It’s been called different things in different places. In France it was called La Belle Époque. In a lot of other places – especially those with a UK connection – it was called the Late Victorian Era. In the U.S. it’s been referred to sometimes as the Gilded Age. The last few decades of the 19th Century left lasting legacies on society, music, art, business, immigration, education and even architecture. And that’s not to mention the tremendous influence of the literature of the times. As any crime fiction fan knows, the detective story, where there is a crime, a sleuth and an investigation, has its roots in the 19th Century so it’s only fitting I think to take a look at the end of that era.
In some ways it was a very optimistic time. Science and technology had advanced so much that there was a strong surge of faith in human capacities. We see that optimism in Pablo De Santis’ The Paris Enigma, which takes place in part at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. Sigmundo Salvatrio is the son of a Buenos Aires shoemaker, but he dreams of being a detective. Famous detectives are the celebrities of the day and Salvatrio wants to be among their number. To his delight he is accepted at the Academy for Detectives run by the world-famous sleuth Renato Craig. Craig is the co-founder of an international group of famous sleuths known as The Twelve, which is gong to make a presentation at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. When illness forces Craig to cancel his plans to go to Paris, he sends Salvatrio in his place. Salvatrio travels to Paris and meets the other members of The Twelve, including the group’s other co-founder Viktor Arkazy. When group member Louis Darbon is killed, Salvatrio works with Arkazy to find out who the murderer is. Through Salvatrio’s eyes we get to see the technological and scientific developments on display at the World’s Fair and it’s clear that it’s a time of real hope for the future.
There’s a real emphasis on scientific and technological advancement in perhaps the world’s most famous detective stories, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes adventures. Detective stories had been popular for few decades by the time Conan Doyle created Holmes, but the first fictional detectives such as Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin didn’t really use science and scientific logic to solve their crimes. And that makes sense, given that Dupin was created just ten years after the term scientist was first really used. But by the time Holmes was created in the late 1880’s, scientific study had gained a foothold on people’s thinking. And we see that change in Holmes’ approach to detection. Holmes does not solve mysteries by guesswork or serendipity. He uses science, reason and logical deduction. He makes observations, he deduces what they must mean and he uses those observations to inform his theory of the crime. Holmes fans will know that Holmes notices details such as a hat that hasn’t been brushed (The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle) or a certain rubbing pattern on a sleeve (The Adventure of the Red-Headed League) and that he uses those details to solve mysteries.
The late 19th Century was also a time of deeply entrenched class divisions. There was a belief that hard work and ‘upright living’ could move one out of the lowest classes and into ‘respectable’ middle class life. Just read any Horatio Alger novel to see what I mean. But there were limits to one’s chances in life and perhaps nothing limited opportunities at this time more than social class. Wilkie Collins’ novels give a really interesting depiction of those divisions. For instance, The Moonstone is the story of a famous diamond originally taken from a Hindu temple by Colonel John Herncastle. The diamond is said to be cursed, and certainly bad luck seems to befall Herncastle after he steals it. He has a falling-out with his sister Lady Julia Verinder and as a way of cursing her family he bequeaths the diamond to his niece Rachel (Julia’s daughter) as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. On that same night, the diamond is stolen and Sergeant Cuff investigates the theft. Although at first he doesn’t solve the mystery, he does begin to follow the trail of the diamond and in the end (and after a murder) we find out what happened to the jewel. This story is told from a variety of different perspectives, including that of Gabriel Betteredge, head of the Verinder household staff. Through his eyes we see the very clear differences among the classes and the strong belief that those in the upper classes were indeed their employees’ ‘social betters.’ There were clear expectations at the time for how members of different classes ‘ought to’ behave, and we see that in this novel too. Collins’ novels are also interesting in that they reflect the sensationalism that was so popular at this time.
We also see marked class differences in Emily Brightwell’s Mrs. Jeffries historical mystery series. Mrs. Jeffries is housekeeper to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon and in that capacity she oversees the work of Witherspoon’s cook Mrs. Goodge, his footman Wiggins, his coachman Smythe, and his maid Betsy. Withersppon is a police inspector but it’s really Mrs. Jeffries and her staff who help solve cases. Even though she’s in charge of his household and all of the household accounts, Mrs. Jeffries is not considered Witherspoon’s social equal. Although he treats her with respect and certainly appreciates her skills, he doesn’t knowingly defer to her. It’s probably more accurate to say that she’s learned how to suggest ideas to him so as to make him take certain directions in his cases. And Witherspoon’s cases often lead him into the homes of the richest and most powerful families. So in this series we also see the divisions between middle and upper-middle class families and the ‘best’ families.
The way in which women are depicted in crime fiction of and about the era is really interesting because it reveals two realities. On one hand, we see the Victorian and late-Victorian image of the woman as inferior, as needing to be protected and so on. For instance in several of the Conan Doyle stories (e.g. The Adventure of the Speckled Band), Holmes has lady clients who need to be ‘saved.’ We also see that kind of role in some of Wilkie Collins’ work. But at the same time, we see another image of women beginning to emerge. Arguably the first female fictional detective is Mrs. Gladden, who makes her appearance in Andrew Forrester’s 1864 novel The Female Detective. She may be restricted by her times but she is certainly not in need of ‘salvation.’ And it’s arguably Marian Halcombe who solves the case in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. And then of course there is ‘the woman’ – Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler. Any character who can outwit Holmes is certainly not inferior.
This duality seems (to me at least) to be a reflection of the times. On the one hand, there were very clearly defined roles for women in just about every class and sexism was an important fact of life. On the other, women were beginning to question those roles and assumptions. For instance, the late 19th Century saw the women’s suffrage movement take hold. Women were also a major force behind the temperance movement and began to take positions in academia. They also became accepted as writers and poets. If you’re a woman and you have a professional position outside the home, vote, have access to your own money and make your own choices in life, you owe a lot to the women of the late 19th Century. I know I do.
You also owe a lot to the writers of this era if you’re a crime fiction fan. Yes, the detective stories of the era often seem stilted by today’s standards. They’re sometimes clunky, full of offensive ‘isms’ and require the kind of suspension of disbelief that wouldn’t be accepted from today’s writers. But those stories were the first of the genre and they take place during a fascinating and very influential time. And really – aren’t late-Victorian-Era houses great settings for murder mysteries?
There’s a lot more about the late Victorian Era that space doesn’t permit me to mention. Immigration, for instance, became a fact of life in a lot of countries. Imperialism was a major force too. And because there were no real ‘social nets,’ there was true squalor. But there were also elegant parties, sometimes extravagantly beautiful clothes, and amazing leaps forward in discovery, learning and scientific development. There was real optimism too. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if those people had known what was around the proverbial corner in the early 20th Century… Want to read more about the late 19th Century? Check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog. Her historical mystery Dangerous and Unseemly will be coming out very soon. Featuring her sleuth Concordia Wells, it looks to be a terrific story and I’m excited about its release.
ps. The ‘photo is of a late-Victorian house on Broad Street in Galesburg, IL. I used to walk my dogs past it when I lived there.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Edge of the Century.