Absent In the Spring (1944) by Mary Westmacott

Book Review by France Soar: When Agatha Christie, already renowned for her detective fiction, chose to write certain novels under the pen-name Mary Westmacott, she was presumably seeking to avoid any preconceptions on the part of her readers. By the time I came to read Absent in the Spring, in the spring of 2022, anonymity for the author was long gone. Indeed, the publishers of my 2017 paperback edition chose to dub the author ‘Agatha Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott’.

Although I enjoy the television adaptations of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stories starring Joan Hickson and David Suchet, I have read very few Christie novels. I embarked on Absent in the Spring with no particular expectations beyond knowing that it was tantalisingly described by Christie herself as ‘The one book that has satisfied me completely – the book I always wanted to write.’

Cover of the First edition

I was uncomfortably aware that I should probably have recognised the flyleaf quotation that provides the novel’s title; resisting the temptation to consult Google I was rewarded when all was explained later in the book. On the surface, it is a simple story. Joan Scudamore, firmly established as the central character when the novel opens with her name, is on her way back to England after visiting her younger daughter, son in law and baby granddaughter at their home in Baghdad. Having hastily travelled by air for part of the way to Iraq, she is taking a slower, overland route home. She is, we are told, ‘slightly short-sighted.’ The metaphorical irony of this deadpan statement of fact becomes clear all too soon.

Delayed en route at a small ‘rest house’ in the desert, close to the Turkish border, Joan has nothing to do and no one to talk to for days. To relieve her boredom, she takes walks in the desert, in real danger of losing her way back to the rest house. But having teased the reader with the possibility of life-or-death melodrama, Christie jerks the rug from under our feet, restoring Joan to the rest house and to her disturbing thoughts. For the first time in her life, Joan is forced to look inwards and examine her motives, her actions and the effect she has on others.

The story is almost all seen through Joan’s eyes and mind, but told in the third person, often making effective use of the technique that has been called ‘free indirect speech’, or (when internalised) ‘free indirect style’. Thus:

So it had really been quite natural for Joan to ask brightly about Major Reid – she had heard so much about him, she said, that she was really longing to see him.

It was quite ludicrous the embarrassment her question had caused. Barbara had turned quite white, and William had gone red, and after a minute or two he had grunted out in a very odd voice:

‘We don’t see anything of him now.’

In this telling scene, it is Joan, not the author, who believes the question is ‘quite natural’, that the reaction to it is ‘ludicrous’ and William’s voice ‘odd’ when replying. The reader, of course, reads more into the exchange.

When the narrator does intervene, it is simply to state facts, but through Joan’s eyes, enabling the reader to draw their own conclusions. In less skilled hands, this might result in the reader having to wait for the truth until Joan herself is undeceived, but Christie allows us to see what Joan cannot.

As Joan recalls her schooldays, she remembers her Headmistress’s wise warning against being too pleased with herself – advice she totally ignored. Christie’s depiction of Joan’s marriage, and interactions with her husband and each of her children, provides clear clues that were all missed by Joan at the time but which are immediately and heartbreakingly clear to the reader, and, indeed to all the other characters in the story.

Joan’s lack of understanding can result in some memorable dark comedy in what is essentially a psychological tragedy. When, for example, Joan is preparing to return home from Baghdad, she tells her daughter, Barbara, that she wished she could have stayed longer ‘but after all there was Barbara’s father to consider, and it wouldn’t be fair on him.’

And Barbara, in a faint little voice had said, ’Darling Dads,’ and after a moment or two had said, ‘Look here, Mother, why don’t you stay?’

‘You must think of your father, darling’

Barbara said in that rather curious dry voice she used sometimes that she was thinking of him, but Joan said, no, she couldn’t leave poor dear Rodney to servants.

Poor dear Rodney indeed. Yearning to be a farmer, but instead forced by Joan to become a solicitor, he has sacrificed his own happiness to meet Joan’s expectations. As he sees Joan off at the station on her way to Iraq she notices how tired and sad he looks.

No wonder, when he worked so hard. He practically never took a day off. (I shall change all that when I get back, thought Joan. He must have more leisure. I ought to have thought of it before.)

To Joan’s surprise, when she is safely aboard the train and watches Rodney as he walks away:

She felt a sudden thrill at seeing that well-known back. How young he looked suddenly, his head thrown back, his shoulders squared. It gave her quite a shock …

She had an impression of a young, carefree man striding up the platform.

Remembering this, now, in the desert, Joan shivers at the inference that Rodney was glad she was going away. ‘And that simply couldn’t be true!’

As other incidents crowd into her mind, she tries to blame the sun for making her fanciful, but is eventually compelled to accept the ugly truth. After a lifetime believing that she has been a positive influence on those around her, she comes to realise that she has been deceiving herself. Her domineering character has made miserable the lives of her husband, children, friends and servants.

Appalled, and full of remorse, Joan determines to seek forgiveness from her husband.

‘Just at the right time’, the train arrives that will take her back to Rodney, eager to make her apology and enjoy the personal satisfaction, she believes, of beginning a new life.

The focus smoothly shifts from Joan to her family, with (as one might expect from Christie) a couple of plot twists still to come before the end of this disturbing but compelling book.

2 thoughts on “Absent In the Spring (1944) by Mary Westmacott

  1. I hadn’t any idea this existed. I can’t stand Christie’s detective novels which are clunky and predictable but this novel sounds as if she has written with psychological insight about a believable, flawed person. Christie herself in part? Perhaps it’s a pity she didn’t pursue the different approach, but she may only have had material enough for one book.

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