The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Clara Vaughan (1864)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Clara Vaughan was written by R.D. Blackmore and first appeared in Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper (Mar 12-Aug 6, 1864). Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) trained as a lawyer but gave it up because of poor health and became a gardener and professional author. He is best-known for Lorna Doone.
The story of Clara Vaughan involves Clara's attempt to find the murderers of her father and avenge herself upon them, to “right her father's death” in her own words. He was murdered in his bed following Clara’s tenth birthday party. Clara’s mother saw the murder but cannot identify the murderer, and Clara takes it upon herself to solve the murder. She initially (and rather reasonably) suspects her uncle, Edgar, who is evil, but in this case Edgar is innocent. It is eventually revealed that Clara’s father was the victim of a Corsican vendetta and that Edgar, not his brother, was the intended victim. Before the villain is killed Clara has been trapped in a vivisection chamber.
Clara Vaughan is a nondescript sensation novel which is clearly Blackmore’s first novel and shows little of the excellence of Lorna Doone. It was moderately popular with the reading public, but it was thought to have been written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (see: Lady Audley’s Secret) and was criticized for a perceived lack of knowledge about the law. (Blackmore resented the former implication more than the latter, and took pains to rebut the charge).1 The sole character of interest in Clara Vaughan, Inspector Cutting, only appears in the novel for a short period. He questions Clara about her father's death, investigates, takes her to Whitechapel to identify a suspect, and discovers that the murderers are Italians, which means that he cannot arrest them. After this he is mentioned no more in the novel.
However, in that short time Cutting does make an impression. He is a veteran of the London police force, described by his niece as
My Uncle John, a very high class man, first rate, first rate, Miss Vaughan, has been for ever so long in the detective police. There's nothing he don't know of what goes on in London, from the rats as comes up from the drain pipes to the Queen getting up on her throne. A wonderful man he is.2
Blackmore describes Cutting as
An elderly man, but active looking and wiry, with nothing remarkable in his features, except the clear cast of his forehead and the firm set of his mouth. But the quick intelligence that shot from his eyes made it seem a waste of time to finish telling him anything. For this reason, polite though he was, it became unpleasant to talk to him....3
Cutting is smart. He is also highly placed--his niece mentions that he is under a lot of pressure, “with all them state secrets upon him.”4 Cutting is no great observer of social proprieties, telling Clara that he does not think much of women since they lack “precision.” He eventually changes his mind with regard to Clara, since she delivers the details of her father's murder with the precision which Cutting is sure women lack, and because she shows “pluck,” a trait he values, during their trip to Whitechapel. Cutting is cynical and thinks poorly of the upper classes: “they ought to be better, and on the whole are not so,”5 and “I would rather have a good drunken navvy than a lord to take to the station.”6 Cutting is physically vital despite his age: he “could walk when needful like a cat.”7 He is good at disguise, fooling Clara when he changes for their trip to Whitechapel. And as a detective he is competent, good at examining evidence and deducing information from it, good at questioning suspects and getting “information received.”
After grilling Clara on her father's death, he disappears into the city for several days, only to return with solid leads on her father's murderers.
Clara Vaughan has become an obscurity, but Cutting represents an interesting link between the Proto-Mystery detectives who followed Poe’s Dupin (see: The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries) and the more mainstream detectives who appeared after Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (see: Bleak House). Although Clara Vaughan was only published in 1864, Blackmore composed the manuscript sometime around 1852 or 1853, thus predating Dickens’ Bleak House and its detective, Inspector Bucket. The influence of the early casebook detectives, especially William Russell’s Thomas Waters (see: The Waters Mysteries), is clear on Inspector Cutting, but sensation novel elements can also be seen in Clara Vaughan, especially the intrusion of crime into a middle-class family. Clara Vaughan was well-known in its time, but it lacks the excellence of both Bleak House and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Still, had Blackmore’s literary fortunes gone a better way Clara Vaughan could have provided an early example of the detective character for later writers to follow.
It is likely that Blackmore based Cutting on Inspector Charles Frederick Field (1805-1874), a policeman who Dickens wrote about, first as a journalist, in “On Duty With Inspector Field” (Household Words, June 14, 1851), and then as an author, in Bleak House, where he turned Field into Inspector Bucket.
Print: R.D. Blackmore, Clara Vaughan. Nashville, TN: Rarebooksclub.com, 2012.
1 “Clara Vaughan: A Novel,” in Delphi Complete Works of R.D. Blackmore: Clara Vaughan (Hastings: Delphi Classics, 2018), i.
2 R.D. Blackmore, Clara Vaughan (London: S. Low, Marston & Co., 1895), 92.
3 Blackmore, Clara Vaughan, 93.
4 Blackmore, Clara Vaughan, 92.
5 Blackmore, Clara Vaughan, 127.
6 Blackmore, Clara Vaughan, 127.
7 Blackmore, Clara Vaughan, 124.