Neo-Victorian Crime Fiction Deadly Husbands and Deviant Widows

Nadine Muller
Nadine Muller

In outlining the scope of the academic Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Marie-Luise Kohlke describes neo–Victorianism as “the contemporary fascination with reimagining the nineteenth-century and its varied literary, artistic, socio-political and historical contexts”; this fascination is “perhaps most evident in the proliferation of so-called neo-Victorian novels” (‘Aims and Scopes’).

Fictional revisitings of the nineteenth-century by authors such as Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, Michel Faber, Amitav Ghosh, and Sarah Waters have topped bestseller lists and have begun to form part of a neo-Victorian canon that, since the turn of the new millennium, has begun to receive significant critical attention. Despite this burgeoning academic interest in literary manifestations of the neo-Victorian, however, critics have largely neglected neo–Victorian crime fiction.

This article considers the significance of one particularly striking feature of recent examples in the subgenre: the figure of the detective widow. A dilettante sleuth, this character strives to break, or at least occasionally transgress, the boundaries of respectable femininity, not only through her investigative association with the crimes of others but also through her own deviant (if not criminal) intellectual pursuits (usually in the form of certain reading and/or writing activities) as well as her partial disregard for mourning customs and other matters of social etiquette. This figure, who usually is from the upper echelons of society, has become the trademark heroine of at least three popular neo–Victorian crime series. This article focuses on one set of novels in particular that prove especially resourceful in their combination of the historical and cultural significance of the widow and the female detective: Tasha Alexander’s ‘Lady Emily’ mysteries (2005 – present).

To date, Tasha Alexander’s series consists of six novels in which the heroine, Lady Emily Ashton, investigates a range of crimes both domestic and political, in England and abroad. Lady Emily Ashton is the young, aristocratic widow of Viscount Philip Ashton, whom she married primarily to escape the matchmaking of her influential mother, Lady Bromley, a society matron who is a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. The dashing Colin Hargreaves, Philip’s best friend and, by the end of the first novel, a romantic interest of Emily’s, is her co-detective as well as a diplomat and investigator for the Crown. ‘And Only to Deceive’ (2005), the first novel in the series and the most significant within the scope of this essay, centres on Philip’s death and his involvement in the forgery of ancient artefacts, primarily involving the Greco-Roman galleries of The British Museum. In subsequent instalments, the nature of the crimes faced by Emily shifts and diversifies, ranging from the realm of the home and the museum to the political arena. Emily’s cases include a dubious Frenchman’s attempt to overturn the French government and re-establish the monarchy (‘A Poisoned Season’, 2007); the anarchist forces, political ploys, and suicides of 1890s Vienna (‘A Fatal Waltz’, 2008); a murder in the sultan’s harem in Constantinople (‘Tears of Pearl’, 2009); and killings in Normandy that resemble those of Jack the Ripper across the Channel (‘Dangerous to Know’, 2010).

In Emily, Tasha Alexander merges two figures — the female detective and the widow — whose roles and representations in mid- and late-Victorian literature, art, and culture signified their dangerous potential to uphold as well as disrupt traditional gender conventions. The widow remained respectable because, unlike the spinster, she once had occupied the role of wife (Jalland 231). At the same time, however, she also posed a threat through her sexual experience, availability, and — if her late husband had provided adequate means — status as a property-owning woman of independent means without a male guardian.

Similarly, through their investigative pursuits, female detectives such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Eleanor Vane (‘Eleanor’s Victory’, 1863) and Margaret Dunbar (‘Henry Dunbar’, 1864) or William Stephens Hayward’s Mrs Paschal (‘Revelations of a Lady Detective’, 1864) could police the moral and social boundaries of the middle and upper classes at the same time as transgressing them (Bredesen 20).

The New Woman detectives of the fin de siècle such as Catherine Louisa Pirkis’ ‘The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective’ finally “evolved out of and in response to the complexities and contradictions of the normative cultural constructions of women” — in other words, their threat lay in their defiance of definition (Hendrey-Seabrook 86). Through the detective widow, Tasha Alexander instigates an act of historical detection that inspects, through Emily’s investigative work, the complex gendered role of the Victorian widow as manifested in her mourning fashion, economic situation, and social position. The author also explores — through Emily’s preoccupation with art forgery — the artistic “crime” inherent within this very act of adapting history — that is, within historical fiction’s imitations and appropriations of the past.

When Tasha Alexander’s heroine debuts in ‘And Only to Deceive’, it soon transpires that Emily’s widowhood — much like that of William Stephens Hayward’s Mrs Paschal — instigates her career as a dilettante sleuth as it is itself a subject of investigation. Only six months after his marriage, the keen adventurer Philip dies during a hunting trip in Africa, leaving Emily a widow with “a large fortune”. Unlike Mrs Paschal, who becomes a professional investigator because she has no other income after her husband’s death, Emily does not take up detection as a means of earning a living. Yet her activities as an amateur sleuth are, like Mrs Paschal’s, motivated directly by her widowhood, as the mystery of Philip’s death develops into her first case. Significantly, Emily’s detection of the crime — that is, of the cause of her widowhood — coincides with her experience and negotiation — and our readerly inspection — of the Victorian mourning customs to which she must comply as well as of the problems and potentials of her new status.

