Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Lady Geraldine - a Female Detective with a Side-Kick Husband

Richard Arkwright’s second novel The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery is a carefully plotted murder mystery with a married couple doing the detective work. The first person narrator George Pen Owen begins the story describing his idyllic boyhood days spent with his best friend Harry Collingwood, days seemingly filled with vigorous destruction of the local wildlife: killing crows and sparrows; hunting foxes, rats and moths, ferretting and, fishing (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 1). George displays the odd (to modern eyes) but common Victorian mixture of admiration for the natural world and eagerness to butcher it:

“An enthusiastic collector of nature's treasures, I was thus able to add many a rare and novel specimen to my fernery, my store of butterflies, and my display of stuffed birds. I shall never forget my first sight of the Osmunda Regalis.” (Ibid.)

Osmunda Regalis, Source: Wikipedia
The inspired descriptions of Monmouthshire (George’s home) and the Fenlands (Harry’s home) in the opening chapter may have been inspired by Arkwright’s own life. There are other autobiographical echoes. Arkwright, like George and Harry, was educated at Harrow and Cambridge (Ibid.). Arkwright worked as a barrister in Monmouthshire. Harry Collingwood becomes “a handsome and attractive barrister … on the high road to professional distinction.” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 2) The most interesting similarity is George’s aristocratic marriage to “Lady Geraldine St. Pierre, only daughter of the Marquis of Stoneyhurst.” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 1). The prominent role Geraldine takes in the murder investigation makes me wonder if Richard Arkwright modelled her character on his own wife, Lady Mary Caroline Charlotte Byng, daughter of the Earl of Stratford.

While George’s marriage to Geraldine is a happy one, Harry Collingwood is not so lucky. Harry marries Jessie Clark, from the neighbourhood of George’s Monmouthshire home. The marriage quickly turns sour. One evening, at a dinner table in front of George, she “threw off all restraint, and conducted herself with a violence of manner and language which was inexpressibly painful to witness.” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 3) Harry breaks down and tells George: “that the experience of his married life had been miserable almost beyond endurance.” (Ibid.).

How can George help his best mate Harry to escape this terrible prison of a broken-down marriage? The solution arrives in the very next chapter: George is called back from a fishing trip to the Tweed by a telegram: “He is in custody on a charge of murdering his wife! Come at once!” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 4) George rushes back to London to hear “the main facts of the case … Jessie had been poisoned by strychnine, conveyed in a glass of orangeade, which Harry had given her himself in her bedroom.” (Ibid.) Strychnine particles are found in Harry’s writing desk, and he also left the house for several hours during the night in question, refusing to explain the reason for this (Ibid.).

Lady Geraldine and George are determined to prove Harry’s innocence. They hire a private detective Mr Sleuthson to help them (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol 2, Chapter 2). Arkwright uses the legal process to give structure and a sense of urgency to the plot. To begin the investigation of the murder mystery, an inquest at the “Westminster Police Court” presents us with all the known facts; all the servants of the household, and medical experts are interviewed. Later, at “the Central Criminal Court,” Harry is tried for “wilful murder” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 3). Here Arkwright takes the opportunity to complain about a well-noted phenomenon of the age: the courtroom was

“polluted by the presence of a row of women – women of gentle birth and breeding – who now, in their thirst for ab excitement which must be gratified at any cost, had seated themselves, with their fans and scent-bottles, even with their opera-glasses and refreshments, to watch the proceedings in the Sensational Trial of the season.” (Ibid.)

When the “Guilty!” verdict is pronounced, only one of these women faints with shock. George’s view on this can be seen as a (tongue-in-cheek?) comment on sensation novels like the one in which he himself appears:

“I heard long afterwards that this gracious exception among the group of unmoved spectators was no less a person than Mrs Alldon, the celebrated novelist. She alone, in virtue of her profession, could claim a justification for her presence in court, and she by her conduct demonstrated how far the real tragedies acted among us, in their awful routine, surpass in horror the wildest conceptions of imagination.” (Ibid.)

After the verdict, Harry’s day of execution is set for “the second Monday in May” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 4). Now the clock starts running in earnest and tension grows. Will Geraldine and George be able to save Harry’s life? And if Harry did not kill his wife, who did?

Lady Geraldine is the brains of the operation. George is Watson to her Holmes. Throughout their investigation, Lady Geraldine decides what steps to take (for example The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapters 1, 2, 5,12, 14). She examines the evidence, including analysing handwriting with a magnifying glass (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 5). She interviews witnesses from all social classes winning their trust (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 1). Geraldine has all the ideas and theories, and she explains them to George (for example, The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapters 1, 5). She even talks like a detective (or a barrister): “That fact is established as far as human testimony goes. Beyond it, the explanation which I suggested just now rests entirely on circumstancial evidence.” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2 Chapter 1)

When it becomes necessary for someone to travel to New York to capture a key witness and possible suspect, George is left home and Geraldine travels across the Atlantic accompanied by her lady’s maid and Mr Sleuthson. She conducts the most delicate part of the murder investigation on her own (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapters 11 and 12). Later, she appears in court to give evidence (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 14).

Lady Geraldine is an unusual character: an aristocratic lady who takes an active lead as an amateur detective breaking a number of social conventions. She is a female detective with a supporting and admiring husband in awe of her intellect and social acumen.

