In 1855, a young woman named Mary Helena Fortune travelled from Canada to Australia, with the commission of writing about the goldfields for an English magazine, The Ladies’ Companion. Though she never actually supplied the requested articles, she was to have a long and significant auctorial career in Australia. For over fifty years she published under the pseudonyms ‘Waif Wander’, ‘W. W.’ and her initials, ‘M. H. F.’, in newspapers and popular magazines. She contributed work in a variety of genres: poetry; memoirs; journalism; serialized novels, ranging from tales of Australian life to the gothic historical romance ‘Clyzia the Dwarf; and, most importantly, over 500 crime stories. Her only book publication during her lifetime was The Detective’s Album by ‘W. W.’ (1871), a collection of her crime writing. It is now a rare item, with only one copy known to exist, held at the Mitchell Library.1
The Detective’s Album is described in Macartney and Miller’s Australian Literature (1956) as the ‘first book of detective stories to appear in Australia, by the first woman writer of such stories’.2 This wording is ambiguous, as if Miller was hesitant to claim that ‘W. W.’ was the first female detective author worldwide. However, at the time the only other claimant for this title was the American Anna Katharine Green, whose immensely popular The Leavenworth Case (1878) had appeared some seven years after The Detective’s Album.
Miller’s note was informed by the research of the book collector J. K. Moir, who had become intrigued by ‘Waif Wander/W. W.’ Not only was she a writer of mysteries, but she was also herself a mystery, an enigma to her readers. Even during her lifetime it was noted that ‘no one knows who she is or where she lives’.3 Moir set himself the task of cracking the pseudonyms, even though Waif Wander’s major publisher, the Australian Journal (hereafter AJ), had kept no archive. Indeed, from his correspondence with the magazine’s editor, Ronald Campbell, which yielded some details of the writer’s later years, it is possible to infer that her real name had been forgotten at the AJ.4
However, Moir was able to track down a letter, signed ‘M. H. Fortune’, written to Minaille Furlong, a founder member of the Australian Literature Society. He subsequently abandoned the search, seemingly discouraged by being unable to find any record of her death. It was not until 1987, the year when Fortune began to attract notice from both crime researchers and feminist scholars of Australian literature, that her full name and details of her life were finally revealed.
By 1987 another candidate for first woman crime writer had emerged: ‘Seeley Regester’, who wrote the detective novels The Dead Letter (1866) and The Figure Eight (1869), had been revealed to be a pseudonym of the American writer Metta Victoria Fuller Victor. Research into Fortune’s earliest publications in the AJ showed that the two women, though separated by thousands of miles, had begun publishing detective fiction almost synchronously; the first instalment of The Dead Letter appeared in Beadle’s Monthly in January 1866, the same month that the first attributable Fortune crime story, coincidentally called ‘The Dead Witness’, was printed. A subsequent computer-based textual analysis of anonymous fiction in the AJ , by myself and Professor John Burrows of the University of Newcastle, has shown that Fortune’s detective writing career actually began in late 1865. She thus has primacy over Regester, but only by a few months.
However, it should be noted that the more research is done in early crime fiction, the more complex the picture becomes. English writer Mary Braddon (best known as the author of Lady Audley’s Secret ) published her first novel Three Times Dead in 1860 (later reprinted with revisions as The Trail of the Serpent , 1861). Three Times Dead contains a police detective as a major character, which could make Braddon the first known women detective writer, at least in English. However, her detective Peters is not the major focus of the story. Fortune is distinctive among the early women crime writers in privileging her detective: he is the narrator and hero of her stories. In this aspect, as in many others such as her realism, her reliance on police procedures and almost forensic depiction of violence, she anticipates much of the later crime fiction produced in the nineteenth century.
Regardless of their gender, Braddon, Fortune and Regester were literary pioneers. In the mid-1860s, the genre they helped define was so new it was nameless, the term ‘detective fiction’ not being coined until 1886.5 The nineteenth-century detective writing now generally regarded as canonical had yet to be written, with the exception of Edgar Allen Poe’s Chevalier Dupin tales of the 1840s. Conan Doyle was then literally in short petticoats, and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, which inaugurated the ‘whodunnit’ plot structure, would not be published until 1868. Nonetheless, a thriving crime-writing industry existed, even if it was not described in generic terms.
