Monday, May 9, 2016

Listen to Your Mother(s) 3: Women Writers and Detective in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction (2010), by Lucy Sussex, Part Two

Here begins my further look at Lucy Sussex's Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010).  In Part One of this series I looked at a neglected 1950s study on detective fiction by Alma Elizabeth Murch and in Part Two I looked at the different takes on the matter of nineteenth-century crime fiction and women authors that have been provided by genre scholars Howard Haycraft, Julian Symons and Lucy Sussex.

I should also note that Sussex's newest book Blockbuster! Fergus Hume & The Mystery of a Hansom Cab: The Story of the Crime Novel That Became a Publishing Phenomenon is being released in paperback in the United States in June (it is already out elsewhere). It's a fascinating book, engagingly written with appeal to a broad audience and beautifully put together by Text, and I will have more to say about it next week, as well as more on some of the detective fiction by that intriguing individual Fergus Hume.

The first chapter of Sussex's Mothers surveys "the beginnings of crime fiction" in the picaresque novel (Moll Flanders), true crime texts (the Newgate Calendar and newspaper reportage) and, last but definitely not least, the Gothic novel (The Mysteries of Udolpho).

In his survey Bloody MurderJulian Symons (1972) specifically excludes the Gothic novel from his consideration of the origins of the detective novel, arguing that "Gothic novelists wanted to arouse in their readers feelings of terror and delight at the horrific plight of the central character, and they used mysterious events to enhance these feelings. The solution of a puzzle was not for them the main interest of the book."

Fourteen years earlier, however, Alma Murch had argued, in her The Development of the Detective Novel, that in her Gothic novels Ann Radcliffe had written tales "in which her readers could expect the riddles to be finally explained, often in conversations between a clever, observant character and his less quick-witted friend." These are, she notes, "two features which link them unmistakably with the detective novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."

Douglas G. Greene, the esteemed biographer of John Dickson Carr, similarly has noted that some Gothic novels, like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), "conclude with natural explanations of the terrors, and these novels, when combined with other influences, eventually lead to the detective story."

Sussex comes down with Murch and Greene, declaring that the "Gothic is a Pangaea of genre literatures, containing within it the future continents of horror, science fiction...and crime writing....perhaps most crucial is what mystery is involved in the Gothic context: the depiction of a sensational motif or incident, with its explanation being delayed until much later in the narrative."

Connections between the Gothic novel and Victorian sensation novel and, even later, the Golden Age so-called "Had I But Known" mystery suspense narratives are especially clear.  Female authors associated with these mystery forms--Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth BraddonEllen WoodMary Roberts RinehartMignon Eberhart--received especially short shrift from Symons, their work getting either ignored or, frankly, denigrated when even acknowledged.

Yet in many ways their mystery writing has had a greater influence on modern crime fiction than the strictly fair play, clue puzzle detective fiction of the Golden Age. (Interestingly, crime writer and reviewer Todd Downing, a great admirer of female-authored mysteries, in 1936 expressly compared Mignon Eberhart's novels with those of "Mrs. Radcliffe," adding that Eberhart had performed some needed "pruning of the Gothic impedimenta"--see my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.)

In her second chapter, "Mrs Radcliffe as Conan Doyle?", Sussex looks at very early examples of women writers incorporating crime into their texts, as well as female investigators.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Sussex notes "made Mrs. Radcliffe "the most popular and best paid English writer of the eighteenth century"; and the author became "the most successful exponent of what is generally termed Female Gothic," a mode of fiction wherein typically a young heroine "finds herself imprisoned in a sinister castle, usually by a wicked male tyrant, but emerges at the end triumphant to marry her hero."

Something devilish behind it all!
Sussex argues that Radcliffe's Female Gothic, in contrast with Male Gothic (see below)

arguably comprises the major 'system' in the creation of the new crime fiction genre, contributing the mystery, rationalism and also the role of the protagonist....Emily in Udolpho is a woman of reason, elucidating the mysteries of the castle....Emily and other Radcliffe heroines walk the mean passages of their various Gothic castles very much by themselves....With the Radcliffe heroine can be seen a narrative model emerging, of women versus crime, women conquering and explicating crime--even if only briefly on the way to matrimony.

