Caroline: Before there was Miss Marple, Mrs Bradley or Harriet Vane, there was Amelia Butterworth, Dorcas Dene and Loveday Brooke. Although Victorian detective fiction is most associated with a male character that tends to overshadow all else — Sherlock Holmes — there was a thriving tradition of women detectives among nineteenth century authors. Some of the lady sleuths I mentioned there were employed directly by the police; others worked for private agency or entirely on their own. What they all haven common, though, is irrepressible confidence and a desire for adventure. They track down murderers, foil thefts, trail criminals in disguise, travel the world in pursuit of suspects, and altogether solve mysteries in a highly entertaining way.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a twentieth century whodunnit where a woman takes the lead on an investigation, as a professional or an amateur, then you’ve partaken in a tradition that has its roots in the swashbuckling lady sleuths of the 18o0s.
Today, we’re going to meet detective fiction’s Victorian pioneers.
Welcome to a new year of Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Two points of housekeeping before I get into the episode proper. First, a reminder that if you would like to listen to the podcast with adverts or interruptions, you can become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive a private podcast feed of ad free versions, as well as bonus episodes. Secondly, if you can get to the UK on 1 February and would like to see me performing a live episode called “A Complete History of Detective Fiction, Sort Of”, I will be doing that at the PodUK convention in Birmingham at 2.30 pm. Secure your ticket for my show at shedunnitshow.com/events, which also gets you into the whole day of podcast live shows. I’ll also have a table in the foyer all day where you can come and say hello and buy a Shedunnit pin. Hopefully see you there. Now, back to the nineteenth century:
The title of “first detective story” is a disputed one. It’s probably most often awarded to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, a short story first published in 1841 that sees a sleuth, C Auguste Dupin, solve a case using “ratiocination”, or a process of deductive reasoning. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House from 1853 was the first western novel to include an investigation by a police detective, although Inspector Bucket’s murder investigation is very much a minor plot. It’s Wilkie Collins, though, who usually takes the honours for the first proper detective novel with 1868’s The Moonstone — TS Eliot certainly thought it so, anyway. There are other possibilities too, but the point is that those middle decades of the nineteenth century is when the idea of a story propelled by this new figure of the “detective” who investigates and resolves a crime over the course of the story. Something that all of these early whodunnits have in common, though, is that their central sleuths are men. Which, given the time that they come from, isn’t that surprising — married women in Britain couldn’t even legally own property until 1882. No wonder nineteenth century detection, like so many other professions at the time in both fiction and reality, were the sole preserve of men. That’s certainly what I thought until I started researching this topic more thoroughly, and found out how wrong I was.
Olivia Rutigliano: In the 1860s, there are a couple of lady detectives who just appear there. There’s one Mrs. Pascal, there’s one named Mrs. G. And these are the earliest. Suddenly there are these very capable characters who use their natural feminine intuition and other qualities to solve crimes on behalf of society, to fix problems on a grand scale.
Caroline: This is Olivia Rutigliano, a writer and researcher who is currently finishing a PhD on the detective in nineteenth century entertainment at Columbia University in New York. The surprising thing about Victorian women detectives, she says, is not that they are rare. It’s that there are so many of them.
Olivia: I think a lot of people think that a 19th century female Sherlock Holmes would be a sort of one off a sort of rare occurrence and exciting moment in the Victorian era.
But the fact that there were so many, I think speaks to a very overwhelming interest in having female characters do the kind of exciting work that the male detective characters of the age got to do. And certainly they were very, very many male detectives.
Caroline: In real life, detectives were a relatively new innovation. The Metropolitan Police Service in London was founded in 1829, and a detective bureau was added in 1842. But it wasn’t until 1919 that the first woman was officially hired as a police officer (i.e. not a volunteer). Women weren’t allowed to make arrests until 1923. The women detectives of nineteenth century fiction, then, were complete fantasies — their real life counterparts wouldn’t arrive until the next century.
