The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Miss Cayley's Adventures (1898-1899)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Miss Cayley’s Adventures was written by Grant Allen and first appeared as “Miss Cayley’s Adventures” (The Strand Magazine, Mar. 1898-Feb. 1899). 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.
Lois Cayley is a Girton girl, a college graduate, who after graduation is virtually penniless. She decides to go into London to see what adventures life will bring her. She overhears a “Cantankerous Old Lady,” Lady Georgina Fawley, complaining about the maid service she has received and the dilemma she is facing on her upcoming trip to the Continent. Cayley instantly volunteers herself for the role, and after discovering that Lady Fawley was friends with Cayley's father, Cayley wins the job. Shortly thereafter she saves Lady Fawley’s jewels from being stolen by an untrustworthy foreigner. This wins her a recommendation from Lady Fawley that gets her further jobs as a governess. In the succeeding stories she rescues Harold Tillington, Lady Fawley’s nephew, who has become stranded in the mountains; becomes a commission agent for an American inventor; becomes a typist; she wins a bike race against German and American competitors, winning £50; she uncovers another swindling scam by the foreigner who nearly stole Lady Fawley’s jewels in the first story; she encounters Harold again, saves him from another mountaineering accident and declines his offer of marriage, because although they love each other the difference in their income is too great—he is rich and she is poor, and she wants to marry him as an equal; and eventually helps clear Harold’s name and marries him for love.
The Lois Cayley stories are charming, much more so than the rest of Allen’s work. The Lois Cayley stories are written with obvious didactic intent, but they are so lightly told, and Cayley herself is such a charming heroine, that the reader won’t mind the didacticism. The Cayley stories are funny, causing the reader to smile quietly to themselves but also to laugh out loud from the genuinely witty and epigrammatical dialogue. Allen’s humor is wry and entertaining, and Cayley herself is appealing: capable, smart, and witty. But the Cayley stories are most significant because they are among the best New Woman stories of the 1890s.
Allen was a feminist of sorts; his The Woman Who Did (1895) defied repressive Victorian sexual mores, to outraged reactions from the public, press, and critics alike. Allen wrote the Lois Cayley stories as a direct refutation of the anti-New Woman writers, specifically Eliza Lynn Linton (1822-1898), a novelist who inveighed with increasingly venomous rhetoric against the “shrieking sisterhood.”1 Linton is mentioned by name in “The Adventure of the Amateur Commission Agent,” and Cayley is constructed as a rebuke to Linton’s description of the New Woman adventuress. Like many of the writers opposed to the New Woman Linton portrayed the New Woman adventuress as a woman willing and even eager to use sex to snare a man in marriage. Grant Allen has Lois Cayley call herself an “adventuress,” but Cayley is in every way designed as the perfect New Woman, written to show the reading public that Linton was wrong and that the New Woman was no threat to society. Cayley even utters quotes which contradict Linton’s words. Cayley subverts the stereotypes of the New Woman. She is a Girton girl, a bicycling enthusiast, physically strong, a climber, canoer, and sculler, and has, like all Girton girls were supposed to have, an enthusiasm for masculine sports. She is an independent businesswoman, forming her own typewriting service, working as a commission agent, and then serving as a foreign correspondent in Egypt and India.
But Lois Cayley is not sexually active; her relationship with Harold is chaste, unlike the more provocative New Woman characters that Linton and others objected to so strongly. Cayley is not willing to do anything to capture a wealthy husband; she declines Harold’s marriage proposal on specifically economic grounds. Though independent, Cayley is interested in men, romance, and marriage, and does eventually marry Harold. Cayley is neither mannish nor a shrew, but a warm, friendly, compassionate person, whose treatment of Indians and of the Maharajah of Moozeuffernuggar is markedly non-racist. Every stereotype of the adventuress and the New Woman is negated in the Lois Cayley stories; although the stories do end with Lois marrying Harold, it is clear that she is not only his equal in the relationship, but that she is the stronger, more capable person. Legally her status as a wife was inferior to his, but she is otherwise his superior, which the reader knows.
The Lois Cayley stories are sometimes described as a combination of the detective genre and the New Woman genre. This is inaccurate. Cayley does stop criminals in two of the stories, but the stories are New Woman stories, with the concerns of the New Woman genre rather than of the mystery genre.
Print: Grant Allen, Miss Cayley’s Adventures. Kansas City, MO: Valancourt Books, 2008.
1 Michelle Elizabeth Tusan, “Inventing the New Woman: Print Culture and Identity Politics during the Fin-de-Siecle,” Victorian Periodicals Review 31, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 170.