I knew that I couldn’t write a blog post every day for a month to celebrate CRM without including something about Agatha Christie, the Queen of crime fiction herself. It’s some time since I read any of her books and I’m not familiar with all of them: of the ones I know, like other people I’ve interviewed, I like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd best.
However, although I have long been aware of them – and, indeed, as a library supplier used to sell them – I was unfamiliar with all the Mary Westmacott novels. I remember reading once that Christie’s publisher encouraged her to write under several pseudonyms – there is at least one other besides Westmacott – because she was so prolific, to avoid flooding the market with Christies. This may have been part of the reason: it is also true that the Westmacotts are not billed as crime, but as mysteries. Despite this, I hope that my readers will indulge me by allowing me to review one of them here, instead of a more traditional Christie murder story. The one I have chosen is Giant’s Bread – mainly because I saw a dramatisation for radio advertised recently.
It is one of the most puzzling novels I have ever read. Christie is famous for her lack of interest in character development, but she gives her protagonists – particularly the women – some very individual attributes in this book. It could not, however, be described as conventional character development: rather the twists and turns of the characterisation seem to be adapted – and in fact are subservient to – the demands of the plot.
This is not all that is unusual. The book was first published in 1930 and is set before, during and in the years that follow the First World War. Yet the character of Nell Vereker – and the choice of a first name that is reminiscent of Dickens’s saintly Little Nell may not be accidental – in the first chapters seems to hark back to the weak and dependent but ensnaringly pretty female characters beloved of nineteenth century novelists. Nell is Dickens’ Dora Spenlow or Wilkie Collins’ Laura Fairlie, spiced up just a little with a sprinkling of George Eliot’s selfish Rosamond Vincy.
Having been tempted by the offer of marriage from a rich American, Nell decides to marry her true love, Vernon Deyre, an impoverished aristocrat who knows he will not be able to afford the upkeep of Abbots Puissants, his ancestral home, when he inherits it. In young manhood, Vernon has ‘discovered’ music and yearns to be an avant garde composer. He knows that marriage to Nell is likely to jeopardise this ambition. Then the war intervenes and Nell is suddenly transformed into Marion Halcombe: she becomes a dependable, serious, hard-working nurse. Vernon, sent to the front, deplores her wish to play a useful part in the conflict and thinks she should be socialising in London instead. It is an interesting feature of the book that men repeatedly cast Nell as a priceless ornament who should not be expected to sully her pretty hands: yet she is at her best, and only truly comes alive as a character, when she defies such stereotyping.
Jane Harding, the other main female character in the novel and a rival for Vernon’s attentions, is a different type entirely. She epitomises the ‘new woman’ that other early twentieth century novelists have described. She is a Cassandra-like figure who sees everything clearly and always speaks her mind, often quite brutally. Yet, like Nell, she also has roots in nineteenth century literature. Like Trollope’s Mrs Winifred Hurtle in The Way We Live Now, she is a ‘fallen woman’. She has lived, firstly, with a theatrical impresario who treats her cruelly, and then with Vernon himself. Vernon ditches her without a second thought when the ‘pure’ Nell re-enters his life.
I won’t give away any more of the plot – which bears the authentic Christie hallmark of being tortuous but credible. What I have described so far indicates that this novel tackles some very serious themes: infidelity, domestic violence, the artistic imperative that demands selfishness to succeed, the confused and often demeaning roles occupied by women in early twentieth century society and the unequal – with either gender sometimes prevailing – relationship between the sexes. It also touches on themes that seem very contemporary: PTSD (although of course the name is not used) as it afflicts returning soldiers, antisemitism and the impossibility of ‘having it all’.
What’s not to like? Well, the jejune upper crust slang grates on the modern reader. Dialogue is peppered with “I say”, ‘beastly’, ‘frightful’, ‘horrid’ and so on, which sometimes makes it hard for readers to take seriously some of the more profound comments made by the characters. The plot, despite the ingenious tergiversations, is a bit disappointing – though perhaps that’s because I was waiting for a murder that never materialised, unless you count the murder of the soul. And those sudden character changes I have noted, especially in Nell and Vernon (though his are triggered by illness), can be hard to swallow. However, I think that Westmacott is breaking new ground here: if it doesn’t seem too fanciful, I think she is taking the reader on a tour of nineteenth and early twentieth century society as represented by the novels of those eras and sending it up. In other words, I think that Giant’s Bread works on several levels; and at one level it is a social satire.
The writing often shines. Here is Vernon’s mother, making the most of his funeral:
“She stared ahead of her through blood-suffused eyes in a kind of ecstasy of bereavement.”
Whereas this is how Nell, the (truly grieving) young widow, reacts to the occasion:
“Again Nell felt that wild desire to giggle. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh… Awful to feel like that.”
Which reader would not sympathise with Nell?
Giant’s Bread is an experimental novel, unlike The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which, although ingenious, sits firmly within the traditional crime fiction genre. Does it work? I would give it 8 out of 10, whereas Roger would always score 10.