Indeed crime fiction in the 1860s was an offshoot of what would now be called ‘true crime’, with the development of the modem detective police force attracting first sensational newspaper, then literary, interest. The major impetus came from France and Eugene Vidocq, first chief of the Surete, the detective division of the French police formed in 1812. Vidocq published his Memoires in 1828-29, possibly influenced by an English, and fictional precursor, Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner (1827), usually attributed to Thomas Gaspey. Richmond was not successful, but Vidocq’s Memoires was, subsequently providing the inspiration for Poe’s Dupin stories, which were set in Paris.
However, while influential upon writers such as Stendhal and Balzac, Vidocq’s full impact upon French crime fiction was delayed, until Emile Gaboriau created the roman policier (police novel), with his L ’Affaire Lerouge, which appeared first as a feuilleton in Le Pays in 1865. Gaboriau has been widely regarded as the ‘missing link’ between Poe and Doyle, but it is highly unlikely he was inspirational for Fortune. Given the distances involved between Paris and a remote Australian goldfield, and the closeness in dates between L’Affaire Lerouge and Fortune’s earliest crime writing, synchronicity would again seem to be indicated. In fact Gaboriau did not attract much attention until L’Affaire Lerouge was reprinted in Le Soleil in 1866.
Vidocq’s Memoires were quickly translated into English, appearing concurrently with the development of the British professional police force, which effectively began in 1829 with the passage of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act. However, the formation of a detective force at Scotland Yard did not occur until 1842, their fictional possibilities being first realised by ‘Waters’ (William Russell), whose ‘Recollections of a Police Officer’ appeared in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal in 1849.
Russell popularised the fake police memoir invented by Gaspey, and soon had numerous imitators and one genuine article, James McLevy, whose recollections of Scottish police work were published in 1861 as Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh and The Sliding Scale of Life. So many detective recollections appeared that it became necessary to differentiate the protagonists, usually by locality, such as The Irish Police Officer by Robert Curtis (1861) and The New York Detective Police Officer , edited by John B. Williams, M. D. (1865). Curiously the female detective appeared in fiction prior to actual women police officers, with ‘Andrew Forrester Jr’s The Female Detective (1864), and Revelations of a Lady Detective, attributed to W. S. Flayward, which appeared either in 1861 or 1864.6
Quite apart from this largely yellowback publishing activity, there was also interest in police characters and crime themes by more reputable English writers. Charles Dickens had written articles about Scotland Yard detectives in Household Words, beginning in 1850, only a year after ‘Waters’. He later made use of the material thus gained in Bleak House (1852) and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), which may or may not have been a genuine murder mystery novel. His friend Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) was indubitably a mystery, but without a detective to solve its puzzles. So-called sensation fiction authors, such as Charles Reade, Braddon and Ellen (Mrs Henry) Wood, had incorporated crime and mystery themes, though again they tended not to centre their narratives on the figure of the detective, unlike Gaboriau.
As regards Australian fiction, John Lang had made a thief-taker (proto-detective) central to his convict novel The Forger’s Wife (1855), though the work itself belongs more to the category of picaresque adventure than a formally structured detective mystery. The first known Australian example of the detective story per se, is ‘Wonderful! When You Come to Think of It’, published in the Hamilton Spectator in January 1865, by ‘M. C.’, almost certainly the young Marcus Clarke.7 It was followed by ‘Experiences of a Detective’ by ‘E. C. M.’, published in the Australasian (11 and 18 March 1865).
The AJ‘s initial issue appeared in September 1865, and there was clearly a crime buff on the staff (most probably its editor, former cadet policeman George Walstab). The first two novels serialised in the magazine were ‘Force and Fraud’, an accomplished murder mystery by Ellen Davitt, a sister-in-law of Anthony Trollope,8 and Robert Whitworth’s ‘Mary Summers’, which featured a detective as a character. However, of particular interest in the first issue was ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’, published anonymously as the ‘Memoirs of an Australian Police Officer’.
‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ purported to be true crime; yet the actual narrative was so melodramatic and coincidental that it is difficult to believe that even a naive reader of the 1860s would have regarded it as anything but fiction. It soon inspired an imitation, ‘The Stolen Specimens’ by ‘An Australian Mounted Trooper’, published in the AJ in October 1865. An editorial note stated that these tales were the work of two different writers, who would continue their characters’ adventures in a series of short stories.9
The author of ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ and roughly half the subsequent crime narratives published in the AJ during 1865-66 was a staff writer, James Skipp Borlase. He reprinted these stories in English magazines under his own name, and in his 1867 collection The Night Fossickers. No. 5 in the ‘Memoirs of an Australian Police Officer’ was ‘The Dead Witness’, published anonymously like the rest of the series but subsequently attributed to ‘Waif Wander’, Fortune’s pseudonym. Evidence strongly suggests that she was also the author of ‘The Stolen Specimens’ and the other partner in the AJ‘s crime series: computer analysis shows her hand in five of the stories, including ‘Mystery and Murder’, which Borlase revised and printed in The Night Fossickers as his own work. As Michael Ackland and Stephen Knight have already noted, Borlase had a habit of plagiarism.10
Fortune contributed to the AJ from its early issues, initially sending poems and short romance stories from her home in Jericho (now Wehla), a gold-crushing settlement in the Avoca district of Victoria. It was to prove an enduring literary relationship—unlike her previous ‘connections’ with the press. In 1865 she had been in Australia for ten years, and although she had never fulfilled the commission from The Ladies’ Companion, for economic reasons, she claimed, she had not been unpublished. Within months of her arrival she had published poetry, some of it politically radical,11 under her initials in the regional goldfields paper The Mount Alexander Mail. Her work impressed the editor sufficiently for ‘M. H. F.’ to be offered a job as ‘reporter and sub-editor’; the offer was speedily withdrawn upon revelation of her gender. In any case she was about to leave the district, as her father, George Wilson, on whom she depended, was a storekeeper who followed his customers from rush to rush.
She next contributed ‘sketches’ to the Buninyong Advertiser, now ghosts, as the relevant issues of this newspaper have not survived. What other writing she might have done in the late 1850s to early 1860s is unknown. A factor may have been that she was living in the Avoca area, where the local newspaper The Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser (edited by Julius Vogel) was not literarily inclined.
The event that most probably made her a crime writer occurred in 1858. In that year Fortune married again, this time a mounted policeman Percy Rollo Brett, constable in charge of the police camp at Kingower goldfield. Six years later she contributed ‘The Stolen Specimens’ by ‘An Australian Mounted Trooper’ to the AJ, drawing on her husband’s experience. However, the marriage itself had failed—by 1865 Percy Brett was a poundkeeper in New South Wales, where he eloped with and married a young woman called Mary Leek.
Divorce in colonial Australia was rare and costly, and it did not happen in the case of Brett and his first Mary. Clearly bigamy was committed, but the details are murky. A key issue is what happened to Fortune’s first husband, Joseph. She married him in the Canadian town of Melbourne in 1851, with their son Joseph George being bom the following year. At some point her father George Wilson emigrated to Australia, and in 1855 Mary and the young Georgie joined him. The reason for her journey is unknown, the most likely explanation being that she had been widowed. However, in late 1856 she gave birth to a second son, naming the father as Joseph Fortune.
The difficulty is that there is no record of Joseph Fortune emigrating to Australia, nor is he listed in colonial death records covering the years 1856-58. Fortune herself never mentions him in her writing, although she does make fictional use of the history, appearance and even the names of Percy Brett. In the absence of records of Joseph Fortune’s death in Australia or Canada, exactly what happened remains unclear. It is possible that Mary Fortune had the ill-luck to lose two husbands in Australia. The alternatives render her distinctly dubious, from the Victorian point of view. If, say, her second child was illegitimate or her marriage to Brett bigamous, then her determined anonymity can be explained as sheer self-protection from both Mrs Grundy and the law. As Fortune’s autobiographical journalism makes clear, she supported herself and her son by writing.
