Really should get back into the swing of Book of The Week, seeing as I have so much good stuff at the moment and, in between juggling my stock portfolio and refusing to allow Billie Piper to shamelessly objectify me (Stop it Miss Piper! Stop it.), I have a little time to show off.
Every now and then something comes along which…you’ve heard this before, try and imagine it said in the voice of that one man with the voice made of molasses and horseshoe nails who did all the movie trailers in the eighties; “Changes the face of storytelling…”
That’s a little hyperbolic, but the significance of Dorcas Dene, and a couple of her contemporaries, in radically changing popular fictional attitudes to women in the early part of the 20th century shouldn’t overlooked. I mean alright, this one was written by a man, but think of it as sexually progressive, gender swapped, Georgiana Cavendish style utopianism…I really tried to make that a thing. That’s not going to work. Anyway. Dorcas Dene is great and the three rarest issues I have chosen as my book of the week:
1. Sims, George R. Dorcas Dene, Detective; Her Adventures. [First and Second Series]. London: F.V. White & Co, 1897. First Edition. Two volumes, 8vo. 119pp + 1pp. ads., [both volumes identically paginated, which is rather odd] Publisher’s blue and green cloth titled in black and gilt to spine and front boards, respectively. I’m never sure if I am using that word correctly so perhaps I should have gone with “The First Series volume is bound in blue cloth, titled in gilt and black to spine and front board…” etc. Minor bumping and edgewear, slight rubbing to the gilt of the First Series volume…that’s it.
If I were the kind of bookseller who catalogued things as near fine on a regular basis, these would be near fine. I’ll go so far as to say that the Second Series volume is near fine, they are both lovely, strong, clean tight copies, internally clean and graced with toe-tinglingly charming adverts for Pear’s Soap and Mellin’s Food…that’s it, it’s just called “food” and it says you can add wine or spirits to it; for me (and for most other booksellers) this does not narrow it down to any particular foodstuff; seriously, it could be breakfast cereal. Or yogurt.
Anyway, they are very lovely copies. I’ve only ever seen one copy of the first series in the flesh and it was in a sadly charmless state. I admit I wasn’t expecting to see another, especially not accompanied by its equally scarce partner volume (the two series were published on each other’s heels, along with the impossibly rare paper wraps issue, they are all rather slight objects), so this is certainly rather lovely. It’s a bit like meeting that person from your past that you always had a crush on and then bumping into them whilst on vacation to recover from a dreadful relationship and discovering that they too had a crush on you and they disclose this to you over dinner in a small, rustic restaurant called “Il Monastero” overlooking a secluded backwater of the Arno in Florence…is this fantasy getting too specific? I feel as if perhaps I’m digressing. Florence though.
Anyway. Painfully rare, and well used if seen.
These stories, however, are not to be lumped in with the giant shoggoth-like mass of so-called “Holmesian Imitators” which the late 19th and early 20th century spawned like tiny, wriggling, know it all tadpoles in a rather stagnant pond of crumbling Imperialist pretension. Nope.
Dorcas Dene (nee Spencer, before hooking up with her archetypally sexist man-muppet of a husband, who is rather tragically a blind ex artist; perhaps in some way symbolising the fact that it’s about time we stop thinking we’re in charge, when we clearly don’t have the chops for it) is an ex-actress and private detective of considerable wit and intellect, who naturally and through sheer application of intelligence and merit enlists the support and complete co-operation of Scotand Yard in her crime fighting exploits:
“It isn’t usual,” the Superintendent said, “for our men to act under the orders of a private detective, even one so talented as Dorcas Dene, but under the circumstances I consent.”
Her “Watson” is a rather pleasant sort of chap, a Mr. Saxon (her theatrical agent originally, whose devotion and admiration know only the bounds of late-Victorian propriety), assisting her on a voluntary basis in her exploits. Unlike the occasional slightly token female detectives from the period, Ms. Dene is crisply procedural and methodical, no guesswork or conjecture, just exact, considered deduction and observation. She’s a master of disguise, stands no nonsense and brings her criminals to justice with no more manly assistance than Holmes might enlist from Watson and his service revolver.
Now it’s much less of a big deal, but in the male dominated world of 1890’s popular literature there usually had to be at least some capitulation to feminine frailty otherwise we chaps just felt all left out. Interestingly Ms. Dene is also considered attractive and charming. Steely determination, raw ability and being intellectually superior to the men around you are not, historically, things that are going to get you described as charming…not even by other women. I’m not even sure about the “historically” bit, to be honest.
In addition, Dorcas is an actress, which for a good chunk of time prior to the second half of the 19th century was almost exactly the same word as “prostitute.” So what you basically have is a complex, smart, attractive woman excelling in a male dominated field by virtue of ability and results whilst doing so without her ability being compromised by the prejudices or assumptions of the society in which she operates. Not only that, she’s solving crimes, goddammit, AND she’s the main breadwinner for her household, AND she does it whilst looking fabulous and having close non-romantic friendships with people of the opposite gender. I love this book, at the very least for what it stands for and for the fact that upon publication it was highly thought of…in a Britain that wouldn’t give the vote to women for another two decades, and only then so that they’d stop burning stuff and making us look like idiots.
The characterisation is very deliberate. Dorcas is meticulous, observant and unruffled in her exploits. There are also a number of occasions throughout the stories where Sims, through the medium of his detective, is able to offer a commentary on the sins and peccadilloes of Victorian male society; The Diamond Lizard, The Mysterious Millionaire and The Council of Four are all somewhat calmly giving the 19th century gender norms a long, hard look.
Finding another set of this title in attractive condition is about as likely as a disabled, female, democrat receiving towtruck assistance in North Carolina
As an added bonus here’s the description of the wraps edition:
2. Sims, George R. Dorcas Dene, Detective. Her Adventures. London: F.V. White, 1897. First Edition, First Printing. 8vo. 119pp. + 1pp. ads. Publisher’s original ilustrated card wraps, very good indeed, clean and sharp with a closed tear to the front lower spine hinge, minor edgewear and chipping, some very slight inoffensive creasing. An incredibly well preserved copy of a legendarily scarce Queens Quorum highlight. Internally clean and fresh. There’s some scruffy page trimming between pages 57 and 59 but it’s otherwise quite the fancy looking object.
I’m giddy. There’s been one copy of this book in auction in 30-plus years, and that was in the 2002 Lackritz auction…Mr L. being the man whose collection most closely approximates the Shangri-La of crime based bibliophilia. That’s it.
Fortune and Glory, kid, Fortune and Glory.
Aside form the usual frictions of 120 years or so this copy should be ever so proud of itself. My views on Dorcas Dene as an important addition to the genre of crime and detective fiction are well know (see the previous description!). Suffice it to say that this is kind of a pinnacle. It’s not every day that one can hold in one’s hand a tile from the mosaic of change, and fit it back into its rightful place.
(The original cataloguing was done specifically for the enjoyment of Rebecca Baumann, and I just decided to keep it for my last list)