Cherchez les Femmes:
Someone’s in the Kitchen With Charlotte: Classic Detective Fiction, Victorian Womanhood, and the Private Sphere in Anne Perry's Charlotte Pitt Series
The relatively recent explosion in historical detective fiction featuring women sleuths reflects an ongoing feminist concern with unvoiced, marginalized women, the domestic spaces they inhabit, and the public spaces they influence. As Gubar and Gilbert note in No Man’s Land (1987), such genres as science fiction and fantasy “liberate the political imagination to consider the possible instead of the probable” (115-6), a point that is certainly valid for historical detective fiction as well; one of the strong points of this fiction is its firm positioning in the realm of the imaginative probable. Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series works particularly well in this aspect. No impossibilities exist in these novels; Charlotte Pitt does not step so far out of a woman’s conventional roles as to be unbelievable, nor is she so effective at solving the mysteries all on her own that we find her a character impossible to accept1.
Perry has grounded the Pitt series in late Victorian times, and speaks in skillfully woven detective narratives of women's place in Victorian society and from a feminist position which manifests in her penchant for revealing women's lives. The series works extremely well because the private, that is, the domestic sphere, was both well defined and occupied by women, and Perry both uses and subverts the ideology. Elizabeth Langland’s Nobody’s Angels: Middle Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture argues that far from being passive captives of the generally accepted “Angel in the House” ideology, middle class women controlled the dissemination of certain knowledges and thus helped ensure middle class hegemony in mid-Victorian England” (9). In Perry’s Victorian detective novels, women, rather than being passive onlookers, cloistered literally or figuratively, hidden away in boudoirs, or confined as “angels” to the home, become active participants in the crime-solving process.
While Lynn Gorham contends that “Women were told that they must remain within the domestic sphere both because their duties were to be performed there and because contact with the wider world would damage their ability to perform those duties” (4), Langland sees women as far more active in maintaining middle class hegemony. She contends that women served as “adjunct[s] to a man’s commercial endeavours” and were also concerned with “the acquisition of social and political status” (8). Whether either of these views were true, for all Victorian women, at all times, is, of course, debatable. How many contemporaneous Victorian women accepted the division and how many did not is open to question, as well. While Lynn Abrams contends, “It is only in prescriptive literature that the bourgeois woman, who idly spent her days exercising her creative talents, socialising with other women and supervising the servants, can be found. In reality most middle-class women were active both within and outside the home,” most sources agree that as many as two-thirds of Victorian middle and upper middle class women did not work outside the home, leaving relatively few venues for outside involvement, other than charity work (Ideals). To a degree, Jan Marsh disagrees with Abrams, and her description of the activities of Victorian women is echoed by Anne Perry in almost every book she writes:
However, the majority of upper- and middle-class women never worked outside the home. . . . the notion of idle, unoccupied Victorian ladies is something of a myth. Women ran the house, undertaking domestic work and child care themselves, as well as supervising the servants employed to cook, clean, carry coal and run errands.
While middle class women would certainly have been occupied with the hands on running of a household, I doubt that the women of the gentry or aristocracy undertook much domestic work or supervision of servants. And it is in this world that many of Perry’s crimes take place. Although Charlotte fits Marsh’s description perfectly, her sister Emily, who married into the aristocracy, can be as idle as she wishes. Certainly the idea of the private/public sphere is well enough recognized in the literature of the time to use in discussing the many ways in which Anne Perry uses the public/private sphere, to subvert societal expectations in her Victorian mysteries.
Anne Perry's women characters, Charlotte Pitt, her sister Emily Radley (formerly Lady George Ashworth), Lady Vespasia Cummings-Gould, and even Gracie, Charlotte’s maid, function effectively as female “private” investigators. They employ “women's knowledge,” in some cases simple domestic knowledge, or an understanding of the subtle mores of the socialscape, or an affinity with women's problems that Pitt lacks. Not only is it territory within which men are not particularly knowledgeable, it is also territory from which representatives of the public sphere, i.e. the constabulary, are either restricted or excluded on two counts. For one thing they are male, and for another they are not of an appropriate class. Although Pitt refuses to go to the tradesmen’s entrance, as is expected, rarely does he have access to the private rooms of the houses at which he calls. Charlotte, Emily and Vespasia in particular, on the other hand, do have access to the private rooms.
Perry’s privileging of the private calls attention to an easily defined space and is easily linked to the classic detective novel, a type of detective fiction also concerned with the intersections of private and public space. George Grella defines the classic detective novel as follows:
The typical detective story presents a group of people assembled at an isolated place -- generally an English country house -- who discover that one of their number has been murdered. They summon the local constabulary, who are completely baffled; they find no clues or entirely too many, everybody or nobody has the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime, and nobody seems to be telling the truth. To the rescue comes an eccentric, intelligent, unofficial investigator who reviews the evidence, questions the suspects, constructs a fabric of proof, and in a dramatic final scene, names the culprit (5).
Grella makes two other comments important to Perry's novels: he defines the classic detective novel as “one of the last outposts of the comedy of manners,” and notes that “The police [. . .] are ordinary, bourgeois citizens who intrude into a closed, aristocratic society” in which they are unsuccessful because they are unable to “comprehend the complex and delicate social code. The amateur detective, conversely, always is socially acceptable and comprehends the code of the society he [or as the case may be, she] investigates” (88). Substitute the enclaves of privilege within London, and an investigator not known to be an investigator, indeed, one whose entire success depends on being a truly “private” investigator, and Perry's detective novels fit reasonably well within this definition.
