Thursday, November 6, 2014

Anna Katharine Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878)

First edition, 1878
This Friday I'm co-hosting (along with my colleague Hilary Emmett) the second reading group of the British Association of Nineteenth Century Americanists. The text that we've chosen for the event is Anna Katharine Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878), so I've been spending plenty of time recently thinking about this book and Green's life and career more generally. I'm looking forward to hearing what other people thought about it and her (a little trepidatiously, almost!), and I don't want to jump the gun on what evolves in that discussion, but here are a few thoughts in advance of Friday (no spoilers, if you're still reading).

This was a book that I've been eager to have an excuse to read and think about for a while. It pushes a lot of my buttons since it sits at the centre of a number of intertwined issues that are preoccupying me at the moment: forgotten bestsellers, questions of canonicity, sensation fiction, Transatlantic currents, the 1870s... I could go on (and, on Friday, probably will, so apologies in advance). It's also, picking up on some of the ideas that we were talking about at the last BrANCA reading group, a deeply pleasurable read (others may disagree, but it's difficult to imagine).

The story commonly told about The Leavenworth Case, and Green herself, goes like this: a pivotal murder-mystery, it was the bestselling book of 1878 and remained popular on both sides of the Atlantic well into the twentieth century. It was the first (if slightly belated) publication of a long and successful career: Green was 32 when The Leavenworth Case was published. She'd graduated from Ripley Female College in Vermont in 1866 (where she'd been President of the Washington Irving Society), and first tried her hand at poetry (sending a selection to Emerson, who received the verses with lukewarm enthusiasm). Fun fact: her family attended Henry Ward Beecher's church in Brooklyn. It took Green some years to complete The Leavenworth Case (some say six, some say closer to three), partly working in secret from a father who seems to have been both supportive and over-bearing in his relationship to her writing. But after the success of her first novel, she never stopped, writing mysteries (over 30 novels and other assorted texts, including a stage adaptation of Leavenworth) until 1923; she died in 1935. When she's remembered today, however, it's mainly as an inspiration to others, not least because of the detective-fiction conventions that she helped to establish. Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, it is averred, were paying close attention to Green's use of figures like Ebenezer Gryce (a quasi-Holmesian detective (kind of)) and Amelia Butterworth (a spinster amateur sleuth à la Jane Marple). Doyle visited Green when he travelled to America in 1894; Christie often expressed her fondness for Green's writings (and even made Hercule Poirot a fan - he pays tribute to the book in The Clocks (1963)).

The degree and kind of scholarly attention that both book and author have attracted to date is interesting: in 1989, Green was the subject of a critical biography by Patricia D. Maida, Mother of Detective Fiction: The Life and Works of Anna Katherine Green (Bowling Green State University Popular Press). Catherine Ross Nickerson included a compelling chapter on The Leavenworth Case in The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women (Duke University Press, 1998). Nickerson has also put out, through Duke, some handy reprints of Green's lesser known works. Green also rates a chapter in Lucy Sussex's recent Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (Palgrave, 2010). The Leavenworth Case itself is also available in a Penguin Classics edition edited by Michael Sims (which might call into question exactly how forgotten it is...). But that's about it - surprisingly little, by any measure, for such a prolific, popular and influential writer. I wonder if - as with a writer like Ouida (see Pamela Gilbert's chapter, here) - this has something to do with the fact that, in certain respects, Green was on the wrong side of history: famously, she opposed female suffrage in 1917. Here's her letter to the New York Times, "Women Must Wait."

As the quick survey above makes clear, in the main Green is positioned in relationship to the development of detective fiction - indeed, is given a matriarchal role. But - with the exception of Nickerson, who spends some time thinking about Green's interesting textual games in The Leavenworth Case, for example - not much attention has been paid to what's going on in her most famous book. So, hopefully, that's what's going to be occupying us tomorrow - who knows where the conversation will take us? There are certainly a lot of untouched or little considered dimensions to the book, and those issues grow the more you think about them. What about, for example, the fact that the titular victim Horatio Leavenworth has a deep-seated hatred of the British, and is writing a book about China?

For me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the way in which it relates to British sensation fiction from the 1860s. There is a neat hook for these thoughts, too: Wilkie Collins was a fan of The Leavenworth Case, and a letter of appreciation that he wrote to Green's publisher George Putnam was reprinted in The Critic in 1893:

Perhaps because I've been reading a lot of Collins (and Mary Elizabeth Braddon) recently, this connection was a forceful prompt to thinking about the way that a book like The Leavenworth Case is categorised in generic terms. Why isn't it positioned, say, as a late American flourishing of sensation fiction - or at least a text that is pivotal in the transition from sensation to detective fiction? And why, for example, doesn't Green warrant a mention in the great Transatlantic Sensations collection recently edited by Jennifer Phegley et al? A couple of critics do link Collins and Braddon to Green, but mainly to disavow their influence. Yet there are many moments where it feels like Green is very consciously playing with the traditions established by those kind of writers, particularly Collins in The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). Whether it's thinking about Ebenzer Gryce as a reworking of Sergeant Cuff, or thinking about the sisterly dynamics between Mary and Eleanore as a distorted echo of Marian and Laura's relationship, or the way that Eleanore's predicament reflects Rachel Varinder's, or the way that inheritances and marriages (and secrets relating to those two issues) drive the plot - however you cut it, there's a lot to chew on in there, not least in the ways that Green reworks those situations and themes as an American writer. Let's see what tomorrow brings!
Anna Katharine Green

No comments: