A criminal matriarchy

A nasty combination of work and flu has kept me from either reading or writing much lately. However, while my chronic case of fuzzy-brain may well keep me from wrapping up my one outstanding review this weekend, it hasn’t stopped me from a little mindless poking around amongst obscure novels – in the course, of which, I discovered something rather intriguing.

Back when I reviewed Wilkie Collins’ The Law And The Lady, we had some discussion about the fact that the novel’s heroine, Valeria Brinton Woodville Macallan, was quite widely regarded as the first female detective in literary history. That was in 1875. Further research on the subject indicates that although his Valeria is undoubtedly a remarkable creation, declaring her “the first” may have been giving Collins a bit too much credit.

Interestingly, the world’s first real female detective – Kate Warne, employed by Pinkerton’s in 1856 – pre-dates her fictional sisters by a good seven years. There’s is some confusion out there about who the “first” may have been. It is generally agreed that she is the heroine of a penny-dreadful written by “Edward Ellis” (almost certainly a pseudonym) called Ruth The Betrayer; or, The Female Spy, which was published in 51 (!) parts before being collected into a single volume early in 1863. However, different accounts have her as Ruth Traill and Ruth Dowling. In the former, she is an actual detective, “a sort of spy we use in the hanky-panky way when a man would be too clumsy”; in the latter, she is a British agent sent to entice state secrets out of the Kaiser (!). While there is some overlap here, these two versions of the story don’t seem to be talking about the same woman. Ruth Dowling, for one thing, is an aristocrat of whom you cannot imagine the expression “hanky-panky” being used…even if hanky-panky is, in fact, exactly what’s she’s up to. I wonder if there’s any chance of hunting down a copy and finding out for sure..?

The first female detective about whom there is no doubt appeared in a series of stories later collected as—appropriately enough—The Female Detective. Andrew Forrester Jr (a pseudonym for James Redding Ware, who also wrote under his own name), posing as merely his stories’ editor, recounts the adventures of a female police detective, some fifty years before women were actually admitted to the British police force in any capacity. The detective in question, who tells the stories in the first person, also operates under a pseudonym, calling herself both Miss and Mrs Gladden and refusing to reveal either her true identity or her marital status: separating the “the woman” from “the detective”. M/s Gladden’s methods are those of science and logic; rarely does her success depend on either her luck or her gender. Intriguingly, the one criminal who eludes her is also a woman—the detective knows she is guilty but cannot bring her to justice.

Six months after this saw the publication The Experiences Of A Lady Detective (also known as The Revelations Of A Lady Detective), by W. Stephens Hayward. These stories also a female police detective—and the last such fictional character for many, many years. This time our heroine is one Mrs Paschal, in whose world the female detective is rare but not unique, and who belongs to a certain British organisation which has followed the European example of employing female operatives. Mrs Paschal is newly widowed at the outset, and takes up her untraditional role both as a means of supporting herself, and as a way of putting to good use her “unusual common sense”. Like M/s Gladden before her, Mrs Paschal tells her stories in the first person. She relies more upon intuition than her predecessor in the solving of her cases, and once in the course of her adventures she faints—but only after the criminals have been apprehended. On the other hand, in one story she needs to climb into a drain to follow a lead, and promptly divests herself of her cumbersome petticoats in order to do so.

Sadly, these quite revolutionary works proved something of a dead end. It was fully ten years later before Wilkie Collins’ Valeria Brinton appeared on the scene, with another long gap in our history after that. The real breakthrough—at least in England—did not occur until 1894. Catherine Louisa Pirkis was a successful novelist in her day, but her works have not survived—except one: The Experiences Of Loveday Brooke: Lady Detective. Pirkis’ Miss Brooke is thirty and unmarried, but indifferently so: her focus is purely on the profession via which she supports herself after being left “penniless and all but friendless”. Her choice of career cuts her off from those few remaining friends, and allows her to be entirely autonomous.

Miss Brooke was followed three years later by Dorcas Dene: Detective, written by George R. Sims, and a year after that by Dora Myrl: Lady Detective, by M. McDonnell Bodkin. George Robert Sims was a journalist, a playwright and a poet as well as a novelist; he was a crime buff, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle and, in some quarters, considered a likely Jack the Ripper. Matthias McDonnell Bodkin was an Irish nationalist and an MP, a barrister and a judge, a journalist and a novelist. His detective character, Paul Beck, is a gentleman amateur who has been described as “an Irish Sherlock Holmes”. One of the Beck stories featured Dora Myrl, who broke out to become a detective in her own right. Bodkin then achieved a first in the genre by marrying off his detectives (not so very Holmesian, then!), and having them produce a son, Paul Jr, who later carried on the family business. At the same time, sadly but probably inevitably, marriage and motherhood put paid to Dora’s own career.

