No, I had never heard of either this book or this author before. My path here was a winding one, starting off with Hugh Greene’s collection of later Victorian and Edwardian detective stories, Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. (Which I recommend!) Quite how I ended up ordering a second-hand copy of Revelations of a Lady Detective, I don’t now recall, but it began with looking up Loveday Brooke on the internet, thence to Victorian female detectives more generally. The only reason I was able to read it at all was its republication in 2013 by the British Library. It is now out of print again, but the BL copies mean that anyone can find a copy without having to pay vast sums for it.
Avoiding the urge to mention London buses, I’ll just say that this was first published in 1864, just months after Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective was issued, the very first work of fiction to feature a professional female detective as a heroine. Did William Stephens Hayward grind his teeth and throw his inkpot at the wall on discovering this? Quite possibly, and who can blame him. Yet this was not the beginning of a literary trend, for the next British lady detective did not recount her adventures in print for over twenty years (in Leonard Merrick’s Mr Bazalgette’s Agent, since you ask, and also reissued by the BL). All of this information appears in Mike Ashley’s excellent introduction to the BL edition.
Our lady detective is Mrs Paschal, over forty and a widow who has taken up this ‘strange, exciting and mysterious’ career on the sudden death of her husband, which left her in dire financial straits. She tells us that her ‘brain was vigorous and subtle’, that she ‘was well born and educated, so that, like an accomplished actress, I could play my part in any drama in which I was instructed to take a part’ and that ‘For the parts I had to play, it was necessary to have nerve and strength, cunning and confidence, resources unlimited, confidence’ and creativity. Later, she adds, ‘owing to frequent acquaintance with peril, I had become unusually hardened for a woman’ and that she is often considered ‘a Jonathan Wild in petticoats’. She also casually lets slip that ‘in her younger days’ she had been ‘employed as a barmaid at a large refreshment saloon at one of the railway stations’, which raises a few questions either about her good birth and education or about her marriage. Certainly, whatever her cases throw at her – being locked in an underground tunnel, eavesdropping a band of murderous Italians in a ruined mill, disguising herself as a nun or entering a thieves’ den – she remains cool and ingenious. However, this does not win her everyone’s respect:
I have met people who have turned up their noses at me for being a female detective or thief-taker, as they have thought fit to term me, but I never forgot the insult, and have had my eye upon them [...]
Revelations of a Lady Detective is not a novel but a series of short stories, the reminiscences of Mrs Paschal. They are very different from twentieth- and twenty-first-century detective stories in that the identity of the villain is never secret, nor are there any surprising twists. Rather, we are invited to admire the ingenuity with which Mrs Paschal gets her (wo)man. There are few murders; instead, most of the cases concern threatened property or inheritance. As Mrs Wareham tells Mrs Paschal of her son:
I am not angry with him [...] I am only sorry and regretful. I know he will see his folly some day, and then I shall forgive him all his unkindness, all his insolence, and all his ungentlemanly conduct, without one word of reproach, because I know he is not to blame. [...] There is one thing, though, which is becoming very serious. She has designs upon his property. [...] it would be extremely mortifying to me to see the splendid estates which have been in the family for centuries pass into other hands.
Not everyone in Revelations of a Lady Detective is as concerned with material wealth as Mrs Wareham but I found it interesting to reflect that in our modern culture we gravitate towards stories about murder, whereas William Stephens Hayward judged his readers to be at least as interested in stories about theft and fraud. I wonder how representative this is of Victorian detective fiction in general?
Reading these stories I was struck by how clearly they are related to gothic and sensation fiction. So there is a mysterious countess, stolen diamonds, a wicked abbess, a secret society of Italian revolutionaries, moonlit catacombs, poison and identical twins, all stocks of the gothic. Only the supernatural is missing. Also interesting is the number of female characters besides Mrs Paschal, both victims and criminals; while they tend not to have great depth, the Countess of Vervaine and Incognita in particular are memorable characters and excite Mrs Paschal’s grudging admiration and sympathy, even as she works against them.
William Stephens Hayward may not have been the best writer of his generation – and there are some sloppy bits, most noticeably when a character’s father dies on one page and is alive again on the next, and the name Wareham is overused – but these stories are entertaining enough to be something more than literary curios and I’m very glad to have read them.