New & ‘True’ Women: Juxtaposing Illustration and Letterpress in L.T. Meade’s The Sorceress of the Strand

By Mercedes Sheldon

The highly popular and prolific L.T. Meade deeply valued women’s rights, and her popularity provided her with a microphone for these beliefs. In 1889, she published The Cleverest Woman in England, a novel whose “complex New Woman heroine [is] strong, independent and somewhat intimidating” and embodies her own belief in “women’s intellectual equality with men” (Willis 58).[1] Furthermore, Meade used her editorship at the Atalanta to “provide encouragement and practical advice to girls interested in literary careers” (Dawson 256n1), for she believed that “it is better for every woman to have a career” (Tooley 256). Meade weaves these ideals into The Sorceress of the Strand (Strand Magazine, October 1902 to March 1903) in the form of several New Woman characters.[2] Scholarship often focuses on Meade’s impressive and remarkable femme fatal, Madame Sara, who Janis Dawson rightly calls a “deadly and dangerous New Woman” (25). My reading instead examines Meade’s supporting New Woman characters, Helen Sherwood and Mrs. Bensasan, who present a complex view of New Womanhood, one which draws on cultural anxieties about gender at the fin de siècle. The illustrations that accompany the letterpress in the Strand further amplify these anxieties. Gordon Browne’s illustrations portray Sherwood and Bensasan as traditionally feminine, as what Margaret Beetham identifies as the ‘true’ women implied by the derisive and binary New Woman label (119). Browne adds to the visual impression of their ‘true’ womanhood by drawing them within the culturally appropriate domestic spaces of the Victorian home.[3] As The Sorceress of the Strand is a domestic crime story, this juxtaposition of ‘true’ women in the illustrations with New Women in the letterpress manipulates the cultural anxieties about both gender and crime, thus fueling the suspense and tension at the heart of Meade’s story.

Most of Meade’s supporting women in The Sorceress of the Strand are ‘true’ women who need to have their delicate femininity protected from the harsh world. In “I.—Madame Sara” (October 1902), Beatrice Dallas is described as a “little beauty” by her husband (Meade 119). In “II.—The Blood-Red Cross” (November 1902), Antonia is “like a young fawn […] with a graceful step” (143), and she is frequently described with such diminutives as little, child, and pathetic (143). Even Miss Laura, who is only physically present in the final paragraph of “VI.—The Teeth of the Wolf” (March 1903), is described as “slight, fair, and gentle-looking” (232). Browne’s illustrations of the various female supporting characters reinforces their femininity. For example, he drew Beatrice and her sister Edith in embroidered shirtwaists with fashionable sleeves and bloused waists (Figure 1). Even as Edith utters “a sharp cry” in response to a pain that leads to her death, she stands with poise. Browne’s analeptic illustration reinforces Meade’s choice to stage Edith’s murder in the heart of domestic, leisure class life. As the family breakfasts together, Edith is poisoned by a sabotaged tooth filling. When the detectives in the story realize Madame Sara’s ploy, they also realize that they cannot protect Beatrice merely by keeping her in the supposed safety of the domestic sphere. Meade’s letterpress and Browne’s images establish that appropriately feminine ‘true’ women can easily be victimized by the femme fatal within their own homes.

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Figure 1. Gordon Browne. Strand Magazine 24.142: 396.

In contrast, “III.—The Face of the Abbot” (December 1902) presents the reader with quite a different supporting character. Whereas Meade introduces many of her supporting women through their appearance, she instead opens by describing Helen Sherwood’s “character full of spirit and determination” (165). In keeping with the New Woman trope, Sherwood’s parents are absent, and she “support[s] herself by her attainments” (166). Meade concedes to the middle brow readership of the Strand by giving Sherwood an absent fiancé, but she establishes that Sherwood is earning enough on her own to not only earn “a comfortable independence” but also to save “a little money for that distant date when she would marry the man she loved” (166). Unlike the weak women who are saved by the efforts of men in most of The Sorceress of the Strand, it is Sherwood who defeats Madame Sara’s plot, and she does so by standing in a dark courtyard at midnight and shooting a man in an upper story window with a single pistol shot (184–86). Helen Sherwood thus not only foils Madame Sara’s attempt to swindle her out of a large inheritance, but she also gains access to the financial freedom to marry her lover.

If a reader were to encounter Helen Sherwood merely in the letterpress, they would recognize her as a complex New Woman in keeping with Meade’s more progressive novels. However, Browne’s illustrations of Sherwood present her very much as a ‘true’ woman in keeping with the other women in the serial. Margaret Beetham argues that, “since ‘costume’ was the crucial marker of sex, rejection of traditional female dress precipitated acute anxiety about all the differences maintained by the sexual norm” (115). Browne draws Helen Sherwood in the same kind of frilled, flounced blouse as her traditional counterparts (Figure 2). Even in his analeptic illustration of Helen literally standing over the dead body with the smoking gun in her hand, Browne represents her in a cape cut to suggest the curved female form and open to reveal her small waist and bloused shirtwaist (Figure 3). Although Sherwood’s independent career and self-sufficiency in the letterpress establishes her as a New Woman, Browne’s visual representations of her place her squarely in the safe zone of the traditional, ‘true’ woman.

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Figure 2. Gordon Browne. Strand Magazine 24.144: 645.
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Figure 3. Gordon Browne. Strand Magazine 24.144: 657.

Fin de siècle Victorians, like those of the preceding decades, experienced great anxiety around not just changing gender norms but also the notions of crime within the domestic sphere. Many feared the ways in which crime could “easily penetrate the heart of the English family and the nation” (Dawson 35). Both Meade’s letterpress and Browne’s illustrations capture this anxiety. Just as Edith feels the first pains of poison in the breakfast room, Helen Sherwood meets Mr. Druce, the amateur detective who narrates The Sorceress of the Strand, in her drawing room, a traditional domestic space, under the watchful eye of her uncle, an appropriate male chaperone. Regardless of Helen Sherwood’s letterpress status as a New Woman, Browne’s illustrations of her clearly communicate her femininity to the reader. As discussed previously, Browne consistently portrayed all supporting female characters as ‘true’ women wearing the appropriate costume of their gender in their culturally appropriate domestic space, and Sherwood is no exception, despite her status in the story as a New Woman. The juxtaposition of Meade’s suspenseful letterpress and Browne’s domestic images remind readers that crime can disrupt even the comfort and safety of the domestic sphere.

Meade and Browne amplify these anxieties in the final installment of the serial, “VI.—The Teeth of the Wolf” (March 1903). The story centers around the dual threat of Madame Sara and her new associate, Mrs. Bensasan. Unlike the other supporting characters, Bensasan is a widow and a mother; these roles suggest that she is a ‘true’ woman who has fulfilled her socio-cultural duty to marry and produce children. However, Bensasan is early established as a New Woman, one who “dare[s] to do what hardly any other woman has done before her. She runs her [wild animal] shows herself” (232). Instead of treating her animals with feminine care, she is widely known for her “cruelties to her animals” (231). Considering Meade’s belief that women are intellectually equal to men, it is unsurprising that Bensasan “is the best tamer of wild animals in Europe” (231) and that she is the one to ultimately defeat Madame Sara (249). But Meade goes a step further: in describing Mrs. Bensasan as “built on a large scale, being six feet in height” (232), Meade plays on cultural anxieties about both women who behave in masculine ways and those who physically defy what was considered to be the natural delicacy of the female body. The letterpress suggests that Mrs. Bensasan is the very New Woman who threatens the cultural fabric of traditional England.

Browne, in turn, amplifies the anxious suspense created by Meade’s descriptions. As with Helen Sherwood, he portrays Mrs. Bensasan as a ‘true’ woman who robes herself in the costume of her gender. He illustrates her standing in her drawing room, with a feminine hairstyle, a frilled and bloused shirtwaist, and a long, draped skirt (Figure 4). Browne carries this feminine imagery into his illustration of Bensasan training her wild Siberian wolf (Figure 5). In both the letterpress and the illustrations, she goes directly from the domestic space of her drawing room to the masculine space of the wild animal’s cage. However, Browne’s proleptic illustration anticipates Bensasan’s cruelty by showing it on the right-hand page of the double spread (Meade and Eustace 282–83), whereas the letterpress description of it does not occur until the reader has physically turned the page (284). Through the physical pairing of these two illustrations, the reader literally sees Bensasan simultaneously as both society hostess and cruel animal trainer. It is only after they have visually experienced her cruelty that they read of her violent treatment of the wolf and of Druce’s inability to bear her brutality. Despite her feminine drapery, Mrs. Bensasan is the very embodiment of cultural anxieties about the unsexing of women and the pervasiveness of crime and cruelty in the domestic sphere.

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Figure 4. Gordon Browne. Strand Magazine 25.147: 282.
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Figure 5. Gordon Browne. Strand Magazine 25.147: 283.

Meade and Browne juxtapose domestic space, visually ‘true’ women, and letterpress New Women in order to merge two cultural anxieties: that crime and cruelty and modern, professional women will shatter domestic tranquility and thus disrupt society as a whole. The letterpress and illustrative descriptions of both Helen Sherwood and Mrs. Bensasan blur the line between ‘true’ and New Women in deadly and dangerous ways that speak to fin de siècle fears.  Whereas Meade’s New Woman novels pushed readers to consider the intellectual, educational and professional rights of women, her serialized story The Sorceress of the Strand and its accompanying illustrations by Browne instead pair the anxieties surrounding gender norms with fears regarding crime in the domestic sphere. Meade and Browne simultaneously challenge the readership of the Strand to consider the complexities of New Womanhood and manipulate socio-cultural anxieties to build suspense and tension in domestic crime fiction.

Bibliography

Beetham, Margaret. “The New Woman and the New Journalism” in A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800–1914. London: Routledge, 1996. 115–30.

Dawson, Janis. “Introduction.” The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2016. 13–40.

Leighton, Mary Elizabeth, and Lisa Surridge. “The Transatlantic Moonstone: A Study of the Illustrated Serial in Harper’s Weekly.” Victorian Periodical Review 42, no. 3 (2009): 207-243.

Maidment, Brian. “Illustration.” In The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers. Edited by Andrew King, Alexis Easley and John Morton. London: Routledge, 2016. 102–123.

Meade, L.T. and Robert Eustace. “Story VI.—The Teeth of the Wolf.” Strand Magazine 24, no. 147 (March 1903): 279–90.

Meade, L.T. The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories. Edited by Janis Dawson. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2016.

Tooley, Sarah A. “Some Women Novelists.” Woman at Home (1897): 161–211. Reprinted in The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories. Edited by Janis Dawson. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2016.

Willis, Chris. “‘Heaven defend me from political or highly educated women!’: Packaging the New Woman for Mass Consumption.” The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.


[1] Similarly, Meade’s 1891 novel A Sweet Girl Graduate is “widely credited with popularizing the idea of higher education for women” (Dawson 16).

[2] Of course, focusing on New Women, a term typically reserved for those of the middle and upper classes, leaves out the working women who also earned their living. Another critical approach to this story could explore characters such as Miss Laura’s nurse or Madame Sara’s convict-maid, Rebecca Curt, who each play crucial roles in the plot and represent the often-erased working classes.

[3] For more on the role of illustration in the periodical press and in scholarly analysis, see Maidment, “Illustration,” and Leighton & Surridge, “Transatlantic Moonstone.”

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrea Stewart says:

    I really like the ideas that you’ve brought up in your post, Mercedes. The illustrations by Browne that accompany The Sorceress of the Strand stories seem to present what, on the surface, looks like an opposition to Meade’s characterizations of her supporting female characters in the letterpress. Browne draws every woman, not just the “true” women, but also “new” women in an appropriately feminine costume of their sex, playing on Victorian fears of an inability to identify a New Woman by her outward appearance. In essence, the fear that any woman might be a New Woman lurking behind a perfectly respectable exterior. Browne in this way actually supports the concept of Meade’s New Woman, by giving all the women of Meade’s stories visual similarity and therefore equal potentiality, albeit in opposite ways.

    If a reader were to casually browse the stories within The Sorceress of the Strand series, they would be unable to immediately identify a “new” woman from a “true” woman. Browne thereby both implicitly points the reader back to the letterpress to get Meade’s written description of a character, underscoring the necessity of illustration and text working together to present the fullness and complexity of a character, and the idea that a visually “true” woman could be a “new” woman in character.

    Conversely, Browne also seems to contradict Meade’s letterpress descriptions of “true” women by depicting them similarly to “new” women—not in dress, but in action. For example, taking the figures specifically from this posting, in Figure 1 the action of the illustration centers around Edith, standing up from the breakfast table as she feels the first workings of the poison. Both Beatrice and her husband are placed further in the background of the photo, and both are looking at Edith, re-emphasizing that the focus of illustration is a woman, Edith, and her action. The same principle applies to Figure 2, in which Helen Sherwood is placed in the central spot of the drawing, with Mr. Druce and Senhor de Castro again both turned towards her and gazing at her—once again pointing the reader’s gaze towards her, and her action of greeting Mr. Druce. Figures 3, 4, and 5 all center around Mrs. Bensasan, and she in turn dominates the focus of each illustration through a combination of her height, her central placement, and her action, as in the last photograph, where she practices her animal “taming,” Mr. Druce is simply a helpless background observer, much like the reader. The similarities in these illustrations depicting the female characters as the focus and as the initiators of action, the “true” women such as Edith and the “new” women such as Helen and Mrs. Bensasan, underscores a conversant truth for the reader—that just as there may an element of a “true” woman in the dress of every “new” woman, so, too, may there be an element of a “new” woman in the active and focal characteristics of a every “true” woman.

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  2. Amy Valine says:

    Mercedes, I appreciate how you draw out the conversation between Meade’s written exploration of the New Woman and Browne’s visual depiction of Meade’s ideas (or perhaps his interpretation of Meade’s text). It is interesting for me to revisit your paper after having spent time with The Sorceress of the Strand in parallel with the Strand’s beautification advertisements. I think that considering the advertisements along with your analysis adds another dimension to this topic. Your closing statement resonates especially well with the Strand’s advertisement culture, I think: “Meade and Browne simultaneously challenge the readership of the Strand to consider the complexities of New Womanhood and manipulate socio-cultural anxieties to build suspense and tension in domestic crime fiction.” Advertisements give a visual depiction of this socio-cultural anxiety, dictating how the ideal woman ought to dress and how she should manipulate her hair, facial features, or even body.

    Your observation about the “safe zone of the traditional, ‘true’ woman” brought to mind one Strand advertisement in particular (page 850 in the July–December 1902 volume edition). It promotes a certain method of muscle building, and it makes sure to address both men and women, assuring women that the method won’t result in “the same muscular development that she admires in men,” but that she will gain a better complexion, “increased chest,” and a “reduce[d] abdomen.” This advertisement, and others like it, caters to a different kind of “socio-cultural anxiety,” one based solely on the appearance. It doesn’t much matter if a woman holds New Woman ideas, as long as she looks like a “true” woman. Perhaps Browne’s depictions of the various women in the Sorceress stories are meant to prevent alienating readers from the strong women Meade describes. Instead, there’s definite continuity between the appearance of women in both advertisements and Meade’s illustrations. Like Andrea points out, the traditional costumes in the illustrations may suggest flexibility between the minds and the bodies of the new/true women—one does not necessarily follow the other.

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  3. Chelcy Walker says:

    Mercedes, I think this is a really exciting approach to exploring Meade’s text and Browne’s illustrations in a conversation with each other on the definitions of both “true” and “new” women. And I think you’ve done a great close reading of these texts and illustrations to get at how Browne’s illustrations definitely alter and shape our overall reading of it, and would have definitely affected the original Strand readers as well. I’m especially drawn to this line in your first paragraph, on how Meade plays with “cultural anxieties about both gender and crime,” and how she connects those anxieties with contemporary discourse on the New Woman. We see over and over how Madame Sara embodies the New Woman, and that her role as a business owner, saleswoman, and scientist all serve to increase her dangerous capacity. At one point, Vandeleur talks about her knowledge as a threat: “The sort of knowledge you allude to…that scientific knowledge which Madame possesses, and which is not a smattering, but a real thing, makes a woman at times—dangerous.” (Sorceress 62). I wonder then if we can start to see a dichotomy here, between Madame Sara’s knowledge and the other “true” women’s naiveté, who are often the innocent young women that Madame preys upon. Do the New Women in the text seem to be more highly educated, and the “true” women more susceptible and weak-minded? And what does that then say about Meade’s own complicated relationship with women’s education? We know that she was a proponent of girls’ education; she wrote often about the subject. It then seems odd to form a character like Madame Sara, whose role as an educated, New Woman also causes her to become a criminal mastermind, thus making women’s education seem increasingly problematic and troublesome. All of this might be fodder for a much longer paper on Madame Sara’s complicated role in New Woman discourse, but nonetheless, your paper here makes me curious to keep considering how Meade and Browne are shaping and being shaped by contemporary conversations on women’s independence, education, and criminality.

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  4. Kaari Newman says:

    Your post is raising so many more interesting questions for me, so thank you! For example, as Chelcy started teasing out above, L.T. Meade really seems to complicate the normalization of the New Woman in The Sorceress of the Strand, because all of her “New Women” characters, save Helen, exhibit some truly diabolical qualities. This seems at odds with Meade’s proto-feminist sentiments expressed in her other novels and essays. Both Mrs. Bensasan and Madame Sara are highly intelligent, independent women, so are readers (both Victorian and contemporary alike) meant to admire their evil genius or abhor the predatory bent their intellects take?

    One thought in particular drew this to my attention while reading your post. You noted that Mrs. Bensasan is ultimately the one to defeat Madame Sara, which calls into question a whole new set of questions about male and female power. It is curious that it is a woman, and in fact another “new” woman character, who brings down Madame Sara, instead of Vandaleur or Druce. On the one hand, such a move strengthens the argument that women are just as capable and intelligent as men of committing heinous crimes. While perhaps portrayed as “domestic” by Browne, they are just as active and deadly as any male character (this also confirms fears that recognizing a “new” woman from a “true” woman as Andrea notes above).

    On the other hand, Mrs. Bensasan’s murder of Madame Sara could also be a confirmation of what Simone de Beauvoir might describe as the subversion of women’s ability to recognize their status as mutually oppressed “Others” in patriarchal societies. Thus, they turn on each other in their competition for recognition as fully autonomous Subjects. So, at the end of the story, these two “new” dangerous women are neutralized and the patriarchy is left intact.

    Adding this layer of a feminist reading would be one way of expanding on this idea beyond doing a close reading of the text and illustrations if you so chose. I think the results would be truly fascinating!

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  5. L. Assad says:

    Victorian types are so interesting to learn about, and I love that you chose to focus on the New Woman in your essay. I like that you focus on supporting New Women rather than leading New Women because each character in a work of literature serves a specific purpose and sometimes supporting characters can reveal so much more about a text than their leading counterparts. The images that you include here are wonderful and you do a great job of analyzing visual as well as textual femininity. I especially enjoy your descriptions of the clothing seen in these illustrations. As you point out, these illustrators knew very well that women would either consciously or subconsciously examine the clothing that they saw in these stories. They knew that the clothes and the settings in each image would have greatly impacted a viewer’s perception of a character. Just as Victorian writers liked to use very blatant and direct characterization to describe a character textually, the Victorian illustrator uses a variety of visual techniques to characterize people as well. Your point about images bringing something to the serialization that text alone would not have been able to achieve is important. It is also important that you note the illustrator’s resistance to depicting these New Women as true New Women and you are right in saying that they almost look more like the women you would see in a fashion plate. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on how crime can visually affect an illustrated text, and how it can create tension between text and image, because I think that these ideas are very compelling. I would also love to read an entire essay of yours on Bensasan. As you point out, her visualization is so complex and dualistic. That final image really encapsulates everything you were arguing in the final paragraphs of your essay, that things like crime and even the modern women have the power to disrupt even the most tranquil of Victorian spaces.

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