Posts tagged ‘Anna Katharine Green’


The sensational Miss Braddon

Off-blog, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately; not merely Golden Age, but Silver and Bronze as well. And since I’m apparently genetically incapable of simply reading anything, this side-hobby has turned into an investigation into the evolution of the detective novel. The fact that the majority of mystery novelists took pride in the accuracy of their stories makes these early novels a fascinating repository of information about the process of law and the state of criminal investigation in both Britain and the States at the time of their publication. Did you know, for example, that although the technique was officially adopted at the turn of the century in England, it was well into the 1920s before fingerprints were widely employed as an investigative tool in America?

Inevitably, this course of steady-ish reading has also found me creeping ever further backwards, trying to determine “the first” detective novel on both sides of the Atlantic—an exercise in wading in intriguingly muddy waters. It is evident that the detective story, that is, the short story that dominated this school of fiction through the second half of the 19th century, and the detective novel evolved down two quite distinct pathways; and while the latter was necessarily influenced by the former, it did not grow out of it. Instead, the detective novel was an offshoot of the sensation novel, which appeared as a recognisable genre during the 1850s.

It is easy enough to see how this came about: the sensation novel was often about a central mystery, the unravelling of a dark secret by circumstances; all that was required was for an individual, either amateur or professional, to devote himself—or herself—to the deliberate pursuit of a secret. Understandably, then, in the early days the line between “the mystery novel” and “the detective novel” is drawn in shades of grey. “Detectives”, as a recognisable real-life entity, were still becoming established; and the ambivalence of the public towards these professional investigators is very clear in the literature of the day, where they tend to be viewed as a necessary but distasteful phenomenon. This is particularly reflected in the tendency of early detective novels to be set amongst the middle- and upper-classees, with the investigation itself often regarded as an outrageous invasion of privacy, and in which the identity of the guilty party is as likely to be hushed up to avoid a scandal as exposed in open court. (Climactic suicide is popular.)

In America, the first detective novel was long held to be Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, from 1878, in which a police detective recruits a gentlemanly young lawyer as his assistant specifically because, as a gentleman, he has access to people and places that the working-class policeman does not. However, while it might rightly be regarded as the first modern detective novel, The Leavenworth Case is not the first per se, an honour held by Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter, published in 1866. This murder mystery does indeed feature a professional private detective, who is associated with the police but not of the police, but betrays its sensation novel roots by having the detective assisted by his clairvoyant young daughter. Victor followed The Dead Letter with The Figure Eight, which has a young man turning amateur detective in order to clear his own name, after being accused of the robbery-homicide of his uncle. He eventually succeeds in solving the robbery, while the murderer is exposed in sensation novel terms, via a subplot involving somnambulism.

Meanwhile, over the pond, the dogma is wrong again (as dogma is with remarkable regularity). Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, published in 1868 and featuring Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, has long been considered “the first English detective novel” (even though the detective doesn’t solve the crime). Recently, however, the good people at the British Library have unearthed and reprinted The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (aka Charles Warren Adams), which was serialised in 1862 and then published in book form in 1863, and features a startling number of the features we associate with modern detective fiction, including the use of chemical analysis.

Of course, no sooner was this rediscovered novel trumpeted as “the first” than a number of still earlier contenders for the title were offered up by interested parties—the most cogent challenge, or so it seems to me, coming from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail Of The Serpent, published in 1860.

M. E. Braddon is a novelist for whom I have enormous affection and admiration; a talented novelist whose choice of the sensation novel as her preferred vehicle has tended to overshadow her very real abilities. And while I need another reading-thread like a hole in the head, I have taken her appearance at this critical juncture in my off-blog reading as a sign that I should promote her to Authors In Depth.

So!—I will be starting with The Trail Of The Serpent, before (at some point) stepping back to look at her first, long-forgotten novel, The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana.

Behind the sensation novelist who attracted both praise and outrage for her choice of material was a woman who, in Victorian terms, lived a life still more outrageous and shocking. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s parents separated when she was still a child, she and her brother and sister remaining with their mother. (Braddon’s brother, Edward, who possibly deserves a biography of his own, was Premier of Tasmania from 1894 – 1899.) The separation was amicable, and for some years Henry Braddon continued to support his family; but the Braddon finances had always been rocky, and finally the money stopped coming.

To help support her family, Mary Braddon began to write short stories. At the same time, at the age of only seventeen, she began a career on the stage under the name “Mary Seyton”, and found some success, albeit mostly in provincial companies. While touring, she continued to write and publish, trying her hand at plays and poetry as well as fiction. In 1859, her first attempt at a novel, The Octoroon, was serialised, and she gave up acting to concentrate on writing.

In 1860, a second novel, Three Times Dead, was serialised. It was not a success with the public, but it brought Braddon to the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who had already published several of Braddon’s short stories in his magazines. Inspite of its flaws, in Three Times Dead Maxwell recognised a talent worth cultivating, and he offered to help her revise the text. Reworked as The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon’s second novel found an appreciative audience and some critical attention. She continued with her novel-writing, and 1862 published Lady Audley’s Secret, a cause célèbre of the first order. From that notorious pinnacle, she never looked back. In 1866, using her own profits and with John Maxwell’s encouragement, she founded the Belgravia Magazine, an affordable vehicle for serialised novels, poems, travel narratives, biographies, and essays on fashion, history and science.

Meanwhile, Braddon’s private life was following a path every bit as scandalous as her novels.

The attraction between Mary Elizabeth Braddon and John Maxwell was almost instantaneous, but Maxwell was already married—in a manner of speaking: his first wife (also Mary, uncomfortably enough) had suffered a severe mental breakdown some years earlier, and as a consequence had been institutionalised for a period of time, leaving Maxwell with the care of their six children. Under the laws of the day, a divorce was out of the question. In 1861, Braddon and Maxwell began living together unmarried.

I like to think of Mary Elizabeth Braddon as the sensation novel’s answer to George Eliot. Only George Eliot didn’t write better than eighty novels while raising twelve children.

As soon as she moved into his house, Braddon took over the care of Maxwell’s existing family (disproving all the step-motherly myths in the process, it seems), and over the following years bore seven children of her own, of which six survived. One of them, William Babbington Maxwell, born in 1866, would eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a prolific and popular novelist. In 1874, the tragic Mary Maxwell died in Dublin. As soon as they decently could, Braddon and Maxwell got married—and the former’s novels began to be trumpeted as “—by MRS MAXWELL.” Amusingly, it didn’t stick: Braddon was by then far too famous, not to say infamous, under her maiden name.

For all of her success, there is still some uncertainty over exactly how many novels Braddon did write. Remarkably, in spite of her popular and financial success amongst the middle- and upper-classes, with Maxwell’s encouragement Braddon continued to write (albeit pseudonymously) for magazines aimed at the working-classes. In recent years a great deal of scholarly effort has gone into unearthing and preserving these hitherto unrecognised works, and is still ongoing.

There are, however, plenty of novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon for us to be going on with in the meantime.


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.