George narrates Lady Geraldine’s adventure. He expresses his admiration for her “determination and confidence” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 7), “the powers of persuasion and discreet investigation with which Geraldine was endowed.” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 4) He describes the “rapidity with which she weighed the merits of the various stratagems which instantly occurred to her” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 11). George reveals his inferiority to Geraldine’s detective prowess by his questions and inability to follow her: “George … You don’t understand! … You don’t notice what I mean.” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 4, see also Vol. 2, Chapter 5).

Only once (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 12) does Geraldine experience self-doubt. Alone in New York, she has to extract a crucial piece of evidence and thereby potentially incriminate “a sick and helpless woman”: “With her eyes fixed on the goal of her ambition … Geraldine had overlooked the nature of some of the steps which she had taken in the course of her pursuit.” (Ibid.). But the threat of the arrival of the police compels her to proceed: “She fancied the wretched girl already in the custody of the police, and exposed to rough handling and cruel questioning.” (Ibid.)  Despite the opposition of professional men (a medical doctor and a private detective) Geraldine is adamant that the delicate situation is best handled by herself (Ibid.)

George, like the George of Driven Home, is a young gentleman with an interest in sports. He is also “peculiarly sensitive to any mental strain.” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 4). Receiving the news of Harry’s predicaments, George is “in a condition rather to receive than to offer comfort and assistance.” (Ibid.). Falling asleep in Harry’s study, he has a vivid nightmare of Harry performing a magic lantern show of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories. This leads him to discover a clue in Harry’s desk: a love-charm written in invisible ink (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 7).

This love-charm becomes the central clue to the mystery. The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery is very much about women's ambitions and desires. Lady Geraldine takes it upon herself to prove Harry’s innocence. Her investigation starts from the doomed marriage of Jessie Clark and Harry Collingwood and leads her to the working-class love story of Sabrina Reed and Handsome Hugh. Lady Geraldine is by far the smartest and most capable of the characters, but beyond her solid belief in Harry’s innocence, she does not have much emotional depth. Instead, the women of the lower social classes, Nanny Price, Sabrina Reed, Bridget O’Hara, Charlotte Sims and, to an extent, even poor Jessie Collingwood née Clark, provide the emotional colour of the narrative. They succumb to hysterics, feel burning jealousy and desperate love; they have ambitions both professional and social. They also provide moments of slightly patronizing humour. Nanny Price, the village witch, gives a lively courtroom performance (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 14). Charlotte Sims, the housemaid elevated to a position of a lady’s maid by Lady Geraldine, dreams of a career as a romantic heroine when she is asked to help in the investigation:

“The chief recreation in Charlotte’s previous existence had been the study of sensational literature; her most cherished aspiration, that she herself might become the leading spirit in some deed of mystery or daring . . now – could the wildest conceptions of the mot imaginative reader of romances have evolved a situation more desirable?” (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 2, Chapter 11)

Geraldine and George’s marriage is in stark contrast to that of Harry and Jessie Collingwood. Jessie shows no regard for her husband and lacks social skills. Geraldine, on the other hand, is obviously intellectually superior to her husband and has great social skills. It is worth noting that Jessie grew up in “the position of a poor relation” in an aristocratic household (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery Vol. 1, Chapter 2), while Lady Geraldine was the only daughter of a Marquis (The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, Vol. 1, Chapter 1). Again, a character from a lower social class provides the emotional turmoil and passion, while the character from the higher social class retains a calm, rational appearance throughout.

In The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, the style of writing is similar to the earlier Driven Home and the protagonists (the two Georges) share characteristics. But there are some marked differences which serve to illustrate the journey from traditional melodrama to modern detective fiction.

Driven Home derives much of its drama from the supernatural – the appearance of ghosts, an “irresistible power” (Driven Home, Chapter 7) that guides the hero’s actions and his “unreasoning horror” (Driven Home, Chapter 9) for the villain. The suspense and drama in The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery is derived from the suspicions of guilt (who committed the murder) and Lady Geraldine and George’s desperate race against time to save their friend from the gallows. There is no villain in The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, instead there is a circle of suspects. The experience of both the protagonist and the reader is changed by this. Feelings of suspicion and uncertainty fluctuate between characters because there is no clear, stable target for animosity and pursuit.

The plot of Driven Home progresses through coincidences, the plot The Queen Anne’s Gate progresses to a large extent through logical steps taken by the detectives in their investigation. While George’s motivations in Driven Home are often irrational (blind fear, supernatural persuasion), the actions of the amateur detectives in The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery are based on rational reasoning.

Driven Home offers a series of revelations that unveil the mystery. In The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery the early chapters are littered with clues whose significance becomes clear towards the end of the story. Driven Home is a series of more or less sensational surprises: each revelation is a new piece of information. The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery is a series of more or less sensational realizations when each clue falls into place to reveal the truth. In both novels, as typically in sensation novels, details are pregnant with meaning. In Driven Home, that meaning is exposed at the moment the detail is discovered, in The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery, the meaning is delayed; there is space for the reader to wonder and hypothesize. The reading of Driven Home can proceed linearly, each revelation being a new little burst of energy to propel the plot forward. The reading of The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery is more demanding, because each clue, provided it is spotted by the reader in the first place, complicates the story and adds ‘narrative drag’ as the reader has to consider all the potential meanings of the clue within the framework of the continuing story.

Although written only three years apart (1886 and 1889) Driven Home and The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery offer distinctly different reading experiences. They are both engaging and full of sensation.

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