An interesting post from Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about the way that Agatha Christie portrayed women in her books. In some ways, of course, she was a product of her times, as all writers are. And so are her creations. But she did create some strong female characters. Read Brad’s post, and you’ll see how good she was at that.
Rather than listing every single strong woman in Christie’s stories, I’d rather, if you’ll indulge me, focus on just one novel. There are lots of choices here, but let’s go with Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). It may not be the very best Christie of them all, but I think it may illustrate my point.
In the novel, family patriarch Simeon Lee invites the members of his family to the family home, Gorston Hall, to celebrate Christmas. No-one wants to go, chiefly because Lee is both tyrannical and malicious. But everyone accepts, because he also holds the proverbial purse strings. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is.
The Lee family members all come under suspicion, and each has a motive. There’s Alfred Lee (Simeon’s son) and his wife, Lydia, who actually lived with the victim. There’s David Lee (also a son), and his wife, Hilda. George Lee (a third son) and his wife, Magdalene also attend, as does Harry Lee, another son. Also in attendance are Pilar Estravados (the victim’s granddaughter) and Stephen Farr (the son of Simeon Lee’s former business partner).
As we get to know the various family members, we see that the female characters are anything but hand-wringing damsels in distress, or mere appendages to their husbands. Lydia Lee, for instance, may not be the one with the purse strings, but she is in charge in a lot of ways, both subtle and not-so-subtle. She arranges all household matters and finds ways to assert herself. She’s quite frank with her husband about disliking his father; she’s not passive-aggressive or catty about it. She’s also quite open and honest later in the novel when a question arises of how Lee’s considerable fortune will be distributed. In fact, during that discussion, she speaks her mind freely and is an active partner in what will happen. In many ways, one could argue that she’s stronger than her husband, who has always been ‘the good son’ who took over the family business and obeyed his father.
Hilda Lee is no less strong. She and her husband are by no means wealthy; he’s an artist who isn’t exactly a household name. They live simply, but she’s content. And, yet, she is absolutely not a ‘doormat.’ In one important scene in the novel, Hilda stands up to her father-in-law, and makes it clear to him that she’s not afraid of him. In fact, she intimidates him in her way, without shouting or making a scene. She supports her husband, although she is not blind to his faults. And she speaks for herself, without depending on David to tell her what to think or say. It’s also interesting (at least to me) to note that she’s not conventionally beautiful, nor is she at all obsessed with clothes, her appearance, or money. She doesn’t have a career of her own, but at the same time, she’s no vapid fool.
Magdalene isn’t a particularly sympathetic character. She isn’t malicious or cruel, but she likes the position and the money that come from her husband’s MP career. And she has no intention of sharing her father-in-law’s fortune with any of his other children. On the surface, she’s rather shallow and her focus is her clothes, her appearance and her comfort. But she is by no means stupid. She knows very well how to ‘work a room,’ and she’s skilled at garnering support for her husband. She’s certainly more than just an ‘arm decoration,’ and George depends on her more than he may be willing to admit, even to himself. She, too, speaks up when the family discusses the Lee fortune and Simeon Lee’s will, and makes her feelings plain.
One of the most interesting characters (even Simeon Lee says as much) is Pilar Estravados. Her mother, Jennifer Lee, married a Spanish husband and moved to that country. So, Pilar is as much Spanish as she is English. She’s seen her share of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and speaks quite frankly about it. She doesn’t shrink from the topic of violence. Pilar is a beautiful young woman, and she knows it. But she’s not what you’d call vain, and she’s not what’s often called a gold-digger. She’s just extremely practical and pragmatic about life:
‘The world is very cruel to women. They must do what they can for themselves – while they are young. When they are old and ugly no one will help them.’
She’s smart and quick-thinking, and she sees clearly the situation that brews among the Lees as they deal with the murder and with the discussion of the will.
It’s true that the female characters in the novel are products of their time in several ways. They don’t really speak or behave anachronistically. But they are strong characters with voices of their own. And they see at least as clearly as the men do the situation they face. And this is only from one of Christie’s stories!
Thanks, Brad, for making me think of this topic a little more deeply. Folks, do go read Brad’s terrific post. As you’ll be there, anyway, you’ll want to have a look around his blog, and, if you’re a crime fiction fan, you’ll want to follow it. Rich discussions and thoughtful reviews await you there!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Madera and David White’s You Don’t Own Me, made unforgettable by the late Lesley Gore.