A Cranky Lady of Crime History: Ellen Davitt
Guest post by Lucy Sussex
“Was this Ellen Davitt contentious?” said the Archivist to me.
An interesting question. I was in the reading room of the National Archives, deep in nineteenth-century Education files from the colony of Victoria. The woman I was looking for had a chequered history, but in the 1850s she had been the most powerful female in the colony’s secular education system. I was trying to find out why a (male) historian had described her as having “overbearing self-esteem”.
“Yes, she was contentious,” I decided to say.
“Then try the Special Case files!”—in which I would find that Ellen Davitt fully qualified as cranky, and for excellent reasons.
Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) wrote Force and Fraud (1865) the first Australian murder mystery novel, at a time when the crime genre was in the process of formation. For this distinction, the Davitt award of Sisters in Crime, for Australian women’s crimewriting, is named after her. Force and Fraud will be reprinted as an e-book this year. But in a long career, in which as a widow she was obliged to be self-supporting, Ellen Davitt was a teacher, exhibited artist, public speaker, something at the time which was daring for women, journalist and novelist. She was also feisty and tough, particularly with overbearing males. Had she not had a healthy self-esteem, she would have been crushed.
Her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography only cites Ellen as an educationalist, with no mention of her other interesting work, only rediscovered in the 1990s. She was born in England, the daughter of Martha and Edward Heseltine, a (dodgy) bank manager, the eldest of five daughters. Her sister Rose married famous novelist Anthony Trollope. Ellen married Irishman Arthur Davitt, who worked in education, and the pair emigrated to Australia in the 1850s, to run the ModelSchool in Melbourne. It was a difficult job; and changing politics and an economic recession saw the Davitts’ positions terminated. Arthur died in 1860, of tuberculosis. Ellen vigorously sought compensation, indeed sought to address the Victorian Parliament—an extraordinary move for the time, which was refused.
Her journalism, public speaking and fiction writing were all a means of supporting herself, as a widow, without family in Australia. Force and Fraud was serialised in the Australian Journal. It was a mystery of real ability, without a central detective, rather a group of people banding together to find justice, a common device of the time. The narrative was a sophisticated whodunnit, as well as being a close observation of colonial society. Other notable works include the short story “The Highlander’s Revenge”, a powerful story of Aboriginal massacres in the Gippsland region, probably based on an eyewitness account.
Conditions for writers in the Australian colonies were poor in the 1800s, it being particularly hard to earn a living. It seems Ellen Davitt contributed anonymously to the press for some time, then returned to teaching. She had the ill-luck to be sent to a rural school outside Bendigo, where she faced a headmaster with a bias against female teachers, and a low salary, which did not take into account her previous experience. It destroyed her health but not her spirits—hence a gold mine of letters to and from the Education department, in which she sought compensation. She was refused again, and in 1879 died of cancer and exhaustion.
Was she contentious? Oh yes! But with excellent reason, as she fought against the male authorities who sought to contain and control her. She and Mary Fortune (an even more cranky lady, a bigamist who consorted with criminals, and had a jailbird son) are the mothers of the Australian crime genre. That both of them have been marginalised, in Fortune’s case nearly lost to history, shows the importance of revisiting the lives of women, which are so often braver and less conventional than the official male historians allow.
History is written by the winners. Herstory is stranger and wilder than we can possibly imagine.
Long live the Cranky Ladies!