UNFINISHED PORTRAIT (1934) by Agatha Christie

When I started Fedora I promised myself that I would try to avoid Agatha Christie as much as possible, not because I don’t enjoy her work but simply out of a spirit of self-preservation. She is already so well represented on the blogosphere that it seemed sensible to give the great lady a wide berth as I didn’t expect to be able to compete given her pop culture ubiquity in general. Today however Patti Abbott is celebrating the work of la Christie over at her Pattinase blog and this seems like a good opportunity to break my own rule. However, in the hope of selecting a title less likely to overlap with choices made by other contributors, I have selected one of the books she originally published as by ‘Mary Westmacott’ that is generally held to have been quite autobiographical.

The following review is also offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which has reached the letter U. In addition, as the book came out before 1960, this review is eligible under the Golden Girls part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have elected to read and review at least eight novels by women mystery authors published pre-1960.

“… a blend of real people and events … In Celia we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha” - Max Mallowan in his memoirs

The first thing you notice about this book is how long it is – at some 400 pages it is by my reckoning, and by some margin too, the longest of her novels. The second thing is how many layers the author introduces between the reader and the subject. The book opens with a foreword in the shape of a letter from the author to a friend in the book trade, asking her to see about getting the manuscript ready for publication. We learn that he is a painter who is no longer able to practice his craft and has decided to take up writing instead. He tells us of his meeting with Celia, the subject of the book, when she was at her lowest ebb, contemplating suicide. He managed to dissuade her and took her back to his hotel where she recounted the story of her life, which he is now re-fashioning in the third person with occasional interruptions and personal observations on things that Celia may not have been able to see clearly for herself. In one of these he admits that the creatures on the written page are more and more his creation.

“Now”, thought Celia, “I’m pretending to be a writer. I think it’s queerer that pretending to be a wife or a mother.”

Is this Christie’s attempt at a post-modern novel, prefiguring Nabokov’s later Pale Fire and the like? Hardly. However, as the story progresses the reasons for her convoluted narrative structure become clearer (at least superficially) as the extent to which Christie was channeling herself in this story becomes more apparent. Given what a notoriously private person Christie was, it is perhaps understandably then that she would add several filters to distance herself when choosing to tell a very personal story, albeit a partial one as the title suggests, with Celia, traversing the first half of her life right from cradle. A surprising amount of time is given over to detailing Celia’s late Victorian childhood, her great fondness for her parents and the increasing ill-health of her father, forcing them to spend a long time traveling on the Continent and further in search of warmer climes. Celia learns French and to love books and the romance of fiction, divorcing herself increasingly from real life and brought up by her eccentric but loving Grannie who warns her against the trustworthiness of men (having buried three husbands).

“Celia seldom asked questions. Most of her world was inside her head. The outside world did not excite her curiosity.”

The family home, to which Celia becomes even more attached after the early death of her father, is I think modeled on the one where Christie was brought up – it is also reminiscent, or at least it seems to me, on the one later so central to the Miss Marple story Sleeping Murder. Certainly, the alternation of living with Grannie in London, at her parents’ home in the country and traveling in Europe matches the life of the young Agatha. We follow Celia through various romances as she overcomes her great shyness and the financial woes brought on by her father’s death. Eventually she marries young Dermot, who has little money but seems to love her madly. They live in comparative poverty as he tries to make a career for himself while she stays at home looking after their daughter. Eventually he finds a good job and takes up golf, spending less and less time at home. She finds a creative outlet writing romances not based on reality but just what she dreams up, which is cruelly demolished by her unimaginative and two-dimensional husband. Unfortunately for Celia, their daughter takes after her father in this respect so she becomes to feel like an outsider in her own marriage. It is clear to the reader almost from the beginning that Dermot is uncommonly selfish and self-centred but it takes Celia about 100 or so pages to really cotton on to this – but then she’s not too savvy, though this may be a limitation of the writing, which uses a very restrictive vocabulary and is weighed down by a ton of homilies. Indeed, the book is loaded down with commonplace observations, most chapters beginning with some utterly banal statement about Celia and her life – her are a sample:

“Celia’s ideas about marriage were limited in the extreme”

“The war came to Celia as to most people like an utterly improbably thunderbolt”

“Grown up life was difficult”

Thankfully, the narrative really does pick up in its final sections as Celia’s marriage starts to fall apart in a fashion that is very obviously modeled on what happened to Christie and her first husband. Those looking for some insight into what may have really occurred when she famously went missing in 1927 (previously discussed here), following her husband’s request for a divorce and the death of her beloved mother, probably get the closest to an explanation here and it is handled quite compellingly. This being a Christie novel there are some surprises too (and one rather mysterious death when the gardener hangs himself) and she does go out of her way to spring one right on the last page, when revealing what Celia’s fate is likely to be. It is here that she confronts a recurring childhood spectre dubbed ‘The Gun Man’ but the effect is somewhat undermined as this is achieved in a very prosaic fashion and is almost ludicrously pat.

