Antiquarian Book Blogosphere

Democratic depravity: Curt Moreck’s Berlin

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By Andy Stewart MacKay

After the horrors of the Great War, “All values were changed” wrote the novelist Stefan Zweig of 1920s Berlin; the city “transformed into the Babylon of the world”. It wasn’t just Berlin that was changed: London and Paris offered the leisured and the artistic innumerable opportunities for bohemian indulgence too. (“Bright Young Thing” Stephen Tennant dragging up at drug-enhanced Mayfair parties immediately springs to mind – as does the artist Tamara de Lempicka enjoying riotous lesbian orgies in a marquee beside the River Seine). But the flavour of Berlin’s “depravity” was uniquely democratic, and the city quickly gained a distinct reputation for erotic possibility not to be found elsewhere.

Otto Dix, Großstadt (Metropolis), 1927-1928, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart.

Neon-lit Berlin and its intoxicating atmosphere of hedonist abandon remains vividly evoked by Otto Dix’s 1928 triptych Metropolis. The city’s relatively-unlicensed climate drew into its orbit everyone from Francis Bacon, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood to Djuna Barnes, Greta Garbo and, of course, Marlene Dietrich – described by historian Rory MacLean as “the singular Berliner”, who magically personified “sex without gender”. As exemplary Berlinerinnen of the period, alongside Die Dietrich, two others particularly stand out: sophisticatedly moderne journalist Sylvia von Harden (immortalised by a 1926 portrait by Otto Dix, recreated in the 1972 film Cabaret) and chic Egyptian-born Scottish singer Jean Ross (fictionalised by Isherwood as Sally Bowles and famously played by Liza Minelli in Cabaret). Sexually confidant and financially autonomous, these recently empowered “New Women” were, in almost every respect, strikingly different from their pre-war mothers.

By 1930 Berlin drew more than two million visitors each year, and many were thirsty for sexual adventure. Responding to international demand for its avantgarde scene, the following year Berlin-resident and writer Konrad Haemmerling (1888-1957), under the pseudonym “Curt Moreck”, published Fuhrer durch das “lasterhafte” Berlin [A Guide through “Depraved” Berlin]: a travel guide to what he called his beloved “metropolis of pleasure”. Perhaps the very first alternative travel guide, his was cleverly marketed and pitched at the youthful “New” reader – and for a brief period became the indispensable guide to everything in Berlin that was “naughty”, “immoral” and “depraved”. Deploying the city tourist agency’s slogan, “A Visit to Berlin for Everyone!”, Moreck led his readers on a previously uncharted psycho-geographic journey through Berlin’s queerest hotspots. Acknowledging that “Every city has an official and an unofficial side”, his was explicitly a sketch of the unofficial. Illustrated by well-known artists of the day, the curious traveller could find everything they needed to know about all the fashionable bars, clubs, dancehalls and brothels – including pointers on which ones had the latest thing: telephones on their private tables, designed to facilitate and accelerate not just flirtatious encounters but overt sexual cruising.

MORECK, Curt. Fuhrer durch das “lasterhafte” Berlin. [A Guide through “Depraved” Berlin]. [1931]. £2,000.00.

Featuring numerous women-only bars and clubs, Moreck advocates modern women’s demand for the same sexual rights as men. Illustrations by Jeanne Mammen clearly both represent and reflect a strikingly modern female gaze, and one by Paul Kamm depicts the most famous lesbian bar of the day, Café Olala on Zietenstrasse. Drag clubs feature too, and with about eighty “Man to Man” bars, gay and bisexual men were spoilt for choice; affirming what historian Leif Jerram calls Berlin’s newly “self-identifying, stable emergent gay identity” at this time. According to Moreck, make-up was now, both for women and for queer men, less a “label” for sex-workers in the way it once was and more simply today’s fashionable “cosmetic uniform”. No longer were young Berliners genteelly promenading in the Tiergarten like the pre-war Bourgeois of their parents’ generation; their performative modernity instead involved a need to see and be seen on the streets and in the clubs. Berlin, Moreck declares, was – in the best possible sense – one vast masquerade, suffused with desire and almost limitless opportunities for erotic pleasure. Visitors only needed to walk the streets, he advised, take a tram or a tube train to feel what seemed, according to Leif Jerram, “by many at the time to be a hyper-sexualised experience”.

