Little reviews on little (and big!) books

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green

on November 13, 2013

This has got to be one of my most favourite novels, and I would encourage anyone who has never heard of it to try and get their hands on a copy! I did extensive work at University on the rise of the female detective in Victorian Literature, and the protagonist of Green’s novel, Miss Amelia Butterworth, definitely has to be credited as one of the early sleuths, appearing in 1897. In fact, many critics have deemed Miss Butterworth to be the stereotype for the spinster sleuth in literature, showing her face almost 30 years before Agatha Christie arrived on the detective fiction scene – move over Miss Marple! 🙂 The novel centres on the meddlesome old maid Amelia, an older woman from a respected family, who becomes involved (or rather makes sure she involves herself) with finding the murderer of a woman in a house next door belonging to the Van Burnams. Of course, I won’t ruin the surprise of who the murderer really is, but it has to be said that they certainly would not have been unearthed without Amelia’s help, or interference, as the male detective of the novel, Mr Gryce, would claim. Miss Butterworth uses her powers of female intuition and her skills of small talk and gossip to interrogate witnesses and gain information which would not have been open to the male detectives. She uses the conception that nobody would ever suspect a woman to be involved with such a situation, and triumphs as a result. Amelia notices facts about the condition of the victim’s shoes and hat which provide invaluable clues to the investigation – as the men at the scene remark, ‘Women’s eyes for women’s matters!’

Some would say that Green purposefully bases her novel upon the actions of a spinster in order to subvert society’s expectations of her; ironically, the woman who is isolated in Victorian society and is effectively good for nothing is the one who solves the case. This in turn reveals to the reader the poor treatment of the spinster in that time period, and instead points the finger of ridicule at the community who takes her for granted. The stereotypical opinion of the ‘old maid’ is dismissed within this novel and I feel this is what makes it so compelling. Granted, a re-reading of this story will not evoke surprise at the outcome, but I believe that it is worth re-visiting Miss Butterworth again in order to observe her development as a strong-willed character in literature; she is a woman who will not accept defeat. Many people see Amelia as a joke, but she is the main character of her own novel and inevitably has the last laugh – a satisfying conclusion where the little old lady outsmarts all of the professional men. I have yet to read Amelia’s further adventures with Detective Gryce, Lost Man’s Lane, and The Circular Study, but I am sure they continue to show how adept and determined a woman can be once she sets her mind to resolving a case.


2 responses to “That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green

  1. ‘Women’s eyes for women’s matters’, what a thing to say … so I’ll definitely be getting a copy of this book. Thanks, Emma!

    Great blog, especially if, even just occasionally, you’re going to be introducing folk like me to lots of the less well-known Victorian literature.

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