28 October 2016

We are what we write?

C.L. Pirkis's Loveday Brooke
My "Women of Mystery" class at George Mason University has been examining the ways in which 19th- and early 20th-century women mystery writers have challenged contemporary attitudes about gender roles and gender relations. In a Victorian Era when men and women were assigned to "separate spheres" based on their "natural" characteristics (to quote a brief essay by Kathryn Hughes at the British Library), it was likely refreshing to see fictional female detectives taking the lead on investigations and besting men in the process. And even in our class's short sampling of work from the era, it's been fun to watch how the implied quickly gave way to the explicit. In C.L. Pirkis's "Drawn Daggers" (1894), for example, Loveday Brooke holds her own in conversations with her employer, Mr. Dyer—not backing down in disagreements about how to approach a case or where the truth might be found, and eventually proved right about her plans. Two decades later, Baroness Orczy could be much more direct in the first of her Lady Molly tales, "The Ninescore Mystery" (1912), where the narrator—a member of Scotland Yard's "Female Department"—states from the start: "We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don't tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we should haven't half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation."

Even in 1912: You've come a long way, baby—right? Toss us a pack of Virginia Slims—from 1968.

Pauline Hopkins
With most texts, we've been zeroing in on the progressive elements—the ways in which these writers have conceived of their protagonists both within and then in opposition to prevailing feminine ideals, the ways in which the texts have commented on and subtly (or not) criticized the values of their eras. In the case of Pauline Hopkins' "Talma Gordon" (1900), generally considered the first mystery story by an African American writer, we've looked at how a writer can address racial issues as well as gender issues—two perhaps not unrelated parts of a more progressive agenda—both through the story that's told (the plot that unfolds, the racial themes within the story) and through a strategic awareness of the publication venue, its specific audience, and that audience's values and concerns.

What's interesting about Hopkins, however, is that even as she explores racial attitudes and gender issues with a progressive's eye, her story is more conservative on other issues, somewhere at the intersection of class, intellect, and morality—and Hopkins herself seemed to be so as well, advocating elsewhere the "amalgamation" of the races as a way to bring down racial barriers, but also stressing that it was the "worthy" blacks and white intermingling which would improve civilization, while those unworthy ones... well, as critic Sigrid Anderson Cordell explained it in a fascinating 2006 essay on Hopkins' work, those unworthy ones would be "'civilized' or removed from the gene pool."

Even in texts without the racial elements, my student saw that attention to gender equality often parted ways quickly with concerns about class inequality. Lady Molly and her companion in the Female Department were quick to dismiss men's attitudes and achievements, but the story was equally quick to villainize women of the lower-classes for greed and for sexual promiscuity—"slut shaming" them, as one of my students put it.

Much of this discussion came to a head this week as we discussed Nancy Drew—everyone's favorite girl sleuth (or nearly everyone's; see SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens' terrific dissent here).

As an icon perhaps even more than as a character, Nancy can—and certainly has—been celebrated from a number of feminist perspectives, from her first appearance still in the shadow of the 19th Amendment's ratification (just a decade before) and right up til today. As Priya Jain writes in her 2005 Salon essay "The Mystery of a Feminist Icon," Nancy was "a model citizen with a perfect balance of toughness and femininity, an icon of independence and poise. As such, she has provided a connective thread between the six generations of girls she has ushered into adulthood." And Jain links Nancy's "smarts, pluck and independence" to the passions of the first Carolyn Keene, ghost-writer Mildred Wirt, "a young college graduate filled with the ideals of suffrage and the women’s movement."

As a class discussing The Mystery at Lilac Inn, we worked through the ways in which Nancy could be considered a valuable role model (and, Bonnie, you'll be pleased to know that one student did ask, "But isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girls reading this?"), and we circled again around that word "progressive" in terms of the images and messages in the text. But at the same time, we couldn't help but be aware of the hints of conservatism lurking at the book's core—those parallel messages about upper-middle-class values, nostalgia for the past (look what's being done to the Lilac Inn!), about respectability and social grace and unerring etiquette.

We read the 1961 edition of the book, but I also brought in the original 1930 text—almost completely different. (In case readers here don't know, the original books were rewritten beginning in 1959, so for most of us, the Nancy Drew books we grew up on were not the original Nancy Drews.) In that 1930 version, not only are class issues more evident but—perhaps hand in hand—so are some unpalatable references to race and ethnicity. When Nancy is tasked with hiring a new housekeeper to temporarily replace Hannah Gruen (called away by a sister's illness), Nancy first interviews a "colored woman" ("dirty and slovenly in appearance and [with] an unpleasant way of shuffling her feet"), then the next morning an Irish woman ("even worse than the one that came yesterday") and a "Scotch lassie" ("she hadn't a particle of experience and knew little about cooking"). Later in that edition, the villains are revealed to be working class, uneducated, and mostly dark-complexioned; one is distinguished by a "hooked nose."

What's most interesting here isn't necessarily the racial/ethnic prejudices—signs of those times, one might argue—or the fact that these were revised away in the 1961 edition, there already in the midst of the Civil Rights Era (and the Cold War too, my students pointed out, noting that Nancy in 1961 also keeps criminals from selling secrets to enemy agents). Instead, what's possibly most interesting is that Wirt in 1994, in an introduction to a reprint of the original Mystery at Lilac Inn, stressed that "judging from reader letters, [Nancy] never was offensive" in the same paragraph where she talks—without explanation—about the books being rewritten beginning in the late 1950s.

...all of which brought us back to our earlier discussions of C.L. Pirkis and Baroness Orczy and Pauline Hopkins and to the assumptions underlying those discussions that the authors were intentionally or strategically challenging gender stereotypes. But were they always? And even where statements about gender issues seemed explicit—as with Lady Molly and the assertions about the Female Department's superiority—was the author aware of the negative attitudes toward lower classes crying out from elsewhere in the text? Were those latter messages explicitly intended as commentary on class, or was the author simply blind to how her views (and prejudices) had snuck into the writing?

In short, I guess, how can you tell when a writer is commenting on the values of her era—and when she's simply reflecting them?

And to flip this around, how many of us writing today are explicitly championing certain values in our work—and how many of us are unaware of the values we're revealing in those same works?

A good discussion in class on these topics—and I hope maybe a good discussion ahead here.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Art. And plenty of food for thought.

    In response to your questions, "how can you tell when a writer is commenting on the values of her era—and when she's simply reflecting them?" and "And to flip this around, how many of us writing today are explicitly championing certain values in our work—and how many of us are unaware of the values we're revealing in those same works?" I think it's a combination. We (I at any rate) sometimes consciously put things in the stories I write that deal with one issue or another and I'm trying to make a point, sometimes subtle, sometimes less so. But at the time we (I) put things in that we are not really conscious of but simply reflect our lot in life or outlook on it because it's just part of who we are.

  2. Sounds like a really interesting and imaginative class.

  3. Art, thanks for the information.

  4. Hi, Paul, Janice, and O'Neil — Thanks for the commments. You're up earlier than I am! (Or later, Paul, I know). The question of intention vs. naivete is, obviously, an interesting one for me--both in terms of the creative process and in terms of trying to analyze a text in the classroom, trying to ferret out an author's values and her message (if there might be one).

  5. Great comments, Art, but I probably have to disagree with B. K. re Nancy Drew. A note re Pauline Hopkins: Crippen & Landru published _Who Was Guilty? Two Dime Novels_ by Philip S. Warne and edited by Marlena Bremseth. Bremseth argues convincingly that Warne was mixed race, and his work featured in this book (1872, 1881) predates Hopkins's "Talma Gordon."

  6. This is one of the best posts I've seen on here, Art. And you've sent me back looking for these books!
    I've had discussions similar to this in my class (Crafting a Novel.) As an example, I write comic crime capers, and my primary goal is to entertain readers. But there is no doubt that even though I am not in the writing business to put forth an agenda, my own biases and ethics will undoubtedly show through in some way.
    Thus I tell students: you don't have to preach (and indeed you shouldn't, in your fiction.) Regardless, your work will be sign of the times and will reflect your values (to some extent) without you even realizing it.

  7. Thanks for the update here, Elizabeth! You'd actually recommended "Talma Gordon" to me some years ago--and I was still working off some of Paula Woods' work in Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes, which was a decade before the C&L title you mention. Good to get this update!

    And Melodie, thanks for the comment and kind words here. Yep, yep--I agree against preaching (though from a historical context, interesting to see how authors tried to do it in the page); but so true that our values (for better or worse) seep through.

    I forgot to add a comment by one of my students—which was telling. The reader brings biases as well to any book--and if the reader's and writer's biases are similar, then neither of them might see the bias itself. (Here in a heated election season, with too many of us living in echo chambers, maybe important to remember.)

  8. Great column, Art!! And great questions as well, for all of us.

  9. Great post, Art. Re Nancy Drew, I read tons of her books when I was a little girl, and I remember clearly that George Fayne was boyish, if not masculine, and brave (sometimes braver than Nancy), and that Bess Anderson was overweight, constantly tearful and always cowardly. Even then I knew that George was gay - granted, I grew up in Southern California, where you caught on to these things quickly. I just wished "Carolyn Keene" would stop giving her a boyfriend when she obviously didn't need/want one. Otherwise I thought George was fun. But as to Bess - I knew that Bess was a warning to all of us girls to not get fat or we'd end up like Bess, and I didn't like what they did with her, then or now.

  10. Thanks for mentioning my Nancy Drew post, Art. The questions you pose made me think of Shelley's "A Defense of Poetry," which I reread while working on another SleuthSayers post. Shelley (who defines "poets" broadly enough to include many kinds of writers, along with some others)argues that literature strengthens our moral characters by expanding our imaginations, by encouraging us to enter into the lives of others and thereby making us more empathetic. In a sentence I didn't quote last time, he says, "A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations which participate in neither." Poets who have a conscious "moral aim," he says, are generally inferior to the greatest poets, such as Homer, who (according to Shelley) wrote without one. I think Shelley would agree with points Paul, Melodie, and others have made. It would probably be hard for most of us to write without a conscious "moral aim" of one sort or another, but I'd say it's also hard for us to see the limits of our own moral understanding or to recognize the extent to which our ideas are shaped by our place and time. And it may also be, as Shelley suggests, that our writing conveys ideas of which we are unaware, influencing readers in ways we can't predict.

  11. Sounds like a great class, Art. Good stuff.

  12. Thanks, all! Sorry I've been slow to respond here, but so much appreciate the comments.

    Eve, it's interesting how critics have treated Bess and George--like two extremes of femininity (one very, one very not) with Nancy as the ideal in the middle (at least that seemed to be the intention of the Stratemeyer folks). And as for boyfriends, yep, she had one, but time and again she was pushing him aside in favor of mystery. A nice essay by Bobbie Ann Mason (a chapter from her book The Girl Sleuth) talks about sexual tension in the books...and about how Nancy dodges that boyfriend and why.

    Bonnie, good points on "moral aim" here--though I'll admit I enjoy some of the ways writers have made pointed jabs on social issues, prejudices, etc., though the commentary (if that's best word) needs to take backseat to story and character and never lean toward the didactic..... Raising moral issues and exploring them--that's one thing; preaching about them another.

    And Larry, thanks for the kind words--we have fun!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>