“… a woman with very little devil in her has a poor chance with men.”

Having said all of that, and despite it’s rather plodding narrative, this is a fascinating book. First and foremost of course for the light it shines on the author and one of the most dramatic episodes in her life. It is also fascinating to see her flex her writing skills in a different genre – that the results are not entirely successful is no big surprise perhaps but this seems to me to have been a minor but certainly worthwhile excursion (for the author and for this reader too).

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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45 Responses to UNFINISHED PORTRAIT (1934) by Agatha Christie

  1. Sergio – Thanks for such a thoughtful and comprehensive look at this novel. As you say, Christie was about as private a person as it gets, so it makes sense that this, the most autobiographical of her novels, would be more layered and less crisp than some of her other work. But interesting nonetheless on several levels. Thanks for highlighting it.

    • Thanks very much Margot – it was my first experience of the Westmacott books and found it full of really good things – I did also find it pretty flabby at 400 pages. Is it fair to call it the longest on her books? I definitely defer to you in all things Christie!

      • Sergio – *Blush* You are too kind. In answer to your question, I do think it’s Christie’s longest work and I agree (and I’m a fan!) that it’s too long. As you say though, it does have a lot of good things and in my opinion, Christie’s weakest is heaps better than a lot of people’s best…

        • or *answer*, even *blush*.

        • Thanks for confirming that Margot – I will doubtless succumb and do a list of my own favourite Christies one day (I have a real passion for the unfairly unloved autumnal adventure for the Beresfords, By the Pricking of My Thumbs) but in this book I suppose it is the disparity between the two halves of the story that I found less satisfying – I hope I wasn’t too harsh as I think the good bits (sic) are very good.

          • Margot Kinberg says:

            Sergio – I don’t think you were too harsh. And it’s interesting you feel that By The Pricking of My Thumbs doesn’t get the ‘press’ it should. I think the Beresfords are a great team and that adventure is a nicely done story even though I realise it’s been maligned. I’d be interested in your discussion of your favourite Christies; I hope you’ll do that post.

          • Thanks very much Margot – can definitely feel the little grey cells starting to stir …

  2. Patti Abbott says:

    I have not read this one. I thought I had read all of them, but not this.

    • Well in that case Patti, I feel thoroughly vindicated in my choice. Thanks very much for hosting the meme and providing such a handsomely appointed sandbox for us to play in.

  3. curtis evans says:

    Very interesting analysis! I think there is some similarity in style between the Westmacotts and the Christies.

    • Thanks very much, you raise a very, very improtant point there Curt, one that I utterly, totally and completely ignored. Obviously I spotted a few links but didn’t get into any textual analysis, which is certainly warranted. I haven’t read any detailed critcal work on the Westmacotts – anything you would recommend?

  4. neer says:

    Interesting review. I’ve just read The Rose and the Yew Tree among the books Christie wrote under this pseudonym and that was a drag. Will love to read this however.

    • Thnaks Neer – I did quite enjoyt this but it is part of a genre that I am very far from being really conversant with. I was amazed at the eamount of time we spend with her as a baby … I found the second half to be more dynamic as narrative but it is definitely worht reading, especially if you are a Christie fan (as I am myself).

  5. Hi Sergio, Christie couldn’t possibly have written an autobiograhy in 1934, so early in her writing career, so I wonder if she didn’t mean for this Mary Westmacott book to bring out certain aspects of her personal life at that point of time. Her official autobiography was published, posthumously, under her own name and, I believe, she has revealed more about herself than she did at any time during her lifetime. Interestingly, she started recounting her life story somewhere in the 40s or 50s. I have yet to read it.

    On a related note, I have never read a Westmacott and it does surprise me that these books never get the kind of recognition that the Poirot/Marple series do. The Westmacott books fall short of public memory probably because they don’t have a common thread running through them, such as the crime and mystery angle. Christie, herself, was pleased with some of the books she wrote under that pseudonym.

