Mirages and breakdowns

Western Asia, 1936 (Bartholomew Atlas)

Agatha Christie,
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.

Tel Kotchek Station 1940

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?

The unfinished railway line 1936

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.

21 thoughts on “Mirages and breakdowns

  1. How fascinating. I thought I’d found my way through most Christie novels, but I’ve missed this. It sounds intriguing – had you waited for a time like this to read it, I wonder, or is this one of those serendipitous accidents?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d ordered the first Poirot novel because I thought it would be good to read a 1920 work but saw this ready and waiting in the bookshop a couple of months ago, well before lockdown. Fortuitous, then, but also a good read! I love liminal novels anyway — like this one supposedly set on the border between Iraq and Turkey — but combined with the themes of isolation and self-interrogation it was perfect as a change from children’s literature and older classics.

      Plus there was more liminality with it being set in the period between peace and war, Empire and dissolution, and Joan facing a future when her grown-up children no longer needed nor wanted her. Such a contrast with The Mysterious Affair at Styles which I’m reading now!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    I didn’t realise Christie had written non-mystery related fiction, this sounds much more serious and contemplative than Poirot or Miss Marple novels, wonderful as they are. The themes certainly seem to chime in with our current situation, but I imagine the writing style and tone would still be rather gentle, so therefore not too emotionally distressing.

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    1. It’s eye-opening, Alyson, swapping between The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920, and Wharton’s Ethan Frome from only nine years before, and sensing how ‘classic’ the language and storytelling is in the latter and how the former somehow feels modern.

      This novel, however, is different in style to the Poirot and Marple tellings: it’s almost brutal in dissecting Joan Scudamore’s narrow mindset after the opening scenes in which the reader might’ve initially warmed to her — it’s a masterclass in how to play with the reader’s allegiances as you go from being sympathetic to exasperated, from pitying to near contempt, and so on. So not necessarily emotionally distressing, more a roller-coaster of conflicting attitudes to poor deluded Joan.

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  3. This sounds fascinating. Last year I read Giant’s Bread, one of Christie’s other books written under the Mary Westmacott name and I found it just as enjoyable as her mysteries. I would like to try another one and this does sound very appealing.

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    1. I’ve just read your fine review of Giant’s Bread and though it sounds interesting, if flawed, I’m really glad I started with this as my first Westmacott. I think you’d find it worthwhile as a read too!

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  4. I’ve never read any of Christie’s non-crime fiction, always having been a little afraid it wouldn’t live up to her crime standard, but this does sound interesting. If it is autobiographical, then it seems to suggest she was taking all the blame for the marriage breakdown on herself – hope she got over that!

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    1. No, I may have perhaps oversimplified the biographical elements. It’s true that she may have felt guilty about her possible part in the failure of her first marriage — asking herself if she’d driven Archie into the arms of the other woman, for example — but that’s not what I sensed here (though Joan, in amongst all her self-interrogation, wonders if her husband Rodney had a dalliance). The impression I get is more nuanced, with Joan not at all as intelligent and capable as Christie herself was, nor as observant and deductive. What seems to happen in the desert is that the doors of perception are opened, with the danger being that they will ease back shut the closer she gets to home — I don’t think Christie would ever allow that to happen to herself! 🙂

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  5. Well, well, you are full of surprises. i always assumed (my prejudice) that Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels were romantic country idylls, Just been reading Jacqui’s review of Elizabeth Taylor’s Wreath of Roses and sounds as if this book has more in common with that. Perceptive dark and uncomfortable. A must read.

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      1. That sounds suspiciously like Christian monastery (are there any other?) – but let me clarify my statement, overly shortened in haste: having read my share of Christieries I have not realized she actually wrote other books! 😀 It is indeed a find, Chris! 🙂

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  6. I’ve read this one a couple of times, and it’s really striking and memorable. I think that once Joan gets on her train and back to her life, she gives herself a shake and tries to forget ‘that time I had a funny turn,’ and goes right back to trying to manage everyone — but every so often, doubts come creeping in. It’s one I like a lot.

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    1. It’s a kind of recidivism, isn’t it — if you go to rehab, or have therapy, you may seem to be ‘cured’ yet once you are back in old haunts, with peer pressure and old temptations but no continued support, it’s too easy to return to former habits. I think that’s what happens to Joan. I think this is something that will stick in my mind too, Jean — that and Ethan Frome (which I’m in the middle of reviewing).

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  7. You have certainly hooked me into this one, Chris. I would have been drawn to it anyway, regardless of when you had posted this review, but in these strange and indeed liminal times this sounds a fascinating read.

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