The tolerance of ordinary Berliners for all this decadence rested, according to Moreck, “more on indifference than on understanding”. But, after Adolf Hitler’s election as premier in January 1933 and the infamous Enabling Act of March that year, everything was to change. Haemmerling’s work was banned and, two months later, his guidebook burned – along with 25,000 other “un-German” books – in what the Nazis called Die Säuberung, “cleansing” fires on the streets of Berlin. A rare copy of Moreck’s influential publication, and some of the original illustrations it features, was recently included in the London Barbican Centre’s exhibition Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art – not just because of its distinct visual appeal, but because it remains a unique historical document of unashamedly queer life in Berlin before its obliteration under Nazi rule.

MORECK, Curt. Fuhrer durch das “lasterhafte” Berlin. [A Guide through “Depraved” Berlin]. [1931]. £2,000.00.

Andy Stewart MacKay is an author and cultural historian.

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A plague on all your books: great works written in isolation

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By Adam Douglas, senior specialist at Peter Harrington

Many writers need isolation to get their creative juices flowing. Virginia Woolf reckoned that women writers of her generation simply needed a room of their own. She didn’t specify that the streets outside that room should be deserted and shops running low on supplies, but she might have liked it that way.

BOCCACCIO, Giovanni. [Decamerone, in English.] The Modell of Wit, Mirth, Eloquence, and Conversation. 1625. £10,000.00.

The starting point for the great literature of self-isolation must be the Decameron of Boccaccio, inspired by the outbreak in Italy of the Black Death of 1348 and completed by 1353. Fleeing from the plague-ridden city, a group of self-isolating Florentines while away the hours by telling each other stories. An English version of Boccaccio’s Decameron was first published in London in 1620. Many have assumed that the translator was the celebrated John Florio, who died five years later, a victim of a later recurrence of the plague.

Geoffrey Chaucer adored Boccaccio. His Troilus and Criseyde is directly based on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, and he adopted the Decameron’s story-frame structure for his own Canterbury Tales. As a child, Chaucer had escaped the Black Death, but in his adulthood lived an isolated life. He and his wife lived apart, she in a castle, while he held down a boring job in London, stamping duty-paid on bales of wool passing through London docks. His grace-and-favour apartment in Aldgate was a tiny garret above the busy city gates, through which he would have heard Essex peasants thundering on their way to burn John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace in 1381. The Peasants’ Revolt was another indirect consequence of the same Black Death that led Boccaccio’s storytellers to flee their city.

CHAUCER, Geoffrey. [The workes, newlie printed], London : 1532.

Isolation is not always a direct result of pandemic. Chaucer was also a fan of the Roman senator and philosopher Boethius, whose De consolatione philosophiae he translated. Boethius had been sentenced to death, unjustly in his opinion, and spent his final year trying to find the consolations of philosophy in his terrible situation. Boethius stands at the head of that closely related genre: great literature written in prison.

The Black Death probably reached Europe and the Near East along the Silk Road, borne on fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo had been plying his trade along the Silk Road for almost thirty years, seeing many things previously unknown to Europeans. In 1295 he returned home to find Venice at war with Genoa. He was thrown in prison, where he recounted his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, who compiled them into the seminal travelogue now known as The Travels of Marco Polo.

BOETHIUS. Of the Consolation of Philosophy. London : 1695.

Another intrepid traveller-turned-prison writer, Sir Walter Ralegh, was one of several European would-be colonists who introduced all manner of pathogens to the pre-Columbian natives of the Americas. After his repeated failures to find the fabulous treasure of El Dorado, Ralegh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he set about writing a monumental History of the World. He’d written no more than a million words before he was sent to the executioner’s block.

The golden age of Elizabethan theatre also happened to coincide with repeated outbursts of plague in London. A fresh episode reportedly began in Lisbon in 1599 and spread to Spain and elsewhere on the Continent, reaching London by February 1603. The London playhouses were closed, and many actors set out to earn their crust touring plays round the provinces. Not Shakespeare, though, who stayed behind to help present a series of command performances for James I. He also found the extra spare time to sit down to write Macbeth and King Lear.

[RALEIGH, Sir Walter.] The History of the World. 1614. £12,500.00. SHAKESPEARE, William. Macbeth, a tragedy: with all the alterations, amendments, additions, and new songs. 1687. £15,000.00.