The classic detective novel thus works particularly well for Perry's purposes, which I take to be foregrounding women in a role more imbued with agency than is generally recognized. Precisely because her characters are fictional and not historical or realistic, per se they are less constrained than actual historical personages might be.2 Linking the conventions of the classic detective novel with Victorian domestic ideology, specifically that of the “separate spheres,” works to re/envision, and effectively subvert the absent presence of women in history.3
If the women are empowered by having knowledge that men do not have, cannot access, and do not understand, the effect must be to shift the paradigms of power away from the masculine, the arena of public, and toward the feminine, the arena of the private. In a very cogent comment, Langland notes the importance of the “trivial world of etiquette, household management and charitable visiting” which “reveals how effectively power may operate when its manifestations appear insignificant and inconsequential” (8). Certainly it is in these arenas that Charlotte operates. Perry takes great care to not only provide the details of dress and society more commonly found in a novel of manners but also grounds each novel firmly in everyday life. Her novels faithfully reflect Victorian society from the gradations of class, the status of women, the lives of the respectable and the unrespectable, to the social minutiae of calling, and the vagaries of fashion. As Langland points out, the minutiae are what is important – calling at an inappropriate time, or having the wrong dress would mark a woman as an outsider; for Charlotte’s purposes, this would be fatal (32-3). Thus, Perry not only details everyday life with a very sharp eye for detail, but also privileges the private sphere over the public sphere, which is present but filtered through private eyes, so to speak. Using most of the conventions of the classic detective fiction, which concerns itself more with the private, i.e. places and motivations, allows Perry’s fictional characters to behave in a credible fashion.
Charlotte Ellison marries Inspector Thomas Pitt of the Metropolitan Police, a love match which leaves her family and friends aghast. She very soon finds herself taking an active role in her husband's cases, which conveniently enough, almost always concern murders committed in upper-class society for motives that are frequently concerned with the private rather than the public sphere. If Perry's detective novels are to work, after all, Charlotte cannot be isolated from her family; the premise is that Pitt, despite being a gamekeeper's son, has had a good education and acquired upper-class diction, which is why, even though he remains socially unacceptable, he is assigned to upper-crust murders. Several highly convenient plot devices come into play: Charlotte is neither shunned nor cast off by her horrified family, as well might happen; her younger sister Emily, who has looks, brains and social cunning, carries out a successful campaign to marry Lord George Ashworth. She becomes nearly as avid and sharp a sleuth as Charlotte, and has the good fortune to meet and be accepted by the iconoclastic but extremely well connected Lady Vespasia Cummings-Gould. Being accepted in society as a relative of Lady Ashworth and as Lady Cumming-Gould’s niece is of enormous use to both Charlotte and Thomas, as such acceptance allows Charlotte at least to penetrate the private.
The whole entire point of their sleuthing activities is that Perry's P. I .’s are taken to be something other than they are. Charlotte misrepresents herself at various times as someone's young woman cousin up from the country, Emily's single sister, Emily's married sister, a young woman with an interest in military affairs, or a social reformer -- anything, that is, but what she actually is, the wife of Inspector Thomas Pitt. Charlotte must masquerade as a member of Society, in which she no longer actually belongs, in order to penetrate the private spaces of the upper class. As the speaker notes, when Charlotte prepares to investigate a particularly sordid murder in Bluegate Fields, AIf she could meet the Waybournes socially, when they were not guarding themselves against the vulgarity and intrusions of the police, she might learn something that would be of use to Pitt. [. . . ] there were always people who would, as a matter of course, know of relationships that would never be discussed with persons of the lower order, such as professional investigators” (32).
Perry’s detectives are in many ways exemplars of classic investigators. Perry’s women talk to people, observe their reactions closely, pry about in suspects' dresser drawers, listen to private speech, countercheck their alibis against information accumulated, and confront the suspects, often in a drawing room or at a social occasion, thereby eventually proving the innocence of the unjustly accused and ensnaring the guilty. By so doing, since they generally function in a social milieu, a private domestic sphere; they exercise power in a way approved for Victorian women, despite the essential public nature of their activities.
Thus, due to her own very respectable birth, Emily's very successful marriage, and the connections that match brought, Charlotte is able to deploy the separate spheres of influence, that demarcation so beloved of Victorian culture, to not only use her skill in a more or less approved fashion, but Perry, by setting the crime within the domestic, within the private, within women's territory, and invoking the indirect genteel method of gathering evidence, is able to subvert the historical silencing of women by using the detective conventions to reconfigure the spheres of power and empower the woman as detective.
Paragon Walk, Bluegate Fields, Rutland Place, Silence in Hanover Close, Pentecost Alley, and Seven Dials are novels in which the women either solve the crime or are responsible for carrying out social justice. In these novels, Charlotte penetrates private spaces to uncover the hidden domestic secrets which provide the solution to the crime.
It is easy to see Charlotte or Emily working to good advantage in these situations, mingling, listening, catching the false notes, observing the slightest nuances of body language, and eventually figuring out the motive for murder. It is quite understandable how Charlotte's husband could not obtain this information. Thomas Pitt, kindly described as disheveled, his collar awry, his coat unevenly buttoned, his coat pockets stuffed with odds and ends, and his hair standing on end, simply cannot be portrayed balancing a tea-cup, ears pricked for social innuendoes. Pitt will never idle the afternoon away, consuming scandalous goings-on along with cucumber sandwiches, whipped cream pastries, and tea. Nor might Pitt recognize the seemingly trivial scraps of knowledge as significant. But if Charlotte does not, Emily or Vespasia certainly will. And once Charlotte is within the private domestic space, despite the elaborate rituals involved in paying calls, she can gather the information Thomas needs to weave a comprehensible story out of the disparate scraps of information he has. Although Pitt does not always appreciate her “meddling,” Charlotte is extremely valuable to him, especially when his superiors constrain him from upsetting some noble suspect or another and he cannot, therefore, obtain directly the information necessary to solve a crime. Especially in the earlier works, Charlotte must “work around” Pitt, even though he is perfectly aware that her knowledge of social conventions and her superior access are extremely useful. While Pitt can function superbly in the public sphere and the rookeries, the equivalent of Chandler's “mean streets” and has no qualms whatsoever about confronting either noble suspects or his superior officers, he is often at a loss to understand women's behavior or upper-class social convention. What is more, Pitt has no access to private domestic space; he is received, grudgingly, in the antechambers of the truly private domestic space; his interviews are in rooms that share a public/private function, such as a hall, a morning room, or a back parlor, whereas upper-class visitors who call at accepted social times are usually shown into the withdrawing room or boudoir. In Silence in Hanover Close, for example, the footman eyes Pitt's attire swiftly and decides that “He [Pitt] was not library material; the morning room was good enough for him” (165). What is more, Pitt's interviews with the family are usually either observed or mediated by the head of the household; in addition, his known public status effectively bridles the tongues of those to whom he speaks.
The murders in Paragon Walk, complex though the plot is, are caused by simple jealousy. Rutland Place, Bluegate Fields, and Silence in Hanover Close all have plots in which murders are committed to hide the social sins of incest, pederasty, and transvestism, respectively. All of these sins are uncovered and brought to light in the domestic sphere. Incest and pederasty, while social “crimes,” are also public transgressions; transvestism is a private concern, until it leads to murder most foul. But while the private sphere may easily become the public space, the private sins public transgressions, both the perpetrators and their families make every effort to keep the two categories separate. For one thing, social ruin will follow swiftly upon the revelation of the social sins, whether these sins are criminal acts or not; and social ruin, as Charlotte points out to Pitt, is a fate infinitely worth than death.
Charlotte's ability to “read” the domestic provides Thomas with the information needed to solve the crimes. Paragon Walk is a text in which the action takes place entirely within an area supposedly exempt from sordid crimes by virtue of its class exclusivity. AI don't know what things is coming to, [says the reporting constable] what with General Gordon killed by that there dervish, and now we got a rapist loose in Paragon Walk. Shockin' I call it [. . .]” (3). The inhabitants of Paragon Walk, are, of course, certain that this outrage is perpetrated by some fiendish, lower-class outsider. Pitt is called in to investigate the rape-murder of the first victim, the virginal Fanny Nash. As this crime is followed by a second murder, another rape, and then a suicide, evidently committed by Hallam Calley, Fanny's rapist-murderer, out of remorse, it becomes more and more apparent that far from some outside lunatic, these crimes are the work of a resident of Paragon Walk. Charlotte and Emily soon discover many ugly secrets, among them a Satanic cult to which the erstwhile innocent Fanny belonged. At the root of the murders, though, is something private; the murderess has killed Fanny, her sister-in-law and ward, in a fit of jealousy. Jessamyn Nash never allows anyone to profit by her discards; one of the clues to her guilt is that she never gives her cast-off dresses to the maid. This clue is one that it is unlikely Pitt will uncover; even if he did, he might not realize the importance of such a seemingly trivial piece of information. When she is finished with Calley, she still cannot stand to let anyone else have him. Fanny, raped by Calley, comes to Jessamyn, who stabs her in a jealous rage. Thus the rape and murder, which seem to be one crime, are actually separate, and the motive is that most personal one of jealousy. Charlotte patches the story together from pieces of information and acute observations of Jessamyn's anger and possessiveness and an understanding of women which Pitt lacks. Furthermore, Charlotte can unobtrusively penetrate the private space in ways which Pitt cannot; as Lady Ashworth's sister, she is accepted into the intimacies of the Walk's inhabitants almost without question. Indeed, while Jessamyn Nash suspects that Charlotte is a social climber, attempting to gate-crash an exclusive enclave, she never once suspects either that Charlotte is investigating those very same inhabitants or that she is a policeman's wife. As in so many of Perry's narratives, all of the motives and evidence are readily available to someone who understands both the social codes and the extent to which the residents of Paragon Walk will go to keep their guilty secrets in the private sphere. Pitt assumes that the rape and murder are one crime and thus targets the men. It is Charlotte, looking for domestic clues, with ready access to all the private space, who realizes not only why Jessamyn stabbed Fanny but also how. Jessamyn stabbed Fanny with a fruit knife, washed it off and put it back. Such as item, sitting openly out next to a bowl of fruit, part of the domestic scene, would easily be overlooked. These are early days and early crimes, however: once Charlotte has revealed the murderess, she is more than happy to turn her over to Pitt.
In Bluegate Fields, Arthur Waybourne, the adolescent son of Sir Anstey and Lady Waybourne, is found drowned in the sewers of Bluegate Fields, a highly unsavoury district much given to male and female prostitution. The coroner discovers that he was actually drowned in bath-water, which argues a private place. A further examination reveals the first stages of syphilis. Mr. Jerome, the curmudgeonly tutor, is accused of the murder, based not on police work but on the allegations of two of his pupils, the dead boy's brother and cousin. The fathers refuse to allow their sons to be questioned by the police, claiming invasion of privacy. Jerome is convicted, apparently quite properly, in a public trial, on unsubstantiated knowledge from the private sphere. The dead boy's family can draw a deep breath of relief; an outsider, also accused of molesting his other pupils, is safely convicted, and life can return to normal. Jerome refuses to confess and vehemently denies any molestation. Eugenie, his wife, is certain that her husband is innocent; naturally, Charlotte becomes involved in helping her.
Charlotte does not believe Jerome is guilty and pushes Pitt to reconsider his solution. The upper echelons of the police force are satisfied that Jerome committed the crime and do not wish to upset the members of the upper crust. Superintendent Athelstan forbids Pitt to carry the investigation any further. Thus, Pitt has reached the limits of the public sphere. Whatever hidden knowledge exists in the inaccessible private sphere, the public sphere regards the matter as settled. Charlotte insists on Jerome’s innocence, and Pitt brings the conversation to a swift and complete halt:
“That is the end of the matter! I do not wish to discuss the matter any further. Where is my dinner, please? I am tired and cold, and I have had a long and extremely unpleasant day. I wish to be served my dinner and eat it in peace!” (Bluegate 111).
It may seem that the public sphere, represented by Thomas Pitt, police inspector, wins out over the private, represented by a mere wife/domestic servant, but such a reading reckons without Charlotte's well known persistence.
Once Charlotte decides to pursue a course of action, Pitt often must surrender to domestic force majeure. Says Charlotte, sitting demurely with her sewing, the picture of proper domesticity,
“Let's imagine Jerome is innocent and he is telling the truth! What do we know for a fact?” [ . . ] He smiled sourly at the “we.” But there was no purpose in trying to evade talking about it. He could see she was going to talk about it to the bitter end. (Bluegate 145)
Pitt finally re-opens the investigation when he discovers that one of his police inspectors has more or less invited a witness into perjury. But he cannot unravel the mess and discover who murdered Arthur. It is Charlotte, visiting the Swynford’s home, who asks Titus, the victim's young cousin, a few questions and discovers that he has no clear idea of sexual abuse. All his father ever asked was whether Jerome “touched” him in any way and Titus, without any idea of what is at stake, answers yes. It is this private testimony that has woven a rope for Jerome's neck and Charlotte's ability to infiltrate the private sphere which leads to the solution. What is more, Lady Benita Waybourne and Mrs. Callantha Swynford put their heads together and come up with the actual identity of the molester/murderer, though as Callantha says to Charlotte, “It will do you no good [. . . ] because I do not think there is any way you will ever be able to prove it, but I believe it was my cousin, Esmond Vanderley, who was Arthur's seducer.” (Bluegate, 263). Thus, despite the location of the corpse and the public prostitutes who swore to the guilt of the tutor, this is a very private crime, one that takes place in the private realms of the family and the bedroom and not at a male prostitute's rooms in Bluegate Fields. And it is in the private space that the truth lies; the effect of the women solving the crime again deconstructs the importance of the public and foregrounds the private.
The sin/crime of pederasty is solved by a convenient and unprovable murder; Mortimer Swynforth reports that Esmond Vanderley, his brother-in-law, has had a shooting accident. With a hunting rifle. In London. In a drawing room. Pitt immediately realizes two things: Swynford has shot his brother-in-law to preserve his social status, and Pitt will never be able to prove it. While it is Pitt who decides to call Vanderley's murder a suicide in order to exact at least social retribution, it is Charlotte who discovers the truth. Pitt can carry out some form of justice, but without Charlotte's ability to access private knowledge, no solution could have been reached. In Rutland Place, the sixth of the series, Mrs. Wilhelmina Spencer-Brown has been poisoned, and only a Rutland Place inhabitant could possibly have murdered her. As is typical of Grella's comments, everyone has a motive and an alibi, and no one is telling the truth. The truths uncovered are both petty and significant. Mina, the murdered woman, was a collector of other people's petty secrets. Not all the secrets, however, are petty. At the root of the murder of Mina is both incest and abortion. Tormod Lagarde has not only engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister, Eloise, but also forced her to have an abortion. Eloise, in turn, pushes him off a carriage, which results in his crippling and eventual death. Tormod had poisoned Mina to prevent her from disclosing his relationship with his sister; social ruin would follow such a revelation, and his plans to marry the rich widow Amaryllis Denbigh would certainly not come to fruition. Despite Pitt's belief that Eloise killed Mina, Charlotte, observing the residents and their reactions, and particularly Eloise's, comes to the conclusion that Tormod murdered Mina, and Eloise killed her brother. Charlotte, however, feels he received his just deserts and does not turn the “murderess” over to justice. Thus Charlotte chooses to keep private what happened in the private sphere rather than exposing the whole sordid mess to the attention of the public sphere. She deliberately conceals the fact that another murder has taken place, choosing to protect Eloise. As a “private” investigator, she can do so; the instant she tells Pitt, the matter becomes public. Charlotte, by choosing to remain silent, privileges private knowledge over public revelation.
“Are you going to tell the police?” Eloise asked quietly.
“No. He killed Mina -- he would have been hanged for that anyway. It was wrong to kill him, but it's done now. I shall never speak of it again” (Rutland 216)
In Rutland Place, it is the women's voices who matter: Eloise, pushed to the breaking point by the murder of the only child she will ever have; Mina, poking and prying and hinting, and Charlotte, whose voice decides what is just and what is not. Who in either sphere has any power at all but Charlotte? “I shall never speak of it again” is not only authoritative discourse, but discourse defined by the private sphere. And her power, such as it is, derives from private knowledge and not public law.
