The end of the Victorian Era didn’t, of course, mean the end of Victorian-Era beliefs, customs and so on. But there were some major changes just on the horizon, and, of course, World War I was only a little over a decade away.
It’s interesting to see how crime fiction from and about those first ten or so years of the 20th Century depicts that time. Just a few examples show what a time of transition it was. And that’s part of what makes it such a memorable time.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes stories highlight one important change, especially in the area of crime and its detection. As you’ll know, Holmes is a man of science. He brings that viewpoint to criminal investigation. Fingerprint science was already being used by the time the 20th Century began. But the new century brought more developments in what came to be forensic science (more on that in a moment). In several ways, the later Holmes stories show the blend of more traditional Victorian views with emerging science.
The case of Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was executed for murder in 1910, shows the way in which forensic science was becoming more and more important in criminal cases. At the time that Crippen was arrested, tried and convicted of murdering his wife, Cora, forensic pathology was a new science. And Sir Bernard Spilsbury was one of the first pre-eminent forensic pathologists. Although he is associated most closely with the Crippen case (he gave evidence that showed the body found in Crippen’s home was Cora’s), Spilsbury was also connected with several other prominent cases of the time. So was Sir Sydney Smith, also a well-known medico-legal expert. His autobiography, Mostly Murder is, in my view, an interesting look at the times and at the developments in forensic science. Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is a fictional account of the Crippen case, told from Crippen’s point of view. It, too, offers a fascinating look at the times.
Felicity Young’s Dr. Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series begins in 1910 with The Anatomy of Death, as McCleland is returning from Edinburgh to London. She’s just qualified in forensic pathology, and now wants to work with Spilsbury in the Home Office. She settles into London, and soon becomes involved in the investigation of three deaths. All three of the victims were women who died during a suffrage march in Whitechapel. The march turned very ugly, and, along with the deaths, several women were wounded. McCleland finds that two of the victims’ deaths have straightforward explanations. But the third is more complicated, and McCleland soon suspects murder as a possibility. As she investigates, readers learn about the growing use of forensics during these pre-WW I years.
There’s also a close look at another major change of the time: the push for women’s suffrage and other women’s rights. Women already had the vote in New Zealand, but not yet in many other places. And there were several groups dedicated to changing that. There was also a push for women to be accepted as professionals. That’s one challenge, for instance, that McCleland faces in Young’s series.
Another novel that addresses some of these issues is Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder. This is the fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted of murdering her infant son in 1900 (she was nineteen at the time) and scheduled to be executed. As the story evolves, we learn that Maggie is from rural Victoria, where she meets Jack Hardy. They begin a secret romance, and end up becoming engaged, although Hardy insists on keeping the engagement secret until he can provide for a family. He then leaves to find work in New South Wales. Meanwhile, Maggie discovers she’s pregnant. She writes to Jack several times but gets no answer. She knows her own family will not accept her, so she moves to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. When baby Jacky is born, Maggie moves to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she learns that Jack is in Melbourne, so she goes to visit him. He rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes looking for lodging, but is turned away from six different places. That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. Vera Goldstein (the first woman candidate for Parliament in the British Commonwealth) finds out about Maggie’s plight, and determines to free her. As she works towards that end, we learn about the fight in Australia for women’s suffrage (it was granted at the national level in 1902). We also see clearly the differences among social classes that still persisted after the end of the Victorian Era.
We also see that difference reflected in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger. Ellen and Robert Bunting have recently retired from being ‘in service.’ Ellen was a lady’s maid, and her husband was a ‘gentleman’s gentleman.’ The Buntings are in real financial need, so they’ve had to open their home to lodgers. But Ellen Bunting, especially, is very particular about the sort of person she’ll have. She wants only the ‘right’ sort of people. One day, a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth stops in, asking about rooms. He dresses well, and acts ‘like a gentleman.’ More to the point, he is well able to pay for his room. So, the Buntings welcome him. He’s eccentric and keeps very odd hours. But he’s a paying guest. And he’s not loud or otherwise ‘difficult.’ Little by little, though, the Buntings begin to be uneasy about him. There’s been a rash of murders committed by a killer who calls himself The Avenger, and the Buntings slowly come to wonder if their lodger has something to do with these deaths. Among other things, the story highlights social class distinctions. The Buntings are respectable ‘serving class’ people, who hold their ‘betters’ in high regard. This doesn’t mean they’re blind to the foibles of the people they’ve served. But they do respect those social barriers.
We also see social barriers in Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series. Murphy, an immigrant from Ireland, lives and works in New York City at the very beginning of the 20th Century. She’s a private investigator who inherited her business from her mentor. As she looks into her cases, she encounters members of several different social classes, from ‘sweatshop’ workers and tenement dwellers to those who live on estates. Society is changing (Murphy, for instance, is a woman pursuing what is very much a man’s career). And in New York, there is now a generation of people who started with very little and have made quite a lot of money. But there are still certain views, customs, and so on, that are distinctly Victorian.
And that’s the thing about those first ten years or so of the 20th Century. The Victorian Era was over, and no-one was quite sure what was coming. That time of change can make for a fascinating context for a novel or series.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends.