March 10, 2011


Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. By Elizabeth Kerri Mahon. Perigee. $15.

The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes from the Time of Sherlock Holmes. Edited by Michael Sims. Penguin. $16.

The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime: Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues, and Scoundrels from the Time of Sherlock Holmes. Edited by Michael Sims. Penguin. $15.

     There is a certain exuberant titillation in perusing the peccadilloes of the past. It pervades Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s once-over-lightly view of the careers and bedchamber antics of 36 Scandalous Women, from the obvious (Cleopatra, Lady Hamilton, Joan of Arc, Mata Hari, Zelda Fitzgerald) to ones whose names are something less than household words (Émilie du Châtelet, mistress of Voltaire and a substantial scientific thinker; Rose O’Neal Greenhow, spy for the Confederacy; Mary Ellen Pleasant, a 19th-century African-American capitalist; Margaret Tobin Brown, Titanic survivor and inspiration for The Unsinkable Molly Brown). Mahon, an actress and blogger, clearly relishes telling these women’s stories in breezy, forthright prose: “They lived in hotels for the most part, since Zelda [Fitzgerald] was crap at housekeeping.” “Then thirty-five, [Henry VIII] could have been the centerfold in ‘Hot Renaissance Princes.’” “When the king caught them [Barbara Palmer and John Churchill] in flagrante delicto, he said to Churchill, ‘I forgive you, for you do it for your bread.’” “In the three years since her arrival in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne [Hutchinson] had managed to piss off a lot of powerful people, specifically the clergy.” The story of Hutchinson (1591-1643) is a highlight of the book. Claiming divine revelation at a time and in a place where women could assert no such thing, she took on the Puritans with fiery biblical rhetoric when put on trial for her beliefs – regarding which, writes Mahon, “Yeah, nothing like telling the people who hold the power of life and death over you that they are going to be cursed for punishing you.” But Hutchinson is scarcely the only strong-willed woman in this enthralling book. Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, whose story is well known in Colorado but not in many other places, was at the center of a notorious 19th-century love affair that was intimately bound up with that state’s silver boom and bust – and even became the subject of an opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe (which, however, Mahon does not mention). Also here are pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, Middle East chronicler Gertrude Bell (who, with T.E. Lawrence, aided the Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I), Jane Digby (mistress of King Ludwig of Bavaria and later, happily but scandalously, wife of the Bedouin nobleman Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab), and many others. But not so many as to prevent Mahon from writing a followup book, or several, since there are so many more women whose stories, uplifting or scandalous (or both), Mahon would surely be able to tell in the same pleasantly rollicking style. For now, it is wonderful just to revel in profiles that are filled with fascinating historical information – for example, about Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s refusal to move from a ladies’ train car, in a case that long predated that of Rosa Parks and led to Wells-Barnett’s being considered, for a time, the Joan of Arc of her people. There are sexual shenanigans here, to be sure, but also plenty of wonderful portraits of women responsible for major events in history – whether directly or through the men who, thinking themselves the controllers, were in fact the ones being controlled.

     The women in The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime are fictional and no less fascinating than their real-life counterparts – although, in truth, no more so, either. A companion book of sorts to Michael Sims’ wonderful The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime (2009), the new volume returns to the Victorian era to unearth some very modern (for their day) women who refuse to be bound by the straitjackets of propriety and spend their time chatting at tea parties. No, these redoubtable sleuths do not shrink from shadowing suspects and fingerprinting corpses as they go about applying the most advanced crime-fighting techniques of the 19th century to cases from the intricately puzzling to the tragic. Largely forgotten today, the female detectives both moved beyond Victorian norms and, in an odd way, supported them. Simply because they were female, these heroines could fade easily into the background in many settings in ways that men could not – becoming virtually unnoticeable and therefore able to ferret out information that people thought they were keeping confidential. This was less a matter of donning disguises in the Sherlock Holmes mode and more a circumstance of pretending to be the prim, quiet women that they were expected to be. Loveday Brooke, created by C.L. (Catherine Louisa) Pirkis and represented here by “Drawn Daggers” (1893), is especially good at this form of disguise: she becomes a governess or housemaid and appears to others to be as insensible as a piece of furniture. But it is not only in their outward acceptance of women’s roles in Victorian society that such women as Dora Myrl and Amelia Butterworth manage to break the rules while appearing to support them. These women also have good reasons for doing the work they do – explanations, “back stories,” justifying for Victorian readers their flouting of convention (one has a husband who has gone blind and can no longer support her; another needs funds to take care of a sister; and so on). The authors – most but not all of them women – thus place their female detectives clearly within Victorian norms while simultaneously moving them outside the usual purview of females of the time. Sims’ appealingly written introduction firmly anchors these tales and their protagonists within a time of great change – including, as Sims interestingly points out, change in modes of transportation, many of which are reflected in the tales. As for the stories themselves, they are of all types: first-person and third-person narration, pure mystery and fiendish plot, highly descriptive and dialogue-packed, genuinely difficult to figure out and rather on the obvious side. Written as entertainment, they remain highly enjoyable today, even if their style can sometimes tend to the wordy, as in other Victorian literature. Edwardian literature, too: the latest of these stories dates to 1915.

     Sims’ editorial skills are just as clear in his earlier Victorian-and-Edwardian crime anthology. The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime features a dozen stories by such notables as O. Henry (creator of con man Jeff Peters) and E.W. Hornung (brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and creator of “gentleman thief” A.J. Raffles). In this volume, Sims intriguingly includes some stories by authors not usually associated with the crime genre: Sinclair Lewis and Arnold Bennett. But he omits some whose work would seem to have fit the theme perfectly: Maurice Leblanc (creator of Arsène Lupin) and R. Austin Freeman (known for art forger Danby Croker). Perhaps Sims will get to them in a second “Gaslight” volume – or perhaps he simply decided, after this one, to move on to the more-serious adventures of women detectives after producing a book in which the crimes, which are typically ones of property rather than violence, often come across as planned and executed with considerable good humor. In any case, the dozen stories in The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime and 11 in The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime add up, in total, to 23 highly entertaining and in large measure unexplored forays into a genre that has become decidedly more action-oriented, sexually explicit and brutal in recent decades – but that, in its earlier years, was filled with at least as much wit and inventiveness as the field of crime fiction possesses today.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review! As for the Ballad of Baby Doe, I did know about it but because of the word count, I had to leave it out. Beverly Sills played Baby Doe at New York City Opera.