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Why didn’t Agatha Christie

Why didn’t Agatha Christie write romances? Trick question. She did, six of them under the name Mary Westmacott. But there is more to this question than meets the eye.

I’ve been reading Bluestockings, The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, by Jane Robinson. By her reckoning, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham were in the second generation of women that had the possibility of a college education, if not a college degree. Colleges in Britain that allowed women students let them finish their courses, but many didn’t grant degrees until after World War I.

Sayers and Marsh received college educations. Christie and Allingham married early, the preferred status for young women. All four began writing and publishing after the First World War, and most tellingly, under their own names. No longer did female writers have to hide their gender.

These four are known collectively as the Queens of Mystery from the Golden Age of the detective novel, the 1920s and 1930s. Besides being wildly popular in these decades, Christie worked as an archeologist with her second husband, Sayers worked in advertising, creating among other campaigns Guinness ads I saw still in use in the 1990s in Ireland, Marsh was involved with the theater in England and her native New Zealand, and Allingham was a journalist.

These were serious, enterprising women at a time when women were not taken seriously. Between the two world wars, women were pushed back into their traditional roles of wife and homemaker to allow returning servicemen to fill any available jobs. The old notions that only single women should work and women with a college education were somehow damaged and shouldn’t marry were just beginning to die out. When these authors were babies, more than half of college educated women never married. Of these two college educated women, Marsh, in fact, never married.

I believe they wrote tightly plotted tales of murder and mayhem, full of twists and red herrings, because to show less mental prowess in their writing would have had them dismissed as fluff. Unworthy of consideration. There is little romance in these works and not much description or internal monologue by today’s standards. This was a world where women were still discouraged from going to college, and many fields were closed to them. Still, Christie was known for her social commentary and Sayers for writing the first “cause” mysteries, including PTSD and a defense of women’s education. Their stories reached the brain, rather than the heart. How much of that was because women were still thought of by society as not having brains?

They are our literary great-grandmothers. Today we can write stories full of emotion and love and character arcs because these women refused to leave the worlds of commerce and academics after World War I. Women are accepted today as writers of every type and style. We are free to write romance because women before us fought to go to college and then fought to get published as commercially viable writers under their own names. They succeeded because they wrote stories that would appeal to men as well as women. They wrote stories that showed they were equal to men in cleverness and intellect.

Today women’s fiction, including romance and cozy mysteries, are the biggest sellers, and we can thank a lot of historical forces for that. But we can also thank the Queens of Mystery, Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham, for standing tall in a time when women were confined to the kitchen and the nursery.

Which authors from a previous age have influenced you, or opened the path for your stories?

Kate Parker, free from the nursery if not the kitchen, is writing cozy mysteries with Agatha Christie sitting on her shoulder whispering “You need more red herrings.” The first in her Victorian Bookshop mysteries, The Vanishing Thief, will be released December 3rd.

33 Responses to “Why didn’t Agatha Christie”

  1. Love the history in this piece, Kate – thank you! I love Christie, and had no idea she had written romances, too. I also thank those trailblazing women – there are some in every phase. I appreciate all they’ve done, and are doing, to give all of us a better chance at success.

    • Kate Parker says:

      I was surprised when my mom told me. I still have her 35 cent paperback editions of Christie’s mysteries. Mom wasn’t too impressed with her romances. I don’t know how they would stack up today.

  2. Like Anne Marie, I had no idea Christie wrote romance! wow. Thanks so much for this. I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but admittedly only came to be one through the film adaptations of her work. Only after falling in love with two renditions of Pride and Prejudice did I actually read it. (I know, I know.) The same was true for me with Christie’s work. Only after I saw an adaptation of Murder, She Said did I go out and buy her books.

    This is just a fascinating post! Thank you!

    • Kate Parker says:

      David Suchet’s Poirot is incredible. I think he’s done every Christie story that features Poirot, and I think I’ve watched and rewatched every one. His portrayals will have you reading those stories.

  3. Addison Fox says:

    Kate:

    What an awesome post! And you’ve got me totally fascinated – I’m anxious to pick up Bluestockings.

    And to Anne Marie’s point – I so appreciate the trails these women blazed and opened up for all of us.

    Addison

    • Kate Parker says:

      Addison, Bluestockings is a terrific “research” book for me. It’s Viking/Penguin, copyright 2009. The time period covered is 1869 to 1939 in Britain. The hardships some of these women went through to get a college education is incredible. Goes back to the old maxim, Make something hard to obtain and it gains value.

  4. Excellent post, Kate. How timely — just today I “had” to watch an Agatha Christie movie at work. I’m a huge fan of her mysteries (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of my favourites). But I’ve never read the romances she wrote as Mary Westmacott. It’d be interesting to see how they compare.

  5. Jenn! says:

    Thanks for this, Kate. I really didn’t know this about these talented women. I had no idea Agatha Christie wrote romances, either. Fascinating. It would be interesting to see the difference, if there are any, in her writing styles between mystery and romance.
    Anne Marie said it, these are trailblazing women. We have much to thank them for.

    Great post, Kate!

    • Kate Parker says:

      Dorothy Sayers quit writing mysteries to translate the whole Divine Comedy from the original Italian. I can’t imagine doing anything like that with my college education. Of course, I was a microbiologist.

