Shortly before her death in 1972, Margaret Rutherford, firmly supported by her husband, the actor Stringer Davis, began to write her autobiography. Although it soon became clear that she was far too ill for the task, the couple were determined that while there was still time Rutherford’s life story should be told from her own point of view. They therefore commissioned a professional writer, Gwen Robyns, to finish the job. The book appeared soon after Rutherford’s death with the title Margaret Rutherford: An Autobiography as told to Gwen Robyns.
The autobiography is so innocuous, so bland, so padded with affectionate tributes from the many famous actors and actresses Rutherford had worked with during her long career on stage and screen, that it is difficult to see why its publication should have been treated as a matter of such urgency. One of the actors whose admiring comments appeared in the book was John Gielgud. He had worked with Rutherford for many years, apparently knew her well, and was invited to write the semi-official entry for her in the prestigious Dictionary of National Biography. In the article, Gielgud was happy to confirm the charm and humour for which Rutherford was renowned and to re-assert what a fine comic actress she had been, but he did rather more than simply this. While explaining how she had been obliged to hand over the writing of her autobiography to a ‘ghost writer,’ he revealed a side of her that was completely new to most people:
It appeared that in the course of detailed researches, a
certain amount of information had come to light about
Margaret Rutherford’s earlier life involving an unhappy
family background and recurrences of mental disturbance
which would be pointless and painful to bring to light,
and the book was finally cobbled together as well as
possible under these unhappy circumstances.
Although Gwen Robyns herself had been punctilious in allowing nothing to appear in the autobiography that had not come directly from Rutherford, she had obviously felt it right, after Rutherford’s death, to set something of the record straight for Gielgud who was himself now writing an account of Rutherford’s life. What exactly Robyns knew at this stage, and how much she communicated to Gielgud, is uncertain. But she must have told him that the autobiography she had helped to write did not set out a true acount of Rutherford’s early life, and also why she believed this. While trying to research Rutherford’s early years, she had come to realize that Rutherford and Stringer were deliberately obstructing her task by keeping hidden away from her a good deal of relevant material that was obviously there, on hand in the house. Robyns was sure that if or when that material was examined it would tell a very different story. As Gielgud says with such frankness in the DNB, it was in ‘these unhappy circumstances’ that the autobiography had been ‘cobbled together as well as possible,’
From the start, the main purpose of the autobiography had been to distract anyone from trying to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s family background. Brought in as a ‘ghost’ for a dying much-loved actress, and watched over devotedly by Springer Davis, Robyns felt she had no alternative but to produce the kind of book Rutherford wanted. She distanced herself as far as possible by announcing that this was Margaret Rutherford’s autobiography ‘as told to Gwen Robyns.’ Those words were no doubt chosen with great care and intended to mean exactly what they said.
What all the mystery had been about was revealed a few years later by Dawn Langley Simmons in Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit (1983), a book in which Gwen Robyns was publicly thanked for the ‘loyalty’ she had shown to Rutherford. Simmons had been born in England and christened Gordon Langley Hall, but had spent much of his life in Canada and America. Sometime around 1960 Simmons had formed a close relationship with Margaret Rutherford and Stringer Davis, so close that he took to calling them mother and father and describing himself as their ‘adopted son.’ In 1968 he underwent sex reassignment surgery and a year later married a black American man John-Paul Simmons in one of America’s first legal inter-racial marriages. He became Dawn Langley Simmons and now described himself as Rutherford and Davis’s ‘adopted daughter.’ Rutherford and Davis seem to have been kept informed of these events in Simmons’s life and went along sympathetically with what at the time was regarded as an extremely controversial situation.
After the deaths of both Rutherford and Davis, Simmons came across the papers which had been locked away from Gwen Robyns. Or, as Simmons herself described the discovery, in a characteristically flamboyant manner, she ‘dreamed on three consecutive nights that Father and Mother came to her’ saying ‘the trunk is in the garage.’ She therefore contacted the people who now owned Rutherford and Davis’s former house in Gerrard’s Cross and asked them to carry out a search. They did so and sure enough found a trunk ‘crammed full of old letters, documents, and photographs.’ The material that Rutherford had been so unwilling to have made public while she was alive, was now presented to the world by Simmons in Margaret Rutherford : A Blithe Spirit. More recently, the story has been retold by Andy Merriman in Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought with Good Manners (2009).
Here, briefly, are the details of Margaret Rutherford’s childhood that she had successfully concealed during her lifetime.