Silence in Hanover Close works on much the same model. Pitt's efforts to solve a three-year-old burglary/murder meet with a spectacular lack of success. The actual point of the investigation, however, is to determine whether Veronica York, the widow of the murdered Robert York, is in any way implicated, and whether any link exists between York's murder and sensitive material “missing” from the Foreign Office. As her late husband was employed in the Foreign Office, as is Julian Danvers, her prospective second husband, what is really required is that Pitt adroitly and quietly investigate whether or not she is guilty of murder or adultery -- or any other improprieties. And, of course, this is an impossible assignment: The York family is a very old one, and the last thing they will discuss with Inspector Pitt is whether their only son was murdered by his wife or his wife's lover. As it turns out, other circumstances exist which make it certain that Pitt will receive no cooperation whatsoever; indeed, by the last third of the novel, he has come too close to exposing the truth and is locked up for murder. Close though Pitt comes to the actual turn of events, he still could not have accessed the secrets the York household will kill to maintain. As Charlotte, discussing the case with the newly widowed Emily points out, “I don't know how Thomas will be able to make any inquiries. It is hardly the thing a policeman can ask of her social acquaintances.” Emily replies, “Of course we will find out. We have done nothing but bake cakes and stitch seams for six months, and I am ready to scream with it. We shall prove Veronica York's impeccable reputation, or ruin it entirely” (Silence 27). Neither Charlotte nor Emily is necessarily interested in who murdered Robert York: behind their lighthearted banter, they intend to investigate Veronica York privately, rather than have a public official do so. As Charlotte points out, even if an investigation uncovers nothing at all, society will automatically assume her guilty of some crime, even if it is only the social crime of having been investigated.
As the reader might expect, uncovering the truth of the York murder is up to Charlotte and Emily. Emily, enlisting Jack Radley in the cause, makes the division between the private and the public perfectly clear. “No one will speak in front of the police as they might with us, nor would the police understand the shades of meaning if they did” (Silence 30). Jack readily agrees to help, and he, Emily, Charlotte, and Aunt Vespasia engage in an investigation, which before it ends, almost destroys the York household, exposes some very raw emotions, unveils the source of the missing information, clears Veronica of any “impropriety,” almost results in Thomas Pitt being hanged for murder, and does result in Emily deciding to marry Radley. Private and public concerns are so interskeined in this plot that only private methods of arriving at the truth have a chance of working. Pitt, as an outsider, has no chance at all of arriving at the truth.
Charlotte, Emily and Vespasia carry out various deceptions to eventually arrive at the very unsavory explanation for the “murder” of Robert York. Charlotte masquerades as Miss Elisabeth Barnaby, Jack Radley's country cousin. Emily, since she is in strict mourning and cannot directly engage the Yorks, decides to masquerade as Amelia Gibson and apply for the position of Veronica York's maid. Since Dulcie, Veronica's previous maid, talked to Pitt, a representative of the public space and was shortly thereafter found dead on the public pavement after being pushed from a private window, this employment is not without its risks. Aunt Vespasia hosts the dinner which reveals the sordid truths, and Jack, in order to stay in touch with Emily, disguises himself as a chimney sweep. While the deceit has its humorous side, all of the characters except for Vespasia are figures who can penetrate the private sphere almost completely unremarked. Who cares what is said in front of a maid? Who notices a chimney sweep? Miss Barnaby is a welcome guest in the house, unlike Charlotte Pitt, who were her true identity known, would be decidedly unwelcome.
Much of Pitt’s investigation centers on “Cerise,” a mystery woman who may have been Veronica York or a murderous spy. When Pitt is arrested for the murder of the prostitute he thinks is Cerise, he is imprisoned and faces trial and possible hanging. It is obvious to Charlotte that the answers lie, not in the public sphere but in the house in Hanover Close. With no assistance whatsoever coming from the public sphere, Charlotte must take action. When she goes to see him, she “lie[s] as easily as if he had been a child instead of a man, someone to be protected and comforted . . .”(286), just as she lies to Jemima and Daniel, saying that their father is away on a special job rather than in jail. This action also invokes the idea of the private sphere, the woman’s duties to her children. Treating Pitt as a child in need of comforting lies makes Pit’s helplessness very apparent; inevitably, it increases Charlotte’s sense of agency and ability to act independently. And of course, since she cannot act effectively in the public sphere, she must use her understanding of the private sphere.
Aware of time running out, she decides to provoke a reaction. She writes notes to her suspects and ties them with a cerise ribbon. Then, having gained access to the York's as Miss Barnaby, she slips away, dresses as Cerise, and confronts Garrad Danver. That same evening, she witnesses Loretta confront Garrad and realizes that Garrad loved “Cerise,” and that Loretta is obsessed with Garrad. Her next move is to ask Vespasia to host a dinner for her suspects where she plans to increase the pressure until someone cracks. The denouement, in the most approved classical tradition, takes place at this dinner party where the unwitting suspects are assembled. Loretta reveals that she killed both the prostitute and Dulcie, the maid, which still leaves Robert York’s murder unaccounted for.
Ironically, none of the actions are concerned with an actual spy, but all hide private sins. The elusive figure of “Cerise” turns out to be, not a courtesan-spy, but Robert York, who is a secret transvestite; the missing documents from the Foreign Office are the result, not of a spy-ring, but of Loretta York's infatuation with and blackmail of Garrad Danver; Robert York's “murder” is unintentional -- committed by his wife when she discovers that he is Cerise and not an intruder from outside. Veronica York tells Charlotte, now revealed as Charlotte Pitt, this last bit of information when they are alone. She expects Charlotte to tell her husband:
“I suppose they will hang me.”
To her amazement, Charlotte answered immediately and without a quiver. “I don’t see why they should.”
“Won’t you tell them?”
“No-no-I don’t think there is any point. [ . . .]. I don’t know if its right, but I think I know how you might have felt.”(344).
As in Rutland Place, the voice of ultimate authority is Charlotte’s voice. Not only has she solved the crime, she has done so without Thomas and has also decided that Veronica York will be free to live her life out. Thomas, who has been languishing in jail, accused of killing ACerise,” and thus unable to function in the public at all, is released due to Charlotte's effort in the private. More than most of Perry's works, this novel emphasizes the importance of the private and the women who occupy it, understand it and use it for their own purposes. Charlotte can function as a private investigator not because she has learned investigative technique from her husband but because she has learned social rules and behavior and knows what lies behind the public masks; Emily can pass as a maid because she has watched her own lady's maid and can adroitly use the maid's role to effectively investigate in the private sphere. Thus, the private space and the women who understand it are central to the solution. Not only do Charlotte, Emily and Vespasia privilege the private; they also completely co-opt the public. The crime is solved, not by the institutions whose job it is, but by Charlotte and company. In the final scenes, in a privileging of the role of the private, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould calls her friends at the Home Office and procures Pitt's immediate release.
During the course of the Pitt’s marriage, they have bought several homes, always improving their standard of living. The house as the center of warmth and a refuge has grown in importance to both Charlotte and Thomas. Charlotte spends much time making their homes habitable, and Thomas is often described as hastening home or feeling his heart lighten as he approaches home; the kitchen is frequently described as holding the warmth of the house, and the kitchen, of course, is where Charlotte is most frequently occupied. Perry makes the importance of the kitchen unmistakable; at one time or another Lady Emily Radley, Lady Vespasia Cummings-Gold, Assistant Commissioner John Cornwallis, and Victor Narraway, Head of Special Branch, sit in the kitchen for tea. Using the kitchen so positively subverts the public-private division of space. As Langland comments, kitchens were supposed to be away from the public spaces of the house; odors were unacceptable and cold food preferable (42). Perry’s use of the kitchen as the heart of the home deconstructs both this attitude and the use of space.
In The Hyde Park Headsman, Charlotte has fallen in love with the Keppel Street house, which is in need of much work, and, at least at first, she is somewhat less than her usual involved self in Thomas’ case. In fact, she is much more concerned with the state of the plaster. The description of the house, with its French doors, garden with apple trees, lawn, and withdrawing room indicates not only Pitt’s rise in rank but the importance of the home. The house might be the catastrophe Emily descries, rather than the disaster Charlotte will make into something fine, but Charlotte is clearly more involved with the private sphere than is usual. When Pitt is dismissed from his position, which threatens the house and their rising status, Charlotte investigates, going so far as to break and enter in search of proof of murder. Yet again the motive for murder lies in the private sphere. Dulcie Arledge murders her husband for the chance of a life with her newly widowed lover. Charlotte, however, asks Pitt whether he will regain his old position.
Pentecost Alley showcases both Charlotte’s investigative skills and the importance of matters domestic. Even though Thomas has, at the time, gained promotion to the Superintendency of Bow Street, he is still not a “gentleman,” and the women’s social knowledge remains important. Pitt has come to a dead end in attempting to trace the torture and murder of two prostitutes. A Hellfire Club badge, engraved with the name Finlay FitzJames is found in the bed of Ada McKinley, a prostitute who has apparently been tortured and murdered. This evidence indicates that FitzJames, son of the autocratic and powerful Augustus FitzJames, is involved in the death, but neither Pitt, nor Inspector Ewart, who worked the earlier case, can make sense of the case, and Pitt hits dead end after dead end. Safe in the privilege that wealth and power bring, the FitzJames can easily fob Pitt off. He is dismissed as a public servant, who has no chance to access any private knowledge. Aware that he cannot access the private knowledge he needs, Pitt himself considers that Charlotte could be of great help in this case, as could Emily; these thoughts validate the importance of the private sphere and the women who inhabit it. As he thinks, “Had there been time, it was the type of investigation Charlotte might have helped with, and had done so excellently in the past. It needed subtlety and acute observation . . . Perhaps Emily was the one to ask. She moved in society and might hear whispers which would at least tell him in what direction to look” (127). Quite coincidentally, Emily has already made the acquaintance of Tallulah FitzJames and decides to help her on both a private and a public scale: Tallulah is in love with Jago Jones, formerly a member of The Hellfire Club, and now a minister who cares for the extreme poor. He has no time for flighty, pleasure-loving, wealthy Tallulah, as he has turned his back on a life of pleasure some six or seven years before. Moreover, she is worried that a very shrewd policeman is pursuing her brother Finlay for the murder of a prostitute. Emily enlists Charlotte’s aid in checking whether Tallulah’s claim that she can alibi Finlay for the night in question could be true. Tallulah foolishly attended a very racy party, where opium was being smoked, saw her nearly insensible brother, but lied about her whereabouts. She can not now claim to have seen Finlay, for who would believe here? Charlotte and Emily investigate the house and decide it is possible that Tallulah is telling the truth. Emily has already had a fake Hellfire Club badge made; she intends to conceal it and somehow provoke another search. In addition, she and Tallulah meet Rose Burke, the prostitute who provided the identification of Finlay. They lie about being friends of Ada’s and claim the butler who ruined Ada and forced her to the streets has committed his crime again; as a result Rose loses her certainty about Finlay FitzJames’ presence. In this case, Emily and Tallulah have used private knowledge and private means to subvert public justice. Ada’s pitiful domestic tragedy is used to gain Rose’s sympathy, and Emily and Tallulah’s access to private means procure the substitute brooch.
Pitt, having indeed found the badge and lost his main witness, is forced to conclude that FitzJames is innocent. Ada’s pimp is convicted and hanged, and everyone is extremely relieved, Pitt’s superior, John Cornwallis, going so far as to say that the murder of a prostitute by her pimp is “in a sense – almost a domestic matter” (226).
The plot thickens when Nora Gough, a second prostitute is found murdered and tortured in the exact manner as Ada McKinley; Pitt discovers the murderer of the second prostitute is Rose Kelly, the woman who lost her lover to the murdered woman, but he still has no idea why the death scenes are identical.
