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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Not everyone, however, felt so positive. Some found the idea of a man who might belong to an inferior social class entering the domestic sanctum and prying into its dirty laundry extremely distasteful. Snoops were suspect. Their activities, and the kind of criminal behavior they uncovered in apparently respectable homes, fed Victorian anxieties about the slipperiness of class distinctions. Sensational novels of the 1860s—such as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), featuring detective Sergeant Cuff—were thrilling precisely because you never knew whether the crime was an outside or an inside job: Was it the Indian thugs, the suicidal servant, the scientific houseguest, or the debt-ridden daughter of the family who was responsible for the theft of the eponymous jewel?

The writing in Revelations of a Lady Detective and The Female Detective (the weaker of the two books) lacks the finesse of that in Collins’s novels, but they offer similar pleasures. Mrs. Paschal, often posing as a servant, is able to discover her wealthy employers’ guilty secrets. The doubles, impostors, and outwardly respectable deceivers who people her memoirs highlight the potential fraudulence of all social appearances. 

Along the way, she introduces us to various elements that will become staples of the detective genre: There is the police lineup, which identifies the wrong man as a con man. There is also the morgue visit, where Mrs. Paschal uses forensic evidence (bruising on the wrists, torn clothing) to conclude that a young woman found drowned was a murder victim rather than a suicide. And there is the principle, which Sherlock Holmes would popularize, of coolly deductive reasoning based on factual evidence. Often, initial suspicion falls on the wrong person. The detective, like a magician working in reverse, shows that all is not what it seems.

This is a social truth, too. Both lady detectives reveal hidden injustices below the surface of the legal system. Frequently these involve women, property, and inheritance. In Revelations of a Lady Detective’s “The Lost Diamonds,” for example, we learn that the duke of Rustenburgh, obsessed with collecting sparklers, marries his wife only for her dowry and to make her a “butcher’s block” on which to display his jewels. When she inherits more money, he immediately spends it on new gems. It comes, thus, as no surprise to the astute reader to discover that the thief of his most costly rock is actually the neglected duchess. When Mrs. Paschal solves the mystery, she administers an implicit female rebuke—and tells us that the duke, henceforth, treated his wife more kindly. 

In these stories, it isn’t the law court but the undercover detective who enables the narrative justice that society so often fails to deliver. Although these “female detective” books were written by men, it isn’t an accident that both were produced during the period in which divorce became possible for ordinary middle-class couples—the first British civil divorce courts opened in 1858—when there was heated public debate about married women’s lack of legal power and their vulnerability to husbands who controlled their property and children’s custody. The characters of Mrs. Paschal and Mrs. Gladden exhibit a drive to right wrongs that might motivate any middle-aged matron.

Until recently, it has been widely accepted that these British female private detectives were purely fictional—and that London had to wait until nearer the turn of the century for real female gumshoes. Michael Sims in The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (2011) claims that “not even Captain Nemo’s electrical submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was more futuristic than the representation of ‘lady detectives’ in 1864.” But my own investigation tells a different story. 

Donning my deerstalker to peruse the London Times for January 1875, I discovered two advertisements in the “small ads” section that make it clear that female private detectives were working in London at this time. The first advertisement, for the “Confidential Agency” of Leslie and Graham in Holborn, notes that they are assisted by “men of 20 years’ experience, and female detectives.” The second, for confidential agents Arthur, Cleveland, Montagu, and Company in Cornhill, offers “a large staff of experienced detectives, male and female.” These back-to-back advertisements suggest that women private detectives had been around for a while (if they were “experienced”) and that their services added value to the firms that could boast them.