Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Mystery of the Vanishing Lady Detective

The female detective seems to appear in popular fiction before we encounter her in real life. Once the detective officer was established as a popular hero of sensational fiction by the 1860s, it was but a short step to add more spice into the story by dressing this officer in a petticoat.

In real life, from the 1850s onwards, there were women working as 'police matrons' at police stations to look after and search female suspects. They were usually police sergeants' wives. In 1883 the Metropolitan Police employed the first woman as a female visitor to keep an eye on female convicts on license and women under police supervision. In 1889 fourteen women were engaged to look after female prisoners at the police courts. In The Invention of Murder (2011) Judith Flanders writes: "two women were hired to look after female prisoners at police stations in 1883" (p. 298) (Her information clearly differs from that of the Open University website). The first female police officer worked in Portland, Oregon in 1905. In the UK it was only after WWI that women joined the police force as officers.

Women's Police Service of volunteers was started in 1914, and two years later women were employed as typists by the Metropolitan Police. When an official of the Met was asked by the journalists of women would ever serve as police constables, the official famously replied: "No, not even if the war lasts fifty years." In December 1918 plans were made for new "Metropolitan Women Police Patrols." (This information about the history of the police is from the Open University website and the website of the Metropolitan Police. For more information see also Police Detectives in History, 1750-1950. Ed by Clive Emsley and Haya Shpayer-Makov, 2006 ).

This is the official history of women police. But the obvious question is whether fiction reflects the reality more than we are aware of? There is an argument to be made that women were occasionally employed to assist in investigations on a freelance basis. Until 1884 detectives, and before them Bow Street runners, sold their services as thief-takers and unravellers of tangled skeins to anyone wanting to employ them. It would only make sense that there would be situations where a woman's assistance would come in handy.

British Library has very conveniently re-published the adventures of the two earliest known professional female detectives in fiction. Andrew Forrester's The Female Detective was published in May 1864. At its heels followed The Revelations of a Lady Detective (October 1864) attributed to William Stephens Hayward. Both books have first person narratives, the Female Detective is Miss Gladden and the Lady Detective is Mrs Paschal. They are consummate professionals and a pair of tough cookies. The two collections of stories give a good view into the roots of detective fiction. They stand in the confluence of three traditions: sensational, gothic melodrama and the spine-tingling reporting of real crime can be seen to give way to the equally sensational romance of the newly invented detective police with its scientific methods.

There were surely other detective heroines in addition to Miss Gladden and Mrs Paschal. Flanders mentions Ruth the Betrayer (1862-3) by Edward Ellis (The Invention of Murder, p. 298), and she makes a reference to women attached to a private inquiry office in Collins's Armadale (1866). In "The Lenton Croft Robberies" (1894) by Arthur Morrison, the detective says that "Of course there will be a female searcher at the Twyford police-station." There were also female detectives in stage plays (see The Invention of Murder, pp. 380-1). We know of a tradition of amateur detectives in sensation fiction (Marion Halcombe in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White in 1860 or, even much earlier, Susan Hopley in The Adventures of Susan Hopley by Catherine Crowe in 1841). By the 1890s there were plenty of female detectives fiction: Dorcas Dene, Detective by George M. Sims (two series of stories in 1897 and 1898); Amelia Butterworth by Anna Katharine Green (3 novels: That Affair Next Door [1897], Lost Man's Lane [1898] and The Circular Study [1900]); Loveday Brooke by C. L. Pirkis (1894). Where are the lady sleuths of the 1870s and 1880s?

In his introduction to The Revelations of a Lady Detective, Mike Ashley mentions Mr Bazalgette's Agent by Leonard Merrick in 1888 and, in the US, "The Lady Detective" by Harlan P. Halsey in his dime-novels, possibly in 1880. Are there more?

Margaret Kinsman is surely right to say that there is a whole hidden history of female detectives in the 19th century. They appear so special to us, because we only know of a handful of women detectives from that period. (Kinsman spoke at a panel discussion on the female detective at the British Library 8.3.2013.)

In her book about female detectives in fiction, Kathleen G. Klein argues about Miss Gladden and Mrs Paschal that "These characters are anomalies" - they have no precedents, and no followers (Klein. The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre, 2005, p. 29). "Certainly, the lack of additional similar characters and the absence of further British female private detectives until the 1890s diminishes the status of these precursors through silence and omission." (Ibid.)

Are Miss G and Mrs P oddities and mere gimmicks to attract readers, or are they part of a lost tradition of Victorian female private eyes? Can you solve the mystery of the vanishing lady detective?

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