    It would be interesting to see how Christie experimented with different genres including plays and poetry. I think her writing was one big experiment in itself.

    • Hi Prashant, thanks for that. Persoanlly, I found the book somewhat thin and predictable in terms of plot and characterisation and, to me, it doesn’t really bear comparison with the great mysteries she was writing at exactly the same time. But it is fascinating to read these in hindsight though! I suspect that of the Westmacott books, this may be the one for her crime fiction fans like myself. No idea how it compares with other romantic fiction of the 30s though.

  6. Sorry, Sergio, that word ought to read as “thread”.

  7. Even though UNFINISHED PORTRAIT was published in 1924, Agatha Christie showed early on she was Something Special. Excellent choice, Sergio!

  8. John says:

    Interestingly enough in doing my research for THE HOUND OF DEATH I ended up reading all about these mainstream novels at AgathaChristie.com. Though usually classified and marketed as romances I came to discover that they really are not romances per se as most people think of them. Her daughter Rosalind wrote a heartfelt and insightful essay about the Westmacott books that can be found here. Absent in the Spring, it turns out, is Christie’s personal favorite out of *all* her books. She says it just came out the way she planned with little rewriting. She apparently disliked changing anything but often had to at the insistence of her editors. I keep saying that I will try one of these Westmacott books and now I’ll have to decide between the one you reviewed here and Absent in the Spring.

    • Thanks for all thet info John. Unfinished Portrait I think mostly qualifies as a romance in the sense that the vast bulk of it is about Celia and her love life – obviously, the last 50 pages then take a different and darker turn which in my view is certainly the best part of it. In some ways there a slight hints of Gothic (especially the nightmares that haunt Celia) that I think you might find particularly appealing. It will be interesting to read Absent in the Spring, you’ve convined me – let’s see who gets there first (won’t be this year though, I can promise you that, my dance card is absurdly booked up).

  9. TracyK says:

    This was very interesting. I was aware of the Mary Westmacott novels but never tried one. Given the chance, I will try one out. Depending on how it is written, I have no problem with romance in a novel. I just read my first Charlie Chan book and was surprised to find how heavy they are on romance.

    • Thanks TracyK – this was my first Westmacott book too and on the whole it was fairly positive, though i did find the book decidedly long-winded. I do wonder the extent to which magazine sales offered affected the content of workes before they appeared between covers., The Ellery Queen novels of the mid to late 30s suddenly became suffused with romantic entanglements in an effort to appeal to editors of slick magazines.

  10. Richard says:

    Very interesting review. You make this book sound both intriguing and off-putting, Sergio. I haven’t read any of the Westmacott books, though I do have one or two on the shelf – or somewhere – I’ve limited my reading to a few of the Tuppance and Tommy books but mostly to Poirot and Marple novels and shorts. I’ve read all of the Poirot shorts, probably my favorites of her short works, and many of the Marple shorts. Also about 30 or 40 of the novels, but as I say no Westmacott books. May have to remedy that. Is this the place to start?

    • Cheers Richard, very kind. I certainly found it a mixed bag – I think the ending is good and well worth waiting for, but it does drag a lot on places too. Of the six Westmacott books her favourite was Absent in the Spring and indeed this seems to have been her absolute favourite, something John Norris helpfully pointed out a little earlier in this thread. Either of these two seems to be the way to go!
      Absent in the Spring

  11. Anne H says:

    I’m pleased you found a copy of this book! Coincidentally I’m wading through the Agatha Christie biography by Laura Thompson, and have reached almost as far as the disappearance. Thompson relies heavily, too heavily perhaps, on Unfinished Portrait as a source for information on the early life and marriage, also the relationship with her mother, and Christie’s feelings about these. However it certainly is the solution to the famous Agatha Christie ‘mystery’, and only a fictional account could be as honest and confessional as this.
    By the way, I also enjoy By the Pricking of my Thumbs and recently re-read it, and saw the Fench movie version a year or two ago.

    • Thanks Anne H, fascinating about the Thompson book (which I have not read) – and I haven’t seen the movie adaptation of By the Pricking of my Thumbs either (just the odd though enjoyable version for the Marple series in which the old biddy was shoehorned into the narrative, actually without too much pressure it has to be admitted).