She had already written poetry and short fiction for the AJ; the next step was a serialized novel, ‘Bertha’s Legacy’. The AT s editor described it as ‘by far the best and most cleverly written tale of Australian origin’;12 in 1866, and the claim had some justification given the limited amount of Australian fiction in existence. However, this tale of a rightful heir defrauded, the eponymous Bertha, contains only a short sojourn in Australia, the rest of the book being set in England among the aristocracy. As a serial it was effective, but the fact that it was considerably shorter (under 40,000 words) than the tripledecker novels then in vogue probably prevented its publication in book form. Borlase had placed his police stories (which included one actually by Fortune) with an English publisher, but if Fortune did follow in his steps, then it appears that her material was rejected. In fact it would seem that none of her writing saw anything but Australian publication.
A second novel ‘Dora Carleton’ began in the AJ, only two months after ‘Bertha’ was completed; it is a rather less polished but more intriguing work. The heroine has journeyed to Australia to escape her rake of a husband, and on a report of his death (later proved to be false) has remarried. Significantly the first husband, Annesley de Vesey, has Percy Brett’s physical appearance and a name connected with his family’s history. The pair reconcile at novel’s end, after de Vesey has redeemed himself by capturing a bushranger. This novel was also rather too short for reprinting in book form. In addition the speed required for serial production militated against literary quality, although the novel does contain some finely written passages, such as when Dora visits a female employment agency.
A third serial, ‘The Secrets of Balbrooke’, ran in the AJ during 1866. This work was longer, considerably more complex in plot, and signalled a move away from the relative realism of ‘Bertha’ and ‘Dora’ into melodrama. There are no fewer than ten young lovers; two of the heroines are blonde and called Alice; but there is no Australian content. There was little to distinguish it from the sensational serials in publications like the London Journal (on which the AJ was modelled both in layout and content), but it was adeptly plotted and written nonetheless. A rather less conventional, indeed quite bizarre, novel was Fortune’s next serial for the AJ, ‘Clyzia the Dwarf, which began in the last week of 1866. It was likewise set in England, but at the end of the 18th century. The AJ editor claimed the novel was unequalled both in ‘interest and power’;13 it can best be regarded as a late and extreme flowering of the Gothic, with Clyzia a deformed witch-gypsy, possessed of a snake necklace which on command comes alive and bites her victims.
Perhaps after this furious burst of writing Fortune tired of writing novels, for 1867 saw a return to the short story, and the crime genre. Also in this year she adopted the abbreviated pseudonym ‘W. W. as if distancing her crime fiction from the persona of ‘Waif Wander’, used for all her other work in the AJ, except for a brief recurrence of ‘M. H. F.’ during a very prolific period in 1869. ‘W. W.’ wrote first-person crime stories, narrated by a policeman, which were realistic, gritty, and considerably removed from the excesses of ‘Clyzia’. In these tales she gradually defined the persona of Mark Sinclair, who was to be her detective for forty years.
The following year, she moved from Avoca to Melbourne, the experience leading to yet another literary genre, for her trip became the autobiographical article ‘Fourteen Days on the Roads’. Her journalism for the AJ is perhaps the most durable and attractive of her writing to the modem reader; certainly far more of it has been reprinted than the rest of her work, with one piece, ‘The Spider and the Fly’, being anthologised three times. In these pieces she wrote most directly of her own observations and experiences, for instance revealing that her curious pseudonym, ‘Waif Wander’, was a self-description. Though her models were Fanny Fern, Sala and Dickens (and, to a certain extent, her contemporary Marcus Clarke), she had a tone that was vital, intense and distinctive:
My three new friends are animals of the canine species. I might have said dogs at once; but I am fond of fine writing, you see, and never make use of a plain expressive English word when I can introduce a five or six syllabled one, expressive of nothing but my own want of common sense. But what would you have? We must swim with the stream, and nobody would accredit me with any refinement whatever if I used ordinary words on ordinary occasions. Bless you, this is an age of refinement; and as one of our dailies remarked the other day, we have reached that pitch of it, that there isn’t a woman left in the country—they are every single one of them ladies of the first water!14
Fortune’s journalism, however, was intermittent, comprising some seventeen articles spread over an eight-year period. Interesting though it is, it represents only a small proportion of her work. During that same time she wrote overwhelmingly for a crime series called ‘The Detective’s Album’. It follows the format she had used with Borlase—a short story in every issue of the magazine, narrated in the first person by a detective. This time, however, she was the only writer involved. The conceit behind the series was that it was a collection of mug-shots, compiled by a detective, whose histories he recounted. ‘The Detective’s Album’ was to become one of the longest-running series in the early history of crime fiction, for it was written by Fortune from 1868 to 1908, and continued by other hands after she either died or retired from the AJ. For forty years, these short fictions, usually around the novelette length, appeared in each monthly issue of the magazine—a total of over five hundred detective stories in all. Compare Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which consisted of four novels and fifty-six short stories.