It should be mentioned that Sims’ Dorcas Dene is married, too—but her husband is blind; detection is how she supports him, and is thus “acceptably” womanly. (Compare this situation with that of Collins’ Valeria, who also turns detective to help her husband.) Marital status, and the possible effects on marital status, was a knotty problem that authors continued to wrestle with even while their characters were getting a foot in the door in the realm of private detection. In 1910, Marie Connor Leighton, a prolific novelist, published Joan Mar, Detective: a work full of bewilderingly mixed messages, in which the final response to Joan’s brilliance as a detective is the fervent hope of another character (a conventional female to whom Joan has lost the man she loves) that she will, “Marry someone worthy of her who [will] make her happy.” It is probably not surprising, all things considered, that for many decades the most popular variety of woman detective was the spinster.

On the other side of the Atlantic, it was 1878 when Anna Katharine Green published the first detective novel written by a woman, The Leavenworth Case. It was a huge best-seller. Green continued writing mysteries for the next forty years. In her early works, her main detective is a police inspector called Ebenezer Gryce. In 1897’s That Affair Next Door, Gryce is assisted by a spinster called Amelia Butterworth, who appeared in two more of Green’s novels and is a clear forerunner to Miss Marple. (Agatha Christie admitted Green as an influence.) Towards the end of her career, Anna Katharine Green achieved another sort of breakthrough by writing a series of short stories featuring Miss Violet Strange, a society debutante with a taste for mysteries, who succeeds chiefly because no-one suspects her for a moment of being a detective.

In the meantime, throughout the early 1880s a private detective called Donald Dyke appeared in a series of popular stories in the Boston Globe. In 1883, however, Dyke was relegated to supporting character in a novel called Clarice Dyke, The Female Detective, in which Donald’s wife proves herself every inch her husband’s equal – if not his better – when he is abducted by a criminal gang. Clarice Dyke was published under the house name “Harry Rookwood”; no-one knows who wrote this novel, or the Donald Dyke stories – or even if they were written by the same person.

Another American, Mary Roberts Rinehart – possibly best known these days for creating “the Bat”, one of the inspirations for Batman – began publishing mysteries in 1908. The Circular Staircase features Rachel Innes, a maiden aunt who finds herself with a murder on her hands. Subsequently, Rinehart created Letitia Carberry, “Tish”, another spinster-detective, who became a staple of the Saturday Evening Post; and Hilda Adams, aka Miss Pinkerton, a nurse who collaborates with the police in several investigations. Adams, at thirty-eight, is the youngest of the bunch by a stretch – and even she is considered “middle-aged”.

The world’s most famous spinster-detective, Miss Jane Marple, appeared in 1926, to be followed two years later by Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Maud Silver. A reaction of sorts then took place, with Gladys Mitchell (for whom Agatha Christie was something of a “negative inspiration”, it seems) creating the twice-married Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley in 1929. Mrs Bradley does, however, fit the prevailing profile another way, being fifty-seven at the time of her debut. (Which did not stop her appearing in another sixty-odd novels over the next fifty-odd years.)

It seems to have been Agatha Christie who first followed Anna Katharine Green’s lead and bucked this trend, albeit tentatively, by having various young women involve themselves in crime – Prudence Beresford, Eileen Brent, Lady Frances Derwent. But the trend-buck to end all trend-bucks occurred in 1930, when the impossibly perfect sixteen-year-old detective Nancy Drew first appeared on stage. The evolution – and revisionism – of this character over the following decades constitutes a sociological case-study par excellence.

Of course, these are only the major headings. There were certainly other female detectives out there during all these years, in novels that have since fallen somewhat by the wayside, and not all of them middle-aged spinsters—at least, so we infer from Dorothy’s Sayers’ complaint about novels that featured females detectives who were “too young, too beautiful, too interested in marriage, and too often prone to walk into physically dangerous situations”. While there’s no doubt that at least in the early days, the female detective was often purely a novelty item, I suspect it’s also true that a chronological look at these works, with an examination of what these characters were and were not “allowed” to do, would be fascinatingly informative.

15 Comments to “A criminal matriarchy”

  1. I think this blog of yours is influencing my subconscious… last night I had a dream which I would describe as being a pastiche of a generic nineteenth century English novel.

  2. Mwoo-ha-ha-ha-ha!!

    • And speaking of blogness… I started writing a few entries in my own wordpiss blog — mostly photos of birds, as yet — even though I don’t yet know how I’d get anyone to read it.

  3. There’s something fishy about the claim that Ruth the Betrayer concerns a female secret agent sent to spy on the Kaiser. Germany wasn’t fully unified until after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, so there was no Kaiser yet in 1863. In fact, I’m not sure the future Kaiser was even the King of Prussia yet at that point– that may still have been during the period when he had to call himself “King in Prussia” as a sop to the egos of the other German princes.

  4. Well, you appreciate that I’m currently relying on second-hand accounts (and alas, no sign that Ruth is easily available, if at all). One such account uses inverted commas for “the Kaiser”, which might suggest that this is an interpretation of the character in question – that the character was meant to be the individual who would in time become the Kaiser.

    Believe me, I wish I was in a position to assess all this directly.

  5. An earlier candidate for first female detective – for first detective, actually – is Mlle de Scudéry, not the actual French writer, but the fictional version who is the heroine of ETA Hoffmann’s 1819 Mademoiselle de Scudéry.

  6. Well that wouldn’t be first detective overall, because the Chinese had detective stories in the eighteenth century, though they did tend to be police-procedural in form.

  7. Good point. First European detective.

  8. Yes, I suppose I’m falling into the trap of being horribly Anglo- – and Anglo-American – centric. I have read Mademoiselle de Scudéry but far too long ago (obviously) for it to impact on my memory in this context. I should take another look.

    And also, it does depend on how you define “detective”. There are other novels than those I mentioned, including several by Mary Elizabeth Bradden and others by Wilkie Collins, where a woman investigates a mystery. In this respect, Valeria Brinton represents the nexus between the amateur, setting out to solve a particular mystery for a particular reason, and the professional, via her logical examination of the evidence and the questioning of those involved.

  9. Speaking of anglocentrism, I wonder how much of the real development of the modern novel took place in French.

    • Perhaps it depends on what you mean by “real”? And “modern”? 🙂

      In the context of the late 17th century (and this blog), I’m actually interested on how little French writings seems to be impacting the English marketplace – Dutch and Spanish writings, yes, all the time; but other than Hattige, which is really an English political work using a French disguise for safety, I’m just not coming across French works the way I am those of the other nations. Whether the political situation was keeping French writing out of England, or whether there was a general objection to these works on principle as being French, they just don’t seem to have been as commonly available. I also suspect there was a divide in style and content between French and English (and pseudo-English) writing at this time.

      That said, I think the French “romances” were more of an influence on the respectable English novel that followed than is generally allowed. I mentioned before (though couldn’t remember author and title) a particular “rise of the novel” study which breaks away from the conventional view of the English novel as being defined by what it wasn’t, and traces all sorts of influences where they’re not supposed to be.

      The book is The History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England by James R. Foster. I need to re-read it and do a proper review, because against the standard history in this area, it’s something of an iconoclastic work.

  10. I had read all of Agatha Christie’s work years ago, and reread it every so often with great enjoyment. I discovered Miss Silver only a few years ago, and enjoy her work even more than Miss Marple. It’s interesting how Christie is universally known, while Patricia Wentworth is almost completely unknown.

  11. I’ve gone through quite a few “Golden Age” mysteries lately in my outside-the-goalposts reading. I’ve made a start on Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell, and I have Patricia Wentworth’s <Grey Mask, the first Miss Silver, on interlibrary loan. (Also R. Austen Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark, but that’s another school of detection altogether.)

    And yes, it’s hard to account for the vagaries of popular survival. And who decides who gets a TV adaptation? They’ve just started running the “Mrs Bradley” series here, which I blame for my current inability to get my hands on a copy of The Mystery Of The Butcher’s Shop.

  12. Poking at this from a slightly different angle, I think that one could argue that Prime Suspect and its spiritual descendants (broadly, a tough female detective dealing with institutional prejudice and a rotten love life as well as ‘orrible killers) still focus on the “female” more than on the “detective” side of the story. Possibly this is just the male-default in effect: if the script calls for “a detective” it’ll be a male one unless there’s a specific reason to make it female.

    (Of course when they end up not writing a “female role” but casting a woman anyway, you get Salt – or The Avengers, the 1960s TV series rather than the film.)

  13. I agree. And this subset includes such disturbing phenomena as The Women’s Murder Club, wherein we find supposedly hardened professional women who do nothing but talk about their boyfriends – or lack thereof – even while standing over dead bodies. The Oh my God it’s a girl attitude is certainly still alive and well, sadly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: