After I read THE BODY AT THE TOWER by YS Lee I knew I had to have her stop by to contribute a few words about the Agency and the role she gave women in a society they were otherwise powerless in. Hooray for me, she agreed! Yay! So here is YS Lee waxing poetic on women in this history. Thanks for stopping by, Ying!
Why write about a women’s detective agency?
Every once in a while, a hopeful reader asks me, “Do you have any evidence that a real women’s detective agency ever existed in Victorian London?” It’s with genuine regret that I have to answer, “I’m afraid not.” Fortunately, the conversation doesn’t have to end there.
I chose to start The Agency, my series of young adult novels, with a bright and shiny anachronism: that a young Victorian woman without money, family, or education, and with a seriously chequered past, could be more than a tragic victim. And what’s more, that such a young woman could find a thrilling career and move freely through her society.
Those who study Victorian history know just how unrealistic this idea truly is. In fact, any choices available to poor young women in Victorian London were grim. Public education didn’t exist, so they were frequently illiterate. The main jobs open to young working-class women were: service (working as a servant in someone’s home), factory labour (often dangerous), and dressmaking (brutal hours and working conditions). In all these arduous jobs, women earned less than men because they were… women.
Besides all of this, a poor child who resorted to petty crime – theft, for example – would probably never get a chance to reform. If she didn’t receive the death sentence (“housebreaking”, or what we know as breaking & entering, was a capital offense), she would likely die in a diseased, overcrowded nightmare of a jail. So writing a realistic portrait of a girl like my heroine, Mary Quinn – orphaned, penniless, sentenced to death – would be a grim exercise. (Brief, too.) But I didn’t choose the anachronism only to sustain a plot. I wanted to write a mystery novel that winked at other mystery novels; historical fiction that played games with what is frequently an earnest genre. What better time to announce this than right at the beginning of the story?
If you’ve read the Agency novels, you’ve likely noticed that one of their themes is power, and the lack thereof: for women, for the poor, for all who exist on the margins of Victorian society. The novels focus on the frequent and utter powerlessness of these groups, often when it counts the most. In this historically realistic setting, I inserted an Agency that helps its members exercise an uncommon degree of power over their lives; it literally gives them agency. (Students of literary theory will recognize this as “writing back”; responding to a dominant narrative by questioning, pushing, challenging.) So it’s a matter of power at two levels, here. The first is within the story, as the Agency allows Mary Quinn to escape criminal poverty and become a thinking, active, private detective with power to change the course of her own life. The second happens when, as the author, I use fantasy to launch a novel in an otherwise realistic setting, so I can tinker with the conventions of the genre.
So while I’ve found no trace of a women’s detective agency, I’ve done my best to imagine an alternative kind of history for the poor, the orphans, the child criminals who didn’t otherwise have a future – or much of a history.