The Magazine

Ms. Private Eye

Victorian women detectives in life and literature.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By SARA LODGE
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The investigator is chasing a suspect, who has just disappeared through a secret trapdoor. Breathlessly, the private dick follows the masked figure down a ladder into a dark passageway: It turns out to lead from the Belgravia mansion into the vault of a nearby bank. Our hero can see the thief in the act of grabbing the gold and making off—but the trapdoor closes behind the crook, leaving the detective unable to leave the crime scene and about to be apprehended by security guards.

Emblematic scene from ‘Jack the Ripper’ (1959)

Emblematic scene from ‘Jack the Ripper’ (1959)

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Nothing, perhaps, seems very unusual about this heist thriller—until you realize that it was published in 1864, and that both the thief and the detective are women. The first is a countess who has cross-dressed in order to perform her daring robbery. The second is a professional female detective who, in order to pursue her quarry underground, has quickly jettisoned her crinoline.

This year, the British Library has republished two rare and striking Victorian books, Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward and The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester (a pseudonym for James Redding Ware). Both were published in 1864, and they make intriguing reading for anyone interested in the history of crime fiction. They introduce something categorically new for the 19th century: the woman who makes a profession of solving murders and cracking cases that foil less flexible minds, nabbing offenders ranging from ruthless Italian political conspirators to daring impersonators to mail robbers to female bigamists. 

Twenty years before Sherlock Holmes first puffed his pipe along the seedy streets of London, Mrs. Paschal was enjoying a quiet cigarette, confident that her unconventional methods would succeed where those of the male members of the Metropolitan Police failed. Neither of these books belongs to the politer realms of high Victorian fiction. William Stephens Hayward was the prolific author of titles that include Skittles, describing the racy life of a high-class London prostitute, and Skittles in Paris. Readers glimpsing the cover picture of Mrs. Paschal lifting her skirts and showing her ankles may well have hoped that Revelations of a Lady Detective would prove to take place in the bedroom. If so, they were disappointed. This isn’t a book about sex; but it is a book that blows gender conventions out of the water. 

Mrs. Paschal, a widow “verging on forty” whose husband left her without much money, confronts torturers and murderers without blinking: She regrets not having brought a Colt revolver to one crime scene. Equally at home in the low drinking dens of Vinegar Yard in London’s notorious St. Giles, in an aristocratic household impersonating a lady’s maid, and in a convent impersonating a nun, she orders about the six plainclothes policemen she sometimes handpicks to help her bust a joint. In the grand tradition of gumshoes, she is taciturn about her personal life: The thrill of the chase is her chief passion. 

Similarly, Mrs. Gladden in The Lady Detective—known to her police colleagues merely as “G”—teases us by making a mystery of her own character. Is she a detective because she has no other way of making a living or because she had an insurmountable “longing” for the business? Is she supporting her children or is she a single woman whose “only care is herself”? She won’t tell. Instead, her “memoirs” inform us that she wants to rescue detectives—and in particular, lady detectives—from the opprobrium that surrounds their trade: “The profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised.”

“Detective” was still a relatively new job title in mid-Victorian Britain. In 1842, the Metropolitan Police (themselves only professionalized in 1829) appointed its first detective branch, at Scotland Yard. They were immediately an object of intense public interest. Charles Dickens reported on their activities in his magazine Household Words, and Inspector Bucket became a sympathetic character in Bleak House (1853).