“My dear child! Is it possible that you have never seen or read of the wheel?”

“The wheel? What wheel?”

“The bicycle then—the machine on wheels, that goes faster than the horse.”

“Ah, bah! I have heard of people who put the cart before the horse, and so you are one of them. I shall like to see the wheels go ahead of—faster than the horse, sir!” Vic laughs mockingly.

It takes the lieutenant some time to explain to this untutored mind the mechanism of the bicycle, and when at last she seems to comprehend she can talk of nothing else.

“How perfectly splendid!” she cries. “It must be next to flying. . . .”

—Lawrence L. Lynch, Under Fate’s Wheel: A story of mystery, love, and the bicycle, (Ward, Lock, and Bowden, 1900).

In the late nineteenth century, women could often be found sitting primly around the house in whalebone corsets, determined that their waist size not exceed their age at marriage.

When the bicycle came on the scene in the 1880s, it was a liberating vehicle for women, who were suddenly encouraged to get more fresh air and exercise. And so they put on their bloomers, hiked up their skirts, and gamely pedaled away, as is recounted in a cluster of “bicycle stories” in magazines and popular women’s literature of that era.

“These are stories about freedom, getting out and seeing things, having adventures,” says Associate Professor of English Catherine Nickerson, who discovered the stories while serving as a consultant on an Emory Women Writers Resource Project on novels written by women near the turn of the twentieth century.

Then came bicycle backlash.

“Conservatives were afraid women who bicycled would fall in with the wrong crowd, make themselves vulnerable by being so far away from the house, and might even be raped,” Nickerson says.

Books like Under Fate’s Wheel (1900), a romance-mystery by Lawrence L. Lynch—the pseudonym of Emma Murdoch Van Deventer—reflect this ambiguity by glorifying the new-fangled vehicle even while including cautionary warnings against it.

“You must know the Bike has struck the town, not numerously, but with fervour,” writes older brother in a letter. “Do you ride a bike, Sis? If you haven’t, don’t. I’ve ridden bucking broncos, kicking mules, trotters, and—rails, and the bike can make you ridiculous in more languages, sore in more places, and dismount you quicker than any animal that lives. . . . I have ridden the two-wheeled, evilly disposed demon for the first and last time!”

From bicycling to suffrage, women’s issues of the day were reflected in the popular literature, both in hardbound novels and paperbacks (also called dime novels and “yellowbacks.”) The most common genres were mystery, crime, and detective novels; wilderness adventures and Westerns; and tales of suspense, seduction, and romance.

The Emory Women Writers Resource Project, in collaboration with the Victorian Women Writers Project at the University of Indiana, has been awarded a grant of $314,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to create an online database of about 330 of these American and British detective, crime, and romance novels, authored by women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The database fits in well with the mission of the Women Writers Resource Project, which began in 1995 to enable students to create electronic editions of early literary works by women. The project includes significant texts written by early African-American, native American, abolitionist, and suffragette women, says Masse-Martin/NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Sheila T. Cavanagh (below), the project’s director.

“Students and scholars from around the world now visit the site to access material ranging from World War I poetry to the anonymous Memoir of Elizabeth Jones, A Little Indian Girl,” she says.

The Robert W. Woodruff Library already had an impressive collection of yellowbacks and dime novels, thanks to a few staff visionaries who realized such novels would someday be rare as well as valued.

In 1960, librarian Marella Walker and Professor of English Harry Rusche began a serious effort to collect yellowbacks. Ten years later, Walker arranged to buy the Harold Mortlake Collection of detective fiction. And in 1996, Emory received the Hugh Greene Collection (1900 to 1914) and the Graham Greene-Dorothy Glover Collection of Victorian Detective Fiction (1846 to 1900). In total, the library has more than eight hundred American and British yellowbacks.

“The texts that we will be digitizing are hard for researchers to find readily,” Cavanagh says. “By placing these novels on the Web, we are making one of the strengths of our library more visible while reducing potential wear on the books.”

Being victims of their own success, many dime novels and yellowbacks are fragile or in poor repair. In London, readers could rent a yellowback at one train station and return it at another. “The cheapness of their medium—a feature that increased their popularity—facilitates their destruction,” Cavanagh says. “Many of these texts face imminent extinction.”

Novels to be included in the database span the decades from the Civil War to World War I and are set against a backdrop of struggles over slavery, women’s suffrage, labor unions, urbanization and industrialization, and changing roles between men and women.

The database will create a “portal” for research that allows scholars more efficient ways of analyzing the texts. “For example, if you want to see how many mentions are made of Paris, you would just do a search, rather than flipping through a thousand books,” says Cavanagh.

Assisting on the project are the Woodruff Library’s Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections and Services and the library’s preservation and special collections staff. “One of the reasons we got the grant was that we were committed to preserving the original books,” says Charles D. Spornick (left), coordinator of the Beck Center.

Novels that have been selected by the project’s editorial board are converted to electronic data through a painstaking process. First, they are placed in an elaborate wooden cradle with plexiglass arms while they are photographed cover to cover (including inserts, advertisements, and illustrations) with a $40,000, twelve-megapixel digital camera. After the high-resolution images are converted to text using Optical Character Recognition software, proofreading and encoding typically takes an additional twenty hours per novel.

Nickerson (right), for one, can’t wait for the database to be up and accessible. “I believe popular literature is vastly under-examined by academics,” she says, “although there has been a real change in this over the last fifteen years, with a good body of scholarship emerging on women’s popular writings, all endeavoring to understand how women articulated their experiences and lives at the time.”



Like fiction by Danielle Steel or Mary Higgins Clark today, these mass-produced novels were considered escapism as opposed to great literature.

“They were enormously popular and paid the usual price of this popularity: to be regarded with suspicion by many stern moralists and to be sneered at by the supercilious type of critic,” says Edmund Pearson in Dime Novels: Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature. “These were to be tales of dread suspense; of the calm before the storm, but rather more of the storm than of the calm. In their pages, . . . tons of gunpowder was to be burned, human blood was to flow in rivers, and the list of dead men was to mount to the sky.”

Despite their themes of murder and mayhem, many of the action-packed novels that swept the country from the 1860s through the 1920s were written by women—women writing under their married name, their maiden name, their initials, male pseudonyms, a “stable” of authors all writing under one name, or one woman writing under different pseudonyms.

“It really changes the impression that women’s writing was all flowery and pretty,” says Nickerson. “There was a lot of violence.”

Take this graphic passage from Beatrice Heron-Maxwell’s The Adventures of a Lady Pearl-Broker (New Century Press, 1899):

Horror. A woman was lying on the floor, her distorted purple face bruised and bleeding, her eyes staring upward in mute and desperate appeal. The lace ruffle around her neck at which one of her hands was clutching convulsively, had been twisted and strained with such force, that it looked like a narrow ragged string on either side of which the flesh rose in two dark ridges.

Just below the roiling surface of the narratives, however, ran strong undercurrents of social commentary.

“These works were maligned because of their melodrama, their purple prose, their plot-driven narratives. It’s not Proust,” says Nickerson. “But why were these novels popular? Because they struck a nerve. Women were right in the center of defining what the issues of the day were, both in the U.S. and Britain. This is a really valuable legacy of women’s writing.”

“What’s your ideal?” demanded Patience.

“Ideal? What ideal?”

“Why, of man, of course.”

“Oh, man! I haven’t thought much about men. I don’t read novels, like you do.”

—Patience Sparhawk and Her Times, by Gertrude Atherton (John Lane, 1897).

It may seem ironic that novels considered “morally suspect” in their day and ignored by scholars for so long are now the focus of such intense academic scrutiny. Even the titles seemed to discourage serious scholarly discourse: Two Girls and a Dream, The Devil’s Motor, At the Foot of the Rainbow, A Woman’s Love Lesson.

“People wanted something that would grab their attention and keep them from being bored,” says Nickerson. “These would be the equivalent of airplane reads today.”

The stories were populated by orphaned young women with spunk, handsome Yankee ranchers, mistresses of wealthy men, New York women of fashion, well-known actresses, high-tempered queens of gambling houses, dashing naval officers, spinster aunts, insistent suitors, randy dukes, and haughty duchesses.

“With this kind of fiction there’s a lot of interest in engaging the reader with the characters,” says Cavanagh. “Writers were far less concerned with realism than with whetting the reader’s appetite for more.”

A wry sense of humor is apparent in many of the works as they capture the lofty and occasionally contradictory demands made of women of the time, while allowing them to transcend gender barriers by taking on professions and roles usually occupied by men.

“The question people frequently ask me, and other scholars of women’s popular novels, is ‘Are they any good?’ ” says Nickerson. “I can only answer that I personally find these novels satisfyingly complex . . . [and] sometimes hilarious in their feminist wit.”

As Nickerson states in her scholarly work The Web of Inequity: Early Detective Fiction by Women (1998), women writing around the turn of the twentieth century “formulated a style . . . that drew on the moral force of the domestic novel and the symbolic language of the gothic mode to critique the gender and class politics of maturing capitalism.”

These best-selling novels, she writes, featured women learning about “corruption and transgression, looking below the placid surface of things, and questioning appearances.”

Such invisible machinations are apparent in titles such as The Unseen Hand, Out from the Night, and Between the Lines. Investigations and inquiries often take place in the domestic sphere, signifying the centrality of home and family, but give insight into the broader, male-dominated worlds of work and governance.

Detective and crime stories offer a great deal of information about people’s fears and anxieties, threats to the social order, and proposed or hoped-for solutions to these problems.

Sometimes these fears take form as a “haunted” house, complete with phantom screams, creaking doors, and ghostly intruders. This device was used in The Mayor’s Wife (1907) by Anna Katharine Green, a best-selling and prolific author who wrote more than sixty detective novels. In it, the lady of the house has been taken over by a mysterious illness after seeing an apparition in the library:

“I was sitting reading . . . oh, I can not think of it without a shudder!—the page before me seemed to recede and the words fade away in a blue mist; glancing up, I beheld the outline of a form between me and the lamp . . . I was conscious of no substance, and the eyes which met mine from that shadowy, blood-curdling Something were those of the grave. . . . As it burned into and through me, everything which had given reality to my life faded and seemed as far away and unsubstantial as a dream.”

In fact, the “ghost” has been manufactured by the mayor’s wife, who—in a plotline that rivals any contemporary soap opera—has discovered that her abusive first husband is not dead, as she thought, but is alive and working for her current husband, the mayor. The fictional haunting becomes a metaphor for a personal attachment she can’t escape.

Women, cast as heroines and villains, investigators and victims, are “central to these explorations of evil, morality, and justice,” says Nickerson.

The genre captures the transition from Victorian to modern times, as the fairer sex began “asserting themselves politically, socially, legally, emotionally, and artistically,” she says. “Over the nineteenth century, the idea of what a woman was got redefined.”

Indeed, contemporary women may discover they owe much to the fearless young girl in Lynch’s novel who “set the wheels of Fate in motion by running away from home to be a bicycle rider.”

For more information about the Emory Women Writers Resource Project, go to http://chaucer.library.emory.edu/wwrp/. To find out more about the Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections and Services, go to http://chaucer.library.emory.edu/.



© 2003 Emory University