Ideal and Real Female Experience in Sherlock Holmes' Stories

The Popularity of Detective Fiction in the Victorian Era

In the Victorian era, between 1800 and 1900, approximately 6,000 crime fiction titles were published in English (Sussex 3). This number does not include short stories published in periodicals, some of which were serializations. Arthur Conan Doyle’s relationship with The Strand Magazine that published his Sherlock Holmes stories is perhaps the best-known example of a mystery writer who published first and regularly in periodicals. But the publication of his Sherlock Holmes stories began at the end of the 19th century in 1887, and continued into the 20th, and not in The Strand Magazine, but in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Conan Doyle’s experience represents only a small percentage of crime fiction that actually appeared in periodicals. As Lucy Sussex points out, many other authors published numerous stories in magazines before and in addition to Conan Doyle. For example, Mary Fortune published over 500 stories over 40 years between 1868 and 1908 (3). Clearly the English reading public in the Victorian era had a large and longstanding appetite for crime fiction. Where did it come from?

The Newgate Calendar (1773) offered the first regular information to the English public about criminal activity by publishing stories based on the Newgate Prison’s lists of prisoners awaiting trial. A singular listing of a name and the crime was expanded with the biographical background of each accused and detailed descriptions of the crime or crimes committed, producing narratives that emphasized personal moral decay and, while meant as instructive warnings, also created an appetite for more such tales. Literary historians have shown elsewhere how this narrative continued to expand and to influence fiction including prompting popular authors of the day to write about crime in their fiction in order to take advantage of the public’s willingness to pay for such stories (Altick, 1970; Flanders, 2011; Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006; Maunder & Moore, 2004). A new type of novel, called the Newgate novel, also came into being, offering stories that included sympathy for the criminals and illustrated the circumstances, which led them to crime. Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist and Barnaby Rudge), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram) and Harrison Ainsworth (Jack Sheppard) enjoyed great popularity by offering fictionalized narratives about the lives of real or imagined criminals. Newspapers of the day also reported on trials and the response of readers illustrates the appeal of crime stories. For example, in 1856 The Illustrated Times published a special edition on the trial of Dr. William Palmer who had poisoned his wife and several of his children among other people. The Illustrated Times reported that circulation doubled to 400,000. Some crimes were even the basis of stage plays. It seemed not only was the English public enthralled by crime but also they enjoyed every possible representation from trials, to news stories to fictional entertainments based on crimes such as novels and plays.

The creation of the London Metropolitan Police Force (1829) and the Detective Force (1842) offered a second aspect to the consideration of crime: how criminals were identified, caught and brought to justice. This offered the basis for fuller exploration of how crimes were solved and criminals brought to justice by offering dramatic possibilities in the struggle between police and criminal, good and evil. The introduction of men devoted to solving crime offered a model of personal struggle between detective and criminal that has lasted as one of the basic characteristics of the mystery story.

Within the interest in crime, which the English exhibited, the female criminal held a special interest. This was possibly because more men were tried than women and therefore a female criminal was more of a curiosity. Court records from the Old Bailey in London show that between the 1690’s and 1740’s, 40% of criminal defendants appearing in court were women, but by the early 19th century, this number had dropped to 22%. Reasons offered include the belief of the time that women were less violent, and more nurturing and loving, protectors of homes and children. This belief contributed to the legal response that female deviance should be treated less harshly or addressed in other ways such as medical treatment. So when a woman was tried for a major crime like murder, the public’s interest was heightened as female criminals were less common and defied the conventional image of feminine behavior.

Court cases like Constance Kent who murdered her 3-year-old half-brother by cutting his throat in 1865; or Madeleine Smith who murdered her lover by arsenic in 1857, presented and reinforced the idea that women could commit the worst of crimes both against civilization and their own feminine nature. A report in The Times (7/28/1865) notes a lack of emotion on the part of Kent when her sentence of death was commuted to penal servitude. If lack of emotion marked a female criminal as deficient in appropriate female behavior, a sexual appetite could practically seal her image as a deviant as in the case of Madeleine Smith who was accused of poisoning a bothersome lover she wanted to be rid of. Despite a prosecution determined to put Smith’s morality on trial because of her sexual activity, she managed to escape a guilty verdict. Legal historians suggest that, although there was little evidence to connect her to the death, it as likely she escaped a guilty verdict because she declined to testify and so evaded direct questioning, and because she kept her composure during the nine-day trial (Mortimer, 1984).

Madeline Smith was hardly unique if she had used poison to murder someone. One third of all identified criminal cases in the 19th century involving poisoning involved arsenic (Hempl, 2013) It was easily obtainable from a chemist to kill household pests and inexpensive. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning were indistinguishable from other gastric disorders to a medical examiner so there was a reasonable chance a poisoner could escape prosecution. So prominent was the fear that women, in particular, would poison if given the opportunity that, in 1851, an attempt was made by the House of Lords to pass a law that banned women from buying arsenic. But it would appear to have been an afterthought by a legislative body that hadn’t kept on forensic developments, because by 1836, arsenic was traceable in the body and arsenic poisoning became less common. And, as Sandra Hempl noted, divorce laws gave women a new option to escape an unhappy marriage (2013). Still, the stereotype that poison was a women’s weapon may have originated from the crime stories of some female murderers such as Madeleine Smith and others.

With over 60 years of crime narrative available through the Newgate Calendar, newspaper reporting, novels, stories and plays, the English public had developed a strong interest in reading about crime by the time Victoria took the throne in 1837. The groundwork had been laid for the first flowering of the detective novel, including the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective, Sherlock Holmes.


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