Thursday, 30 May 2013

"Once More the Cool and Crafty Female Detective" - Mrs Paschal

Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864) is attributed to William Stephens Hayward (1834-1870). His name did not appear on the original title page. Most cheap pot-boilers were published anonymously or 'by the authors of' earlier well-selling stories. Little is known of Hayward, but what is known indicates that he was a bit of a rogue (see Steve Holland's blog Together with Samuel Bracebridge Hemyng, Hayward was associated with the popular "Anonyma" series of sexy and sensational stories. They all feature fearless heroines tackling compromising and dangerous situations.

 Revelations of a Lady Detective has ten cases told in a first-person narrative by Mrs Paschal, a female detective employed by the police. The title, promising revelations, is suggestive of naughty secrets and the cover image of the book (assuming that the 2013 reprint by the British Library retains the cover of the 1864 original) shows quite a saucy, pretty woman with a knowing expression, lifting the hem of her dress to show her petticoat and shapely ankles, with a lit cigarette in her other hand.


 Mrs Paschal's adventures are exciting, melodramatic and entertaining. The narratives flow well and there is plenty of action and violence. There are a few logical errors: in "Fifty Pounds Reward," Mrs Louisa Eskell is once called Laura, and later in the story one policeman mysteriously becomes "policemen." In "The Lost Diamonds" Karl Fulchöck's father is dead, but a couple of pages later he dutifully keeps sending him part of his salary. Each story wrings pretty much every last drop of suspense and emotion out of the scenes, sometimes to a ludicrous but amusing degree. It is not clear why the mysterious countess has to dress up as a man and wear "a hideous black mask" when she enters the basement in her own house.  It is also not clear why Mrs Paschal walks into the show at the gipsy fair only to see her suspect Lambrook perform with three rats. Hayward comes up with some terrific chapter titles, and often the action in the chapter is twisted suitably to provide substance to the title: "Eating Rats," "A Very Bad Woman," "Torture," and "Chained to the Wall" are my favourites.

There are many excellent scenes of melodrama; Mrs Paschal is several times spectacularly in danger of her life. In "The Mysterious Countess" she is lost in underground tunnels hiding from the countess: "What could I do? To attack her ladyship would, I thought, be the forerunner of instant death. It would be like running upon a sword, or firing a pistol in one's own mouth." In "The Secret Band," an evil mastermind Zini, the leader of an Italian secret society, amidst flashes of lightning and thunder, attempts to throw Mrs Paschal into the teeth of a gigantic water-mill: "If any one were by chance to fall within its compass, life would soon be extinct, and a mangled corpse would before long be floating down the river." And if her own life is not in danger, Mrs Paschal is witness to some sensational scenes. In "The Nun, the Will and the Abbess" she sees as young novice tortured by the evil abbess. In "Found Drowned" she chases a culprit trough a moonlit graveyard. In "Which is the Heir?" she watches a man kill a rat with his teeth and pretend to eat it: "the crunching of the bones was plainly audible." In "Mistaken Identity," she pretends "to be by no means shy" and plays the role of a wife of a French criminal turned detective in the company of a criminal gang in an ale house. And in "Stolen Letters" she takes a job as a letter-sorter at the General Post-Office ("For the sake of appearances two other women had been introduced at the same time." The men scowl at them "as if we intended to take the bread out of their mouths."), and she witnesses the culprit escape by means of "the tubes of the Pneumatic Company." In short, Mrs Pashcal is no shrinking violet and keeps getting herself into and out of tricky situations.

At the opening of the first story, Mrs Paschal arrives to see Colonel Warner "head of the Detective Department of the Metropolitan Police," he, according to Mrs Paschal, was the first police chief to employ female detectives following the example of "Fouchė, the great Frenchman" (Joseph Fouchė [1759-1820] was Minister of Police in France 1799-1810 and again in 1815).  Although most of her assignments are handed to her by the Colonel, Mrs Paschal is in the detective game to earn her living, and wherever she goes she keeps her ears open for potentially profitable cases. In "The Lost Diamonds" she is posting a letter at the General Post Office when she overhears two people mention that Duke of Rustenburgh has lost his diamonds: "I immediately began to think how I could turn the information to account." In "Found Drowned" she reads about the death of Laura Harwell in a newspaper: "I made up my mind to compete for the reward." Her eye is usually on the reward and almost all the stories mention where it will come from. Only some of the cases are official criminal cases, many of them are problems individuals bring to the Colonel, who then passes them to Mrs Paschal as matters of a private investigation. Many cases, like ""The Lost Diamonds" are "hushed up" and a deal negotiated ("The Nun, the Will and the Abbess", "Fifty Pound Reward") or the culprit is allowed to emigrate ("Who is the Heir?" and "Mistaken Identity"). Mrs Paschal is also aware that she that she is competing against other detectives. To recover Duke Rustenburgh's diamonds, "I was aware that in engaging in this matter I was undertaking a contest with the keenest wits and most fertile brains in the force." ("The Lost Diamonds"). She often takes a different course from her colleagues and solves the cases beating them in the detective game.