  12. piero says:

    Hai letto il mio nuovo articolo di critica a King Arthur’s Chair, sul Blog Mondadori?
    Casomai ti sia piaciuto, mi farebbe piacere che mi lasciassi lì le tue impressioni.
    Oramai ho preso delle cose (qualcosa in più l’ho) e quindi ti invierò nei prossimi giorni il famoso pacchetto. Ti prego solo di inviare al mio indirizzo email il tuo indirizzo. Prima ti chiederò ovviamente se il materiale che ho preso tu lo conosca oppure no, nel qual caso…
    Ovviamente son romanzi francesi.
    Ciao.
    Piero

    • Grazie Piero – vado subito a rileggere la storia di Carr e poi leggo il tuo articolo, che mi sembra incredibilmente dettagliato e quindi no voglio lasciarmi alla memoria. Ti mando un email separatamente per l’altra.

      Sergio

  13. piero says:

    Poi. se vuoi lasciarmi lì qualche tua impressione, non sarebbe male che mettessi tutto l’indirizzo web di questo sito, cosicchè anche qualche altro vi si possa affacciare.

  14. I have this book and have not read it yet! I did not realize it had a mystery in it. I have several of her Westmacott books will have to get to them soon!

  15. Jeff Flugel says:

    This in an intriguing post, Sergio! Though a big Christie fan, I’ve never read a single Westmacott novel and never would have considered doing so. Thanks for saving me the trouble — heh heh. Actually, this does sound interesting, at least in how you outlined the ways it relates to Christie’s own personal life and infamous disappearance. Have you read any of her other Westmacott novels, and if so, would you consider any of them to be of interest to a mystery fan? I’m always up for a new Christie, and don’t mind a tale of suspense. Just not a big fan of navel-gazing romance or straight familial drama.

    • Cavershamragu says:

      Thanks Jeff – this is my sole excursion into the Westmacott books so far – the only other one I am considering is ABSENT IN SPRING, another woman in crisis story and which she apparently thought to be the best of all her novels – she said of it, the one book that has satisfied me completely. I didn’t want to change a word and although I don’t know myself what it is really like, it was written with integrity, with sincerity, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy an author can have”.

  16. Yvette says:

    Sergio, this is was an eye-opening review for me since I’ve never read or had any desire to read the books Christie wrote under this odd pseudonym. (I’m assuming Westmacott is some sort of family name?) At any rate, I don’t know if I’m tempted to read this, but I still enjoyed reading your review. Let’s put it this way, IF I ever read any, this will be the Westmacott book I’ll break the ice with. :)

    Apropos of nothing I’ve always wondered what Captain Christie (I think he was a captain) thought of his ex-wife’s fame and fortune. When men leave their wives for other women they usually tend to belittle the ex. Hard to belittle a woman who carved her own literary empire. Just wondering….

    • Thanks Yvette – the book is fascinating for the level of detail she draws on. Superficially at least all the characteristics of ‘Dermot’, such as his obsession with golf, the fact the he was incredibly close to their daughter in a way she was not, his dislike of anything to do with illness, the attempted reconciliation that ended in failure are all exactly what happened with Archibald (who was a Colonel I thought but …) – don’t know anything about what he said about her subsequently though – he and Nancy Steele did stay married however.

  17. Bev Hankins says:

    Hi, Sergio! Great review as always! I have this book ’round here somewhere…but have never gotten around to it. Gonna have to change that.

    Sorry I’ve been so disconnected to the Vintage Challenge this year….I haven’t stopped by to check out the reviews like last time. One of my New Year’s resolutions is gonna be to cut down on all the other challenges I do and to focus more on the Vintage. I’ve missed interacting with you all. Cheers!

    • Dear Bev, thanks very much for the kind words. I really think you’d like this one. And thanks for stopping by, it is always greatly appreciated and is greatly incentivising too – I am a bit behind with my challenges this year and you will have noticed how I keep trying to combine them (but I will complete your by jingo!)

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  20. richmonde says:

    In her autobiography she reveals that an early mentor told her to “cut out the preaching”. She succeeded in her mysteries (the occasional adages and observations are apt), but her straight novels do get a bit preachy. She returned to her beloved Ashfield several times in her books – particularly in her last, Postern of Fate. This doesn’t work as a mystery (there are two finds of long-missing documents in a childish hiding place), but the depiction of the house, just as the inhabitants have left it, is compelling. And her “villain” is an organisation that sounds something like al-Qaeda… The theme? As in Elephants Can Remember – the solution of a long-forgotten mystery may be found in the faulty memories of the old, and misremembered village gossip.

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