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ELT 48 : 2 2005 The British Female Detective Joseph A. Kestner. Sherlock's Sisters: The British Female Detective, 1864-1913. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003. viii + 268 pp. $79.95 AFTER 1887, when Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, the British detective story grew enormously in popularity. Alongside the many men who followed in Holmes's footsteps walked a smaller number of female sleuths. In Sherlock's Sisters, Joseph Kestner explores the ways in which these women, in their activities as amateur or professional detectives, played their part in the early struggle of women for empowerment in an oppressive, male-dominated society . As a prelude, Kestner discusses three mid-Victorian works in which female detectives appeared, the best known being Wilkie Collins's The Diary of Anne Rodway. He then turns to the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, when fictional female detectives were becoming more numerous . These women were drawn from different levels of British society and pursued varying lifestyles. Some came from customary feminine backgrounds, such as governess, nurse, typist, even actress. Others followed less conventional careers: physician, journalist, teacher of the deaf and dumb, agent for a dealer in jewels, gypsy running a pawnshop. For the most part, they were members of the middle class. One exception was Ellen Bunting, a landlady near poverty. And there was some ambiguity about whether Molly Robertson-Kirk was really entitled to the rank of "Lady Molly." Some of these women began their detective careers while attempting to remove suspicion of crimes falsely attributed to their husbands; others were widows, forced to seek employment as private investigators to survive economically. A few demonstrated their independence by remaining single, though at least two, Hilda Wade and Miriam Lea, ended their adventures traditionally by falling in love and marrying. But they all represented a new movement among women. To readers in this era of detective fiction, a female sleuth was a startling concept. No matter how conventional a lifestyle she adopted or what level of society she occupied, in conducting her investigations she necessarily overstepped the boundaries that society imposed upon women. Policeman and detective were male professions. To investigate a suspect or place a criminal under surveillance was a form of spying which no respectable woman would undertake. Sometimes a detective had to visit unsavory, even dangerous neighborhoods such as slums and saloons. And to do this, she often had to disguise herself as a lower-class 224 BOOK REVIEWS woman in order to attract less attention in a lower-class environment or, even worse, dress as a man. Such actions were transgressive behavior. Furthermore, and Kestner refers to this several times in his study, a female sleuth might have to return the male gaze. Staring at a woman signified a man's erotic intentions; when a woman, in her capacity as a sleuth, accepted and returned that gaze, she brazenly defied appropriate social practice. In several stories, the female detective dared to challenge and defeat a sexual predator. Even more outrageous were the actions of the female sleuth who could forego morality and fall in love with a man outside the law, even though he might eventually be proved innocent. Part of the popularity of these stories can probably be attributed to the novelty of a woman detective's behavior. Kestner's subject matter ranges widely but succinctly over historical, political, legal, moral, societal, and gender issues. Many references to Victorian novelists and nineteenth-century essayists inform his study. He notes, briefly, various Acts of Parliament concerning the rights of married women, including one pertaining to venereal disease. He glances at Victorian murderers and murderesses and considers the effect of the vicious depredations of Jack the Ripper on the thinking of women. Turning to the work of each author in detail, Kestner looks at the thinking and actions of each female detective as influenced by her position as a woman. This is especially fruitful for the study of characters created by Grant Allen, Lois Cayley and Hilda Wade. In Miss Cayley's Adventures, Lois talks about herself as an "adventuress." Kestner considers the negative Victorian connotation of this word as opposed to the positive meaning it holds...


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pp. 224-226
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Will Be Archived 2021
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