Mrs Paschal does not tell us much about herself. She is "verging on forty." She has worked as a barmaid ("Incognita"). Of her past, she says: "It is hardly necessary to refer to the circumstances which led me to embark on a career at once strange, exciting, and mysterious, but  I may say that my husband died suddenly, leaving me badly off." ("The Mysterious Countess") She enters households in the guise of a domestic servant, she "appeared of a mature age" ("The Nun, The Will, and the Abbess"), she talks of "old people like myself," and a young adventuress suggests she could be mistaken for her mother ("Incognita"). Mrs Paschal describes herself as "always happier in harness" ("Stolen Letters"), as "the cool and crafty female detective" ("Incognita") and says that "owing to frequent acquaintance with peril, I had become unusually hardened for a woman." ("The Secret Band"). She is smart, efficient, capable and unshaken by a corpse with a crushed head ("He could not bend down and kiss his wife's brow, for in its entire state it did not exist."), by an old woman falling down the stairs to her death or by seeing a man reduced by lightning to "a scathed mass of charred humanity" (all events in "The Secret Band"). Mrs Paschal is happy to bribe a housekeeper ("The Mysterious Countess"), steal paperwork from an abbess ("The Nun, The Will and the Abbess"), to enter the Pig and Whistle in the Seven Dials ("Mistaken Identity"), examine a drowned body ("Found Drowned")  and even abandon her "obnoxious" crinoline when chasing a criminal ("The Mysterious Countess"). There is nothing to stop this woman from pursuing her investigations.

Mrs Paschal is great fun, and a heroine of this calibre deserves equally formidable female adversaries. There is Lady Vervane, the eponymous "mysterous countess," who was once "on stage" and married "the notorious and imbecile nobleman" who soon died. Lady Vervane is beautiful, rich and resourceful, and "looked upon [Mrs Paschal] very much as a lady in the Southern States of America looks upon a slave." ("The Mysterious Countess"). There is also the evil and greedy abbess in "The Nun, the Will and the Abbess" and the pretty, avaricious Fanny Williams aka 'Incognita' who has Mrs Wareham's son in her clutches. Finally, we have the formidable Mrs Wilkinson, wife of the "keeper of a pork and butter shop" in "Fifty Pounds Reward." She corrupts poor, "muddled" Mrs Louisa Eskell into fraudulently spending her husband's money. This is an interesting story because it deals with a wayward and independent woman who speaks her mind. Mrs Wilkinson is large and loud, we get a long description of her gigantic body in most unflattering terms. It is worth quoting in full:

"She was enormously stout, and to such a size did her corpulence extend, that at the first glance the beholder imagined he was regarding a phenomenon who by some accident had escaped from the caravan in which she was carted from fair to fair, to be shown to the curious as a monstrous mass of humanity, whose adipose tissue had grown to a size altogether beyond reasonable or decent limits. In a house in which beetles abounded she would have been invaluable, for few of the poor insects could have effected their escape from the crushing tread of those huge feet, which more resembled the hoofs of an elephant or a gouty rhinoceros than the lower extremities of a woman. The bloated and swollen lumps of flesh which in her composition represented hands, were like patches of dough formed into half-quartern [sic] loaves before they were subjected to the heat of the oven. Her face might have been made by the amalgamation of two turnips and a pumpkin, with two pig's eyes deeply sunk in the fatty mass. Nature was to blame for having created such a montrosity, or if creation was unavoidable, for permitting it to cumber the earth, who surface groaned beneath the imposition." ("Fifty Pound Reward")

The narrative goes on to describe her voice and mannerisms with equal relish.                    
Mrs Wilkinson has been corrupted by her husband, who "was accustomed with gross indelicacy to speak before his wife as he would have done before his sporting friends, and the consequence was that her mind became vitiated, and her manners contaminated." Louisa Eskell falls under the spell of Mrs Wilkinson. John Eskell tries to control her: "I am the proper person to regulate such things, and to tell you who you shall know and who you shall not." When Louisa stamps her foot at her husband and protests: "a woman who submits to a man is little better than a fool," John Eskell threatens her: "If this sort of behaviour on your part continues, I shall send you home to your mother." And all this takes place under the chapter heading "A Very Bad Woman."

It is very difficult to know how to read "Fifty Pounds Reward." It is funny, quaint and just what we expect of the presumably horrendously prim and proper, misogynistic Victorians. When Mrs Paschal arrives to sort out the mess of the forged signature on Mr Eskell's cheque, she demonstrates her no-nonsense approach and marches to the Wilkinsons' shop and arrests Mrs Wilkinson in front of gaping customers as "an accomplice with one Louisa Eskell" for forgery. She is giving no consideration to poor Louisa's reputation informing the neighbourhood of her crime, even when she knows that Mr Eskell is quite happy to forgive his wife. Mrs Wilkinson "howled out her penitent prayers for forgiveness with a submission that was as servile as it was disgusting." The matter is resolved privately at the Eskells' house. Mrs Wilkinson pays John Eskell twenty pounds in compensation for making Louisa go on a shopping spree. Presumably Louisa also gets to keep her purchases. The Wilkinsons lose their reputation, have to sell their shop and end up "in a state of abject poverty." 

Mrs Paschal is a strong female character, but it would be misguided to read her adventures as in any way proto-feminist. They are, however, melodramatic in the best tradition of penny-dreadfuls. They are full of gruesome violence and Gothic scenes of mystery and terror. Their year of publication (1864) and the similar casebook format invite a comparison between Hayward's Mrs Paschal and Forrester's Miss Gladden. Mrs Paschal and her adventures are drawn with much stronger colours than Miss Gladden's. Miss Gladden's endeavours at detection are puny and pale when set alongside the thickly slapped-on melodrama and sensationalism of Mrs Paschal's investigative triumphs

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