Both of her parents, William Rutherford Benn and Florence Nicholson, who were married in 1882, had been mentally disturbed. Her mother was terrified by the idea of sex and would not allow the marriage to be consummated. This sexual failure tipped her husband, who was already what today would probably be described as schizophrenic, into a nervous breakdown and a spell in a local asylum. It was felt that he should not return immediately to his wife and he was released for a period of convalescence into the care of his father with whom he appears always to have had a good relationship. But while they were staying together in a country hotel, there was a violent unexplained quarrel between them during which he battered his father to death with a heavy chamber-pot and tried unsuccessfully to cut his own throat with a small pocket knife. He was committed to Broadmoor but released after seven years. During this time his wife had remained constantly in touch with him. The couple were reunited on his release in 1892, and fully so on this occasion because it was now that Margaret was conceived.
In an attempt to make a completely new start, Benn changed his name by deedpoll to Rutherford which had been his mother’s maiden name as well as his own second name, and the family moved to India. It was another terrible failure. When Margaret’s mother discovered she was once again pregnant, she hanged herself from a tree in the garden. Margaret, whose age at this time is sometimes given as six but was more probably three, returned to England with her father. Once again he spent a short recuperative spell in an asylum. When his homicidal tendencies re-emerged he was sent back to Broadmoor, this time remaining incarcerated until just before his death in 1921. The young Margaret was told that her father had died, being unble to survive the shock of his beloved wife’s sudden death. Margaret was then brought up by ‘Auntie Bessie,’ her mother’s sister, in the hope that the aunt might eventually be accepted by the child as her real mother. Many years in the future it would be Aunt Bessie’s trunk, packed with family documents, now presumably owned by Margaret Rutherford, that Dawn Langley Simmons would claimed to have been led to in a dream.
Margaret’s new life began promisingly: Bessie had been devoted to her unhappy sister, and the aunt and young niece got on well together. But any plans for its future to be even more intimate were foiled in the most bizarre of ways. At the age of thirteen Margaret opened the front door of Bessie’s house in Wimbledon to someone she took to be a tramp. It turned out he was a former inmate of Broadmoor carrying to her a message of love from her father. When Margaret demanded to know whether this could possibly be true, Aunt Bessie told her the whole story. Simmons says that from this moment Rutherford always suffered ‘from a form of melancholia that necessitated periods of complete rest, sometimes in a nursing-home.’
It is not hard to understand why, with such a traumatic family background and childhood, Rutherford should have settled on a career which encouraged her to turn away from reality and to spend her life acting out the imagined lives of non-existent people. Or why, within that career, she should have refused to act in plays which involved any kind of physical violence or psychological disturbance and to concentrate as far as possible on playing innocent, harmless eccentrics. Throughout her life she was terrified that she would fall victim to the mental troubles from which both of her parents had suffered. Although she thankfully avoided that fate and went on to build a highly successful public career, she did suffer a number of nervous breakdowns and was obliged to spend periods of time in care. In restricting her acting career in the ways that she did, she was helped by her physical appearance, most obviously the absence of glamour that kept her from being offered many romantic or dramatic roles, and by the compensating plump and blubbery look that made her a natural choice for certain kinds of comedy, and indeed eccentric ‘Englishness.’
The invitation to play Miss Marple, a lean, elderly, rather cerebral detective who specialized in the tracking down of murderers, was a serious challenge to Rutherford’s personal resolve. It was very obviously the kind of part she had vowed to have nothing to do with for fear it would tip her into madness and her immediate response was to turn it down. In her autobiography, and elsewhere, she insisted that she had ‘never wanted to play Miss Marple’ and that it was ‘several years’ before she consented to do so. The explanation she gave for her unwillingness to take on the role made use of the kind of half-truths that are to be found everywhere in the autobiography: ‘It was simply that I never found murder amusing. I don’t like anything that tends to lower or base or degrade.’ The deeper, personal reasons were known only to Stringer Davis and, presumably, a few distant relatives. Everyone else put pressure on her to change her mind.
The producer and screen writers were keen that she should play the part while the American backers of the films regarded her participation as essential to the whole project. From the start it had been decided that the films would be played for laughs, and not only did Rutherford have a suitably comic appearance, she was one of the few British comedy actresses already familiar to stage and film audiences in America. There, as also in Britain, she was admired most notably for such performances as the medium Madam Arcati in the film of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1946); Muriel Whitchurch, the headmistress in The Happiest Days of Your Lives (1950); Miss Prism in OscarWilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and a number of other fluffy, eccentric middle-aged English women.
Adamant at first that she could not play Miss Marple, various baits were held out to her in the hope that they would tempt her to change her mind. A special role for Springer Davis was to be written into all of the films. She was also to be given a free hand in deciding on Miss Marple’s appearance and behaviour. This assurance was important to her because, as everyone, and not least Agatha Christie, had pointed out, Rutherford looked nothing at all like the Miss Marple of the books. In the autobiography Robyns quotes Rutherford as claiming that Christie ‘saw Jane Marple as a tall, slender, fragile, pink-and-white lady with silver curling hair’ far removed from the violence and squalor associated with murder. Where exactly this argument came from is unclear: it most certainly was not Christie’s personal view of Miss Marple, though ‘pink-and-white’ is a description of Miss Marple’s complexion that appears in several of the novels and perhaps Rutherford fixed on this. Whether or not, Rutherford convinced herself that the physical dissimilarity didn’t matter and allowed the pressures to accumulate. The producer of the films, George Pollock, assured her that Miss Marple was concerned less with crime than with ‘playing a game - like chess - solving problems.’ Alison Uttley, the children’s writer and a good friend of Rutherford’s was consulted and decided that it would be all right for her to take the part because Miss Marple was a force for good in the world and that the stories carried ‘a moral value of a sort.’
On a more basic level, there was the very large sum of money she would be paid for playing the role. Rutherford admitted that this was a powerful temptation, confronted as she was in the post-war period, along with many other other high-earning artists (Agatha Christie notably among them), by crippling tax demands from the Inland Revenue. And, of course, so much of the pressure placed on Rutherford was to be proved, in commercial terms at least, triumphantly right. The first of the four films were a great success in both America and Britain. They raised Rutherford’s film profile and her earning power to unprecedented levels, settled her financial worries, and no doubt contributed to her being rewarded by Hollywood with an Oscar for her supporting role as the eccentric Duchess of Brighton in The VIPS (1963).
Not that that any of this can be fairly accepted as justification for the travesty on Miss Marple that the films committed. Rutherford played a willing and influential part in this and, and however reluctant she may initially have been, must bear much of the blame for it. She knew perfectly well that for psychological reasons she should not take the part and had insisted again and again that she didn’t want to. But now that she had been talked into it she was determined to shape the screen character in her own image, seizing every possible opportunity to do whatever she wished with the role. Not that the producers of the film would have been unhappy with this attitude. It was what they themselves wanted, and encouraged.
Regardless of how Miss Marple was presented in the books, Rutherford was allowed to go her own way, notably in choosing to wear ‘the kind of clothes’ that she herself would normally wear. Among various other unsuitable outfits, these included what she described as ‘a dear little blob of a deer-stalker hat.’ She justified this freedom to be herself as a way of enhancing ‘the credibility of Miss Marple.’She was also encouraged to initiate dozens of jokey scenes. On one notorious occasion the script called for Miss Marple to dance a waltz. Although Miss Marple was not exactly renowned for dancing of any kind, a sedate waltz would not have been out of line with her literary image. But on Rutherford’s suggestion the dance was changed to the twist, a current craze among teenagers. The presence of Stringer Davis was also constantly there to provide Rutherford with comfort and justification. In a manner completely alien to the novels, he was cast as a village librarian and assistant to Miss Marple, trotting around pointlessly with her, joining in every opportunity for comedy, and giving Miss Marple something of the air of a bossy wife rather than a formidable solitary spinster. ‘Delicious fun!’ was how Rutherford described one of the comic routines devised by Davis in which they both appeared disguised as railway platelayers. Even so, and dominant as the comedy routines were, the films had to contain murders and some of these must have been personally agonizing for Rutherford, most notably a scene in Murder Ahoy when one of the sailors is run through with a sword and then shown being hanged from the yardarm.
Lying behind Rutherford’s portrayal of Miss Marple, influencing, directing and most perniciously justifying the distortions, were widely held, largely meaningless suppositions about Christie and her work. Here, for example, is Jack Seddon, one of the script-writers, responding in 1974 to Christie’s criticism of the films. His views are quoted from the biography of Agatha Christie, The Mystery of Agatha Christie (1978) that Gwen Robyns went on to write some years after the Rutherford’s autobiography:
It is quite true, as Miss Christie says, that the screen
Miss Marple was nothing like her own creation. This
is because she wasn’t intended to be.The Miss Marple
of the books struck me as snobbish, unkind and cold,
with a stealthy, almost reptilian eye.
Therefore, Seddon says, they set about replacing this unpleasant creature, which it is safe to assume that very few readers of the novels would recognize, with a screen Miss Marple of ‘warmth and gusto.’ His ultimate justification was that the films were of ‘great financial benefit’ to ‘all the parties concerned - including I should have thought Miss Christie.’ There is no attempt by Seddon to conceal his own feelings of arrogant superiority. Not only is it assumed that Christie was incapable of understanding what she herself had written, but that it would have been pointless even to consider taking her views or feelings into account. The entirely negative qualities attributed to Miss Marple are, presumably, advanced as being transferable to Christie herself. And, anyway, why should she be bothered? All she had to do was take the money and keep quiet.