The academic Joseph A. Kestner once wrote that the existence of fictional lady detectives “constituted a profound fantasy of female empowerment”. It’s a phenomenon that expresses the tumultuous, overlapping changes that were occurring at the time to women’s societal roles, Olivia says.
Olivia: Some of the later lady detectives, the ones who emerge in the eighteen eighties through the early 20th century as coinciding with a phenomenon that prioritizes women’s advancement politically and socially. While that while there are suffragettes marching for the right to vote and while women are entering the workforce in increasingly competitive capacity.
Caroline: The women detectives are part of a larger embodiment of this trend in popular culture, especially fiction.
Olivia: There’s a body of literature classified as new woman literature. The new woman is that the sort of bicycle riding, bloomer wearing progressive young woman who emerges as an archetype but based in reality in circa the turn of the century and there’s a lot of literature about women who get abortions. Women who work in professional capacities and who deal with with the sort of resistance society has to progress and sort of iconoclasm and difference. And so the lady detective literature sort of seems to be swept up in that.
Caroline: It also expresses the contemporary thinking about gender in other respects. The perceived difference between men and women are an important aspect of how these women detective characters are conceived, as we’ll see later. Here’s Olivia with an example from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which she considers to be essentially a detective novel with Mina Harker acting as the main investigator.
Olivia: There’s a fascinating moment in Dracula where Van Helsing is talking about how the vampire has a child brain. And then he breaks off to say that Mina, the woman who performs the detective function in Dracula, actually has like a man brain, which is a which is pretty rare. And everyone’s like, oh, yeah, Mina definitely has a man brain. So all of these different factors and these anxieties about these questions were represented in the female detective character who is to me, this hallmark of, you know, questions about female potential, just sort of trying to burst out of this murky shell.
Caroline: Of course, grappling with notions of women’s role and potential is not unique to detective fiction. There are plenty of female heroines in other types of literature.
Olivia: Criticism of Jane Eyre and Gothic literature vastly in which there are female heroines who do also investigative work to a certain degree of criticism that also exists, then there’s always been a pushback against these sort of strong female protagonists. What we might call in the age of Netflix, the strong female lead. This character has been around for a very long time. But in the Victorian era, with the specific profession of the detective, there seems to be a way in which all of these things that people have been wondering about, women sort of emerge. And it’s in its most vibrant and in their most vibrant and groundbreaking forms. So these qualities have been percolating in literature and women’s focussed or sensation or Gothic literature for a long time. But in this this moment. When the detective character emerges, this is when it all sort of comes to a head.
Caroline: One of the catalysts for this is the rise of women’s education — at the same time as these women detectives were first appear in print, women students were campaigning to be allowed to study at universities for the first time, with the aim of entering professions that were previously only open to men. This all feeds into the detective fiction too:
Olivia: As women are marching for the right to vote and as they are attempting to enter the workforce in more competitive capacities as journalists and in other related fields, as they are certainly educating themselves it stands to reason that there should be a literature of support surrounding this.
Caroline: There’s a sense in some of these stories that some of these women detectives have outpaced society. They’ve managed to acquire a high level of education and accomplishment, but there’s not really any jobs available that they can respectably do. So the writers of fiction come up with the perfect solution: the overeducated young woman should become a detective.
Olivia: There are women who are these lady detective characters are incredible, very smart, very accomplished young women who are looking for places to use their exemplary skills and their wonderful educations, but also who are looking for social opportunities that are less restrictive. So Grant Allen’s Lois Cayley is a young woman, I believe, with a Cambridge degree, graduates penniless but as a spirit for adventure and becomes a bicycle saleswoman throughout Europe and and embarks on a series of adventures that require her deductive skills. And she solves mysteries and falls in love. There’s this really wonderful, unconventional social narrative accompanying that. So it seems like the detective profession seems to be a way for these exemplary women to do things in society that they might. The detective said, I’ll rephrase, as the detective profession seems to be a place for these women to use their exemplary skills, which, given the barriers women face in society at this time, are somewhat useless. A woman who graduate with a university degree and then goes to work in some sort of capacity that won’t fulfil that education will have skills that are better deemed excessive for the detective profession puts those skills to use in a way that is really exciting and progressive.
