Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society: From Dagger-Fans to Suffragettes is the sister book to Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature: Duelling with Danger (2011).
Tell us about your first book…
My first book, Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature: Duelling with Danger (2011) will be released in updated paperback in April 2013. It’s part Palgrave’s Crime Files series, edited by Clive Bloom, which also includes Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence explores the way in which some great writers of the time discussed the mid-Victorian garotting (strangling) panics, duelling, street weapons as well as minimally aggressive alternative approaches to street crime at a time when interpersonal violence became increasingly less tolerated. There are also discussions and photographs of street weapons from the Royal Armouries, Leeds and the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection.
One chapter looks at Sherlock Holmes and the development of martial arts in the Edwardian era. As it turns out, this subject is rather timely given the two recent Sherlock Holmes martial arts movies, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. In Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes uses all kinds of weapons but arguably his greatest defence against Professor Moriarty on the slippery rocks at the Reichenbach Falls was his knowledge of Bartitsu, a real-life mixed martial art founded by Edward William Barton-Wright, an engineer who spent some time in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. When Barton-Wright returned to England, he set up a London club which attracted illustrious guests and Conan Doyle incorporated Bartitsu (misspelt ‘baritsu’) into ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ of 1903, a tale in which Holmes is resurrected from the dead. In fact, in 2012 – the year in which the Sherlock Holmes Society made its pilgrimage to the scene of the confrontation between Holmes and his nemesis – both the BBC television series, Sherlock (‘The Reichenbach Fall’), and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, ended at the crucial junction, leaving us with two devastated Dr Watsons (played by Martin Freeman and Jude Law respectively) while we, the viewers, knew Holmes survived although we were left to guess how he cheated death.
How does your latest book build on your first one?
My sister book, Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence, stems from the third chapter of my PhD, which looked at depictions of women’s self-defence in literature of the ‘long nineteenth century’, from Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, to H.G. Wells’s novel, Ann Veronica and Richard Marsh’s Judith Lee detective adventures which appeared in the Strand Magazine. All of these works look at how women defended themselves behind closed doors, in places where the police force could not reach or where a deus ex machina didn’t just drop in to help them. If interpersonal violence was stigmatised in the Victorian era, what options were open to women who were considered the ‘weaker sex’? For example, in Mona Caird’s The Wing of Azrael of 1889, the hero of the novel arrives a millisecond too late, once the heroine had to take matters into her own hands and defend herself against her sinister husband, with dire consequences.
There were numerous diaries, memoirs, campaign pamphlets and novels of the era which were eye-opening but I felt that this vast collection of writing on women’s vulnerability and resistance needed to be brought together. The amount of material kept growing and I still find myself writing literature and ‘research to-do’ lists on the back of café receipts and inside Kit Kat wrappers. In view of the ever-growing number of sources, I had to introduce a focus so Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence so the book mainly explores the attitudes and experience of middle- to upper-class women. I think that fiction is a particularly fruitful avenue for researching this kind of topic. Novels, plays, poetry and art provided a way of talking about emotions that could not easily be discussed openly. It became clear that Elizabeth Robins’s private writing and later memoirs portray her fears about being followed and accosted on the street and she finds a subtle way of weaving these discussions into her fiction.
Discuss the process of writing the book. What did you like and dislike about the work?
The book took longer to write than I first thought – thankfully Palgrave were very accommodating! I couldn’t have written the book without support from the London Library. Being able to take home rare books was enormously helpful. One of these titles which I borrowed for rather a long time was Elizabeth Robins’s pre-WW1 bestselling shocker, Where Are You Going To…? (the American title was My Little Sister) in which two overprotected middle-class sisters from the countryside are drawn into the world of prostitution in darkest London. The older sister escapes and she tells the story. This unnamed, observant narrator has a quiet strength about her and you feel that she would have made a good detective if only she had been permitted by her husband-to-be to go and search for her sister. I think that in the wake of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, this novel definitely considers the psychologies and consequences of women being both hemmed in, and locked out.
There’s a tense moment in ‘The Restaurant Napolitain’, in which Marsh’s lipreading detective, Judith Lee, finds herself trapped in a labyrinthine mafia hideout at night with two murderous men pursuing her. Actually, Judith Lee reminds me of Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander – she’s an avenging angel who uses her own traumatic experiences with crime in childhood to fight back against male oppressors. Pre-war readers were intrigued by Judith Lee, her unique powers, her feistiness and intelligence. She appeared in the Strand Magazine at the same time as Conan Doyle’s great detective and one paper of the time even called her ‘this female Sherlock Holmes’. BBC Radio 7 recently produced a series entitled ‘The Lady Detectives’, with offerings from Wilkie Collins and Anna Katharine Green and the radio station also regularly replays Marsh’s murder-by-chocolate tale, ‘An Illustration of Modern Science’ (Marsh actually reconfigured this story, making Judith Lee the main character, who thankfully avoids the deadly delicacy). It all makes me wonder, are there whisperings of a Judith Lee serialization in the air?
Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature: Duelling with Danger, is out in paperback in 2013. Both books are discounted 50% until 31 December 2012. Emelyne will be exploring mid-Victorian garotting and Bartitsu at the Victorian Macabre Evening at Blackwell’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London, 6.30-9pm on 14 December 2012, with Jonathan Sale, who will be discussing his book, Premature Burial How to Prevent It. The event is free (please register with Blackwell’s beforehand if possible). Emelyne’s books will be sold for £20.99 on the night.