The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Female Detective (1864)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Female Detective was written by “Andrew Forrester.” “Andrew Forrester” was the pseudonym of J. Redding Ware (1832-1909), an author and editor who wrote about everything from detective fiction to English slang to the Isle of Wight.1 The Female Detective features “G,” the first professional female detective in British fiction.

“G” never provides her own name, only briefly using “Mrs. Gladden” (possibly as a pseudonym), and she is cagey about her background:

It may be that I took to the trade, sufficiently comprehended in the title of this work without a word of it being read, because I had no other means of making a living; or it may be that for the work of detection I had a longing which I could not overcome.

It may be that I am a widow working for my children or I may be an unmarried woman, whose only care is herself.2 

“G” does not mention a husband after this, and acts as if she is single, spending her Sundays by herself rather than with a husband. She is equally coy with her friends, not telling them what she does to earn her money: “My friends suppose I am a dressmaker, who goes out by the day or week....”3 

“G” writes her narratives partly to tell of her exploits but also to justify the trade of detective, which by her lights is not well-regarded, and to justify the role of the female detective:

I may as well at once say I write in order to show, in a small way, that the profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised. I know well that my trade is despised....

I am aware that the female detective may be regarded with even more aversion than her brother in profession. But still it cannot be disproved that if there is a demand for men detectives there must also be one for female detective police spies. Criminals are both masculine and feminine–indeed, my experience tells me that when a woman becomes a criminal she is far worse than the average of her male companions, and therefore it follows that the necessary detectives should be of both sexes.4 

“G” is a good detective. She is street-oriented, and is aware of some of the unpleasant aspects of Victorian life, things which didn't make it into the more genteel mystery stories. In one story she wearily and cynically muses about the reality of women selling their children, and how common it is in London. Her approach toward crime-solving is more thoughtful than that of many of the casebook detectives. She favors a logical, deductive approach: “weigh [the] facts and trace out clear meanings,”5 find the questions which will help solve the crime, and then find the answers. At another moment she says that “it may be said the value of the detective lies not so much in discovering facts, as in putting them together, and finding out what they mean.”6 She uses information resources to good effect, for example using birth and death registers to narrow down her list of suspects. She makes use of informants whenever possible, but more often simply talks to people who do not know that she is a detective, and makes use of the information she gathers that way: “I may say that half the success of a detective depends upon his or her sympathy with the people from whom either is endeavoring to pick up information.”7 But “G” is also trained in more modern police work, especially in the identification of suspects through “certain marks” and “personal peculiarities,” such as “speech imperfections,” which a criminal can't ever change, though he can change his dress, his voice, and his appearance. She uses current technology when appropriate, in one case sending lint out for microscopic analysis.

“G” is a consulting detective and is free to take whatever cases she wants for as long as she wants and to go wherever she wants. She relocates to the north of London on one case, leaving her life in London behind. “G” does consult with the police, calling on them for help with her cases and in turn being viewed by them as a valuable asset. There is none of the rivalry and contempt between Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries) and Inspector Lestrade in these stories; “G” respects the police for what they do, and they respect her for what she does. Her opinion of them is not necessarily high, however. She says that “I venture to assert that the detective forces as a body are weak; that they fail in the majority of the cases brought under their supervision.”8 But she respects the individual policemen she deals with for what they do and what they try to do.

Ware’s stories are not substantially different from casebook stories about professional male detectives. Ware’s stories are set in the 1850s and are about the street and the working classes. “G” is a consulting detective, but she does not cater to the upper classes. Her clients are from the lower and middle classes. The crimes and criminals she captures are similarly lower and middle class oriented: the selling and buying of children, cunning child swindlers, murderers, seducers, and so on. And like many of the casebook authors Ware infuses the “G” stories with a moral outrage at what the stories portray. There are some elements of the sensation novel in the stories, including the combination of mystery fiction and the characterization of the domestic novel, but the essence of the sensation novel, the intrusion of crime into the middle-class household, is missing from the “G” stories.

“G” has a good heart and is willing to help the innocent wrongly accused. She is conscious of the place of women in Victorian society, and the disadvantages under which they labored. She is also cynical:

To believe every man to be honest till he is found out to be a thief, is a motto most self-respecting men cling to; but we detectives on the contrary would not gain salt to our bread, much less the bread itself, if we adopted such a belief. We have to believe every man a rogue till, after turning all sorts of evidence inside out, we can only discover that he is an honest man. And even then I am much afraid that we are not quite sure of him.9 

“G” is as mentioned the first professional female detective in British literature, preceding William Stephens Hayward's Mrs. Paschal (see: Revelations of a Lady Detective) by five months. There was not a similar female figure in detective or mystery fiction before “G:”

The Female Detective was years ahead of its time. Little wonder that “Miss Gladden” operated undercover and regarded herself as one of the “secret” police. And the nation seemed more than prepared to accept the idea. Only months after The Female Detective appeared, Revelations of a Lady Detective was published anonymously but usually attributed to William Stephens Hayward. Both volumes were an attempt to chart new territory in the “police procedural” novel or “casebook” which had become popular following the publication of The Recollections of a Policeman by the pseudonymous “Waters” in 1852 [see: The Waters Mysteries].

Both these books, though, are something of a false dawn. Further stories or novels featuring women detectives did not appear for some years and did not start to become popular until the turn of the century.10 

It’s true that The Female Detective, like Revelations of a Lady Detective, did not inspire imitators, though both works were reprinted several times over the next twenty years.11 Interestingly, Hayward likely did not create the idea of the female detective, but instead probably based it on real-life figures. There were women doing the jobs of detectives as early as 1853, and by 1855 there were women being paid to do detective work.12 (See: Female Detectives). This in no way diminishes Ware’s achievement, but does place it in historical context.

Finally, the “G” story “The Judgment of Conscience” features a “Hebrew” soldier as the murder victim. The story is in every respect free of antisemitism, something remarkable and perhaps unprecedented in Victorian detective literature.

As fiction The Female Detective shows its age, being more poorly-written than contemporary sensation or domestic novels. But The Female Detective is enormously important historically.

Recommended Edition

Print: Andrew Forrester and Mike Ashley, The Female Detective. London: British Library, 2014.



1 E.F. Bleiler suggests that “Andrew Forrester” was “a pseudonym chosen to capitalize on the fame of the historical Forrester brothers, who served as detectives for the City of London and were pioneers in the application of scientific methods to detection.” Qtd. in Michael Sims, “Andrew Forrester,” in Michael Sims, ed., The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes from the Time of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Penguin, 2011), 32.

2 Andrew Forrester, The Female Detective (London: Ward, Lock and Tyler, 1868), 1.

3 Forrester, The Female Detective, 2.

4 Forrester, The Female Detective, 2-3.

5 Forrester, The Female Detective, 22.

6 Forrester, The Female Detective, 33.

7 Forrester, The Female Detective, 12.

8 Forrester, The Female Detective, 99.

9 Forrester, The Female Detective, 60.

10 Mike Ashley, “Introduction,” in Andrew Forrester and Mike Ashley, The Female Detective (London: British Library, 2014), ii.

11 Dagni A. Bredesen, “On the Trail of the First Professional Female Detectives in British Fiction,” Faculty Research & Creative Activity 3 (Jan. 2010): ii.

12 Bredesen, “On the Trail of the First Professional Female Detectives in British Fiction,” v.