It’s time to talk about the image I use here on my blog and on my Twitter profile: the book cover for Revelations of a Lady Detective.
And, by the way, happy International Women’s Day!
According to Dagni A. Breseden, professor of Victorian Literature at Eastern Illinois University, there is an unsettled debate about which “lady detective” novel is the very first novel to feature a woman sleuth in the primary role in the British tradition of detective fiction:
In 1864, British commuters passing by a W.H. Smithrailway bookstall might have noticed something new on display: two fictional detective casebooks. What distinguished these yellowbacks—cheaply produced volumes with brightly illustrated covers and (often) yellow-tinted protective wrappers—from similar collections of detective memoirs was that they featured the first representations of professional women detectives in British fiction. Although there has been some debate over which of the two was published first, if only to assign pride of place, book advertisements suggest that Andrew Forrester, Jr’s The Female Detective and Revelations of a Lady Detective, attributed to W.S. Hayward, were produced almost simultaneously.
The earliest book notice for The Female Detective so far discovered appeared on 16 May 1864 in the Caledonian Mercury. One day earlier, Reynolds Newspaper advertised the release of Revelations of a Lady Detective under the publisher’s name, J.A. Berger. The trade journal, Publisher’s Circular, however, did not announce the publication of Revelations of a Lady Detective until October, and then the publisher credited [the publisher] George Vickers, not J.A. Berger. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that Revelations of a Lady Detective was ready for press at the earlier date, but that the publisher, J.A. Berger, was absorbed into George Vickers, which itself was soon to become a subsidiary of Ward and Lock, the publishers of Forrester’s The Female Detective. (Breseden, 2010)
All of that is to say that Revelations of a Lady Detective is probably one of the first novels — if not the first — of its kind to be published in the nineteenth century, soon to be joined by other novels featuring “lady sleuths.”
Mrs. Paschal is the “lady detective” in this groundbreaking novel, a widow who is also a member of an all-woman police branch in London. This is significant because that means Mrs. Paschal is a professional — not an aristocratic or middle-class lady with a “hobby” of solving mysteries. She works for a living, accepting new jobs from her supervisor on the force because she needs the money.
Breseden points out that it’s the professional aspect of this character that accounts for a lack of scholarship attending to this novel and others like it:
The chief evidence of their anomalous nature, however, stems from the insistence by police historians and literary critics alike that there were no women hired as police officers, let alone detectives, for at least another generation. Consequently, when both G [the protagonist of The Female Detective] and Mrs. Paschal are made to claim professional relationships with the police, scholars have viewed their authors as “engaging in a fantasy of female empowerment completely at odds with actuality” (Kestner 13). According to this view, these two yellowbacks were imaginative feats, the pot-boiling of two hack writers cashing in on the success of the detective casebook genre. This presumed absence of real-life antecedents diminished scholarly interest in these two heroines. (Breseden, 2010)
Breseden’s scholarship points to many instances in the second-half of the 19th century, however, in which British women were employed as detectives, whether privately — as in, private investigators — or for colonial police forces for the purpose of investigating crimes related to women and families, such as infanticide:
Such evidence gives scholars reason to consider these yellowbacks afresh in terms of their representations of actual working women rather than merely fantastic or titillating innovations.The representations of both G and Mrs. Paschal, when combined with contemporaneous newspaper reportage and court records, indicate that women worked as “detective police spies”. Although it would be “another fifty years before there was a Women’s Police Service and longer still before they were permitted to perform a detective function” (Worthington 170), Victorian popular print suggests that women worked as detectives—both for the state and privately—long before they show up in official documents, even if that work was off the record and assigned on an ad hoc basis. (Breseden, 2010)
In the American context, we might remember that Kate Warne is considered the first woman private investigator, hired by Allan Pinkerton of the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1858, when she answered an advertisement in the newspaper and convinced Pinkerton that, as a woman, she could access sensitive information that a man could not.
When I first came across the cover image for The Revelations of the Lady Detective, I was immediately smitten. The title, of course, is intriguing. It prioritizes gender, class, and social status in identifying this detective as a “lady” — and it presumes racial identity (whiteness). The word “revelations,” however, is also suggestive. Why revelations? Combined with the gender and class emphasis, it seems to me that there is something that a “lady” detective can bring to an investigation which is altogether of a different category. And does a text like this need to announce a kind of moral “transcendence” (i.e., “revelation” = other-worldly ability or perspective) in order to justify a woman’s involvement in a crime/detective novel?
But, let’s be honest, it’s the details of the cover art that sold me on this image. Anyone who knows anything about the Victorian era has heard that women’s ankles are taboo. Apparently, Victorian men are so depraved that the mere reminder that women have legs can cause ungodly acts. So when I noticed this “lady detective” lifting up her skirts and showing her ankles, I wondered what kind of comment was being made about either the “lady” or “detective” part of this woman’s identity: does this particular woman scoff at decorum and sexism? Does she use her femininity to gain access to the “revelations” of criminal conspiracies, as Kate Warne apparently did? Let’s not forget that she is also smoking a cigarette in this cover image — another gendered no-no. And peeking into the far-left side of the scene, we can just make out a glass with liquid and a stirrer. Isn’t a stirrer a kind of universal symbol of cocktail?