Caroline: There are lots of examples of this. Dora Myrl, created by the Irish lawyer and politician M. McDonnell Bodkin, first appears in a collection of short stories 1900. She’s a medical doctor with a maths degree from Cambridge, which is a fantasy in itself, since women were not awarded full degrees by that university until 1948. Dora can’t find work as a woman doctor, so she becomes a private detective, riding a bicycle and carrying a gun. Hilda Wade, created by Grant Allen, is a brilliant nurse who solves medical mysteries because advancing further in her main profession is very difficult. And then there’s Mina Harker, a talented school teacher who keeps the plot of Dracula advancing with the sheer force of her logical brain.
Olivia: So in all of these books, specifically detective fiction and then the ones that are sort of on the fringes of detective fiction, including Dracula. There are these very well educated, very clever problem solving and. Keen women who move the narrative forward so so education or like investment in educating oneself is a big shared trait of the lady detectives of this time.
Caroline: After the break: why you should never trust a woman’s intuition.
Although the changes to women’s role in society helped to create the conditions that produced Victorian fiction’s women detectives, the characters aren’t just empty political ciphers. There’s far more to them than that. Many of the best ones, like my personal favourite, CL Pirkis’s Loveday Brooke, are fully fleshed out professionals with as many investigative skills and quirks as their male counterparts.
Something that many of these characters have in common, though, is what the author’s tend to call “women’s intuition” — the idea that women have the innate skill to divine things about their surroundings, just because they are women.
Olivia: All of these lady detectives are also able to do their work because of this quality is abstract quality called women’s intuition. And no one seems to know what to do with this, except that a bunch of female detective characters are able to almost psychic. We start when there’s a situation where something has gone wrong or Senate relations gone awry, or that someone is an unsavoury character. Hilda Wade in particular is discussed as having women’s intuition that is too strong. It’s actually jokingly or maybe not jokingly referred to by another male character as being witchcraft. She’s so spot on, she’s so incisive and able to figure out just sort of exactly who somebody is.
Caroline: If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because the megastar detective of Victorian fiction does it rather a lot himself.
Olivia: I mean, Sherlock Holmes can look at you and tell you, you know, your job, what you eight in the last 24 hours, what kind of person you are, why you’re coming to his door to inquire about his services, et cetera, et cetera. And that’s referred to as being highly calculating and deductive. Right. It’s sort of a scientific mode of inquiry, whereas a woman can sort of feel a woman in that position, can tell you everything about you as well. But it’s given this much more emotional quality than than a thoughtful or cognitive quality. Even then, Hilda Wade. And Sherlock Holmes are basically doing the exact same thing. But with the way it’s construed, it is particularly gendered so that women sort of get the female character sort of seem to get the softer explanation.
Caroline: When a male detective displays this kind of extraordinary perception, it’s an impressive deductive skill. But for the women, it’s just “intuition”.
For all that these characters originate in a time of progress and change, there’s still a lot of prejudice and limitation placed upon them. This frequently occurs in their origin stories — only rarely do the women in these stories become detectives because it seems like a fun choice of profession, or because they think they can excel at it. No, a respectable woman can only do this because all other options are closed to her, mostly because of a sudden reversal of fortune or a personal tragedy.
Olivia: I think there are a couple lady detectives who sort of wind up in the profession because they can’t be stay at home. Domestic figures. You know, someone’s husband dies, Dorcas Dene’s husband goes blind, a fiancee has been shot. These women who wind up in the detective profession sort of need a way to earn money. And society sort of justifies their entering the workforce because they have to be the sole breadwinner.
Caroline: There are some, though, who are detectives by choice alone.
Olivia: But then there are other characters like Lois Cayley, for example, and Judith Lee, who are unattached. Madeleine Mack also like a beautiful or alluring, exciting lady detective who’s not held back by these domestic constraints in a way that is very exciting. Madeline Mack is able to take down these criminals. She’s brilliant. She’s gorgeous. And she never breaks a nail while she is taking care of all this business.
