“I Have at Last Discovered Something”: Wilkie Collins and the Neo-Victorian Female Detective

Beth Sherman

CUNY Graduate Center

To many people, Wilkie Collins will always be best-known for inventing the detective novel. The Moonstone’s (1868) Sergeant Cuff, with his quirky yet ingratiating manner and penchant for gardening, helped lay the groundwork for characters including Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dashiell Hammett’s Nick Charles from The Thin Man (1934), and a host of other famous sleuths. But amateur detectives also figure prominently in several of Collins’s other novels. While Charles Dickens was accompanying Scotland Yard’s Inspector Field on his nightly rounds in London and using him as the prototype for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1853),[1] Collins was creating female detective figures like The Woman in ­White’s Marian Halcombe (1859-60), Magdalen Vanstone in No Name (1862), and The Law and the Lady’s Valeria Woodville (1875) – private citizens motivated by money, love, and vengeance to track (male) criminals, compile and record data, and attempt to ferret out the truth, defying nineteenth-century gender norms in the process.

Two neo-Victorian texts, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (2002) and James Wilson’s The Dark Clue (2001), revisit Collins’s ground-breaking proto-feminist figure. Scholars such as Lyn Pykett, Rachel Malik and Mariaconcetta Costantinihave noted that these works are heavily indebted to Collins, borrowing many of the themes he addressed, including the horrors of the madhouse, gender and class inequalities, the psychological complexity of the criminal mind, the uncanny double, secret yearnings and anxieties around same-sex desire, as well as a multi-voiced narrative structure. Interestingly, Waters and Wilson both use first-person narration for their female protagonists. With its highly personal tone and insights into the minds and emotional states of the characters, this choice echoes the epistemological form that Collins frequently employed. In this article, I examine how these neo-Victorian novels rework the concept of the female detective in cultural, sexual and genderedterms. The Dark Clue is a sequel to The Woman in White, in which Marian assists Walter in uncovering a mystery surrounding the paintings of J.M.W Turner. Fingersmith follows two women – one an acknowledged petty thief embroiled in London’s underworld, and the other an aristocratic recluse – as they unexpectedly unravel the mystery behind their parentage and social status. The female heroines in these novels are not professional (or even amateur) private eyes in a traditional sense, yet they are on a quest to uncover the truth and to peel away layers of secrets and deceit. Consequently, as I will show, they are skilled in the Victorian detective’s stock-in-trade: ratiocination, deduction, and self-transformation through disguise. I explain how both authors transcend mere nostalgic appropriation or simple meta-narratives as they explore the treatment of literary detection, as well as gender and sexual transgression, amid the dark recesses of the mid-century Victorian world. In many respects, detective work here is quite unconventional, especially in Fingersmith. Instead of solving crimes, righting wrongs or punishing criminals, sleuthing enables the protagonists to upend their subordinate social positions, asserting their own personal identity and defying the normative gendered nature of sexual relationships. These amateur sleuths are hybrid figures, combining stereotypically “male” traits such as independence, decisiveness and logic with guile and intuition, which, in the nineteenth century, were thought to be associated with women’s natures.[2] By penetrating a closed, often hostile, masculine world, they violate the concept of separate spheres, which relegated women to the private confines of the home while men were immersed in the world of public discourse, politics and commerce.

But why turn to Collins and the nineteenth century at all? Because these neo-Victorian novels reflect choices, dilemmas and conundrums for women that are still relevant in the new millennium. Their female heroines raise difficult questions about equality and sexual politics that are not only central to their own subject positions but continue to be examined and debated through social discussions about sex and gender in our society today. Costantini points out, for example, that Waters shows homosexuality in normalised terms, adding “Her direct approach to phenomena [the child market, pornography, the criminal underworld and urban decline] has a double scope; it unearths the horrors of a system that oppressed people under the guise of ensuring discipline, and it suggests worrying parallels with our age” (30). Moreover, I contend that the approach these female characters take towards a more feminist, egalitarian future has much to do with their roles as detective figures. Detection, in other words, is a means to attaining independence and freedom.   

It has been argued that all neo-Victorian fiction is inherently connected to detective fiction, as both genres involve interpreting clues to determine what really happened. Robin Winks succinctly links history and detection in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence (1978), noting:

The historian must collect, interpret, and then explain his evidence by methods which are not greatly different from those techniques employed by the detective [.] Obviously, the author of such fiction does not construct his work as the historian does, for to one the outcome is known and to the other that outcome is at best guessed. But the reasoning processes are similar enough to be intriguing (xiii).       

Louisa Hadley makes the connection even more explicit, explaining that “In neo-Victorian detective fiction, this interest in the narratives of the past particularly focuses on the issues of evidence, truth and judgment about the past” (59). The author, and subsequently the reader, takes on the role of detective in order to try to understand past events, a process Hadley refers to as “historical recovery” (60).[3] But there is an important difference. In most Victorian detective fiction, the mystery is solved by the end of the text. A criminal has been unmasked, wrongs have been righted, and the status quo has been restored, whereas in neo-Victorian detective fiction, the desire for knowledge constantly runs into the limits of the human capacity for interpretation and understanding. The very act of knowing is shown to be a slippery proposition, with incomplete and even unsatisfying results. In The Dark Clue, for instance, Marian is never able to fully interpret or understand Turner’s life. Although she makes all the right detective moves – interviewing subjects, taking copious notes, spying on her sources, re-tracing her steps – the truth remains perpetually out of reach. While she fails in the central task of literary detection, her sleuthing nonetheless releases her from a static, passive role as a domestic Victorian woman – just as it did with Collins’s prototype. But in Wilson’s sequel, Marian’s sleuthing activities, recorded in numerous journal entries, also enable her to better understand her own feelings towards her brother-in-law, Walter, and his increasing sexualised obsession with her – a topic which critics of The Woman in White have studied but which Collins never states directly.[4]