So, there are mixed-messages going on in this cover art: what exactly might she “reveal” in this narrative? Is she both the detective, and the criminal, transgressing social codes? Is she even a “lady” at all?
I found some discussion of this cover art and the fictional character of Mrs. Paschal on historian Lucy Worsley’s website:
“Because they were made from such thin and cheap paper, very few yellowbacks have survived in good condition. But the British Library does have a copy of Hayward’s The Revelations of a Lady Detective, with its rather racy cover still intact. It could be that the author never selected or even saw the cover art, and, on the basis that ‘sex sells’, it shows a lady rather more racy than the detective herself featured in its pages. A nattily dressed lady is smoking, a very fast habit, and she’s also lifting up her skirts to reveal her ankles. The image bears a close resemblance to the Victorian ‘Haymarket Princesses’, the ladies of the night who worked around the theatres of London’s Haymarket, the revelation of the ankle beneath the skirt being the age-old indication of a prostitute. This salacious image was obviously intended to tempt readers into buying a saucy tale, and it is true that the Lady Detective – although essentially sober and respectable – does some rather unladylike things. At one point, while chasing a villain, she finds it necessary to drop down through a hatch into a cellar. Her crinoline won’t fit through the hole, so she simply takes it off and abandons it. It’s a wonderful moment of female emancipation: freed from the ‘obnoxious garment’, as she calls it, she is able to get on with her work. It’s a brilliant little microcosm of female emancipation”
This sounds a bit familiar — the marketing department does what it thinks will bring people in. But, I still wonder about the social commentary, whether intentional by the author or not, about the clash of the concept of “lady” with the visual imagery of this cover. And I wonder whether the novel itself also plays with class and gender expectations, even if in a different way than the rhetoric of the cover image does.
In some ways, this cover art seems to be admonishing the woman’s move to a professional role, even if the publishers are simultaneously exploiting the sexist imagination of “prostitution” to sell more copies of their books. In other words, the concept of a working woman is synonymous with “prostitiution,” regardless of the “profession.” That means that even when a woman is “respectable” in terms of married status, whiteness, and an association with the police, she is socially suspicious. Even when a cop, her gender and sexuality are invitations to policing by the general public.
So the cover art doesn’t simply play on the idea of “working woman as sex worker” to sell books, it is also a cultural marker of a generally-held idea that any white, middle-class woman who works for a living is as socially transgressive as a “prostitute.” This reminds me of the co-constructed idea of “prostitution” with expectations for gender, race, and class — what is a “prostitute,” afterall, but a label given to someone who transgresses expectations of gender and sexuality roles within a rigid economic order?
Much scholarly writing on G and Mrs. Paschal has concerned either their transgression of or support for gender norms. Of the two, Mrs. Paschal seems most committed to patrolling the precincts of respectability.Yet, even at their most conservative, these two heroines participate in the development of a new professional identity. While they may be concerned with salvaging the home-lives of others, they nevertheless avoid being identified with homes of their own. In the course of her cases, G takes up temporary lodgings as each situation demands. And although Mrs. Paschal seems to have a permanent residence, home for her is where she waits for her next assignment. Without work, she feels herself “becoming rusty and inert, not to say obese and stupid” (RLD19). G evades any scrutiny of her private or emotional life; Mrs. Paschal’s only known relative—her husband—lies in his grave. For both of them, their profession as detectives provides the substance of their narratives and, we are meant to understand, their lives. (Breseden, 2010)
So why am I using this image so prominently for this blog?
Really, it comes down to the several layers of rhetorical meanings it conveys. On one hand, its announcement of an identity-based perspective (a lady) for the detective genre is fitting for this project’s cultural analysis of crime discourses: who talks about crime in our popular culture? How are social roles represented in crime discourses? What is the cultural relationship between teller, subject, and audience, when it comes to social roles and crime discourses?
This cover adds an interesting example of the history of this discourse, but it also functions as a kind of icon for situated examination of crime discourse, as in Donna Harraway’s sense of “situated knowledges,” a term she coined with her 1988 essay about epistemological bias in “scientific” discourses. The cover thus reminds me of my own critical-reflexive role. Situated knowledges, according to Harraway, allows for
“a more adequate, richer, better account of a world, in order to live in it well and in critical, reflexive relation to our own as well as others’ practices of domination and the unequal parts of privilege and oppression that make up all positions” (Harraway, 1988, p. 579).
On another level, the commentary in the image about social transgression, via gendered postures and consumption, doesn’t necessarily work with the lady detective, but against her if we are to imagine that the cover art is a marketing scheme rather than a good-faith representation of the fictional detective, Mrs. Paschal. As I look at the cover art and imagine what kind of “lady” this detective is, am I thinking more about her behavior as a lady than about whatever is the content of this narrative? Am I always a bit complicit, then, with the kind of sexist, classist, and racist policing of womanhood and professionalization that is also constructed through this cover art? How does this affect my relationship to the narrative it delivers?
It’s as if the cover art has trapped me in a cycle of social judgement about crime, gender, class, and race.