Little reviews on little (and big!) books

What Did It Mean to be a Female Detective in the Nineteenth Century?

on February 5, 2014

So I thought I’d do something a little different in this post rather than just examine one specific book. This post will be more about genre and character development of the female detective which I’ve discussed in previous reviews. My Victorian Literature Masters dissertation focused on several of the books I’ve already written about here, but it also opened my eyes to a lot of secondary reading on the subject too. Once I’d managed to wade through the amount of books on Sherlock Holmes, I finally found what I’d been looking for, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. In a way, I hope it’ll encourage you to go and read of these fascinating women that literary history just seems to have forgotten about. If you’d like any more information on any of the books I talk about in this post, please feel free to ask for details 🙂

It seems, in this day and age, the first names to spring to our lips when we’re asked about detectives are Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, or perhaps Hercule Poirot, but these characters were all influenced from earlier creations. The tales of Sherlock Holmes emerged in 1887, and since then have eclipsed all that came before it. Heather Worthington claims:

‘Doyle’s genius was to take the best from what had come before and refine it into a cohesive and compelling form, and so successful was his format that it superseded its predecessors and shaped its successors.’

The lady detectives had similar ways of working, and similar logical steps and sayings to guide them to their conclusions. If Doyle was shaping and refining from what had come before, this means that the Holmes stories could quite possibly have been, even if only slightly, influenced by the works of Forrester and Hayward. The reader sees similar cases involving women dressing as men, tunnelling into bank vaults, and in fact, a very similar usage of a famous Holmes saying. We read of Mrs Paschal saying ‘I had seen a few things in my life which appeared scarcely susceptible of explanation at first, but which, when eliminated by the calm light of reason and dissected by the keen knife of judgement, were in a short time as plain as the sun at noonday.’ Now, if anyone is good with their Holmes quotes, I deemed this to be reasonably similar to his statement where once you remove the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth – again, did Doyle take from what had come before and alter it?

Essentially, detective fiction was a boy’s club – no girls allowed. Without any role models in the real world on which to base their characters, authors had to attempt to construct their ladies from scratch, always facing the problem of whether a woman could believably be accommodated into the violent world of crime. Crime fiction was extremely popular during the Victorian period; anyone who has studied the nineteenth century will know how Victorian society loved reading of a good crime in the newspapers or gossiping about the latest murderer on the loose. This being said, the public still wanted to feel safe and this is where, as Dennis Porter believes, is where crime and mystery fiction scored. He thought the appeal lay in the fact that they ‘provide reassurance… because they deal in identifiable good and evil and end up punishing the latter.’ The appearance of the female detective must have been something of a revelation to nineteenth-century readers as real-life female policewomen didn’t even appear until towards the end of the century. Of course, in both Andrew Forrester and William Stephens Hayward’s texts, we read of a lady detective existing in the 1860s. With the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 and the Detective Police in 1842, it cannot be that these authors were depicting reality as women were only admitted as Police Matrons in 1889 with extremely minimal roles, nothing of the sort we see Loveday Brooke or Mrs. Paschal work on. The Victorian male has a reputation for believing that women could not show the cool and calm nerve and the rational mindset to function as a police officer, but time and time again, the female detectives in literature show how they can outwit the policemen and solve the case.

As most twenty-first century readers will know, the Victorian male’s view of what woman was capable of was anything but flattering. It was believed that the common perception was that women were to be confined to the passive, domestic side of life, whereas men were entitled to be involved with the active and the physical. However, the ladies we see in Forrester, Hayward, Pirkis, Green, and Collins all show they are the antithesis of this view, endeavouring to place themselves firmly within the active sphere. Stephen Knight makes an excellent point when he states:

‘the creators of the early women detectives were trying, against the tide of the male magazines as much as against social attitudes, to offer different and inherently subversive positions and values for detecting crime. They idea that they all pursued… was that crime can both threaten and be explained by a woman as much as a man.’