With their emphasis on family secrets, domestic crimes, and shocking discoveries, these neo-Victorian novels fit squarely into the category of neo-sensation fiction. Yet I argue that they can also be read as detective fiction. Indeed, the two genres often overlap. The Woman in White, for example, can be read as both sensation and detective fiction, with Marian and Walter alternating in the role of detective at various points, as they struggle to uncover Anne Catherick’s whereabouts and identity. The same could be said of The Moonstone, which features professional detectives (Sergeant Cuff) and amateurs (Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder) all attempting to explain the theft of an Indian diamond, trace the missing stone, identify the thief, and recover the elusive jewel. Hadley points out that “sensation and detective fiction adopt a similar plot structure: both genres hinge on the discovery of a secret from the past that threatens the social order in the present” (63). The association between crime and sensation fiction is also important in light of the behavior and motivations of the central female characters, who circumvent normative gender roles in order to subvert existing power structures. In life and in literature in the nineteenth century, women found themselves subject to the pervasive male gaze, locked into a subservient, objectified position. However, in Neo-Victorianism and Sensation Fiction (2019), Jessica Cox explains that “In their roles as (amateur) detectives, the transgressive heroines of sensation fiction become the instigators, rather than the subjects of surveillance” (79). Because of the connectivity of the two genres, the same axiom holds true for detective fiction and those texts, including the two under discussion here, that figure as both.   

There is ongoing scholarly debate regarding the first British novel to feature a female detective. According to Lucy Sussex, Catherine Crowe created not one but three amateur detectives in Adventures of Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence (1841), including a housekeeper and a servant (49). Crowe and Collins knew one another, and Sussex maintains that the influence of Crowe’s novel on Collins cannot be underestimated (56). Dagni Bredesen adds that Collins’s short story, “The Diary of Anne Rodway” (1856), included a fictional amateur woman detective because Rodway pieces together evidence that leads to the identification of a murderer (ix-x). The story features a maid-detective and a second plot device from Crowe – using a scrap of fabric from a criminal’s clothing as evidence — reappears in No Name (62-63). Another genesis moment occurred in 1864, when Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective and William Stephens Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective were published – two texts that place a professional female crime fighter front and center.[5] Bredesen asserts that the books were produced almost simultaneously, although the earliest advertisement for The Female Detective was in May, while the trade journal, Publisher’s Circular, did not announce the publication of Revelations until October, because its publisher had changed. Bredesen notes that newspapers and court records in the 1850s mention several women employed by detective agencies, private (male) citizens, and the police as detectives, tasked mainly with collecting evidence of adultery and preventing theft. However, these women were the exceptions – not the rule. For the most part, females were not accepted into the official ranks of the Metropolitan Police until the twentieth century:

In Britain, the Women Police Volunteers was formed in 1914, chiefly to patrol the streets and parks to keep an eye on the activities of young women. Eventually, in 1918 [the same year women were awarded the right to vote], the London Metropolitan Police established its own Women’s Police Patrols (Forrester 2).[6]

So, although the actual job of female detective did not exist until a few years later, they existed in Victorian fiction.

The Victorians were deeply interested in crime and crime fiction, much of it a loosely veiled reconstruction of actual crimes. From the earliest Newgate Calendars relating tales of public executions to biographical chapbooks on the lives of notorious criminals to a barrage of newspaper accounts relating scandalous murders, the public’s appetite for crime was seemingly incessant. Yet there was also a hesitancy to embrace the detective – in literature and in life. Anthea Trodd explains that “encounters between the public and the detective police “betray deep fears about the threat to the world of domestic innocence posed by the new police world of subterfuge and surveillance” (13). She is one of many scholars who recount how, in the Victorian era, the police force in general was treated with suspicion, fear and mistrust by the public. Haia Shpayer-Makov adds that fictional texts, especially those published around the time that Scotland Yard was formed in 1842, reflect the association of detection with spying, the invasion of peoples’ privacy, a curtailment of civil liberties, and bourgeois class anxieties, since the police were at that time usually recruited from the working classes (267).

However, fictional detectives from a more advantaged background, such as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, garnered favor with readers (Shpayer-Makov 248). Perhaps this is one reason amateur female sleuths – many of whom are middle and upper class – were embraced as well. Collins’s novels feature detectives who attempt to solve mysteries for personal reasons – exonerating a family member (The Law and the Lady), writing a wrong (No Name and The Woman in White), or protecting a loved one (The Moonstone). While Collins never penned a professional female private eye, his amateurs possess many of the traits we have come to associate with the paid version – inventiveness, intuition, acting skills, and a certain degree of empathy for the criminal subject. Kathleen Klein notes that, “like the criminal, she [the fictional female sleuth] is a member of society who does not conform to the status quo. Her presence pushes off-center the whole male/female, public/private, intellect/emotion, physical strength/weakness dichotomy” (4). The female sleuth also subverts prevailing notions of femininity in the Victorian age. In Sesame and Lilies (1865), John Ruskin summed up how women were viewed, stating that wisdom, virtue, self-sacrifice and guidance are innate female qualities as opposed to a man who is “eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender” (6). Ruskin asserts that women should use their intellect for “sweet ordering” and “arrangement” and that a female should be granted an education in order that “knowledge should be given her as may enable her to understand, and even to aid, the work of men” (8). By refusing the role of mere adornment, the female sleuth departs from Ruskin’s suggested ideal.