The plague continued to haunt the imagination of writers. In 1722 Daniel Defoe published his Journal of the Plague Year, representing it as a true account of the climactic year 1665, when the bubonic plague struck London for the last time. While some think Defoe based his work on his uncle’s papers, many critics have seen the book as purely imaginative fiction, similar in technique to his earlier Robinson Crusoe, another classic text of enforced isolation.

No pandemic confined Anna Sewell to her writer’s desk, merely a sequence of misfortunes that began at fourteen, when she tripped while running home from school in the rain, injuring both her ankles. The injury never fully healed and she led a life of periodic invalidism until, from 1871 to 1877 at a time when her health further declined and she was confined to the house and her sofa, she wrote Black Beauty. She lived just long enough to get an early hint of what would prove to be her novel’s extraordinary success.

(KAUFFER, E. McKnight.) DEFOE, Daniel. The life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York Mariner. 1929. £2,000.00. SEWELL, Anna. Black Beauty: his grooms and companions. The autobiography of a horse. [1877]. £17,500.00.

One of the most famous literary invalids of the nineteenth century was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose various serious illnesses started at about the same age as Sewell’s (though some have thought that her greater debility was the lack of opportunity she experienced as a woman in an isolated setting, with no access to higher education). The romantic version has it that she was rescued from her sickbed by Robert Browning, who awoke her poetic creativity and whisked her away from her doting but tyrannical father, the legendary Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street.

Which brings us back to Virginia Woolf, who chose to retell that romantic legend as seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, leading up to his later days in a bucolic Italy, in Pisa and Florence, the very city whence Boccaccio’s self-isolators had fled.

[BROWNING], Elizabeth Barrett. Poems. 1844. £8,500.00. WOOLF, Virginia. Flush. A Biography. 1933. £750.00.

The post A plague on all your books: great works written in isolation appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.

“Who is Sylvia, what is she, That all our scribes commend her?” Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

This International Women’s Day, Peter Harrington celebrates Sylvia Beach, the trailblazing bookseller and publisher who helped shape the literary landscape of her age. A century ago, she opened a higgledy-piggledy bookshop and lending library on Paris’ Left Bank called Shakespeare and Company. It was celebrated and frequented by exceptional artists and authors, from Simone de Beauvoir to Man Ray, and Beach’s collections helped promulgate English-language writing across Europe. Today, Beach leaves behind two particularly astonishing legacies: not only the world’s most famous bookshop, but also the publication of one of Modernism’s greatest works, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Beach was born in the United States in 1887, and lived on Library Street in Princeton, New Jersey. She was a europhile; after living in France from 1901 to 1905, when her father was assistant minister of the American Church in Paris, Beach travelled back to Europe a number of times and even lived in Spain before returning to Paris at the end of World War I to study literature at the Sorbanne. 

Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, Paris 1938.

Soon after, she visited La Maison des Amis des Livres, a bookshop on the banks of the Seine that was owned by Adrienne Monnier. That a woman should run such an enterprise was rare and impressive, and it galvanised Beach to open one herself. In 1919 a decisive telegram was sent to her mother: ‘Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money.’ So, with a little financial support and the help of Monnier, who became her lifelong friend and lover, Shakespeare & Co. opened later that year. It was soon so popular that they had to relocate to a bigger space on Rue de l’Odéon, the same street as Monnier’s own lending library. Ernest Hemingway’s evocative description of Shakespeare and Company is as inviting as the shop must have been: ‘a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.’ 

In her memoir, lovingly entitled Shakespeare and Company, the full extent of Beach’s influence on the literary circles of Europe and America is revealed. Her intimate recollections position the bookshop as Paris’ most multicultural salon. Through it, she brought a dizzying number of international artists and writers together, both on the shelves and in real life. Friends and patrons included the likes of Ernest Hemingway (‘my best customer’), F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘Mr and Mrs Pound’ from the US, Jean Prévost, Paul Valéry and André Gide from France, and from Britain and Ireland, T. S. Eliot, DH Lawrence and, of course, Joyce. 

“My loves were Adrienne Monnier and James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company.” – Beach

Beach’s detailed account of publishing Ulysses in 1922 is indispensable. After Joyce revealed to her that no one would print his controversial epic in full, she offered to, under the imprint of Shakespeare and Company. Unpaid, Beach near-sacrificed herself to do so. A monumental struggle with printers eventually led to 100 copies being distributed by Shakespeare and Co. on Dutch handmade paper. Due to his own financial troubles, Joyce later negotiated a more lucrative contract with a US publisher, but Beach was steadfast, writing in her memoir, ‘A baby belongs to its mother, not to the midwife, doesn’t it?’ But without Beach’s vision, courage and perseverance, Ulysses may never have been.

