“My brother, my only connexion in the world…was declared a robber and a murderer—the worst of murderers, for he had murdered his benefactor—he was a fugitive, hiding from justice, and a price was set upon his head—our name was branded with infamy… Would it not be better, I said to myself, to end my life at once, than drag on a miserable existence, exposed to insult, want, and every kind of wretchedness, till a lingering death terminates my sufferings, or till the cruelty of the world forces me to some act that might justify the ill opinion it entertains of me?
“But then, again,” I said, “if I could clear Andrew’s character? If I could live to see the day when we might lift up our heads again, and cry to the world, ‘You’ve wronged us!’ For my heart still told me he was not guilty; and that if he were alive, he would surely come forward and vindicate himself; and if he were dead, his body would yet be found, and his wounds speak for him. Would it not be worth while to live through all the wretchedness the scorn of the world could inflict on me, to hail that day at last?”
Regular visitors would be aware that I have been looking into the roots of detective fiction, and the emergence of the female detective in particular. Various studies in this area have identified a number of “prototype” works that do not themselves fit the parameters of the detective novel, but which were important stepping-stones along the evolutionary road.
Catharine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence (which was published in America as Susan Hopley; or, The Adventures Of A Maid-Servant), is one such work. Not only in its publication date, but much more importantly with respect to its handling of its subject matter, this novel sits almost equidistant between the “Newgate Novels” of the 1820s and the sensation novels of the 1860s, and represents a vital step in the process: the domestication of crime fiction. Adventures Of Susan Hopley is as fully steeped in crime as any of the thief- or highwayman-focused works of earlier in the century, but its sympathies are with the victims of crime, and its perspective stays predominantly with its “good” characters—“good”, because while this novel is technically Victorian, it retains the pragmatic attitude of the Regency, with its morality rendered in shades of grey.
Catharine Crowe herself led a life rendered in shades of grey. Like many female novelists, she wrote to support herself; but unlike many of her fellows, she needed to support herself because she had separated herself from her husband, a situation that seems to have had no adverse effect upon her career. (As I say, “Victorianism” hadn’t kicked in yet.) Crowe started out writing plays and had a modest success, but it was Adventures Of Susan Hopley that established her reputation. She became part of a literary circle that included William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Martineau, with whom she shared views on female education, and followed her breakthrough work with several more well-received novels (one of which, Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights, also shows up on checklists of early detective fiction; watch this space).
From the late 1840s onwards, however, Crowe’s life took a different path, as she became increasingly interested in the paranormal. These subjects came to dominate her writing: she wrote numerous ghost and other horror stories which were later anthologised, and achieved another best-seller in Night-Side Of Nature; or, Ghosts And Ghost-Seers. They also may have been behind a bizarre incident when, in 1854 – at least according to gossip – Crowe was found wandering the streets of Edinburgh naked, apparently convinced that “the spirits” had made her invisible. Crowe herself angrily denied this version of the story (and that she was naked) in a letter to a newspaper, but it was too good to be given up and widely circulated; Charles Dickens, supposedly a friend of Crowe’s, was one of those who propagated it. (A compromise version, that Crowe became delirious during an illness and wandered off, seems to me the most likely explanation.) Consequently, search for information on Catharine Crowe today and almost invariably it is the Edinburgh incident (naked version) rather than anything about her writing that is returned.
So let’s try to re-balance the ledger a little, shall we?
Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a story told in retrospect; told, in fact, after the death of its heroine at a ripe old age. It begins in the voice of Harry Leeson, who knew Susan from the time he was a child, and who employed her as his housekeeper until the time of her death:
Worthy, excellent Susan! methinks I see her now, in her neat, plaited cap, snuff-coloured stuff gown, clean white apron, and spectacles on nose, plying her knitting-needles, whose labours were to result in a comfortable pair of lamb’s-wool stockings for my next winter’s wear, or a warm waistcoat for poor old Jeremy; or in something, be it what it might, that was to contribute to the welfare and benefit of some human being; and I believe, if it had so happened that the whole human race had been miraculously provided to repletion with warm stockings and waistcoats, that Susan, rather than let her fingers be idle and not be doing something for somebody, would have knit jackets for the shorn lambs and blankets for the early calves…
As he reminisces, dwelling fondly on Susan’s honesty and kindness – and her valued companionship, particularly after he was widowed – Harry recalls the moment that it occurred to them not merely to talk over the adventures of their youth, as they were very much in the habit of doing, but to write them down. What follows is their joint narrative of a series of extraordinary events…
Susan Hopley and her younger brother, Andrew, are the only children of a day-labourer on a farm. When the lingering illness of Mrs Hopley brings the family into straitened circumstances, they are relieved by a Mrs Leeson, whose young son, Harry, becomes attached to the Hopley children. Susan herself is taken into Mrs Leeson’s service, while Andrew is placed with a Mr Wentworth, Mrs Leeson’s uncle. After the death of Mrs Leeson, Mr Wentworth vows to provide for Harry, and also takes Susan into his own household.