It is into this world, where women are disenfranchised and vulnerable – legal non-persons – that Collins’s amateur female detective figure emerges. As Marian herself observes, men “take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel” (Collins 181).[7] Stepping into the detective role enables her to break the chains of patriarchy, at least temporarily. She is not solely defined by the marriage plot but rather by her work, developing an identity beyond that of the domestic, sheltered lady. No one trains her or rehearses professional norms for her, so she has to invent her own, embodying certain characteristics that will become staples of detective fiction: deduction, knowledge production, and evidence gathering. Joseph Kestner lists other key conventions for the genre: the patience of the detective, the use of disguise and impersonation, the emphasis on surveillance, observation, hiding and concealment (4) – all traits that Marian (in Collins’s novel and Wilson’s neo-Victorian sequel) possesses. Still, she exists in a patriarchal society where women must navigate power structures that are closed to them, but which they often manage to subvert. As Michelle Slung notes, “The very essence of criminal investigation is antithetical to what was considered proper feminine breeding, involving as it does eavesdropping, snooping and spying, dissimulation, immodest and aggressive pursuit and physical danger” (xi). In The Woman in White, Marian, who Collins frequently describes in masculine terms, narrates part of the story in her diary, trying to unravel the identity of Anne Catherick while attempting to protect her sister, Laura, from the machinations of Laura’s unscrupulous husband, Sir Percival. Cox notes that in this role she also exposes the “injustices of Victorian marriage law and reveal[s] the institution of marriage as potentially dangerous for the respectable Victorian woman” (80). Like many Victorian female detective figures, such as Andrew Forrestor’s Miss Gladden (or ‘G’) in The Female Detective (1864), or William Hayward’s Mrs Paschal in The Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864), Marian is unencumbered by a husband and children and therefore free to act without the constraints of male censure. She measures the size of footsteps, trying to deduce who made them, records interactions in painstaking detail, and takes it upon herself to spy on Fosco and Sir Percival, first eavesdropping on them from the safety of her bedroom and then perching on the verandah roof so she can hear what they are saying in the library and later record their conversation in her journal. This act of surveillance, which inverts and thwarts the male gaze, is characteristic of the female detective,[8] who, in watching men, reasserts her own subjectivity and re-calibrates the power equilibrium. As she puts it, “I determined to go on at all hazards, and trust for security to my own caution and to the darkness of night” (Collins 320). Similarly, while spying on the two men, she hears Count Fosco say to Sir Percival: “Can you look at Miss Halcombe, and not see that she has the foresight and the resolution of a man?” (Collins 324). Moreover, in her role as detective, Marian uses her femininity – with its expectations of propriety and passivity – to lull the suspicions of male patriarchs, who do not suspect that her sleuthing necessitates surveillance. Marian writes in her journal that Walter informs her how he has been “perpetually watched and followed by strange men ever since he returned to London” (166, italics mine). It does not occur to Walter, Sir Percival or Fosco that a woman might ever place them under surveillance.

Wilson’s Marian shares several traits with Collins’s prototype, predominantly a keen intellect and an innate curiosity. Just as in The Woman in White, Marian takes over the narration of The Dark Clue at critical moments, assisting Walter with his biography in the role of researcher-turned-detective. Their mission is similar to a detective’s: find out about the past, interpret it and construct a historical narrative from available information and documents. Midway through the book, Walter admits that he is wasting time “chasing shadows” (Wilson 214) and turns the entire investigation over to Marian, while he goes back to Limmeridge to spend time with Laura and their children. In actuality, he has over-identified with his subject, becoming secretive, frequenting taverns, and sleeping with the same prostitute that Turner frequented. Walter tells Marian that he has let his imagination get the best of him (“chasing shadows”, as he terms it), but feels confident that her discoveries will be “on the basis of facts alone” (Wilson 214). This is a shift from what happens in The Woman in White when Marian falls ill and Walter takes on the bulk of the detective work. It is also a reversal of the traditional dichotomy regarding male and female detectives, wherein male sleuths are supposed to engage in hyper-rational thinking while women rely primarily on emotions and feelings, rationality versus supposed hysteria. Yumna Siddiqi maintains that the male detective employs scientific methods and logical modes of deduction to achieve a sense of order: “His perspicacious intelligence, his keen power of analysis and his encyclopedic knowledge distinguish the detective. He pieces together obscure and seemingly unrelated fragments of knowledge to construct an intelligible totality” (19) – a ratiocinative quality of the detective, which is a façade made necessary by contemporary notions of masculinity. Even though she’s not a man, Wilson’s Marian does all of these ‘masculine’ things, as well. As many scholars have noted, the original Marian is gendered masculine, with her moustache, overall ugliness, and the fact that she is “altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability” (Collins 35). Richard Collins calls her a “hermaphroditic figure” (152). Wilson, however, shows that gender has no bearing on logic or objective, thus his text demonstrates a loosening of patriarchal ideals. His Marian more logical and objective than her male partner. When Walter catches ‘Watson’ fever, reacting to the prospect of detection emotionally, his heart beats faster, and he experiences an “intoxicating hint of romance” as he embarks on his “great adventure” (Wilson 25). Marian, meanwhile, manages to keep her cool and stay on track.  

At the heart of their project is a complicated question: who was J.M.W. Turner?[9] Was he a generous mentor to his fellow artists, or a suspicious, intensely private recluse? In her notebook, Marian, trying to pin down this elusive artist labels him, “Magician. Alchemist” (Wilson 77). Walter recognises that she will be useful in trying to extract information from those who knew Turner because she is a less threatening presence than him. As noted earlier, the female detective utilise femininity to lull patriarchal social structures that do not anticipate a woman to be acting as a detective. Femininity, in short, becomes a disguise as the female sleuth infiltrates female-coded spaces where men cannot enter. Nobody expects the female detective, which is partly what enables them to be good at their jobs. Marian mimics the tenets of female domesticity – accompanying Walter to teas and luncheons – while keeping her eyes and ears open for clues to the Turner puzzle. Indeed, Walter’s assessment, then, turns out to be correct. Interview subjects, especially female ones, do co-operate and confide in Marian. While having tea with Turner’s housekeeper and petting her cat, for instance, a woman reveals to Marian that the neighbors believed that she and the painter were married. Marian intuits that the housekeeper, Mrs. Booth, loved him very much and that Turner had lived in her house under an assumed name, as his housekeeper’s husband. Marian’s deduction, which is correct, is an illuminating moment familiar to many fictional detectives. “I have no idea whether it is important, or even what it means,” she writes in her journal, “but I cannot deny a feeling of satisfaction that I have at last discovered something” (Wilson 248). When Marian asks if she can come back another day and bring Walter, Mrs. Booth replies that she will be glad to entertain Marian again but not her brother-in-law. After the interview, Marian records everything she has discovered about Turner in her notebook, and writes that to part with them “would be the equivalent of a detective throwing away his evidence” (Wilson 269). The act of transcribing her thoughts and observations is crucial to her sleuthing. Throughout the novel, she continually pours over her notes, trying to piece together fragments of information in her journal in order to form an accurate, complete picture of events. This endeavor incorporates both the female coded act of life writing (her thoughts and feelings are included too) and the masculine one of recording, in detail, conversations and observations for later scrutiny.  