    • Kate Parker says:

      Dorothy Sayers quit writing mysteries to translate the Divine Comedy from the original Italian. I can’t imagine using my college education to do anything like that. Of course, microbes and chemicals aren’t much at conversation.

  6. Liz Talley says:

    Fascinating insight into women who blazed some important trails for all women writers.

    I’m not sure who I can pinpoint as a huge influence in my life. Maybe Carolyn Keene? Those Nancy Drew mysteries hooked me like no other…and the hint of romance helped. But I also liked how self-possessed Nancy was (if not a little TSTL). She had guts and moxy and I wanted to be her. Who would have thought I would end up more like her creator – making up characters who have moxy and pluck. Though I AM thinking about taking a PI course this fall :)

    Nice post, Kate

    • Kate Parker says:

      I envied Nancy Drew as a child, too. But the curtain was pulled back on the creator when I found my mother’s Nancy Drew books. Carolyn Keene was apparently always a pseudonym for a long line of writers. I shrugged off my disappointment, because I wanted to be like Carolyn Keene when I grew up, and continued to enjoy the books.

  7. Interesting post, Kate. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. Diana Layne says:

    Nope, didn’t know she wrote romance. The early romance writers influenced me, Woodiwiss, Rogers and Rebecca Brandewyne. I never had desire to write anything else so I rarely read outside of romance genre. The one time I did, I read a straight mystery, I thought the author cheated by lying in a character POV and it made me mad. I went back to romance. :) it was Iris Johansen and Ugly Duckling that turned me onto Romantic Suspense.

    • Kate Parker says:

      Christie’s romances came out a generation ahead of Woodiwiss and Rogers. You’d be a good one, Di, to read a Mary Westmacott and tell us how much romance novels have changed in seventy years. I’d like to read that post.

  9. Jeannie says:

    Wonderful post! Not only do I love bookish history, but I’m always fascinated by how literary women have shaped the writing landscape.

    I’m inspired by many an author, but the one who comes to mind for historical romance is Johanna Lindsey of the no-hold-barred, super-sexy adventure historicals. I became addicted to historicals because of her. That might be a surprise to hear, but I’m sure Ruby Sis Sara Ramsey will agree. :)

  10. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great post, Kate! And food for thought.

    I would have to say my strongest writing influence from a previous age was Anne Rice. I read Interview with the Vampire when it was first published in 1976. I was in 7th grade, and just starting to wonder whether I might be able to write stories in addition to reading them. In hindsight, I was struck dumb by the world-building, the lush language, the characterization, the voice. And the premise? Sheer bloody genius.

    –> Today women’s fiction, including romance and cozy mysteries, are the biggest sellers, and we can thank a lot of historical forces for that.

    This is true, but in some corners of the publishing world, female writers – particularly writers of romance and women’s fiction – still struggle for recognition, prestige, awards and legitimacy. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

  11. Oooo – I love history. Thank you, Kate, this was a fantastic post. I read Woodiwiss and still love Julie Garwood. And of course Austen, though she hid her identity, still took huge steps for women writers.
    I feel honored and blessed to follow in their footsteps.

  12. Rita Henuber says:

    One of the great things about being in this group if the weath of information. I learn something from every post. Thanks for sharing Kate.

  13. Thanks, Kate, for the interesting information. It certainly puts present day complaints about “lack of respect” into context. Yeah, women writers still have to fight that problem, but we have been given a leg up by those who came before. At least in romance, women are accepted as authors. It was not all that long ago when women writers of hard science fiction had to hide behind initials or pseudonyms.

  14. Gwyn says:

    Good stuff! It’s often been said women must do twice as much for half the credit; despite how far we’ve come, that still tends to hold true. Even so, we’re strong enough to take it and wise enough to push through. We’ve been making something of nothing since the dawn of time, and I must say, are good at it!

  15. Not a writer, but my maternal grandmother always promised any female grandchild $1000 to wait until age 30 before getting married. Clearly, she valued life experience and education above marriage, although she herself was married for more than 50 years to the same man (they secretly eloped when she was 17, before he went off to war).

    And now that I think about it, her bookshelves were packed with mysteries! That’s all she read, and she read constantly. After reading your post, I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

  16. Karen Bellamy says:

    I’m a huge Sayers fan and she did write a romance for her hero Lord Peter Wimsey. In the novel Strong Poison Lord Peter meets condemned prisoner Harriet Vane, a writer of mysteries and thus begins a romance that follows them through four books: Strong Poison, Have his carcase, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon. The romance is brilliantly written and incredibly modern in the obstacles their relationship must overcome. If you’ve never read any of these books give them a try if only for Harriet Vane, a truly modern heroine.

    • Kate Parker says:

      And it’s said Harriet Vane was modeled at least in part on Sayers herself, who was a very modern woman for her time. I particularly like Gaudy Night, perhaps because I like to put myself in that story.

  17. Vivi Andrews says:

    Excellent post, Kate. I adore Agatha Christie (And Then There Were None is my favorite)_and I recently spoke to a boy in China who named her as his favorite author, so that really says something about how her works translate.

    I do think female authors are still to this day more respected if they go for the brain rather than the heart with their writing – and I’ve gotta say that bugs me – but I am grateful for the trailblazers that came before. Austen and Shelley and Christie, especially.

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