Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction – Melissa Schaub

If ever there was a book title that ticked all my reading boxes, this would have to be it. The combination of middlebrow fiction with the Golden Age detective novel is irresistible. The intriguing subtitle of the book is The Female Gentleman, & I was curious to find out what this meant.

Schaub places the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham & Georgette Heyer (she also discusses Heyer’s romances) in a line leading from the Victorian Angel in the House & the New Woman texts of the 1890s through to the novels of the feminism of the 1970s & 1980s. The disdain of Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf for these middlebrow writers & their audience intrigues Schaub. All these writers are still in print & their work is enjoyed today when the equally revolutionary novels of the New Woman writers – Mona Caird, George Egerton & Sarah Grand – have been largely forgotten. Schaub discusses the “boomerang” nature of many of the plots of New Women fiction. The authors allow their heroines considerable freedom until about the halfway point of the novel & then they have to be reined in & usually punished by the end of the book for their temerity in pushing the boundaries of convention.

The popularity of detective fiction has been apparent since Victorian times & Schaub briefly discusses characters such as Rachel Verinder in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone & Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, but it was only in the post WWI era, when education & political change led to women gaining the vote, that women could realistically take on the role of sleuth, becoming female gentlemen, with the same codes of honour as their male counterparts.

… the core of the ideal is a woman who is competent, courageous and self-reliant in practical situations, capable of subordinating her emotions to reason and the personal good to the social good, and possessed of ‘honor’ in the oldest sense of the term. These are personality traits, corresponding with the moral aspect of Victorian gentlemanliness. Most of the characters who fill the Female Gentleman role also fulfill the more archaic class aspect of gentlemanliness through birth or breeding, but with significant revision consistent with the class negotiations performed by the middlebrow novel as a whole.

After WWI, many of the male fictional detectives were scarred by their experiences in the trenches. Lord Peter Wimsey is probably the most famous example, suffering shell shock & eventually finding stability in his work as a detective. Even then, he’s prone to emotional collapse at the end of a case when he has to confront the fact that his actions have led to a murderer’s execution. He’s just one example of the effete young gentleman contrasted with the women in detective novels of the period who take on masculine traits almost in compensation. Emotional self-control is crucial & the heroes & heroines of these novels often display a detached ironic form of speech, Lord Peter & Harriet’s piffle is the best example.

The loosening of social conventions is also important here. Women had experienced a measure of freedom during the war, working as nurses or in munition factories. Suddenly young women could walk through London alone, without a chaperone, without the threat of being taken as prostitutes. Elizabeth Dalloway, in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, takes a walk through London, unchaperoned, riding on a bus, which is even more radical than her mother’s stroll to buy flowers. Women were shortening their skirts, even wearing trousers & ties, smoking in public, voting & earning a living. Although middlebrow novels are often seen as conservative, the examples here show the rewards of feminism as women became better educated & more politically active.

The Female Gentleman is characterised by her sense of honour, physical & moral courage, self-reliance, sense of submitting her personal desires to the greater good & usually belonging to the upper middle to upper classes. Often she has become an outcast from her social class because of the need to earn a living or because she has gone outside the accepted conventions of the class she was born into. Critics have called these novels conservative because of the predominance of upper class characters & the often casual racism & anti-Semitism of the times but highbrow & Modernist fiction wasn’t exempt from these attitudes & the authors often treat characters of different races with sympathy.

Harriet Vane has been to Oxford, earns a living as a writer & lived with her lover, Philip Boyes, without expecting or wanting marriage. It was only when Boyes humiliated her by offering to marry her once she had passed his “test” of devotion, that she left him & was then accused of poisoning him with arsenic in Dorothy L Sayers’s Strong Poison. Lady Amanda Fitton, in Allingham’s novels, designs airplanes & Agatha Troy, in Marsh’s novels, is an artist. All these women have the attributes of the gentleman & they are portrayed as the intellectual equals of the men they marry. It’s significant that the novels of women writers like Allingham, Marsh & Sayers all depict such an equal relationship. There may be an element of wish fulfillment here but the concept was certainly not so outrageous as to be unbelievable in the context of the times. Along with the more traditional spinster amateur sleuths like Christie’s Miss Marple & Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, there were other single women like Sayers’s Miss Climpson & Miss Murchison, who represented another reality of post-war society, the surplus women who overturn the stereotype of catty old ladies in boarding houses & country villages, using their considerable skills to pursue justice & outwit villains.

I feel that I’ve only skimmed the surface of this book. I found the idea of the Female Gentleman to be thought provoking & intriguing. I’ve read nearly all the novels discussed (there are some inevitable spoilers when discussing plots but I would think most readers of this book will be fans of the authors discussed & will already know the plots backwards) & Melissa Schaub’s prose is readable & blessedly free of jargon. The discussions of the books, their plots & characters are guaranteed to make you want to read or reread one or more of these books immediately. 

8 thoughts on “Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction – Melissa Schaub

  1. Palgrave Macmillan books are always expensive. I borrowed the ebook from the State Library. I was hoping to ILL it & discovered that our State Library has an ebook collection. They have more academic books like this & I was able to download the PDF version.

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