Wilson’s choice of Turner as a mysterious biographical subject is an interesting one, summoning comparisons to Collins himself. Both men led unorthodox lives; Turner, who never married, fathered two daughters by Mrs. Booth, sharing her house in Chelsea for nearly 20 years and calling himself “Mr. Booth” (Bailey 270). Collins famously divided his time between two households and two women, one of them a teenager when the affair began (Lycett 353).[10] Moreover, the title of Wilson’s book is itself an enigma. On the surface, The Dark Clue refers to the way Turner applied paint to his canvasses, using a watercolor technique with oils to create ephemeral, atmospheric effects where objects are barely recognisable. In the novel, one art critic likens this technique to death; but the clue itself, in terms of a concrete lead that sheds definitive light on Turner’s true self, is never revealed. Hadley asserts that the title is a reference to the fact that Marian herself is leading a double life – “her public life as the devoted half-sister to Laura and her private desires for Laura’s husband Walter” (Wilson 49). Still, it is Marian, not Walter, who uses Turner’s paintings to unravel the story behind the painter’s life and legend. As an artist, he admires the technical proficiency of Turner’s brushwork and use of color though Marian is the one who notices that there is an underlying pattern in the paintings and that she needs “but the right key in order to decipher it” (Wilson 68). In Turner’s “Goddess of Discord in the Garden of the Hesperides,” Marian discerns that the top of a rock with an odd serrated shape turns out not to be a rock at all, but the back of a monster with crocodile jaws. She compares this to some of his other pictures, where she is able to make out a dark, violent image that she believes relates back to his childhood memories of a wild uncontrollable woman who terrified him, subconsciously summoning memories of the artist’s mother, who was committed to Bethlem Hospital when he was a child:

To the same cause, I think, we may ascribe the beginnings of Turner’s taste for mystery and elusiveness. To be at home, as a boy – or in any place where his whereabouts were definitely known by his mother – was to risk, at any moment, having his fragile world invaded and destroyed by a hurricane. (Wilson 285).

Here, Wilson cleverly plays upon the discourse of popular psychology that Collins and others utilise in Victorian sensation fiction of the 1860s. As Gail Marshall states:

The sensation novel used the psychological element, most notably that of the unconscious, to underpin its element of suspense, and add a new dimension to the mystery that had inevitably to be solved. The reassuring detective-narrator figure, in whose hands all eventually comes right, investigates not only empirical clues, but also the states of mind of protagonists, which figure as a parallel mystery narrative (Marshall 58).[11]

The mystery begins on the very first page of The Dark Clue as Walter writes: “This is a book begun, but not finished. I could not finish it”, and directs that it should be sealed and remain unopened until Marian, himself, his wife Laura, and all of their children are dead (Wilson 1). As readers we might ask ourselves: what is so dangerous or secret that it needs to stay buried for decades to come? The answer turns out to be less entwined with their biographical subject and more about the biographers themselves. As Walter becomes increasingly obsessed with Turner, his own identity gradually disappears and he ends up raping Marian, a violent act that hints at the unspoken sexual desires, fears and frustrations Walter possesses in The Woman in White.[12]In Collins’s novel, Fosco reads Marian’s journal and finishes her last entry, a violation that scholars such as D.A. Miller and Richard Collins have likened to virtual rape. In both cases, the female detective is punished for the transgression of uncovering male secrets, highlighting the overall violence against and sexual exploitation of women, a perpetual theme in Collins’s fiction.[13] Moreover, Walter’s crime is neither reported nor prosecuted, which fits another theme of Victorian detective fiction, where although the perpetrator has been revealed and the status quo restored, criminals often go free, and justice does not always triumph even if they are often punished by fate. There is no narrative closure and no enforcement of a firm moral code. The dark, disturbing forces that lie under the middle-class society of order and respectability are not checked or controlled. Wilson, channeling early twenty-first century feminism, has Marian assume a dominant role in the mystery plot. Instead of Fosco reading her journal, she is the one who peeks at Walter’s journal, glimpsing a sketch Walter had made of Turner’s studio and below that a basement window, partially hidden by a tangle of bushes. It reminds her of half-buried arches in one of Turner’s landscapes, “The Bay of Baiae,” which she realises is actually two paintings, showing the mythical figures of Sybil and Apollo at the outset of their narrative and their subsequent destruction, an insight that confirms her suspicion of Turner’s double life. Later, she discovers a notebook which reveals thoughts that Walter has not recorded in his diary, a gendered twist on Collins’s Fosco reading the private musings of the original Marian. Her literary detective mission underscores the problems inherent in putting together a posthumous biography of any famous person: the difficulty of interpreting a life. She is presented with fragments of information, and the fact that she (and Walter) ultimately fail in their quest to uncover the truth about Turner is significant, reflecting the uncertain nature of their relationship and echoing the way fictional detectives (both professionals and amateurs) often fail to solve the mystery they are investigating and to effect any meaningful form of social change or justice.