First edition, first issue, of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922.

During France’s occupation a German soldier entered Beach’s bookshop and demanded to buy her personal copy of Finnegan’s Wake, the book in which Joyce paid tribute to his publisher: ‘for Who-is-silvier’. True to character, she boldly refused and, in response, was threatened to have the shop’s contents confiscated. With the help of Monnier and others, Beach hastily packed up and hid her entire library and closed the doors of Shakespeare and Company. Little did she know how her legend would live on.

BEACH, Sylvia. Shakespeare and Company. London : 1960. £6,000.00.

First edition of Beach’s memoir, inscribed by Beach and with her bookplate.

Beach’s Memoir is part of our catalogue, International Women’s Day 2020. Click to view PDF.

The post “Who is Sylvia, what is she, That all our scribes commend her?” Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.

The Town That Was Mad: Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

By Lauren Hepburn

Considering how long Dylan Thomas was cogitating the essence of Under Milk Wood (from 1931, at 17-years-old), it is paradoxically jarring to know how accelerated and chaotic its near-completion became at the end of his life. Theatre performances of its first full-length draft took place in the spring of 1953, but Thomas was still writing lines until his death in October of the same year. Some of those revisions were intended for the play’s reading on BBC radio and its subsequent publication in Condé Nast’s Mademoiselle magazine, but Thomas died suddenly of respiratory issues, aged just 39, while his manuscript was still under review.

Tracking the conception and creation of Under Milk Wood adds to its fascination. A glimpse of it is first seen in teenage Thomas’ submission to the Swansea Grammar School magazine in 1931, which, much like Under Milk Wood, contained surreal domestic conversations; two years later he spoke of writing a play about a fictional Welsh village, again focusing on the daily and domestic lives of its inhabitants. The proposed title (the village’s name), Llareggub, hinted at the direction it would take – read backwards, it reveals the irreverent, bawdy humour that characterise his last work.

Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern New York Photograph: Bunny Adler.


In conversations with the author Richard Hughes in 1939 and 1943, Thomas expressed an interest in writing scripts about Welsh villagers. In the first instance, he had the ambitious idea that real villagers would play themselves; the second discussion confirmed his aim to combine the mundane with madness: perhaps the village would be ‘certified mad’ by the government. Six years later, in 1949, Thomas finally completed the first half of what would become Under Milk Wood, which, at the time, he gave the more self-explanatory title, The Town That Was Mad. In 1952, it was renamed Llareggub, a Piece for Radio Perhaps and published in the Italian literary journal Botteghe Oscure. The new title reflected Thomas’ desire to have the polyphonic tale performed and heard, but he felt unable to complete its second half. He informed the journal’s editor and, in ‘53, wrote to Gwyn Jones, “I’ve been terribly busy failing to write one word of a more or less play set in a Wales that I’m sad to say never was…”

Thomas’ writer’s block remained until just moments before the play’s first stage production in New York later that year, when the producer is said to have locked him in a room backstage to finish the script (it was finally handed to the actors shortly before the curtain went up). Ten years had passed since Thomas first contemplated his Welsh play, but he had frantically drafted its final third on the day of its performance. He continued adding more lines for shows later that month, and more still for New York productions in October, and the manuscripts that were sent to the BBC and Mademoiselle magazine. Douglas Cleverdon, a producer at the BBC, described what he received from Thomas as ‘extremely disordered’ and certainly not a final draft.

THOMAS, Dylan. Under Milk Wood. Advance proofs of the first complete appearance in print of Under Milk Wood, in John Malcolm Brinnin’s article “Dylan Thomas and his Village”, published in the February 1954 issue, volume 38, number 4, of Mademoiselle. New York : [15 January 1954].

