Agatha Christie is one of the world’s most read novelists, Wikipedia calls her the world’s third best selling author. Yet not many of her ardent fans are familiar with the six books that she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. She wrote these when she was already established as a detective story writer hence the nom de plume for the books that she wanted to be judged on their own merit.
Traditionally classified as romances, the Mary Westmacott novels are actually more like social dramas. They are social novels that portray the societal norms and moral issues of their period while presenting a convincing picture of humanity.. The astute observation of human nature that raises Christie’s detective novels above the mere thriller standard is honed to a fine art in the Westmacott books. Absent in the Spring is the most famous of these. A Daughter’s A Daughter is a close second and although its two heroines both have romantic attachments, the romance serves only as a backdrop. The real melodrama is the interplay and metamorphosis of emotions between mother and daughter.
Post World War II England forms the backdrop for this social commentary. Agatha Christie with her customary expertise gives us a clearer picture of the prevailing conditions than the best sociology text books.A delicate thread of subtle comparisons between the pre-war and post-war world runs throughout the book. Scarcity of domestic staff and luxury items are just two examples of how she draws a realistic picture for us.
Agatha Christie feels for war veterans and this is a common theme in many of her books. In post-war Britain, some of them adapt to civilian lifestyles like a duck to water, while others are as uncomfortable as a fish out of water (please excuse the double water metaphors; sometimes I just cannot help myself).
The plot is beautiful in its simplicity. The story serves as an instrument to portray the relationship between a widow and her only daughter. The interplay of emotions and the intricacy of transforming relationships form the main focus of the novel. This is in stark contrast to the mystery novels that Agatha Christie fans are familiar with. There the complexity is in the plot; here the intricacy revolves around transforming and evolving relationships.
The simple plot allows the reader to focus on Agatha Christie’s keen observation of the nuances of human psychology. Her skillful depiction of recurring patterns of human behavior was what drew me to her books to begin with-the story is just the icing on the cake.
The story revolves around a mother and daughter and their interpersonal relationship. They are so well drawn with such a balance of positive and negative qualities that one is hard pressed when trying to pick a favourite. Just when one has started feeling sorry for the mother, Dame Agatha invokes our sympathy for the daughter. Towards the end the depiction of both women’s enforced gaiety serves to bring out the pathos of their respective situations.
Dame Laura, the mother’s friend and the daughter’s god mother is also a very well executed character. In fact, this character seems almost autobiographical. Like Agatha Christie, she has been made Dame due to excellence in her field. Also like Christie, she is a proficient student of human psychology. In fact, the author goes one step further and makes her a psychologist. Christie never says categorically what kind of professional Dame Laura really is but I think it is implied that she is either a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Whatever she is, we are told that she is at the top of the tree in her field and is also a sincere friend to both mother and daughter.
Like all the female characters in the play, Edith the maid is drawn with bold strokes. She is fiercely loyal, always speaks her mind, and has her employers’ best interests at heart. Her comments and responses are entirely consistent with her character. It can be said that her role in the book is like that of a narrator in a play, tying the story together.
The men in the book come out as weaker characters. Richard and Gerry, suitors of the mother and daughter respectively, are both back from foreign parts. Both are spurned and sent away: Richard to marry another woman and Gerry to earn his fortune. Agatha Christie does justice to both by giving them qualities that endear them to the reader despite the flaws in their characters.
Mowbray and Steine, the other two male characters, have minor roles. Yet they too, despite their brief appearances, are drawn in such a manner that the reader gets an idea of their faults as well as their redeeming qualities.
Agatha Christie’s characterization in this book is masterful. The plot and storyline take second place.
Reading all that I have written above, I seem to have overused the words emotion and relationship ad nauseum. I would request potential readers not to be put off by this. A Daughter’s A Daughter remains a highly readable and enjoyable book. As for those who have read it already, do you agree?