You might think lady detectives are a fictional invention, but just like Netflix’s newly released Enola Holmes, starring Millie Bobby Brown, Victorian women enjoyed working as female investigators. Often described as “private enquiry agents,” these women were hired by individuals, politicians, and even Scotland Yard, to make enquires and investigate criminal activity.
Victorian women were not all like the meek heroines depicted by Charles Dickens, brutally weighed down by their place in the world, many were like the tenacious women in Enola Holmes, which offers a far more accurate portrayal of the world Victorian women found themselves in.
If you lived in London in the 1890s, you would have done well to engage the services of “Madam Paul,” the working name of Mrs Upperley, a private detective who had begun her career in the well-respected detective agency of “Messrs Slater” in 1888. She had set up her own business in 1891 and “preferred to work" rather than live on the pay her husband had.
The use of female agents by Scotland Yard was now well known, even if they were not always successful. Reports from Ireland in the Liverpool Echo in 1884 had told of the unfortunate failure of a recent British mission to infiltrate a group of Irish Republicans. Claiming that Dublin had just been visited “by an English lady of extremely captivating manners,” the paper reported, “she appeared possessed of considerable means, and spoke patronisingly of dynamite and very warmly of the cause. As a result of a series of clever manoeuvres, however, it transpired that the lady was none other than a London detective or British spy, visiting the Irish capital professionally”.
Not all the women employed as detectives were involved in government intrigues, often their work involved thefts or divorces cases, and some were used to infiltrate the most dangerous dens of criminal activity. Describing a local working-class woman who was often employed by Scotland Yard in 1876, one paper carried an eye-opening description of her: “Small in stature, but possessing considerable muscular force and indomitable energy, this woman is equally dead to all sense of feminine delicacy, of nervousness or fear. She will assume the garb of a boy as readily as the dress of her own sex, and in either costume is ever ready to settle any dispute by an appeal to the ‘art of self defence,’ which she has practised with disastrous effects on her adversaries, whether male or female.”
It wasn’t just in real life that saw Victorian women employed as private detectives, they were also popular fictional heroines. Over twenty years before Sherlock Holmes first appeared in A Study In Scarlet in 1887, James Redding Ware introduced us to Ms Gladden in 1864, his heroine in The Female Detective. “G” tells the reader little about herself, but drops tantalising clues on her secret double life. “I know my trade is despised,” she writes in the opening chapter, “… my friends supposed I am a dressmaker, who goes out by the day or week – my enemies, what I have, are in a great measure convinced my life is a very questionable one.”
In the months after “G” first adventured out, Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephen Hayward saw his heroine armed, and carrying a pistol to defend herself during her investigations. These exciting female lives, both in books and in the real world, are full of mysteries and murders.
It is our reliance on Dickens that has created a popular culture that as got Victorian women so wrong, and it takes brilliant, feminist historical dramas, like Enola Holmes, to show us a different world. One that is actually far more accurate than any adaptation of a Christmas Carol, to show you just how amazing Victorian women could be.
Fern Riddell is a cultural historian with an expertise on gender politics and suffrage in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Enola Holmes is on Netflix now