Caroline: Some of these perceived limitations and the emphasis on respectability stems from the fact that many of these stories about women detectives are written by men, who are both enchanted by the potential of progress but also reflecting their attachment to the status quo in their characters. A major way this comes out is in how many of these characters end their investigative careers when they get an offer of marriage. Here’s Olivia again:
Olivia: I would say that a lot of the lady detective characters who were written by men are sort of sort of extra unrealistic? They don’t want to transgress social mores too much and they’ll stop doing detective work, for example, as soon as they get married or find someone to provide for them. Both Lois Kelly and Hilda Wade, who were both written by Grant Allen, the science writer and friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, are quick to end their swashbuckling adventures and cross country exploits when they have an opportunity to marry someone
Caroline: The women detectives are revolutionary in their way, but their also a product of the time in which they were created.
Olivia: I think the lady detective character captures is really tough double bind of being a woman in that in this particular historical moment, which is, you know, having a kind of they’re able to have a kind of freedom. That women do not normally have. But also they’re restrained from doing too much of that.
Caroline: These lady sleuths, though, laid the foundation for what was to follow. In fact, if you think about it, one of the most famous female detectives of the golden age between the world wars could even have overlapped with the likes of Dora Myrl.
Olivia: And you know, I miss Marple is herself an older woman when she emerges in the Agatha Christie canon. Right. And so she’s you know, she actually might be of this generation like the tail end of the generation. But, you know, you can imagine a sort of young Miss Marple solving crimes alongside a late lady to a late Victorian lady detective character like Judith Lee. So I like I think that the character of Miss Marple sort of allows for this generational transition. And, you know, and the way we culturally look received Miss Marple as the sort of ironic figure this this woman who embodies the irony of how women are perceived, especially if they’re older or if they’re single.
Caroline: The Victorian women detective characters didn’t die out so much as morph and change into something new as the world changed. The idea of the woman sleuth as we see her today in countless modern crime novels and TV shows was born in that era of bloomers and bicycles and shaped by the lady detectives of the 1920s and 30s.
Olivia: I think you’re thinking about Miss Miss Marple as maybe having career flashbacks to that sort of the burgeoning heyday of Victorian lady detective fiction allows us to see this as being a very long process, a very long transition of women entering this kind of. Women becoming these kind of characters more and more. I mean, Harriet Vane is an exciting sort of new type of woman. I mean, she’s she’s and she’s not a flapper, but she’s she’s a 20th century woman. In a way that this Marple seems to be. It seems to be hanging on to a previous generation. Like literally just by existing because she’s older. It’s time to hand the baton to the next legion of lady detectives.
Caroline: If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of the likes of Dora Myrl, Lois Cayley or Mrs Paschal, the answer is just that an awful lot of these stories and novels have yet to be rereleased in modern editions. You can find plenty of the stories collected in anthologies — Penguin have done a couple of good ones, and there’s another called The Dead Witness I would recommend. But you have to go looking for them, whereas if you’re at all interested in crime fiction you’ll trip over a Sherlock Holmes related story, film or episode every time you turn around. These Victorian lady sleuths are worth seeking out, though, both because they’re just tremendous fun in their own right, and for what they tell us as the ancestors of our favourite women detectives of later generations.
Olivia: I think our culture is primed to receive these lady detectives, but I don’t think they know that the culture knows too much about them yet. I think the world needs this. We have we’ve had a lot of Irene Adler adaptations and that we need the other ladies to take centre stage.
Caroline: They’re all there, waiting for you. Bodices, bicycles and all.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about my guest and all the books we mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/victorianpioneers. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear a version of the show without interruption, advertising or intermission, you can do that by joining the Shedunnit Book Club. As well as ad free listening, there are also bonus episodes, a discussion forum and a monthly detective novel reading group. Find more details and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Next time on Shedunnit: Teaching Sleuthing.