Cox points out that in Collins’s version, Marian ends up as the ‘good angel,’ safely ensconced in the domestic sphere (83). In Wilson’s sequel, however, things are not so sanguine. Marian, not Walter, has the last word. When he mysteriously disappears (presumably racked with guilt over his actions), she meticulously re-traces his steps until she locates him, ill and disoriented, in a squalid London workhouse, rescuing him from certain death and recording the discovery process in her journal. Unlike the quasi-façade of domestic contentment at the end of The Woman in White, there is no familial happy ending. In a postscript, Marian says “Life here will never be normal again – if ‘normality’ is how we lived before. There will always be a pain between us” (Wilson 389).

 Fingersmith also possesses a number of hallmarks which could characterise it as detective fiction, though it has mainly been labeled as historical fiction, gothic fiction, and sensation fiction by literary critics.[14] This last category is especially relevant to Collins and Waters, who both explore ‘shocking’ issues of violence, misogyny and female transgression in their fiction. According to Lyn Pykett, “the sensation novel most obviously entered the transgressive domain of the improper feminine in its treatment of sexuality, particularly female sexuality. In this respect sensation novels were doubly transgressive” (34), with their fears about criminality in the middle and upper classes. Emily Allen adds that the genre reflects perceived gender differences in its

scintillating representation of women and men gone off the rails of proper gender: manly women, effeminate men, and most variants in between [. . .] By using sensation itself – plots full of coincidence, topics rich in spice – to buy just enough distance from reality, the popular sensation novel is able to work through exactly the questions of women’s powerlessness, desire and artifice posed by the normative gender ideology of the period” (Allen 407).

The sensation novel, then, opens a space for a fantasy female detective to emerge in the nineteenth century, upending the traditional power dynamic between the sexes and allowing women to take on a more dominant, rational, and powerful role. Many amateur female detectives, in both Victorian and neo-Victorian sensation and detective fiction, unearth elements of crime in the one place where it is not supposed to exist: the Victorian home. In Fingersmith, that home is Briar, an isolated country house owned by Christopher Lilly, who directs his niece Maud to help compile a bibliography of literary pornography. Maud, who is a virtual prisoner in the house, is forced to read titillating bits aloud to groups of men gathered in Lilly’s salons. This places Maud squarely in the spotlight of the male gaze, which she manages to return, looking steadily back at the men, and even upend by slipping out of her uncle’s perverse stranglehold. As Kestner points out, it is vital for female detectives “to return the male gaze to establish their own subjectivity and to re-balance the power relations of surveillance which the gaze establishes” (8). From childhood, Maud has been physically and verbally abused – struck, shut into cupboards, bound about the wrists and mouth – by Lilly and the people who work for him. Lilly warns Maud not to reveal the extent of his cruelty, saying “They will think you tainted should you tell. You understand me? I have touched your lip with poison, Maud. Remember” (Waters 209). His actions are not presented as ‘crimes’; rather, they are a matter of fact reality in a society where men are in charge and have carte blanche control over women. In fact, many of the crimes in this novel – assault, impersonation, theft – are unknown to the bumbling (male) police force, so technically there is no need for a paid, professional male (or female) detective. When, at the end of the novel, the police arrive belatedly to arrest Mrs. Sucksby for the murder of Richard Rivers, it is clear to the reader that the wrong person has been charged. Rather than focusing on solely on criminal justice, Waters instead uses historical crime fiction to study human nature and behavior, particularly normative gender roles, opening a window to the desires, needs and feelings of women in Victorian times. Her female protagonists thus become detective-esque figures in order to survive. Searching out their parentage and their place in the world allows them to re-imagine their own subjectivity. In exploring the dark underbelly of the Victorian world, Waters re-imagines the nineteenth century in terms of twenty-first century feminism and queer theory. Claire O’Callaghan argues that Waters writes “queerly,” adding that “Her subjects, primarily (though not exclusively female), and often lesbian, are united by their shared resistance to patriarchy and to heterosexist ways of being” (2-3). By the end of the novel, Maud has come full circle from victim to vanquisher and she is able to detect and claim what she really wants: freedom. Acting as both a criminal and detective of sorts, Maud ‘murders’ Lilly’s books by ripping them up with a razor – a deliberate, premeditated act upon the texts that have enslaved her: “I am almost afraid the book will shriek, and so discover me. But it does not shriek. Rather, it sighs, as if in longing for its own laceration; and when I hear that, my cuts become swifter and more true” (Waters 306). Slipping out of her Uncle’s cruel grasp, she is free to engage in a same-sex relationship with the woman she has grown to love.

There are several mysteries at work here. One has to do with the way in which Maud discovers the depths of Lilly’s obsession with his pornography collection – she describes it as a “mania” (Waters 194) – and figures out how she must initially comply with his wishes: handling his books with the utmost care, modulating her voice carefully when she reads, wearing the tight gloves he has given her so her hands do not mar the pages. Yet her assumed passivity is counterfeit to the core; underneath her compliance lies a wellspring of rage and a wish to be free of her strange, fettered life. From a plot standpoint, readers are left to wonder whether Maud will be victimised by the con man Rivers, who, with the help of a young thief named Sue, plans to seduce Maud so he can control her vast inheritance and presumably give Sue a cut of the money. Both women are orphans, another nod to Collins (and Victorian heroines elsewhere). As time goes on, the two grow more and more friendly and develop a genuine emotional and sexual bond. According to O’Callaghan, Waters upends a popular motif in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century pornography: sexual dalliances between servants and their employers, challenging “how representations of lesbians in heterosexist pornography reduce female same-sex desire to misplaced pleasure for men” (85). The pornography collection, ostensibly highlighting female acts performed for the pleasure of male viewers, is upended figuratively in addition to literally as the attraction between the two women develops. Their pull toward one another is transgressive in its Victorian setting, but also liberating, and at the very end, Waters shows both women accepting and welcoming the feelings that have developed between them. As Rachel Malik asserts, “Fingersmith deploys the narrational strategies of sensation fiction to reveal and conceal . . . turning Collins’s implicitly homoerotic traces into an explicit exploration of lesbian sexuality” (190). Though the term ‘homosexuality’ did not achieve currency in English until 1892, the concept of ‘inversion’ was a phenomenon generating increasing tensions. Sexually, “though there was a proliferation of discourses to articulate a new recognition of the multiple possibilities of how sexuality was conceived” (Marshall 96), these non-normative sexualities sparked anxieties in men. Maureen Reddy suggests that “women’s real danger lies in the radical threat lesbians pose to the status quo through rejecting the assumption that patriarchal order is desirable” (201) and instead insist on the value of women’s relationships with each other. This dynamic is at work in the novel. Maud goes from being forced to recite descriptions of heterosexual encounters to writing her own pornography (some of it presumably lesbian) at the end of the novel, a form of writing that has largely been left out of the bibliography Lilly is collating. Meanwhile, as Sue begins to feel sexually attracted to Maud, she becomes more aware of her own sublimated sexuality. Interestingly, Sue is a lower-class figure, a petty thief with no formal education. Yet their love story flourishes despite class differences:

The ambiguous identity and the trangressive behavior of [Waters’] female protagonists dismantle the binary structures of the Victorian world . . . A first element of deviance can be found in their class and gender mobility. If most of her heroines are low-class figures who ascend the social ladder, they are all, first and foremost, rebellious women who violate the norms of female conduct and the requirements of the marriage market. (Constantini 33).

These are the same attributes ascribed to the figure of the female detective, who usually remains unmarried and unencumbered by children, and who challenges the knowledge and power structure of males at every turn.

In Fingersmith, Waters uses the trope of the double, a common theme in sensation fiction, and a thread Collins weaves throughout The Woman in White, as Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick are frequently mistaken for one another.[15] Andrew Mangham suggests that the likeness between the two women symbolises the link between the Victorians’ fears and desires (123), which frequently overlap. Waters plays on this similarity too. Though her protagonists are presented as two physically distinct women, they are roughly the same size and can fit into one another’s clothing. Viewed through the relentless male gaze, however, they are physically interchangeable. The doctors at the insane asylum easily accept that Sue is Maud because her “husband” claims that is the truth of the matter. More importantly, the women, who were switched at birth and raised in completely opposite circumstances, are shown to share emotions and attitudes that transcend class, privilege, education and social standing. They both struggle to attain autonomy in a world where women are adjunct figures, with no economic, political or social power. Sue poses as Maud’s maid, learning her part – how to tie a lady’s corset properly, how to fix a lady’s hair, how to press and fold a lady’s linen – to perfection. The theme of disguise is a common detective trope, as many nineteenth-century female detectives pretend to have skill sets they do not actually possess in order to infiltrate the domestic spaces of suspects and victims alike.[16] When the detective poses as a domestic servant, she is privy to all sorts of information. Like a typical maid, Sue is well positioned to overhear her employer’s personal conversations and to observe private emotions and actions. In fact, Sue is ostensibly hired by Rivers for exactly this purpose – to assume the role of spy and gauge Maud’s reactions to his romantic advances. At Briar, the maid façade allows Sue  to blend into the background, studying Maud from a distance and ultimately discovering that her ‘employer’ is no pliable china doll, but a deeply independent young woman who, she also comes to learn, was in on Rivers’s plot all along. Though this revelation lands Sue briefly in a lunatic asylum, it also spurs her to re-evaluate her own life, where she is actually subservient to Rivers as well as her adopted mother, Mrs. Sucksby.

As Cox points out, many times in Victorian sensation fiction, the servant-as-spy ferrets out crimes and misdeeds committed by the respectable classes (93), creating palpable anxiety within what should be a safe environment. For instance, when Magdalen, an accomplished actress, poses as a parlor maid in No Name, she discovers a secret trust that affects her inheritance. However, Waters upends this narrative paradigm twice. Initially, Sue herself is the criminal, a thief hired to spy on Maud; but it turns out she has been victimised by both Maud and Rivers all along, and is imprisoned in an insane asylum, where a series of doctors believe she is Maud. Perhaps in studying Maud, Sue has inadvertently picked up the mannerisms and language of a lady because the doctors (under Rivers’s direction) fail to see Sue for what she really is – a lower class domestic and a common criminal. One would think her diction – riddled with slang and grammatical errors – would give her away but the doctors, ironically, chalk it up to a misguided belief that Sue is the aristocratic Maud, confusedly believing herself to be a maid. With this plot twist, Waters is upending normative class conventions in Victorian society, blurring rigid boundaries and norms. As Bredesen points out, there was a Victorian social myth that the dominant group can successfully pretend to be someone of lower rank and “generally, this fiction of superiority precludes the possibility of successful upwardly mobile passing” (31). Class boundaries are so blurred in Fingersmith that even professional doctors are unable to discern them. Sue ultimately comes to realise that Maud is not the only unhappy victim of male patriarchy; as the novel progresses she stops doing what she is told and takes matters into her own hands, transforming herself into a courageous, powerful figure.

As modern readers, we tend to assume that we know who the Victorian detective is – an honorable, overly intelligent citizen who uses his (or her) deductive skills and acquisition of knowledge to make sure that justice is carried out. But in actuality Victorian detectives walk a fine line between morality and criminality (think of Sherlock Holmes’s narcotics addiction and his tendency to let many villains off the hook).[17] Because Sue is a petty thief, as well as a detective, she fits into this mode. While in the insane asylum, she relies on her powers of observation – an essential trait of the detective – as well as her skills at picking locks to survive. Exposed to water torture and cruel beatings, she fears she will die if she remains in the madhouse. When she is visited by Charles, the knife boy at Briar, she studies him carefully.

I saw, what I had not seen at first – that his neck was dirty, and his hair was strange – here pale and fluffy as feathers, here dark and stiff where he had wet it to make it smooth. There was a twig caught up in the wool of the sleeve of his jacket. His trousers were marked with dust. (Waters 478).

These observations lead her to guess (correctly) that he has run away from his post at Briar and is desperate enough to help her escape. She sends him to a locksmith’s shop to get a blank ward key and a file that she then fashions into a key that unlocks various doors in the asylum. Her observation skills – like those of a detective – enable her to transform the stiaution and escape.

The other mystery at the heart of Fingersmith is more metaphysical, though it also relates to the question of identity. Who is Sue? Is anything she has been told about her background true? Just because she was raised to be a petty thief, does that mean she lacks morals? What does perceived social class have to do with values and goals? What exactly is Sue capable of? The plot is rife with past secrets that disturb the present social order. Mrs. Sucksby is Maud’s birth mother, Sue is actually an heiress, and the “real” truth is habitually hidden from the two female detective figures, who only discover at the end that they were switched at birth. Identity is also an issue for Maud, who takes over the narrative in the second part of the novel. At one point, she relates: “My face, my joints, are set aching with the effort of striking looks and poses. I can no longer say with certainty which of my actions – which of my feelings, even – are true ones, which are sham” (Waters 286). Diane Long Hoeveler discusses the role of passive aggression as a subversive strategy whereby female characters surreptitiously gain power, adding that “pretended weakness was strength, and that the pose, the masquerade of innocent victim, would lead ultimately to possessing the master’s goods and property” (246). This is precisely Maud’s gambit in Fingersmith. Throughout the novel, both she and Sue exhibit the intelligence, daring and resourcefulness of the female detective figure, as they defy the myriad patriarchal constraints placed on them. Their unconventional status – Sue as a thief, Maud as a wealthy prisoner – puts them outside the realm of normative female behavior where Victorian women are expected to be docile and compliant, much like the female detective, who is outside the sphere of acceptable behavior for women, walking a fine line between the criminal and the respectable. Though they have been deceived at every turn, their attempts to set the record straight and uncover what really happened in the past are worthy of Collins’s heroines such as Marian Halcombe, Magdalen Vanstone and Valeria Woodville.  

The Dark Clue and Fingersmith are not typical whodunit mysteries. With the exception of Gentleman’s body in Fingersmith, there are no other murders or dead bodies, and no murder weapons. Only Mrs Sucksby is arrested at the end. No state institution regulating conduct and justice is supported. There is no traditional sense of closure as is often the case in a Victorian novel. Yet the protagonists are engaged in solving mysteries that resist the very notion of solution as they piece together fragments of a complicated, convoluted past, which has unalterable implications for their present moment. The process of detection they engage in is central to identity formation. Their discoveries have implications not just for the characters’ own future wellbeing but for the interplay of power and gender in nineteenth-century fiction, a theme that Collins addresses continuously through his fictional female detective figures. Waters and Wilson re-envision the female detective figure in terms of social, gendered and sexual discourses, creating protagonists who defy the patriarchal constraints imposed on them while mitigating societal anxiety about how the detective wields power and the human cost of the detective’s investigations. Their neo-Victorian narratives ask us to consider what evidence links the present to the past and finally, whether the past can ever be truly understood.

Works Cited

Allen, Emily. “Gender and Sensation” in A Companion to Sensation Fiction. Edited by Pamela K. Gilbert. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, 401-413.

Bailey, Anthony. Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner. Tate Publishing, 1997.

Bisla, Sundeep. Wilkie Collins and Copyright: Artistic Ownership in the Age of the Borderless Word. Ohio State University Press, 2013.

Bredesen, Dagni. “Conformist Subversion: The Ambivalent Agency in Revelations of a Lady Detective.” Faculty Research & Creative Activity.1., 2006. http:thekeep.eiu.edu/women_faculty/1.

Collins, Richard. “Marian’s Moustache: Bearded Ladies, Hermaphrodites and Intersexual Collage in The Woman in White,” in Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins. Edited by Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox. University of Tennessee Press, 2003, 131-172.

Collins, Wilkie. No Name. Penguin Books, 2004.

____________. The Law and the Lady. Penguin Books, Ltd. 1998.

____________. The Moonstone. Oxford University Press, 2008.

_____________. The Woman in White. Penguin Books, Ltd., 2003.

Costantini, Mariaconcetta. “`Faux-Victorian Melodrama’ in the New Millennium: The Case of Sarah Waters. Critical Survey. Vol 18 No 1, (2006): 17-39.

Cox, Jessica. Neo-Victorianism and Sensation Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Craig, Patricia and Cadogan, Mary. The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction. St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Doan, Laura and Waters, Sarah. “Making up lost time: contemporary lesbian writing and the invention of history” in Territories of Desire in Queer Culture: Refiguring Contemporary Boundaries. Manchester University Press, 2001, 12-28.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Penguin Books, 2001.

Forrester, Andrew. The Female Detective. Poisoned Pen Press, 2016.

Hadley, Louisa. Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Hoeveler Long, Diane. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontes. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Kestner, Joseph A. Sherlock’s Sisters: The British Female Detective, 1864-1913. Routledge, 2003.

Klein, Kathleen. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise. “Neo-Victorian Female Gothic: Fantasies of Self-Abjection” in Neo-Victorian Gothic: Horror, Violence and Degeneration in the Re-Imagined Nineteenth Century. Rodopi, 2012, 221-252.

Lycett, Andrew. Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation. Hutchinson, 2013.

Malik, Rachel. “The Afterlife of Wilkie Collins” in The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 2006, 181-193.

Mangham, Andrew. “`What Could I Do?”: Nineteenth-Century Psychology and the Horrors of Masculinity in The Woman in White” in Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre. Ohio State University Press, 2006, 115-125.