Typed letter on Mademoiselle headed paper signed by Cyrilly Abels, the managing director of Mademoiselle, to a recipient whose name has since been redacted

Fortunately for Thomas, this was not everyone’s view. In a note attached to advance proofs of Under Milk Wood for Mademoiselle magazine, which published an abridged version of the play in February 1954, Managing Director Cyrilly Abels wrote, ‘I hope you will find Under Milk Wood as exciting as I do each time I read it–and I’ve read it five times to date!’ This proof  – to which Cyrilly Abels, managing director of Mademoiselle, attached her enthusiastic note – constitutes the earliest known issuance of the complete text. A magazine known at the time for its literary connections (publishing short pieces by numerous brilliant writers, including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Alice Munro), Mademoiselle also famously played host to a young Sylvia Plath, whose role as Guest Editor in the summer of 1953 provided ample material for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Coincidentally this was the same year that Mademoiselle commissioned the 28-page spread that included Thomas’ verse play: Plath was a devoted admirer of Thomas’ work is said to have been distraught when she missed the opportunity to join a lunch meeting between him and the magazine’s editor. The editors of Mademoiselle collaborated with Thomas, the poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin, and photographer Rollie McKenna to publish ‘Dylan Thomas and his Village’, a feature that would bring the play to life in print.

And so it did. Passing time on a train journey in the winter of 1954, American author James Salter flicked through Mademoiselle and happened upon the newly published Under Milk Wood. In his autobiography he describes the discovery in vivid detail:

In the bluish issue of a women’s magazine in which the models, maddeningly prim, wore little hats and white gloves there was a curious article that caught my eye. It was a tribute to a plumpish Welsh poet whose photograph, taken outside the door of his studio in a seaside town, a manuscript stuck in the pocket of his jacket, was beguiling. John Malcolm Brinnin, perhaps excerpting it from his book, had written about Dylan Thomas and somehow the piece had appeared in Mademoiselle. There was a picture of Dylan Thomas’s wife, children with celtic names, and even a snapshot of his mother.
Brinnin’s lyric description of seedy, romantic life was an introduction to the poem that followed, in overwhelming bursts of language, page upon page. It was Under Milk Wood, roguish, prancing, with its blazing characters and lines. The words dizzied me, their grandeur, their wit. In the soft, clicking comfort of the train I feasted on it all.

On 24th October Thomas experienced breathing difficulties and looked close to collapse at the theatre, ominously saying that he felt his play had ‘taken the life out of him’. Over the next week his health deteriorated further and on 5th November he was taken to hospital, but he did not recover.

Despite its tumultuous journey, Under Milk Wood is one of Dylan Thomas’ best-known and most-popular works. It is constructed using the same enthralling, rhythmic, playful and at times subversive language and structure that he’s known (and loved) for. His ‘play for voices’ sits somewhere between Aristotle and T.S. Eliot: Its linear form and rollicking humour recalling Greek comedy; its plurality of voices and improvement on being heard of course evokes The Waste Land. \Henry W. Wells, a contemporary Professor of English at Columbia University, considered Under Milk Wood proof that Thomas was ‘an even greater innovator in the long than in the short poem.’

In the decades since, Thomas’ seminal script has been produced and recorded globally with all-star credits to its name. It has had music composed by Elton John, been directed by Antony Hopkins, and performed by world-class casts that have included Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Jones, Alan Bennett, Charlotte Church and Rhys Ifans. The late music producer George Martin CBE (aka ‘the fifth Beatle’) recorded a mostly-sung album version of Under Milk Wood, which was performed to an audience that included the Prince of Wales to commemorate the launch of Martin’s independent recording company. Under Milk Wood has seen productions on every scale – in Australia alone it’s been produced as a one-woman-show and also been adapted by composer Tony Gould to be performed alongside the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra. That Under Milk Wood is one of Thomas’ greatest and most far-reaching works is indisputable; its complex and protracted genesis makes it all the more so.

View all works by Dylan Thomas currently in stock. 

The post The Town That Was Mad: Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.

Mary Westmacott, the real Agatha Christie

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by Andy Stewart MacKay

Thanks to her hugely successful detective fiction, and the many film and TV adaptations of her work, Agatha Christie has perhaps done more to define a particular kind of Englishness than any other writer. Despite the lurking malice and impressive body count, disorder is neatly resisted and withstood in Christie’s fictional England. The horrors of violence and murder are reassuringly contained, resolved and appropriately punished. Even if, by the 1950s, Christie’s village England was already beginning to feel out of date, all remains well in the “Queen of Crime’s” fictional world – and even if it isn’t, by the end it will be. Much, in fact, like Christie’s own life.