Male Gothic, in contrast, focuses on, as exemplified by Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796)

"the dangerous male, the tyrant or rake" and "represents the beginning of the psychothriller, with the excesses of Hannibal Lecter being (almost) equalled by those of Ambrosio the Monk, whose tastes run to black magic, rape, incest and murder.  Yet, while bad boy Gothic contains crime, mystery and suspense, it is no place for the detective, for the villain is privileged....Male Gothic partakes of the supernatural, something at odds with the emerging detective genre....the logical, ratiocinative search for a criminal has no place in the Male Gothic.

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) satirized the Female Gothic novel, demonstrating, Sussex points out that "the Gothic sleuthing heroine had become so familiar, a cliche even, that it could be parodied." Catherine "seems something of a goose," concedes Sussex, yet the intuition that prompts her "snooping" at Northanger Abbey "is perfectly correct."

However, in domesticating the Gothic novel Austen and other women novelists who followed her imported a trope from the domestic novel, making the heroine "naive and thoughtless, needing a sharp lesson." Repeatedly in these novels the heroine is thwarted.

Austen's Catherine, writes Sussex, merely

suffers embarrassment; her successors were lucky to escape with a nervous breakdown, if not permanent incapacity....After some effective work the heroine-sleuth usually collapses with stress or brain fever, reverting to passive femininity, and a happy marriage with the man she has saved."  

This ultimately renders the "transgressive" heroine-sleuth "conventional and unexceptional."

For the rest of Chapter Two, Sussex looks at this female sleuth figure, first in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), which "includes a murder mystery in its plot structure," and then in several works from this era by Frances Trollope.  However she argues the person most successful at this time in combining "murder, the mystery narrative and the novel form" was a writer whose "first novel appeared in 1841 and arguably was the first substantial work of crime writing by a woman."  Who was this woman?  She gets all of Sussex's third chapter to herself and I will discuss this part, and more, in the next installment.


  1. Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre (available in the OUP's World's Classics), published in 1806, is an entertaining example of Bad Girl Gothic, with a heroine every bit as depraved as The Monk,

  2. If you're going to regard Moll Flanders, the Newgate Calendar, newspaper reportage and the Gothic novel as ancestral crime fiction then why not include Oedipus Rex, Macbeth and the Biblical story of Cain and Abel? She's casting her net so widely that the definition of crime fiction becomes meaningless.

    In fact the term crime fiction has very little meaning anyway. It's not really a genre. You might as well say that Shakespeare, Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) and Hemingway (A Farewell To Arms) were all romance writers.

    Detective fiction on the other hand is an actual genre. If it doesn't have actual detection it isn't a detective story.

  3. the logical, ratiocinative search for a criminal has no place in the Male Gothic.

    It's a bit of a stretch to see Radcliffe's heroines as logical and ratiocinative. Admittedly my reading of Radcliffe was quite a while back.

    I'm not sure there's such a thing as Male Gothic or Female Gothic. Obviously Radcliffe and Lewis were very different in their approaches. There was definitely a major difference between the supernatural gothic school and the non-supernatural school but I'm not convinced that the sex of the authors had anything to do with it.

  4. To quote Sussex, Female Gothic is "a style of writing not gender-prescriptive, for men could write in this mode too."

    I think it's interesting to go back and look at the seeds of crime, mystery and detective fiction in the 18th and 29th century. The book takes an interesting look at the elements of detection in these early works. Of course the author goes into much more detail than I do here!

  5. Whoops, should be 18th and 19th centuries. To write about the 29th century would be yet more impressive!

  6. When i was growing up, i was addicted to gothic novels. The spooky manor homes perched on 50ft cliffs, the wild raging surf below fuelled my imagination. Disappointed that Julian Symons gives such short shift to this genre. I'm not familiar with Ann Radcliffe's books but i will rectify that asap. Wonderful informative articles, looking forward to part lll.

    1. I can just remember the Dark Shadows craze and love the Gothic. The next part coming soon, glad you are enjoying, I learned a lot from Lucy Sussex's book.