Marshall, Gail. Victorian Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Miller, D.A. “Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Representations. No. 14. (1986): 107-136.

O’Callaghan, Claire. Sarah Waters: Gender and Sexual Politics. Bloomsbury. 2017.

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Siddiqi, Yumna. Anxieties of Empire and the Fiction of Intrigue. Columbia University Press, 2008.

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[1] Numerous scholars have noted that Inspector Bucket in Bleak House was inspired by Inspector Field. “The famous Inspector Field was [Dickens’s] model – both in appearance and working methods – for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (65),” says Jessica Mann in Deadlier than the Male: Why are Respectable English Women So Good at Murder (1981). Meanwhile, in Domestic Crime in the Victorian Novel, Anthea Trodd notes that “Field emerges in Bleak House as Bucket” (32).  

[2] Several scholars have made this gendered observation. In Klein’s The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre, she says, “Certainly a woman’s script did not include setting up professionally in a job which so clearly required acknowledged masculine virtues like physical strength, logical thinking, and worldly experience. Women might be successful amateur detectives so long as they employed the more stereotypically feminine talents of gossip and intuition, but they were barred from detective careers” (3). When analysing the character of Mrs. Paschal, Martin A. Kayman, author of From Bow Street to Baker Street: Mystery, Detection and Narrative (St. Martin’s Press, 1992), comments that she “relies so much on disguise, infiltration, false confidences and most of all spying” (126). He adds, “Likewise, all her most important skills of spying and deceit are implicitly or explicitly presented as ‘feminine’ traits” (127). In The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction, Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan claim that G “remains unimpressive, partly as a result of her resolute anonymity” (Craig and Cadogan 18), adding that her “exploits are rarely spiced with authentic danger, and the stories rely heavily on coincidence. From the beginning, there was a great deal of emphasis on intuition – or even second sight” (16).

[3] In “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Hayden White writes that for historiographers, the historical record is “fragmentary and always incomplete” (479). According to White, historians tend to prioritize certain facts and then proceed to construct a story around them. Therefore, we cannot say that history books are pure fact while fiction is merely a product of the imagination.

[4] Richard Collins, for example, speaks of the “erotic charge” (134) and “initial attraction” (135) when Walter meets Marian. D.A. Miller, meanwhile, notes that Walter’s portrait of Marian “abounds in phallic signs” (127).

[5] Scholars have tended to marginalize both novels, preferring to focus on Collins or Braddon when it comes to British female detective figures in the 1860s and 70s. Craig and Cadogan claim that G, the female protagonist in The Female Detective, “remains unimpressive, partly as a result of her resolute anonymity” (18), adding that her “exploits are rarely spiced with authentic danger, and the stories rely heavily on coincidence” (16).  

[6] It wasn’t until four years later, in 1922, that Louisa Pelling was named the first woman detective in Britain – 58 years after Forrester and Hayward created her in print (Rawlings 151).

[7] Sundeep Bisla has a different reading of Marian’s speech, believing that it instead refers to Collins’s ongoing concern with the process of American copyright violation. “This ability for a woman to be ‘drugged,’ away from home and ‘fastened’ elsewhere – like a piece of writing that is ‘cut’ from one context and ‘pasted’ into (or merely onto, depending) another – is the breaking function of linguistic iterability embodied” (174).

[8] Mangham interestingly links surveillance to the specific act of surveying the female sexual organs, which “reached disturbing and extraordinary lengths in the 1860s” (117) when clitoridectomy was being promoted as a cure for mental instability in women.

[9] This is a question that has puzzled scholars for centuries. Turner’s obituarist in The Times wrote: “He loved to deal in the secrets and mysteries of his art” (Smiles 12).

[10] Lycett points out the irony of Collins writing sensation novels based on exposing the double standards and hypocrisy beneath the surface of Victorian society when he himself lived a double life. “Like his friend Charles Dickens, he would have been distraught if any details of his intimate personal relationships had become public knowledge” (2).

[11] Part of the psychological dynamic in sensation fiction involves accessing the unconscious mind. Marshall notes that Walter Hartnett is subject to accusations of monomania which he detects in Anne Catherick, and his processes of deduction are “evidence of the unconscious cerebration which Carpenter and Cobbe postulated in the 1850s and 1860s” (58).

[12] Many scholars have described the complicated emotions between Walter and Marian in The Woman in White. Richard Collins says, “With the three of them settled in a ménage, Walter appears to have the best of both worlds at his disposal: a fair wife heroically rescued and an intelligent and sexually mature woman of ability” (157). 

[13] In The Woman in White, Laura is drugged and forced into an insane asylum. In Poor Miss Finch, Lucilla is a virtual prisoner at her husband’s cousin’s house and in Man and Wife, Godfrey plots to murder his wife and nearly smothers her.

[14] In “Making up lost time: contemporary lesbian writing and the invention of history,” Sarah Waters and Laura Doan maintain that lesbians have been under-represented in historical fiction and are now “repossessing their own lost histories” through contemporary romance, science fiction and detective fiction (13). The lesbian detective novel emerged in the 1980s, when books by Katherine V. Forrest, Nikki Baker, Lauren Wright Douglas and Claire McNab were first published (Reddy 100-1).

[15] In adaptations of Collins’s novel, such as the 2018 BBC television series, they are often played by the same actress.

[16] In The Female Detective, for instance, the protagonist alternately poses as a woman seeking references for a maid, a traveling seamstress, a dressmaker and a milliner. At one point, she actually makes two caps and a bonnet. Likewise, in Collins’s No Name, Magdalen Vanstone disguises herself as a parlour maid in order to search for a secret trust.

[17] Holmes, for instance, allows the criminal to escape in “The Blue Carbuncle” and fails to catch criminals in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Five Orange Pips” and “The Yellow Face.”  

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