For her earlier ‘Adventures of an Australian Mounted Trooper’ series she had mined her life on the goldfields, coupled with police detail she recalled from her (apparently brief) marriage to Brett. But these were not, as the title implied, simply adventure stories, as even with ‘The Stolen Specimens’ she worked into the narrative a crime puzzle to be solved, a la Poe. When she wrote ‘The Dead Witness’ for the ‘Memoirs’ series, using Borlase’s detective James Brooke, she depicted the bush and the petit squattocracy with confidence, and ‘The Diamond Ring’, a non-series crime story from late 1866, featured an urban detective. Such were the backdrops against which Mark Sinclair, narrator of ‘The Detective’s Album’, solved crimes and caught criminals.
There is evidence that, like Doyle with Holmes, she tired of the format, for between 1873 and 1875 she wrote a series, ‘Navvies’Tales: Retold by the Boss’, which allowed more flexibility, although, again, crime stories predominated. However, in 1871-72 she published her only full-length crime novel, ‘The Bushranger’s Autobiography’, within the framework of‘The Detective’s Album’, with Sinclair as its ‘editor’. ‘The Bushranger’s Autobiography’ married the novel-writing skills she had developed during her earlier long serials for the AJ with her favourite subject, crime. It was not a successful union; Sinclair claimed he got tired of the serial,15 which may express Fortune’s opinion of it too, for she finished it in hurried fashion. She was effectively writing through the persona of a fictionalised Percy Brett, for her narrator, Eber Pierce, had Brett’s physical appearance and early history. A character even commented on Pierce: ‘does he not put you in mind of our own dead Percy?’16
1871 was also the year that Fortune’s one book, a collection of seven crime stories called The Detective’s Album, appeared. It was published by the AJ, possibly in a very small edition, for only one copy of the book seems to have survived. It was not a ‘best of, simply the stories published in the AJ between September 1870 and March 1871. Given the pressures of writing to a monthly schedule, the stories were a somewhat mixed bag; and they were not even revised for book publication. What impact The Detective’s Album had is impossible to gauge, as it seems to have passed unnoticed and unreviewed. However, the rarity and historical importance of the work mean that its current monetary value is high.
After these apparent experiments with the ‘The Detective’s Album’, Fortune returned to monthly production of crime stories, varied by the occasional ‘Waif Wander’ romance or poem. However, in the early 1880s she dusted off the notes she had taken for The Ladies’ Companion. The resulting ‘Twenty-Six Years Ago; or, the Diggings from ‘55’ is a blending of literary genres, part travelogue, part fictionalised (and thus unreliable) memoir, and part crime melodrama. When reprinted in The Fortunes of Mary Fortune it attracted high praise, Patricia Clarke finding it the most ‘vital account’ of the goldfields in Victoria, and poet Adrian Rawlins opining that it was ‘the first instance of Australian, as opposed to colonial prose’.17
Apart from ‘Dan Lyons’ Doom’, a serial published in the Gippsland Mercury, Fortune produced only short fiction in her last twenty years of writing. What appears to have brought her career to an end was failing eyesight, to judge from Fortune’s one surviving letter to Mrs Furlong, c. 1909. A note on the letter by Furlong states that the AJ gave Fortune an annuity; thereafter she vanishes from sight, although the magazine reprinted her work until 1919. Old employees of the AJ recalled that ‘Waif Wander’ had been an alcoholic, Ronald Campbell commenting to Moir that she had reason, ‘as she wrote more, and doubtless got less for it, than any other Australian writer of the time’. The magazine ‘paid for her burial in another person’s grave’, but where and when she died remain unknown. In death, as in life, Fortune remains a mystery.18
Because she wrote so prolifically and in such a variety of genres, her writing is difficult to evaluate. Her autobiographical writing has been reprinted, also her poetry, which Minaille Furlong also valued, collecting it and probably paying for several poems to be printed. A reprint selection of the crime fiction is in process, and although the treadmill of production over forty years resulted in uneven quality, her work in this genre probably constitutes her most significant achievement.
No other woman, with the exception of Anna Katharine Green, wrote so much crime fiction in the nineteenth century. Fortune was the first woman to write fiction centred on the detective, her knowledge of the colonial police allowing her to narrate convincingly from this masculine perspective. Yet Fortune’s anonymity and almost exclusive employment for a popular magazine prevented her gaining wider recognition, as was enjoyed by other writers who gained their start at the AJ, such as Arthur Upfield. The extent of her influence is difficult to assess, though Fergus Hume’s highly successful The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) is the most likely literary descendant. When she disappeared from the pages of the AJ, she was effectively forgotten; it is only now, with publications such as this bibliography, that the extent and scope of her writing can be appreciated.
List of Abbreviations
AJ: The Australian Journal, a popular magazine which published the great majority of Fortune’s work.
“M. H. F.”: Pseudonym of Mary Helena Fortune.
n. p.: no pagination
“W. W.”: Waif Wander, pseudonym of Mary Helena Fortune used for her crime writing.
- The copies held by the State Library of Victoria and the British Library have both vanished. [↩]
- Australian Literature. A Bibliography to 1938. By E. Morris Miller. Extended to 1950, edited with an historical outline and descriptive commentaries by Frederick T. Macartney. (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1956), p. 477. [↩]
- Henry W. Mitchell, “A Well Known Contributor: Waif Wander”, AJ, Mar 1880, pp.487-88. [↩]
- Letter to J. K. Moir from Ron Campbell, 26 May 1952, Waif Wander file, Moir collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. [↩]
- R. F. Stewart …And Always a Detective: Chapters on the History of Detective Fiction (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1980), p. 27. [↩]
- See Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986), p. 15, for an account of the debate concerning which of these two texts was published first. [↩]
- See Lucy Sussex, “The Earliest Australian Detective Story”, Margin 22 (1990), 30-31. [↩]
- Reprinted in 1993 by Mulini Press in Canberra, with an introduction by Lucy Sussex. [↩]
- AJ, 4 Nov 1865, p.56. [↩]
- Michael Ackland, Introduction to The Penguin Book of 19th Century Australian Literature (Ringwood: Penguin, 1993), p. xxi; Stephen Knight, Continent of Mystery: A Thematic History of Australian Crime Fiction (Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1997), p. 32. [↩]
- Her “Song of the Diggers” is regularly recited by David Averay, ranger and tour guide, when conducting guided walks through the gold-digging areas of the Vaughan Springs/Tarilta area. Letter from Robin Annear to Lucy Sussex, 27 May 1996. [↩]
- AJ, 24 Mar 1866, p.479. [↩]
- AJ, 22 Dec 1866,p.271. [↩]
- “Towzer & Co.”, The Fortunes of Mary Fortune, ed. Lucy Sussex (Melbourne: Penguin, 1989), p. 712. [↩]
- AJ, June 1872, p.584. [↩]
- “The Bushranger’s Autobiography”, p.216. [↩]
- Patricia Clarke, “A Vital Account of Gold Rush Days”, Canberra Times, 20 Jan 1990, p.84; Adrian Rawlins, “Unearthed Lode Proved Luck’s a Fortune”, Australian, 28-29 Oct 1989, p.8. [↩]
- Letter to J. K. Moir; Letter to Miss (Beatrice) Davis from J. K. Moir, 20 July 1954, Waif Wander file, Moir collection, State Library of Victoria. [↩]