Mr Wentworth, a wine-merchant, earlier took into his business a distant relative, Mr Gaveston, with whom the young Fanny Wentworth fell in love – not entirely to her father’s satisfaction; though as he is forced to admit, he has nothing concrete to allege against him. Nevertheless, Mr Wentworth takes steps to discourage his daughter’s suitor, informing him blandly that he intends to make Harry Leeson his main heir with respect to the wine-business, and that the bulk of Fanny’s substantial fortune will be vested in trustees and tied up in her children.
Gaveston expresses no dissatisfaction with these arrangements, nor evinces any desire to break his engagement. Shortly afterwards, however, young Harry Leeson begins to be plagued by mysterious accidents… Indeed, twice the boy’s life is in immediate danger, once in a riding incident, once from drowning. In the second instance he is rescued by Andrew Hopley, who risks his own life in the process, and is regarded more warmly than ever by the Wentworths as a consequence.
Andrew’s health having been affected by his watery adventure, Mr Wentworth proposes that the young man accompany himself, Fanny and Harry on a short trip to the seaside. In their absence, two memorable experiences befall Susan. The first is a call at the house by a stranger of distinctive appearance, who demands to know when Mr Wentworth is expected home – and who, confronted by Susan’s clear gaze, manages to put out her candle as they are talking:
“When I opened the door, I saw by the light of the candle I held in my hand, a stout man in a drab coat, with his hat slouched over his eyes, and a red handkerchief round his throat, that covered a good deal of the lower part of his face; so that between the hat and the handkerchief, I saw very little of his features except his nose; but that was very remarkable. It was a good deal raised in the bridge, and very much on one side; and it was easy to see that whatever it had been by nature, its present deformity had been occasioned by a blow or an accident. He did not look like a common man, nor yet exactly like a gentleman; but something between both; or rather like a gentleman that had got a blackguard look by keeping bad company…”
Two nights later, after receiving a letter from Andrew full of oblique animadversions against Mr Gaveston, Susan has a deeply disturbing dream:
“I thought I was sitting in master’s arm-chair by his bed-room fire, just as indeed I was, and that I had just dropped asleep when heard a voice whisper in my ear, “Look there! who’s that?” Upon that I thought I lifted my head and saw my brother Andrew sitting on the opposite side of the fire in his grave clothes, and with his two dead eyes staring at me with a shocking look of fear and horror—then I thought he raised a hand slowly, and pointing with his thumb over his shoulder, I saw two men standing close behind him; one had a crape over his face, and I could not see who he was; but the other was the man with the crooked nose, who had rung the bell two nights before. Presently they moved forwards, and passing me, went into my master’s dressing-closet, which was behind where I was sitting. Then I fancied that I tried to rouse myself, and shake off my sleep, that I might look after them, but I could not; and when I turned my eyes again on the chair where Andrew had been sitting, instead of him I saw my master there with a large gash in his throat…”
By daylight, Susan shakes off the effects of her unnerving experience, only to find herself confronted by an even mote distressing reality. A carriage arrives, bearing a constable, who demands that Susan, Mr Jeremy, the Wentworths’ butler, and Mrs Jeremy, the housekeeper, accompany him to the town of Maningtree—and that Susan bring with her any letters written to her by Andrew during her absence. Upon their arrival at Maningtree, Susan finds herself being pointed out and stared at. She and the Jeremys are taken into the inn, where they find Mr Gaveston waiting for them. It is he who breaks the shocking news to Jeremy: Mr Wentworth is dead, robbed and murdered, and Andrew Hopley has absconded. Furthermore, a dairymaid called Mabel Lightfoot, who Andrew was courting, or trying to court, is also missing from home. The authorities, putting two and two together and getting five, have concluded that Andrew committed his crime in order to fund his flight with Mabel. However, while it was true that Mabel favoured Andrew above any of the other suitors of her own class, that did not mean she favoured him much: the lovely young girl, though not flighty, was notorious for having ideas above her station; and the idea that she might have eloped with a young footman on fifty ill-gotten pounds is simply incredible to her fellow-servants:
Jeremy was silent. There was something in all this inexplicable to him. He was an uneducated, but a very clear-headed man, and one who, to use his own phrase, was rarely deceived in man or woman. Of Andrew he entertained the highest opinion, founded on observation and experience, having known the lad from his childhood; whilst to Mr Gaveston he had an antipathy so decided, that he used to liken it to the horror some people have of cats; and declare that he always felt an uncomfortable sensation whenever he was near him. Then, as for Mabel’s having gone off with Andrew…which, in short, he could not help suspecting was the insinuation Mr Gaveston was driving at, he was as sceptical about that as the young man’s guilt. He not only believed her incapable of countenancing or taking a part in the crime, but he was satisfied that she cared very little for Andrew; and was altogether actuated by views of a very different nature. He was even aware that Mr Gaveston himself had offered to pay her more attention than was quite consistent with his engagement to Miss Wentworth…
And as the investigation proceeds, another bewildering fact is established: Mr Wentworth’s new will has disappeared. Consequently, his entire fortune descends to his next-of-kin, his daughter, Fanny…
It is Mr Jeremy to whom the unenviable tasks of breaking the news to Susan falls. Stunned beyond measure, Susan holds hard to her belief in her brother’s innocence, insisting vehemently that he will return and clear his name; or that, if he does not, then he, too, must have been murdered, perhaps in defence of the master to whom he was devoted. But in that case, where is his body?
The tragedy of Mr Wentworth’s murder soon takes on another, more personal dimension for Susan: she realises to her grief and shame that the name “Hopley” has become infamous; that unless Andrew can somehow be cleared, she too will forever afterwards carry the stain of his guilt. The grief-stricken Fanny Wentworth, although she has full belief in Susan’s own integrity, tells her reluctantly that she must leave the household. Furthermore, though William Dean, the young man by whom Susan is being courted, declares his willingness to stand by her regardless, she knows that this is not fair to him and breaks off their engagement. The one tiny silver lining in Susan’s misery is that she has a loyal friend in Dobbs, the late Mrs Leeson’s housekeeper, now in service in London, who finds her a position with a young married couple. Bidding farewell to everything she has known, Susan collects together her meagre possessions and sets out to begin a new life…
Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a novel impossible to summarise, and I’m not going to try. (Hallelujah! they cry.) With its lengthy, rambling narrative, its extensive cast of characters, its bewildering plethora of intersecting plotlines and the starring role played by “coincidence” in the unravelling of its various mysteries, one might be tempted to call it “Dickensian”—except that, to all intents and purposes, Catharine Crowe got there first. (Crowe name-checks Dickens at one point, commenting in a footnote that an incident in her work does resemble one in Master Humphrey’s Clock, but was written first; Master Humphrey’s Clock was the serial publication mixing fiction and miscellanea from which Dickens eventually extracted the novels The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.) Susan Hopley is the key to most – not all – of the novel’s plotlines, mostly due to enforced changes in her employment, and she remains throughout our main focus-figure. However, at various points Susan disappears while other lengthy narratives are interpolated, often in the form of characters telling their own histories, or the histories of others (which, in long-standing novelistic tradition, they couldn’t possibly know in such detail). Although again and again the reader is at a loss to know exactly how a particular narrative fits into the overall tapestry, at length – at length – each of these individual stories plays its part in identifying the murderer of Mr Wentworth and clearing the name of Andrew Hopley.
That said, it is stretching a point too far to call Susan Hopley a “detective”, as one of those studies into early detective fiction does. Though through her intelligence, powers of observation and retentive memory, Susan is instrumental in clearing her brother’s name and bringing the real murderer to justice, she does not actively set out to uncover the truth and vindicate her brother. For one thing, she hasn’t the time, or the resources: she’s a working girl whose first object has to be to earn an honest living. There is some amateur detective work done in this book, however: the active parties are Mr Olliphant, the late Mr Wentworth’s solicitor, and in particular Mr Simpson, originally Wentworth’s head clerk in his wine-business, who has consequently known Walter Gaveston since he was a boy and wouldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him. Separately and together, and with invaluable contributions from Susan, these two men slowly begin to penetrate the fog of mystery surrounding the murder of their employer and friend.
The reader of Adventures Of Susan Hopley, it may be said, is left in far less doubt than the characters in the novel as to the identity of the guilty party – parties – who are of course Gaveston and his friend with the broken nose, briefly identified for us as George Remorden, a well-born young man gone to the dogs. The murder of Mr Wentworth is not the only crime of which they are guilty over the course of this novel, not by a long shot: their careers encompass murder, theft, fraud, blackmail and bigamy, as well as more social sins such as seduction and abandonment. And even more frequently than they commit crimes, the two of them change their identities, hopping from plot-thread to plot-thread in the process and repeatedly showing up again as somebody else. In most cases, there is only that distinctive nose on the face of Mr Remorden to alert the reader to the fact that this has happened; Walter Gaveston himself is a lot harder to spot. Nor are these two the only characters with this chameleon-like tendency. Again and again individuals disappear from one narrative and show up in another, and only the most alert of readers will always be aware that this has happened.
In short—Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a novel that demands the reader pay strict attention at all times. And possibly keep a scorecard.
In spite of the astonishing amount of crime that occurs throughout its pages, this is not a novel without a certain sense of humour, which is heightened by Catharine Crowe’s knack for deft character touches. Here, for example, we find her playing with the “Jew money-lender” stereotype so common in novels of this era (and sadly, for many years afterwards):
Mr Lecky, though still calling himself a Jew, and adhering pretty closely to his own people, as he professed to consider them, had so deteriorated from the type of his ancestors by the frequent alloy of Christian blood they had grafted onto his stock, that he had lost all the distinguishing characteristics of those generally handsome infidels; whilst nature, probably thinking that he could make out no good title to the features of any other sect, had evaded the difficulty by giving him an assortment that would have been unanimously repudiated by every denomination whatsoever…
I’m also fond of this brief visit with an inexperienced opera-goer:
“Look! he says she shall be mistress of his heart, but that, being a prince, he cannot marry her.”
“Then I wouldn’t listen to a word more he had to say, if I were her,” said Miss Jones.
“You think so,” said Rochechouart; “but you wouldn’t be able to help it.”
“Indeed I should,” replied the young lady.
“Not if you were in love,” he said tenderly.
“But I’m not in love,” answered Miss Jones.
“That alters the case, certainly,” said the duke. “It’s very extraordinary,” thought he; “she’s not the least like any other woman I ever met with;” and he fell into a reverie, forgetting for a time to continue his explanations.
“He’s gone,” said Miss Jones.
“Who?” said the duke, starting.
“The prince,” said she. “Has she dismissed him?”
“Yes,” replied Rochechouart; “she has sent him away discomfited; and there is the shepherd returned to try his fortune again; but she can’t bring herself to listen to him.”
“I don’t wonder at it,” returned Miss Jones. “Who would, after being made love to by a prince?”
“I admire your sentiments,” said Rochechouart, with animation.
Friends of the pragmatic “Miss Jones” know her better as Mabel Lightfoot…
Then of course there’s this piece of inadvertent humour; and while the fate of the young woman in question is sufficiently dismal, it’s not as bad as this passage might seem to suggest:
“It never rains but it pours, you know,” observed Mr Cripps. “It’s a pity Jemmy arn’t old enough for a husband. I dare say the count would be able to find one for her amongst his great acquaintance.”
“Oh! the gentleman whom Miss Livy is about to make happy, is a friend of the count’s, is he?” said Mr Glassford.
“Partiklar,” answered Mr Cripps; “as soon as the wedding’s over, they are all to go together to the count’s castle in Transylvania.”
But while there is plenty of humour in Adventures Of Susan Hopley, intentional and otherwise, there are also some things it takes very seriously indeed. One of the things I find most fascinating about it is how much of its narrative it devotes to the concerns of working-class people, and how sympathetic it is to the difficulties faced by those trying forge a life for themselves at that level. Indeed, I wonder how many 19th century novels have, in a non-didactic context, a servant as their main character? – or spend so much time pondering the fragility of “a good character”? – or show so clearly how servants are at the mercy of the vagaries of their employers? When Andrew Hopley is accused of Mr Wentworth’s murder, Susan finds herself being treated like a leper by the “nice” people:
An elderly lady connected with the family had come down to stay with her; and Susan saw too plainly that the stranger did not regard her with such indulgent eyes as her kind young mistress did. “Good heavens! Fanny,” she heard her say, as she closed the door, “how can you think of countenancing that horrid woman?” whilst she shrunk away as the poor girl passed her, as if she feared to be polluted by the contact of her skirt.
This sort of thing happens so often that Susan develops a terrible sensitivity, expecting insults where none are intended, and sure that the whole world knows of her shame-by-association. In one of our labyrinth of subplots, Susan becomes involved in the affairs of a young wife falsely accused of shoplifting. Discovering a likely alternative suspect but not sure what to do, she carries her theory to Mr Olliphant, whose name she knows as her late employer’s lawyer, who agrees to help but warns it will be difficult to find the evidence they need:
“Well,” said Mr Olliphant, “I’ll think over the business, and see what’s best to be done; and if I require your assistance, I’ll send you a penny-post letter. What’s your name?”
“Susan Hopley, sir,” she replied.
“Hopley, Hopley,” reiterated he. “I’ve heard that name before. Hopley! What is there connected in my mind with the name of Hopley?”
Poor Susan’s cheeks crimsoned, and if the lawyer had looked in her face at the moment, its expression might have recalled what he was seeking to remember…
But thankfully Susan has not been entirely forsaken. Her fellow-servants, who know her and Andrew as people, as friends, never lose their faith and never let her down. She stays in touch over the years that follow with both Dobbs and Mr Jeremy, and always has someone to turn to for help. The text suggests that this sort of safety-net, with an exchange of care and services amongst people who usually cannot afford to give money, is a common thing at this social level – and rarely found at a higher one.
Adventures Of Susan Hopley makes no bones about the fact that, as a young woman alone in the world, Susan faces some formidable challenges, even with her friends to assist her. A major theme of this novel is what Fanny Burney once called “female difficulties”: the vulnerability of women in a world where men make and break the rules at will. Things are hard enough for Susan, who can at least earn her own living; ironically, they are often even harder for women of a higher class, who lack the practical talents of a good servant. We see all sorts of victimisation over the course of the narrative, including Susan being robbed of everything she possesses the moment she sets foot in London. A young wife finds herself trapped and powerless within a loveless marriage; another has a husband so insanely obsessed with “honour” that tragedy inevitably results. A wealthy girl is married for her money and discarded at the first opportunity; a poor girl is seduced and abandoned, and later finds herself the target of a murderous plot.
The latter plot-thread is perhaps the single most remarkable thing about this novel, with a “fallen woman” becomes an important supporting character, within a narrative that refuses utterly to condemn her. Circumstances conspire to leave a respectable young woman, Julia, homeless and destitute; consequently, she becomes easy prey for the man who has been pursuing her for some time, and who does not hesitate to take full advantage of her desperate situation. Julia bears the man a daughter, and it is made clear from that point that everything she does is with a view to caring for the child, even allowing herself to be palmed off onto another man, a friend of her “keeper”, for whom she cares nothing. (Certain readers may think they recognise these two “gentleman”, who at this point are going by the names of Mr Godfrey and Mr Dyson.)
After Susan is robbed she is taken in for the night by Julia, and given a bed, something to eat, and some money, before being taken to her new place of employment. Though she soon comes to suspect that her rescuer is not a married woman, in spite of her small child, Susan neither judges nor scorns her, still less refuses her assistance. Later, the positions of the two are reversed, and Susan is able to repay her debt of care. Placed at length in a small business, Julia lives an exemplary life; her “sins” are dismissed as circumstantial, not ingrained. Of course young women would rather earn an honest living, argues the text, in effect, and wouldn’t it be nice if the world didn’t make it so very difficult?
Before she reaches her happy ending, however, Julia has two very narrow escapes. One is from the machinations of Walter Gaveston, aka Mr Godfrey, who discovers to his horror that Julia’s main benefactor, and now good friend, is none other than Mr Simpson, Mr Wentworth’s former clerk, and begins to worry that the girl knows rather too much about his movements at the time of Mr Wentworth’s murder… Mr Simpson’s acquaintance with Julia begins when he is one of the two men responsible for saving her life when, abandoned by lover, having pawned everything possible, with no money left and with her child on the verge of starvation, and the two of them turned out onto the streets, Julia takes one of the only two options open to her…
Matters became daily worse and worse: the child recovered from the maladies, but remained weak and helpless; pining for want of air and exercise, and craving for food which could not be supplied. The love for the infant, which had hitherto given her energy, and enabled her to support this hard struggle, now that she saw that the struggle was in vain, and could no longer be maintained, only added a thousand-fold to her despair.
At length the dreaded night arrived, and found her houseless, penniless, without a friend to turn to turn to, or a hope to cheer; and with the fearful agony of those cruel words, “Mamma, I’m so hungry,” for ever wringing at her heart.
For several hours she wandered through the streets, the inhospitable streets, that furnish nothing to the penniless wretch that cannot beg—amongst crowds of busy and incurious strangers, hurrying on their several errands and rudely brushing with their elbows, as they passed, the fainting mother and the starving child;—on she wandered. Ever and anon the broad, grey sheet of the gloomy river, with its sable canopy of fog hung over it, appearing betwixt the divisions of the streets, and reminding her that beneath its dark waters there was a last refuge for the destitute—a bed wherein once laid, no sound can wake them, no cold can shiver them, no hunger tear their entrails, nor cries of starving infants pierce their hearts.
Who shall condemn her that she sought its rest..?