Personally, I think Knight sums up the entire debate in one quotation. These authors were simply trying to show something different to the norm. They wished to show that women could take on this previously masculine role and do just as good a job. They could gain access to some environments which would have been closed to male detectives, and can notice domestic clues which male detectives could easily miss. One of the definitions of ‘detection’ in the OED establishes it as the finding out of what tends to elude notice – notable when, as just stated, clues can elude a man’s notice. As I already mentioned in the review for That Affair Next Door, some matters needed a woman’s eye over the scene in order to examine it thoroughly. A woman’s added knowledge and her ability to traverse both the public and private spheres effectively unnoticed gave her the greatest advantage of all; nobody would ever suspect a woman. Val McDermid likens it to the old Monty Python sketch where they burst into a room and shout, ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ This made me chuckle whilst in the middle of this heavy-going dissertation 🙂 She is right though. Nobody expects the little old lady or the innocent looking young girl to be investigating a case, and this is where the female detective scores.

We’ve already seen a couple of 1860s female detectives, but for some strange reason, they disappeared then reappeared towards the end of the century. With no female detectives in reality, it was pretty easy to dismiss these ladies as some sort of fantasy fiction which I feel is a real shame. They all have a great drive for their profession, but come before the advent of the New Woman in literature. Granted, they all seem to exhibit a mixture of characteristics that could be attributed to the emerging modern woman e.g. independence, assertiveness, intelligence, but not one of them is definitively a New Woman. Perhaps, as W.H. Auden believed, these detective stories were simply designed ‘to be escape literature which provides a magical satisfaction.’ In many ways, I think he expresses it just perfectly 🙂

So never mind your Sherlock Holmes or your Miss Marples, give these other ladies a shot at the limelight and I think you’ll find they’re equally, if not more, deserving of it 🙂

Knight, Stephen. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. (London: The Macmillan Press, 1980)

McDermid, Val. A Suitable Job for a Woman: Inside the World of Women Private Eyes. (Arizona: Poisoned Pen Press, 1999)

Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981)

Worthington, Heather. Key Concepts in Crime Fiction. (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)


16 responses to “What Did It Mean to be a Female Detective in the Nineteenth Century?

  1. Janette MciInnes says:

    Most interesting.

  2. Thanks, a fascinating post – I had no idea Victorian female detectives existed! (and thanks to blogger Fiction Fan, who ‘liked your post’ so it appeared as a link on her blog. As i have been reading a Holmes and Watson pastiche, a timely link!

    • emma says:

      Thank you very much! And thanks to Fiction Fan too 🙂 That’s what I found as I was researching – female detectives seemed to get swept under the rug in favour of Holmes which is a real shame. Feel free to have a look at my other book reviews on the topic and let me know what you think! 🙂

  3. Great post — it’s something I’ve been interested in, but really know little about (I also appreciate your citations!). In general, it appears that many literary detectives or other stories/novels of deduction keep getting pushed aside for Sherlock Holmes (probably because of the popularity of the TV show). I keep getting slightly annoyed at these documentary shows about Holmes citing him as the first detective in literature.

    • emma says:

      Thank you! I found it to be a very little-researched topic so it seemed to be a great area to study and write about 🙂 I have a few more books which would really be of interest to you then – I could direct message you the names on Twitter? I feel the same though – I have nothing against Holmes but there were so many who appeared before him who exhibited many of the same skills and they’ve been pretty much ignored! If documentaries actually corrected it to be perhaps the first great popular male detective, then I might understand but in no way was he the first in literature! It’s funny the things that annoy you, isn’t it? 😛

  4. pagegrrl says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for the insights! I look forward to looking these lady detectives up!

  5. This is a great book idea. Take it and run before somebody else does. 😃

  6. An excellent discovery, you are something of a literary detective. Were any of the female detectives created by women writers?

    • emma says:

      Haha thank you very much! 🙂 Well, That Affair Next Door was written by a woman but there are a couple of others by men like Grant Allen which were very popular. It’s notable that a lot of the female detectives were written by male authors though 🙂

  7. […] It Mean to be a Female Detective in the Nineteenth Century?” is bookwormchatterbox’s most recent post and she delves into the genre and highlights specific examples. Read it. It’s well-thought […]

  8. What’s up, yeah this article is genuinely nice and I have learned lot of things from it
    regarding blogging. thanks.

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