The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Hilda Wade Mysteries (1895-1900)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The thirteen Hilda Wade Mysteries were written by Grant Allen and later, after Allen’s death, by Arthur Conan Doyle and first appeared in “The Dead Man Speaks” (The Idler, Mar. 1895). Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen (1848-1899) was a British author, philosopher, and scientist who is remembered for his The Woman Who Did (1895), which shocked its readers with its New Woman heroine and its frank (for the era) discussion of sex.
Hilda Wade is a nurse at St. Nathaniel’s Hospital in London. The famous scientist and doctor, Professor Sebastian, also works at St. Nathaniel’s. Sebastian is known and respected around the world for his extensive knowledge of germs and for his work on infectious diseases. It was natural that Wade should want to work under him, despite his abrasive personality and the fact that she respects his medical ability but detests him personally. Wade and her friend, Sebastian’s assistant Doctor Hubert Cumberledge, become involved with the lives of various patients at St. Nathaniel’s, helping some resolve their problems and merely observing others. But through it all Wade has a secret which Cumberledge wonders about, and eventually the truth emerges. Hilda’s name is not really Hilda Wade. Her real name is “Maisie Yorke-Bannerman,” and she adopted the identity of “Hilda Wade” in order to clear the name of her dead father, “the notorious poisoner Doctor Yorke-Bannerman.” Doctor Yorke-Bannerman stood to inherit a great deal of money from his uncle, Admiral Scott Prideaux. But after Prideaux tried to kill himself Yorke-Bannerman was called in to take care of Prideaux. Prideaux did not improve, but steadily grew worse, and Yorke-Bannerman asked Professor Sebastian to give a second opinion. Sebastian’s opinion was that Yorke-Bannerman was poisoning Prideaux, and Yorke-Bannerman died the morning he was arrested for Prideaux’s murder. Yorke-Bannerman’s daughter believed that he was innocent and that it was Sebastian who poisoned Prideaux, and became a nurse so that she could work with Sebastian and prove his guilt. Eventually, she does so, and after adventures at home and in South Africa during the Matabele Rebellion she clears her father’s name and is free to marry Cumberledge. (The marriage plot [see: “The Lady Detective”] appears here).
The Hilda Wade stories are entertaining, if lightweight. They were one of the first series of crime stories to use a medical background, although L.T. Meade’s Doctor Halifax series preceded them by five years. Wade is not as charming or carefree as Lois Cayley (see Miss Cayley’s Adventures), but the Wade stories are enjoyable light reading. As a detective Wade is persistent rather than brilliant, although she has an “astounding memory” and a great deal of intuition and insight into character, something she feels is more important than gathering evidence:
"In one word," I said, "you are a psychologist."
"A psychologist," she assented; "I suppose so; and the police-- well, the police are not; they are at best but bungling materialists. They require a CLUE. What need of a CLUE if you can interpret character?"1
While the stories are no one’s idea of great detective fiction–even the final two, which were written by Conan Doyle after Allen died, are minor work–the stories’ content, and Hilda herself, have nonetheless drawn the attention of critics and historians of the mystery genre.
This attention comes in part because it was Allen who wrote the majority of the Hilda Wade stories. Allen, after all, was the author of the infamous (and hugely successful) The Woman Who Did (1895), the story of a middle-class woman who lives together with a man without being married to him and eventually becomes a single mother. The Woman Who Did controversy gained Allen no small amount of notoriety, something he didn’t particularly enjoy but which he realized was inevitable because of his wish to promote his feminism in his fiction. Following The Woman Who Did Allen began writing novels about female leads, but these characters were seen by the more conservative critics and readers as adventuresses, a character type Allen was invested in “either because he thought that she was a uniquely modern heroine or because he imagined that such a character would sell well.”2
This is the context in which the Hilda Wade stories appeared. The stories are, as Joseph Kestner argues, an amalgamation of “the detective narrative, the New Woman novel, and the travel/adventure novel,”3 with Wade’s assertiveness, job as a nurse, adventures abroad, and agency in the matter of her marriage making her a New Woman. But compared to previous adventuresses and to contemporary New Women, Wade is particularly sexless: perhaps as a challenge to the negative (to Allen’s way of thinking) connotations of the New Woman; perhaps as a challenge to the infamously anti-New Woman, anti-feminist journalist Eliza Lynn Linton (1822-1898), who had claimed in 1891 that “about these Wild Women is always an unpleasant suggestion of the adventuress. Whatever their natural place and lineage, they are of the same family as those hotel heroines who forget to lock the chamber door;”4 and perhaps because Allen, badly burned by (if immensely profited by) the Woman Who Did scandal and the ensuing criticism, was gun-shy of repeating the experience.
But despite Wade’s relative passionlessness, she is a New Woman through and through. She exercises what Kestner calls “the gaze” (in a deliberate echoing of and direct reference to Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze in cinema5) on male criminals, undoing their crimes and in a small way upending the patriarchy, something that Kestner accurately argues too many male detectives supported through special treatment–“male privileging”–of male criminals.6 Wade, like many of the female detectives of the time but preceding most of them, deviated from this:
...female control through the gaze is evident in the desire of the woman to read her culture as a text and transform it by rectifying some particular abuse of power, whether that abuse originates from the transgressive behaviour of either a man or a woman. Obviously, when a woman subjects a transgressive male to her gaze and exposes his transgression, as in a work like Grant Allen's Hilda Wade, the woman's gaze facilitates the exposure of a criminal male and thereby indictment of the patriarchal institutions which unjustly participated in blaming another person (in this case another male) for the transgression.7
The Hilda Wade stories were influential not because of Allen’s style, but because of Wade herself, and her New Woman attitude. “Grant Allen brought the British female detective into the twentieth century by his adroit combination of medical precision with adventurous incident. Hilda Wade with its intelligent, professional, independent and brave protagonist set a standard for female detectives in the new century.”8
Print: Grant Allen, Hilda Wade: A Woman With Tenacity of Purpose. Seattle: Amazon Createspace, 2018.
1 Grant Allen, “The Man Who Would Not Commit Suicide,” Hilda Wade (London: G. Richards, 1900)), 114-115.
2 Tara MacDonald, “‘The Heroine of a Modern Sea Epic’: The New Woman Adventuress in Grant Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl,” in Christoph Ehland and Cornelia Wachter, eds, Middlebrow and Gender, 1890-1945 (Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2016), 126.
3 Kestner, Sherlock’s Sisters, 34.
4 Qtd. in Macdonald, “‘The Heroine of a Modern Sea Epic,’” 128.
5 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975), 6-18.
6 Kestner, Sherlock’s Sisters, 20.
7 Kestner, Sherlock’s Sisters, 21.
8 Kestner, Sherlock’s Sisters, 170.