writing as Mary Westmacott:
Absent in the Spring
HarperCollins 2017 (1944)
A few days before, an old school friend of Joan Scudamore had wondered “what, if you had nothing to do but think about yourself for days and days, you might find out about yourself.” And now that Joan finds herself in just that position, stuck in limbo waiting for a train, she learns that all that she’d assumed about her life and her family may not have been as she imagined.
Will the mental crisis she experiences, and the reevaluation of relationships that she undergoes, represent a sea change in her attitudes — or will she return to old ways of thinking despite all she has gone through?
In this psychological novel the author portrays a woman whose assumptions are profoundly challenged by isolation — well, she’s not totally alone, but she is the only European — and alone with her thoughts she finds them taking very unexpected turns.
It’s the late 1930s and Joan has travelled out from England to Baghdad to help look after Barbara, her youngest, who has just had a child called Mopsy. On the way back weather conditions on the road behind and the railway ahead mean Joan is forced to stop at a rest house until the train can get through from Aleppo. After running out of paper for letters and having finished her novels all she has left is the same tinned meals, walks in the desert, and her memories.
What those memories reveal to us is a selfish woman who has convinced herself she has been doing what was right in trying to determine not just her husband’s career (and later their son’s) but also her daughters’ friends and her friends’ relationships. That she contradicts their statements, judges their actions to be incorrect, and downplays their actual achievements seems not to have shaken her belief in her infallibility — until she starts to relive conversations and events in the immense desert landscape.
Even in November she observes the effect of a heat mirage and starts to question her understanding of matters and her decisions and actions. In the midst of what appears to be a mental breakdown, wandering in the desert and hallucinating, the long-awaited train arrives, ready to whisk her off back to her vision of normality. On the long journey home we have to ask, has she had a Damascene conversion or will she revert to old habits and mindsets?
Absent in the Spring — a quote from a Shakespeare sonnet — was, Christie declared, “the one book that has satisfied me completely — the book I always wanted to write.” Well-written as it undoubtedly is, one may well ask why. She wrote that it “was written with integrity, with sincerity, it was written as I meant to write it,” apparently in three days flat, leading me to assume it is in large part what is now commonly referred to as autobiografiction — in other words, autobiography with a veneer of fiction.
We know that the writer’s first husband demanded a divorce in the 1920s, and that this precipitated a famous incident in which she disappeared for several days, apparently faking her death, only to be discovered at an hotel-spa in Harrogate. It seems that she may well have had a breakdown, and the vividness of Joan’s desert episode thus may be down to personal experience.
We also know that she spent time viaiting archaeological excavations in Iraq, where she met her second husband in the early 1930s, lending authenticity to Joan’s visit to Iraq. We know that the last through railway connection to Baghdad was built in the late 1930s — the first train to travel direct from Istanbul to Baghdad was as late as 1940 — so Joan’s mixed journey by both car and train was also based on experience. From pre-war maps we can see that the incomplete rail link from Mosul in Iraq across the top corner of Syria and over the border into Turkey was still projected, and that Christie will no doubt have rested at a frontier post as described in the novel.
Joan’s long-suffering husband Rodney declares at one point, apparently in jest but really in earnest, “What a dreadful little prig you are, Joan.” In a stronger condemnation, in connection with her attempt to manipulate others’ love lives, he asks, “Don’t you understand anything at all about love, Joan?” It appears she doesn’t, and is unable to recognise this fact.
This fiction is a sad but powerful little fable about being sanctimonious and about a lack of either self-knowledge or empathy. Bookended by the figures of two more perspicacious women — her old schoolfriend Blanche Haggard and the Russian noblewoman she meets on the train home — and peopled by yet more female figures like her daughters, her old school’s headmistress, and her foil Leslie Sherston — the novel highlights her seeming inability to learn and to change. Nothing underlines this more tellingly than her deafness to the drums of war.
A powerful piece then, and one which clearly comes direct from the heart.