I’m Not Just One of Your Many Toys*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie

17 responses to “I’m Not Just One of Your Many Toys*

  1. I often wonder when I meet women in books from times past how much they really reflected the times (rather I suppose than the image that is portrayed) and so while I know that in many ways they were far more dependent on the ‘men folk’ I’m sure many of them pushed the boundaries as I hope I would have. So what a brilliant post indicating that the women in Agatha Christie’s stories weren’t simpering wrecks but nor were they hysterical fishwives, in fact they were pretty clever and clearly had their own opinions.

    • Thanks very much, Cleo. I often think the same thing about characters in books. Do they really reflect their times? As you say, there were likely many real-life women during those years who did have careers, make their own decisions, and so on. I’m glad, too, that Christie showed that in her stories, and let us see female characters who aren’t, as you say, simpering fools or helpless clinging vines (or hysterical fishwives). I think it makes the stories richer (and, perhaps, reveals Christie’s own views) to have some strong, clever, capable female characters.

  2. Christine Poulson

    Just want to endorse what you say about Brad’s splendid blog (and what a great title it has!)

  3. Col

    I’ll pop over and visit. Not one of the Christie’s I have on the pile, but I ought to read her sometime soon.

    • I’m a Christie fan, Col, so I’m biased. But I do believe her influence was important enough that any crime fiction fan ought to read at least some of her work. I’ll be interested in what you think of it when and if you get there.

  4. Spade & Dagger

    I suspect how women were portrayed in any particular book depended on how the author (male or female) viewed them, and possibly how the market intended for the book viewed them. Many achievements by women were originally accredited by society to men & are now being re-attributed – so perhaps historical based novels written in modern times are more easily able to imbue their female characters with realistically diverse attributes & achievements than much of the earlier writing could do.

    • I think you’re probably right, Spade & Dagger. Personal biases and views (of women or of anything else, really) can’t help but impact the way authors write and the way audiences react to a book. So it makes sense that, as our views of women have changed, so has the way women are portrayed in books. Interesting point, for which thanks.

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog with the role of strong female characters in crime fiction.

  6. As always, Margot, many thanks for the mention! I think what is so interesting about this novel is that, while the male characters fit perfectly into the tropes of “1930’s GAD suspects” – i.e. the dutiful son, the vengeful son, the black sheep, the criminal servant – the women are more fully fleshed reflections of what happens to a woman when her husband is sad/weak/angry/incomplete. Magdalen is sort of a cliche (she and George remind me of Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight!), but she is certainly a reflection of the kind of weak, venal politician George is. Hilda and, especially Lydia are far more interesting and especially deep psychological portraits for that time. Of course, it IS a mystery, and some of the women have, shall we say, “hidden depths” as mysteries require. But I agree with you that the female characters here are much richer than the men!

    • It’s always my pleasure to mention your blog, Brad, and I really do appreciate the inspiration. You make an interesting point here about the difference between the male characters in this novel and the female characters. Perhaps it’s that contrast that drew my attention to the novel when I was thinking about your post. Even Magdalene, who is, as you say, weak and venal, is no simpering fool, and you can see how she and George are matched. I find Lydia and Hilda a lot more interesting, too, as you do. And I think Christie did an effective job here of portraying the women as of their time (I suppose that would have been hard to avoid), but with their own voices and strengths. That’s not easy to do.

  7. tracybham

    When I first read this book, Margot, I liked this best of all the Poirot books i had read. Now I have new favorite Poirot books, but I will always be fond of this one. I had not thought so much about the female roles in this perspective, so thanks for that perspective.

    • The story has a lot of appeal, Tracy, so I can see how you’d like it so well. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the female characters in the novel are strong without always being obviously so.

  8. I suspect portrayals of women may have been more accurate back in the Golden Age. Often in contemporary crime, I feel the female characters are portrayed as how women feel they ought to be (or not to be, to paraphrase some old playwright) rather than as they are. I rarely have the same feeling of not believing in a golden age character as I regularly do in current crime. Possibly it’s to do with the style of the books – in modern crime fiction, women tend to either be super-ambitious professionals or victims, whereas somehow in vintage crime they were allowed to come in all varieties. Totally generalising here – of course, there are plenty of exceptions.

    • There are exceptions, FictionFan. But I think you may be on to something as far as the difference between GA novels and contemporary novels written about that era. Even as I think just of Agatha Christie’s work, there is a wide variety of female characters. And that’s not to mention the many other authors of that time. Interesting, too, because women today come in as many varieties as they ever did. I like it when fiction reflects that. Hmm….lots of ‘food for thought’ here, so thanks.

  9. Oh all my favourite things in one go! I loved Brad’s post (and his whole blog) and yours is a great take on one of my favourite Christies. A reminder I should re-read this one over the festive season.

    • Thank you, Moira! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. I loved Brad’s post, too (and he does have an excellent blog!). This Christie may not be her best known, but it’s got a lot going for it, I think. I ought to re-read it, too…

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