Often regarded as the epitome of the conventional upper-middle class English woman of her generation – with idyllic Edwardian childhood in Torquay, governess and finishing school in Paris – she and her family were, in fact, somewhat less conventional than they appeared. Her self-made father was American, her Irish-born mother sprang from German stock and both were born into what was, essentially, the working-class. Fascinatingly, Christie’s American grandparents were arrested in New York City in 1849 for sending anonymous and libelling letters. Like her own famous ‘disappearance’ in December 1926 (which culminated in Christie being discovered in a hotel in Yorkshire, having checked in using the surname of her husband’s mistress), there are elements of Christie life, and her family’s history, that feel distinctly like the prelude to one of her own mysteries.

Front page of the Daily Herald (London) 15 December, 1926.

From the distance of nearly a century it’s easy to romanticise Christie’s England, but it wasn’t always easy to live in it. Soon after her beloved mother’s death, and after twelve years of marriage, following the revelation of her husband’s infidelity, she and Colonel Archie Christie separated – subsequently divorcing in October 1928. The pain of it all, whilst contributing to her famous ten-day ‘disappearance’, triggered something in her, however, that she’d never known: a strength,  resilience, and quiet rebelliousness. Contrary to all the assumptions of her upbringing and youth, Christie became a single and intrepid working-mother who, at the age of forty – on an archaeological dig in the Middle East – met the much younger man who would shortly become her second husband (Sir Max Mallowan). And, perhaps most surprising to Christie herself, she became the most successful author of all time. Like Miss Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Christie defied expectations. Older ladies in tweed and ‘exotic’ foreign gentlemen, Christie makes quite clear, are underestimated at one’s peril.

Having been a debutante in colonial Cairo, in what was then British-controlled Egypt, Christie would later use this as the setting for her first rejected and unpublished romantic novel Snow Upon the Desert. More self-aware than is generally acknowledged, she enjoyed poking fun at herself. Whilst the funny and camp romantic-novelist Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile is often thought to be based on the flamboyant Edwardian best-seller Elinor Glyn, she’s also partly based on Christie herself. Otterbourne is, after all, we are told, the author of a book called Snow on the Desert’s Face.

“Like Miss Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Christie defied expectations. Older ladies in tweed and ‘exotic’ foreign gentlemen, Christie makes quite clear, are underestimated at one’s peril.”

Christie’s fame came at some cost, however, to her literary freedom. Her invention of a pseudonym, Mary Westmacott (combining her middle name with that of some relatives) allowed Christie to free herself from readerly expectations and find a little space for self-exploration. As Westmacott, Christie wrote six novels – even adopting a different style of handwriting for her pseudonymous manuscripts – and managed to keep Westmacott’s true-identity a secret for nearly twenty years. More obviously biographical than her better-known work, the Westmacott novels –  Giant’s Bread (1930) Unfinished Portrait (1934) Absent in the Spring (1944) The Rose and the Yew Tree (1947) A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952) and The Burden (1956) – are, like most love-themed books by women, often labelled ‘romantic novels’. Christie’s daughter Rosalind more accurately, described them as “bittersweet novels” about life itself – novels that, naturally, also meditate on the power, intensity and destructiveness of love. Christie’s Unfinished Portrait (1934) reads almost like a memoir.  Written in her mid-forties – and without the services of a therapist – she’d begun to wonder what the sum of her life could yet mean, remaining as it was, ‘unfinished’.

[CHRISTIE, Agatha; as] WESTMACOTT, Mary. Unfinished Portrait. London : 1934.

Whilst Christie’s crime stories were one response to the pace of social and political change, her Westmacott novels are another: an alternative ‘disappearance’, and a deeply personal response to the pressures of being a woman in the world. Her pseudonymous fiction offers deeper and more sensitive exploration of the complexities neatly and predictably resolved in her detective fiction. If you want to read the real Agatha Christie, read Mary Westmacott.

View all books by Agatha Christie currently in stock.

Andy Stewart MacKay is an author and cultural historian.

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Christmas 2019 Shipping Information

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We are delighted to announce that we are offering free expedited shipping upgrade on all website orders between now and Christmas. We offer free next day delivery on all UK orders. Overseas orders will be upgraded from air mail to UPS Express at no extra cost.

Last recommended Christmas shipping dates (order by 3pm):
UK: Monday 23rd December
USA, Canada & Western Europe: Friday 20th December
Eastern Europe & Russia: Friday 20th December
Middle East, Asia, Central & South America: Wednesday 18th December
Australia & New Zealand: Tuesday 17th December

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