters’ inability to deal with conflicts lead to simmering bitterness and secret hostilities. Others manage through self-deception. There are undercurrents of betrayal and hurt in the lives of her characters, many of whom are both perpetrators and victims of emotional crime. Meanwhile, imaginary friends people the lives of lonely children, and the adults too.
Reading A Daughter’s A Daughter, Unfinished Portrait and Giant’s Bread, three out of six titles in the series, it occurred to me that these books are of additional interest as a social commentary of middle-class England in the 1950s.
The social class framework of the time is captured in multiple themes, such as houses that need tending by a multitude of servants – or at least one for those living in genteel poverty – and evoke a recurring common decorative theme of mauve irises.
The importance of hierarchy is subtly referred to – servants called by different names if their given ones were considered unsuitable for their station, or being addressed as “Mrs” if employed as a senior staff, regardless of marital status. Readers might even be offended by the casual use of racist and misogynistic terms accepted at the time.
Despite Westmacott’s implied acceptance of such inequalities, she was ahead of her time in viewing the emotional cruelties of our key relationships as crimes.
The books were published in the 1950s, before Britain had addressed domestic violence in legislation. Only now, more than 60 years later, is legislation being passed to address emotional and psychological cruelty within the domestic sphere.
If you read Agatha Christie for her firm handling of characters, events, and her no-nonsense style, you’ll love Westmacott’s emotional crime writing. Her characters are quirky but essentially ordinary people living out their lives, with nary an obvious villain in plain sight.
But if you want a mystery or you’re a fan of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, you could be unhappy with the lack of regular characters in the series, not to mention the unresolved nature of many relationships.
A Daughter’s A Daughter
A poignant and beautifully told story of love between a mother and daughter, and the sacrifices parents make for their selfish and thankless children. Anyone who has been a carer will recognise the potential for martyrdom that can create an unequal balance and poison even the best of relationships.
The book describes the years in which mother and child are lost to each other, both lacking the insight to make changes and bring their relationship into harmony. Their struggle to cope with feelings of loss are so deep that years pass with unresolved hostilities damaging subsequent relationships along the way.
It takes the wisdom of minor characters to help the women find their way back, with the ending on a note of hope instead of finality.
The title reflects the impression I’m left with because the story feels incomplete. Celia’s life is controlled by men to such a degree that she can’t recognise her husband’s tyranny until her marriage ends – something she has no control over.
Even her suicide, one of the few plans she makes on her own, is taken out of her hands by a stranger whose preoccupation with his heroic rescue precludes asking her name. Thus we only know her as Celia, a name he bestows upon her.
Despite the book’s unsatisfactory ending and Celia’s weaknesses, she comes across as a believable character, explained by the generally held view that Celia’s experiences mirrored Christie’s own. That held my involvement and kept me looking forward to the next one.
Though the book is long drawn out, the second half is better than the first because it focuses on the women who are more interesting characters. It follows the lives of four people who grew up together and remained connected through adolescence, adulthood and maturity.
However, the extent of which their lives stay affixed is a little unbelievable, as their closest friendships and most unrequited loves remain within the four. The erratic swings in their lives are equally inconceivable. It’s like children’s stories where they lead their tale down an impossible path, only to end with “and then they woke up”.
This book I thought could have been livened up with Christie’s more classic crime and mystery approach.