This scornful dismissive attitude, together with the assumption that Christie is so out-of-touch as a writer (except financially) that she and her work could expect to be treated with open contempt, was by no means restricted to the Rutherford incident. In her brief, clear-sighted survey of the critical reception of Christie’s novels in the 1930s, Celia Fremlin points to the peculiar phenomenon of Christie’s books being read admiringly by countless people while, at the same time, the journalistic treatment of her was ‘niggardly.’ Reviews, Fremlin writes, were often ‘unfair, mediocre, patronizing, or downright hostile,’ and even when ‘wholly laudatory’ they tended to be ‘arch in tone.’ This kind of arbitrary critical scorn is familiar enough. It is the archnes of tone Fremlin identifies that is so strikingly to-the-point. In journalism especially a common way of avoiding any tricky questions concerning Christie’s status or worth is to adopt towards her and her work an off-hand, over-familiar, gently mocking tone which has come to be regarded as perfectly acceptable. This is not simply something that went on in the far-distant bad old politically incorrect days, or simply the 1930s on which Fremlin focuses.
After all, Jack Seddon’s shameful defence of Rutherford’s Miss Marple was advanced in the mid-1970s, and Rutherford’s image of Miss Marple in the early 1960s also reinforced the scornful view that Christie was of no literary importance. Admittedly such open condescension is found less often today, but it still remains common journalistic practice to assume that Agatha Christie had very little idea of what she was writing and that, therefore, it doesn’t matter how her work is regarded or handled or distorted. Christie’s own reputation as a writer is very rarely even taken into consideration. The recent television adaptations of ‘Marple’ illustrate this all too clearly. It is quite impossible to imagine the work of any other woman writer of the time - Virginia Woolf say, or Doris Lessing, or Dororothy L Sayers or Josephine Tey come to that - being treated in this openly dismissive, contemptuous manner.
We will probably never know how, ultimately, Rutherford felt about her portrayal of Miss Marple. In keeping with the defensive tone of the autobiography, Robyns obviously had no alternative but to ensure that the whole curious event was given a happy ending. Rutherford is reported as saying: ‘I completely overcame my first tentative prejudices about Christie crime and became most fond of Jane Marple.’ She also announced she was happy about having linked the films with a general trend ‘of low-budget, light-weight comedies that sent people home from the cinema feeling warm and happy with life.’
It is, though, doubtful whether these comments can be accepted as a reliable final view of the Miss Marple affair. Not when we now know of the horrific family background that Rutherford carried hidden with her, and also of her personal determination not to risk her own sanity by appearing in violent film or theatrical roles. Was Rutherford happily reconciled with her decision to play the part of Miss Marple?
If anyone ever did know the true answer to that question it could only have been Gwen Robyns. Although she always remained strictly ‘loyal’ to Rutherford, Robyns, was occasionally willing to correct some of the inaccurate statements in the autobiography, as she did in the help she gave to both John Gielgud and Dawn Langley Simmons. If she had wanted to make any larger recantation she had the perfect opportunity to do so, after Rutherford’s death, when she wrote a biography of Agatha Christie, though here too loyalty to Rutherford largely prevails. It is, though, notable that Robyns gives no support to Rutherford’s claim of finally having come to terms with Miss Marple. Instead, she notes that during the preparation of the autobiography Rutherford ‘was aged and in such a depressive state of mind that her memory faltered,’ and it is in this same context, ‘shortly before her death’ that we get the familiar explanation by Rutherford, repeated from the autobiography, as to why she didn’t wanted to play Miss Marple: ‘I never found murder amusing. I don’t like anything that tends to lower or debase or degrade.’
It has, therefore, to remain finally undecided whether Rutherford really believed that she had done the right and ‘moral’ thing in playing the role of Miss Marple, or whether in agreeing to take the part at all, and for whatever reason, she had allowed herself to be involved in a process that she came to feel as personally degrading. Apart from Stringer Davis, who never said anything publicly at all about Rutherford and Miss Marple, only Gwen Robyns had the necessary inside knowledge to decide which of these options is likely to be the correct one, and she, deliberately one assumes, left the matter open to interpretation.
Place of publication is London unless otherwise indicated
Fremlin, Celia ‘The Christie Everybody Knew,’ in Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, edited by H.R.F. Keating (1977)
Gielgud, John ‘Margaret Rutherford,’ Dictionary of National Biography (1972)
Haining, Peter Agatha Christie: Murder in Four Acts (1990)
Merriman, Andy Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought with Good Manners (2009)
Robyns, Gwen The Mystery of Agatha Christie (New York, 1978)
Rutherford, Margaret An Autobiography as told to Gwen Robyns (1972)
Simmons, Dawn Langley Margaret Rutherford: A Blithe Spirit (1983)