Detection, deviance and disability in Richard Marsh’s Judith Lee stories
This essay examines the adventures of Richard Marsh’s female detective and lip-reader Judith Lee (1911–16). The short-story series offers a powerful example of the cross-fertilisation of the genres of detective, Gothic, New-Woman and science fiction through Marsh’s ambivalent construction of his protagonist as a potentially progenerate being with seemingly supernatural communication skills. Lee is a liminal heroine who is simultaneously resistant to and complicit with the normalising taxonomies of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class commonly associated with detective fiction. However, while the stories’ conformist position as scientifically minded crime fiction is complicated by their apparent tolerance of deviance, Lee’s expertise as a teacher of the deaf undermines counter-hegemonic readings because her profession aims to ‘cure’ a disability, deafness. Lee’s adventures show how popular fiction synthesised disparate discursive frameworks drawing on criminology, eugenics, science, communications technology and psychical research.
This collection of essays seeks to question the security of our assumptions about the fin de siècle by exploring the fiction of Richard Marsh, an important but neglected professional author. Richard Bernard Heldmann (1857–1915) began his literary career as a writer of boys’ fiction, but, following a prison sentence for fraud, reinvented himself as ‘Richard Marsh’ in 1888. Marsh was a prolific and popular author of middlebrow genre fiction including Gothic, crime, humour, romance and adventure, whose bestselling Gothic novel The Beetle: A Mystery (1897) outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Building on a burgeoning interest in Marsh’s writing, this collection of essays examines a broad array of Marsh’s genre fictions through the lens of cutting-edge critical theory, including print culture, New Historicism, disability studies, genre theory, New Economic Criticism, gender theory, postcolonial studies, thing theory, psychoanalysis, object relations theory and art history, producing innovative readings not only of Marsh but of the fin-de-siècle period. Marsh emerges here as a versatile contributor to the literary and journalistic culture of his time whose stories of shape-shifting monsters, daring but morally dubious heroes, lip-reading female detectives and objects that come to life helped to shape the genres of fiction with which we are familiar today. Marsh’s fictions reflect contemporary themes and anxieties while often offering unexpected, subversive and even counter-hegemonic takes on dominant narratives of gender, criminality, race and class, unsettling our perceptions of the fin de siècle.
The introduction to the volume sets Richard Marsh in his historical context and argues that our understanding of late-Victorian and Edwardian professional authorship remains incomplete without a consideration of Marsh’s oeuvre. The introduction discusses Marsh as an exemplary professional writer producing topical popular fiction for an expanding middlebrow market. The seeming ephemerality of his literary production meant that its value was not appreciated by twentieth-century critics who were constructing the English literary canon. Marsh’s writing, however, deserves to be reread, as its negotiation of mainstream and counter-hegemonic discourses challenges our assumptions about fin-de-siècle literary culture. His novels and short stories engaged with and contributed to contemporary debates about aesthetic and economic value and interrogated the politics of gender, sexuality, empire and criminality.