Emily, Tallulah and Charlotte mount their own investigation, masquerading as prostitutes who are looking for rooms. It is in the private domestic spaces, in the kitchens, that they finally uncover the truth. Charlotte learns that an earlier murder occurred, six years ago, with the same aspects of torture; her information, privately uncovered, gives Pitt has the wherewithal he needs to solve the case. That they do so sitting in the kitchen chatting with brothel-keepers about the room rates still reflects private space. It is the domestic space of the kitchen that matters, women among women. Charlotte’s information leads to the exposure of Inspector Ewart, who was bribed by Augustus FitzJames to hide the incriminating evidence. In addition, Police Surgeon Lennox’s young sister “Mary Smith” is the original prostitute, who was tortured and strangled by Finlay FitzJames. Lennox, in pursuit of private vengeance, as Ewart was in pursuit of private success, set each murder up to imitate his sister’s murder and implicate Finlay FitzJames, who did indeed kill Lennox’s sister. When FitzJames is arrested and hauled off to the public jail from the bastions of privilege, one sees, yet again, the importance of women and women’s talk and accrued knowledge.
In the novels following Pentecost Alley, Charlotte’s role diminishes; although the private sphere remains significant as the importance of the political increases. In Ashforth Hall, Charlotte assists Emily with the house party from hell, a meeting on the Irish Question and the near collapse of the meetings following murder; while she is helpful on the social front, she is not investigating as she has done in earlier novel; indeed, it is Gracie who provides the clue that solves the murder. In Brunswick Gardens, Charlotte is only peripherally involved. Her former brother-in-law, Dominic Corde, is one of three suspects in the murder of Unity Bellwood, a rather unpleasant depiction of the “New Woman.” The plot thickens when a second murder, that of Dominic’s mentor Ramsey Parmenter follows. It is, however, Charlotte’s private knowledge of her own infatuated and obsessive feelings for Dominic and her ability to search Vita Parmenter’s bedroom that finally results in Vita’s apprehension for murder. Charlotte finds a broken heel in the potted palm, which explains an evidential contradiction, and a trifling collection of Dominic’s belongings in Vita’s bureau drawer. Her understanding of the private sphere helps solves the murder, though we see that she is not as central to the investigation.
In Bedford Square, again, she plays a less central part, although both Vespasia and Gracie function in the private sphere to solve both murder and blackmail. Blackmail, of course, is a crime that takes private knowledge and harms the victim with threats to make that knowledge public. Charlotte attempts to aid her old friend General Brandon Ballantyne disprove a blackmailer’s accusations that he showed cowardice in the face of an enemy. Pitt is investigating who murdered the man found on the steps of Ballantyne’s home in possession of the General’s snuffbox. As the plot unfolds, more and more influential men admit to the same situation. Neither Charlotte or Thomas can discover any meaningful connection among the victims, and are not having their usual successes, as neither can find any proof or set of facts that leads to a solution.
Vespasia is trying to help her god-daughter, Theodosia, prove that her husband, Leo Cadell, was not the blackmailer. He committed suicide, but she cannot accept such a solution. It is Vespasia who finds a letter at his home, among his private correspondence and realizes that all the blackmailees are members of a committee of the Jessup Club concerned with funding an orphanage. General Ballantyne has raised concerns about the money going to the orphanage; he believes that too little money is being requested for the children’s maintenance. Pitt has checked the orphanage, the books, etc., and can find no reason for blackmail. In fact, the public face of the orphanage is beyond reproach.
Pitt returns home, and in a continuing motif, goes to the heart of the home, the kitchen. The warm space, the scrubbed wood, the pleasant smell of drying laundry, the tea kettle simmering, the smell of food cooking, all reveal the importance of the intimacy of the home. Pitt reports his findings – which reflect an orderly public face. Gracie responds “Then you was took proper” (314). Pitt, despite his certain knowledge of the horrible lives of the poverty-stricken endure in London still cannot believe her.
“They were happy and healthy, playing.”
Gracie responds, “”Til they get placed . . . There’s good money in that. Sell an ‘ealthy kid for quite a bit . . ‘specially if you got a reg’lar supply, like” (315).
The “kitchen” knowledge provide the solution. Sigmund Tannifer, one of the members of the Committee, has sold the orphans into virtual slavery. Confronting the Tannifers, Pitt says “ I’m sorry you had to know that, Mrs. Tannifer. But the proceeds from this trade are what has finished this beautiful house and bought the silk gown you are wearing” When her husband says “They were not children of people like us,” Parthenope shoots her husband, reveals that she killed Leo Cadell, believing he was blackmailing her husband, and then turns the pistol on herself (325). Thus, although Pitt has indeed discovered the truth and would arrest Tannifer, the verdict and penalty are again rendered privately.
In this novel, as in many others, the private and the public are hard to separate. Tannifer certainly uses private information for private gain, but his victims reflect the public sphere. His wife, a denizen of the private sphere, shoots him for using his public role to live luxuriously within the private sphere. Although Charlotte is not an active presence, the importance of the private sphere does not diminish, as Vespasia and Gracie contribute their various private knowledge.
After Pitt is transferred to the Special Branch, his position, in effect undercover, leaves much less room for Charlotte’s participation.4 This pattern continues through the following books. Charlotte is not involved in Half Moon Street at all, although she is integral in The Whitechapel Conspiracy, where she unearths Charles Voisey as the Head of the dread Inner Circle, but peripheral at best in Southampton Row, as she is in Dartmoor for most of the novel.
