“The Cleverest Woman in England”: L. T. Meade

You’ve probably seen one of the many recent reincarnations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—whether it be the cavalier machinations of Benedict Cumberbatch on BBC’s Sherlock or the satisfying partnership of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu on CBS’s Elementary. In the Venn diagram that depicts the mystery genre on one side and the speculative genre on the other, you often seem to find Sherlock Holmes in the center—whether because the detective invites reinvention (see Gaiman’s “Study in Emerald”) or because he appeals to readers of steampunk or because his innate abilities and keen intellect make him just a little bit supernatural all on his own.

In the same magazine in which many of the Sherlock Holmes stories made their debut (the British Strand)—and at much the same time—L. T. Meade (writing with co-author Robert Eustace) also published a series of mystery stories about Madame Sara, collectively titled The Sorceress of the Strand. Between 1902 and 1903, Madame Sara haunted the poor Dixon Druce, manager of a solvency inquiry agency. In his capacity as an investigator, Druce is frequently called upon to help women in the thrall of the mysterious “beautifier,” whose exoticized background and uncanny skill with medicine and beautification allow her to extort money from her pliable victims.

Unlike the women of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who remain empathetic even if using their cleverness to their own advantage, Madame Sara is an out-and-out criminal, who dominates and characterizes the narratives instead of the rather bland Druce. Druce is our narrator and a stalwart (if patriarchal and condescending) friend to those who seek his help, but he is not the charming or unsettling Holmes. Instead, it is Madame Sara who is the title character of these stories as she continually finds ways to elude prosecution.

L. T. Meade, or Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, the co-author of the Madame Sara stories, was fascinating in her own right. She has an entry in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, primarily because of Atalanta, the magazine she established for young girls so as to give them access to a wider scope of imagination and career. Her work with the magazine corresponded to her membership in the Pioneer Club, a club for women at the turn of the century which transcended the usual social purpose of such clubs to be a thriving hotbed of feminist discussion and debate (these discussions involved, problematically, anti-vaccination sentiments, though the class elements of the early-20th century iteration of this debate are interesting and concerning). Particularly, the Pioneer Club, headed by Emily Massingberd (whom Meade honored with the novel The Cleverest Woman in England), eschewed class distinctions, referencing members by number rather than title.

Given this background, Meade’s creation of Madame Sara takes on new dimensions. Though her mingled Italian and Indian heritage is exoticized by Druce as villainous (a byproduct of the colonialism rampant in both Doyle and Meade’s work), Madame Sara is also recognized by all as an intimidating woman who repeatedly outsmarts Druce. Her tactics are founded in a knowledge of medicine and science. Despite Druce’s pride in the laboratory he has set up at his home, it is Madame Sara’s rooms which are truly impressive: they lock automatically, are cooled by some unknown form of AC, and boast an “array of extraordinary-looking articles and implements–stoppered bottles full of strange medicaments, mirrors, plane and concave, brushes, sprays, sponges, delicate needle-pointed instruments of bright steel, tiny lancets, and forceps.”

But the rooms are not merely crowded with mysterious tools. In the first story about her, “Madame Sara,” the titular character also lectures Druce about the scientific principles on display: “Facing this table was a chair, like those used by dentists. Above the chair hung electric lights in powerful reflectors, and lenses like bull’s-eye lanterns. Another chair, supported on a glass pedestal, was kept there, Madame Sara informed me, for administering static electricity. There were dry-cell batteries for the continuous currents and induction coils for Faradic currents.” Even if Madame Sara admits to Druce that she might be considered a “quack,” her knowledge and ability seem real (it is merely the end-goal or product of these abilities that seem questionable). She is both sorceress, the female-inflected derogative of the title, and scientist. She leans into feminine stereotypes, “looking innocent and beautiful,” to navigate legal and social situations, but the women who visit her are very keenly aware of her capability and intelligence, which is coded as distinctly different from the other women in the story.

Meade, as a feminist, was an eager advocate for higher education for women so they could have access to the same sorts of knowledge that Madame Sara wields so terrifyingly well in The Strand. This accords well with Rachel Smillie’s argument that Meade’s villains can be read as a challenge to “male scientific authority” and “male institutional science.”

And certainly, contemporaries thought the Pioneer Club to be terrifying as well: “man-hating, but mannish in their dress; and woman’s-righters, without a single right notion in their heads.” But this did not stop Meade from pursuing a successful writing career, authoring hundreds of books and short stories, and using her own genius to disrupt the status quo.

 

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