From the outset, Emily admits that she had no romantic feelings for her husband. Accepting Philip after refusing “several good offers” of marriage, she states that she is sure that living with him “could not be worse than continued subjection to my mother’s ranting” about “the beginning of the end of [her daughter’s] wasted beauty” and her seeming “determination to be a spinster”. As Emily considered marriage “a simple way out of an increasingly unbearable situation” and did not spend much time with her husband other than a “brief wedding trip,” she thus “felt no grief for the loss of Philip” and instead, after reading of his death, is overcome by “a feeling of relief and freedom”. Consequently, a disparity arises between her sentiments and the “prescribed period of mourning” after her husband’s passing.

Familiarizing readers with contemporary mourning etiquette for a widow, Emily explains: “For twelve months I would have to wear nothing but black crepe and avoid nearly all social events. After that, I would be allowed silk, but in dull grays and black stripes. Not until two years had passed would I be able to return to an ordinary existence.” Jalland notes that this prescribed period of mourning was assumed to “approximate to the period of personal grief”, but, as Emily’s father points out, it ironically means that his daughter is expected “to be in mourning longer than she knew Ashton” (Tasha Alexander, ‘And Only to Deceive’ 7). Madame Cécile du Lac, a new acquaintance who soon becomes Emily’s close confidante, empathizes with Emily’s peculiar situation: “I am not judging you. Like yours, my husband died soon after our marriage, and I was plagued by his friends. They all assumed I knew him as well as they did, when in fact I rarely conversed with him […]. After he died, it was quite embarrassing and very difficult to keep up the appearance of having been close to him.” (35).

Mourning clothes, in Cécile’s opinion, are a “silly” and unfairly gendered custom; according to her, “men wouldn’t stand” (37) for it if they were subjected to an equally severe dress code and degree of social isolation.

The pointed discrepancy between Emily’s and Cécile’s external observance of mourning etiquette and the lack of genuine sentiment allows readers to explore the potentially deviant nature of the widow that was voiced in fiction as well as in periodicals and fashion magazines during the second half of the nineteenth-century.

In ‘Manners and Social Usages’ (1884), which Tasha Alexander quotes in her afterword (319), Mrs John Sherwood, daughter of a United States of America senator, calls attention not only to the minute details of Victorian mourning customs but also to their function for the mourner and the widow: “A heartless wife who, instead of being grieved at the death of her husband, is rejoiced at it, should be taught that society will not respect her unless she pays to the memory of the man whose name she bears that ‘homage which vice pays to virtue,’ a commendable respect to the usages of society in the matter of mourning and of retirement from the world. Mourning garments […] are a shield to the real mourner, and they are often a curtain of respectability to the person who should be a mourner but is not.” (96)

For the grieving widow, mourning dress serves as a form of protection from the outside world, whereas for a widow like Emily, who “rejoices” in the loss of her spouse, it functions as masque that maintains her respectability, determined by the external appearance of genuine mourning rather than by sincerity of feeling. Her mourning clothes, then, reinforce an inherent distrust attached to the widow, who can be at once respectable and transgressive. This ambiguous image is reproduced in several sensation novels (of which Emily confesses to be an avid reader) in the form of women who hide their deviant identities by posing as widows. William Wilkie Collins’ ‘Miss Gwilt in Armadale’ (1866) and Ellen Wood’s ‘Isabel Vane in East Lynne’ (1861) are only two cases in which authors capitalize on and accentuate the paradoxical status of the widow as a woman who represented respectability and possessed, at the same time, an unsettling potential for transgression; her role “stigmatized less than that of spinster, but […] considerably inferior to that of wife” (Jalland 231).

As Dagni Bredesen highlights, this ambiguous propriety was at least partly grounded in the economic and legal situations of widows, particularly among the middle and upper classes. The death of their husbands required them to act on their own behalf and, unless left impoverished, they “functioned in commercial enterprises, handled their own estates, and made decisions regarding remarriage without recourse to parent or male guardian” (Bredesen 22). Thus legally in a much stronger position than a wife and socially less limited than a spinster, the widow’s “legal status [as] a propertied subject […] explains, in part, societal unease with widowhood” (Bredesen 22).

Equipped with a large fortune and a villa on Santorini irrevocably settled on her, Emily certainly resembles the newly empowered widow described by Bredesen. Her financial prosperity and social status facilitate (rather than necessitate, as in Mrs Paschal’s case) her continuing, unpaid work as a detective, because she has the leisure to pursue this interest and because her fortune can contribute to her methods of investigation. In ‘And Only to Deceive’, for example, it is the wealth of Emily and Cécile that enables Emily to trick Andrew Palmer, convincing him to sell artefact forgeries to them and thus setting in motion the exposure of the villain and the solution to the crime.

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