Much like Pentecost Alley, Seven Dials turns around a plot of long secret crimes with far reaching consequences. Unlike Pentecost Alley, however, Charlotte’s involvement is almost purely domestic, that is to say, concerned with the private sphere. She and Gracie are trying to find Tilda Garvie’s missing brother, valet to Stephen Garrick, both of whom have evidently disappeared; it is not a police matter at all, simply a matter of a sister who has not seen her brother in three weeks and cannot get information as to where he might be. Although Charlotte is unaware of it, her investigation is closely tied to Pitt’s: Garrick is one of the perpetrators of the secret crime, a religious massacre in Egypt; in fact, his guilt has literally driven him insane. Charlotte and Gracie cannot find Martin Garvie because both he and his master have been committed to Bedlam. The course of her investigation does take her to the unsalubrious slum of Seven Dials, where Charlotte eventually persuades Reverend Sandeman to disclose the whereabouts of Garvie.
On a parallel course, Pit is trying solve the politically sensitive murder of Edwin Lovat, also one of the “guilty four.” The suspects are an Egyptian national, Ayesha Zakhari and Savile Ryerson, a British minister. Both are implicated in the murder and Zakhari is Ryerson’s beloved mistress. Victor Narraway, Pitt’s superior, fears that the murder is politically motivated and may cause rebellion to flare up in Egypt, with disastrous effects on cotton imports.
Charlotte’s investigation, which started as a matter of tracing a servant, again provides the solution. Once Charlotte tells Pitt that Sandeman has told her that Garrick and Garvie are in Bedlam, the pieces fall into place, as Sandeman is one of the guilty four. Pitt and Narraway get them out and bring them to the Pitt’s home as a safe refuge. Stephen Garrick is a pitiable mess, and it is Charlotte who cares for him. Here we see the kitchen, again representative of the heart of the home, and Charlotte as “the Angel in the House.” Her attitude, cradling him in her arms as he wept during questioning is exactly what would be expected. Pitt watches her “with a fierce pride, remembering the stiff protected young woman she had been . . . Now her compassion made her more beautiful than he had ever dreamed she could be” (283-4). It is not her part in solving the crime but her compassion in the role of nurturing woman that makes Pitt proud. As Narraway takes Garrick to a safer place, he “turned desperately for one last look,” and “Pitt realized it was Charlotte he clung to, not the house” (285). Although Thomas, Charlotte and Narraway discover what happened by questioning Sandeman, Charlotte’s role is over. In the last two novels, she is further marginalized. As Pitt thinks in Buckingham Palace Gardens, “Since joining Special Branch, he could no longer tell her [Charlotte] the details of his cases, which meant that she was unable to help in the practical ways she used to when he dealt with simple murders.” (168). Vespasia and Gracie increase in importance, thus preserving the importance of women and their agencies. In Long Spoon Lane and Buckingham Palace Gardens, respectively, it is Vespasia and Gracie who function in Charlotte’s place to provide Pitt with the knowledge he needs to solve the cases.
Thus, Perry uses the classical detective formula in narratives which foreground the private sphere and the women who operate in it to re/map and re/envision their sense of identity and their sense of agency. Because the historical is rendered so precisely and in such detail, the women sleuths become not only engaging characters, characters with whom we can identify, but provide a way to imagine the women of the Victorian Age as well. Since Perry gives women interests in the public life of the time, while foregrounding the importance of the domestic, she makes these women realistic enough to at least make readers question what women did in Victorian times and what kinds of power they exercised. Charlotte Pitt, her sister Emily, Vespasia Cummings-Gould and Gracie Phipps, all of whom are supposed to be contained and silenced within the boundaries of the private sphere and entirely without influence on anything happening in the public sphere, use the knowledge of the private sphere to solve crimes; by so doing, they privilege not only the supposedly powerless private sphere over the powerful public sphere, but they empower the women who deploy the public sphere in the interests of truth, justice and the Victorian way.
Abrams, Lynn. “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/women_home/ideals_womanhood_05.shtml Published: 2001-08-09 Accessed 10-04-09
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Gorham, Deborah. The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1982.
Grella, George. AThe Formal Detective Novel,@ 5. Dimensions of Detective Fiction, eds. Larry N. Landrum, Ray B. Browne and Pat Browne. (Bowling Green: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1976)
Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody’s Angels: Middle Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture
Marsh, Jan. “Gender Ideology and Separate Spheres.” http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/19thcentury/gender_health/gender_ideology/index.html n.d. Accessed 10-04-09.
Perry, Anne. Bedford Square. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
---. Bluegate Fields. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1984.
---. Brunswick Gardens. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1998.
---. Buckingham Palace Gardens. New York: Ballantine, 2008.
---. The Hyde Park Headsman. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1994.
---. Paragon Walk. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1981.
---. Pentecost Alley. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1996.
---. Rutland Place New York: Fawcett Crest. 1983.
---. Silence in Hanover Close. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1988.
---. Seven Dials. New York: Ballantine, 2003.
1 I am thinking her of such improbable historical romances wherein the girl defies her whole family and marries the man (occasionally a low born squire) and not only is successful, but keeps her front teeth!
Both Charlotte and Emily are, for example, constrained by their husbands, certainly to a greater degree than a contemporary woman could accept. They are both aware of who wears the pants in the family and must often employ feminine wiles or work a round their husbands.
2 This does not imply that her research or detail is inaccurate; it is not. It is more like such series as “Murder, She Wrote” or any ongoing series. How many times can Charlotte possibly masquerade before someone recognizes her?
3. By this comment, I mean to indicate, not that women did not exist and were not important, but that the patriarchal histories tended to ignore any contribution, which was, of necessity of the domestic or indirect deployment of power.
4 In The Whitechapel Conspiracy.