Academic journal article Hecate

Cherchez la Femme: Finding Mrs. Fortune

Academic journal article Hecate

Cherchez la Femme: Finding Mrs. Fortune

Article excerpt

My narrative begins, like a detective novel, with a woman of mystery, both in her art and in real life. Between 1865-1910 a woman known only as Waif Wander or W. W. contributed poetry, memoirs, novels, journalism and over five hundred pioneering stories in the mystery genre to the Australian Journal. In all this time, her identity was a secret. "[M]any were the enquiries made as to who was the author",(1) said the critic Henry Mitchell, but answers were not forthcoming. It was known only that Waif Wander was "a sentient being of the weaker sex" (words she used about herself),(2) and for her own reasons, an enigma. After a writing career of nearly 50 years, the lady vanished from the pages of the Australian Journal, and also from the national literary consciousness.

It was not until the 1950s that the Case of this Mystery Writer was reopened. The bibliophile J. K. Moir noticed that W. W.'s crime fiction predated Anna Katherine Green's The Leaven worth Case (1878),(3) then thought to be the first female crime writing. Hoping for an Australian first, he donned the deerstalker of literary detective.

From the Waif Wander file in the Moir collection, State Library of Victoria, it is possible to reconstruct Moir's investigation. He wrote to the Australian Journal, which was still being published by the Massina company. The firm was not given to preserving its records; but some of the old-timers could recall Waif Wander.(4) Moir also obtained a letter by the writer, the only one known to have survived, which was signed M. H. Fortune;(5) elsewhere in the file he refers to her as Mrs. Fortune,(6) which was the form of her name to enter the reference books. However, his attempt to obtain a death certificate was not blessed by Fortune, and he abandoned the search.

Then something curious happened. Although Moir got W. W.'s one book, The Detective's Album (1871)(7) into the second edition of Morris Miller's Australian Literature, with the Fortune attribution,(8) his discovery was seemingly forgotten, as forgotten as Mrs. Fortune herself. Cecil Hadgraft, in his introduction to The Australian Short Story Before Lawson, queries the connections between W. W., Waif Wander and Mrs. Fortune, and even her gender.(9)

H. M. Green was also either unaware or forgetful of Moir's work.(10) In his History of Australian Literature he quotes from "Dare-devil Bob", an 1866 Waif Wander story, without naming the author, then speculates that it was Marcus Clarke, under a pseudonym. Green, incidentally, was not the last person to link Clarke and Fortune -- Stephen Knight suggested this possibility to me in early 1987, on the reasonable grounds that Mrs. Fortune sounds like a pseudonym, and like a character out of a Clarke novel.

Outside Australia, in the field of crime studies, Moir's discovery had similarly small impact. Although The Detective's Album is listed in Hubin's Bibliography of Crime Fiction,(11) Mrs. Fortune is absent from discussions of the early female crime writers(12) -- a serious omission, as her earliest attributable police stories appear in January 1866.(13) That same month, in America, Seeley Regester published The Dead Letter,(14) generally accepted to be the first crime novel by a woman. Fortune may yet be proved to have predated Regester.(15)

There were, therefore, good reasons to cherche la femme, who had gone to some trouble to hide her tracks. In W.W.'s memoirs, serialized in the Australian Journal in 1882-3,(16) nowhere is her name given, nor that of the boy described as her "nervous little firstborn".(17) However, some facts emerge: for instance, that she was of Canadian origin, and that she and her son sailed to Melbourne in late 1855, to join a relative on the goldfields.

The question now arose: how reliable were the memoirs? The only approach was to check what was checkable. Thanks to the boom in family history, an index to passengers landing in Melbourne from the early 1850s was recently compiled by the Victorian Public Record Office. …

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