In Victorian London, twelve-year-old Mary Quinn faces the noose for house-breaking and theft. It matters not to the authorities that she’s an orphan, homeless and starving, but it does matter to the women who run Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, who hustle her out of Newgate Prison and provide her with a home and an education. Five years later, she’s let in on the school’s biggest secret: it also plays host to an organisation calling itself the Agency, a group of female private detectives working on all manner of cases in London. Mary eagerly accepts the invitation to join, setting off a string of adventures as wide-reaching as insurance fraud and high treason.
A few weeks ago I recommended Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, and I commented that I loved the way Mademoiselle Geraldine’s uses Victorian stereotypes about women to facilitate covert operations. The Agency is founded on a similar premise, its modus operandi being that women are overlooked and considered frivolous and so can effectively gather information.
Unlike Etiquette & Espionage, however, The Agency does not take refuge in audacity. Its premise is unlikely, but not utterly implausible, and it’s supported by a story that is meticulously researched. Y. S. Lee has a PhD. in Victorian literature, and it shows. Besides the existence of a female-led private investigation service (and, let’s face it, if one had existed, it couldn’t have been very good if we knew about it), the details are spot-on. Moreover, the series shows a thorough and nuanced understanding of the constraints placed on women in Victorian society. While Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy, the school to which the Agency is attached, is dedicated to training girls for independent futures, whether or not those are with the Agency, it’s clear that these women are the lucky few, and the series is sensitive towards the women who do morally questionable things in an attempt to pursue a better life.
For instance, Amy Tranter in The Traitor in the Tunnel makes it quite clear to Mary that a significant component of her interest in Mr Jones stems from the fact that he is wealthy enough she won’t have to scrub chamber pots anymore. This could easily be used to portray her as an unsympathetic gold-digger, but it’s clear that life as a domestic servant is hard and thankless, without any hope of financial security in old age, and Amy is portrayed as a friendly, lively young woman, not at all greedy.
Of particular note is the treatment of Angelica Thorold, who is set up as a rather cruel young woman in A Spy in the House, yet develops something of a friendship with Mary by the final novel. Angelica may bully Mary and encourage the affections of her father’s assistant, but it’s clear that she feels stifled by her life and societal expectations and would love nothing more than to pursue a life as a pianist. When she manages to attain some level of independence and self-determination, she becomes not only happier but much kinder.
Similarly, the narrative never judges Mary for concealing her Chinese ancestry, and the story doesn’t shy away from the realities of being a mixed-race woman in Victorian society; Mary’s actions are those of self-preservation, not shame. I particularly liked this component of the series, as it’s not often in historical fiction that we get this kind of insight into the racial undertones of Victorian London society.
In nobody is this more apparent than in James Easton, Mary’s love interest. As love interest, he is, clearly, meant to be a sympathetic character, and it’s clear he’s well-meaning and has high moral standards. However, he has also internalised many of the biases and stereotypes of his culture, and while he thinks it ludicrous to hold Mary’s parentage against her, he equally shows an ingrained sense of superiority regarding English culture over Chinese. Moreover, it takes him time to respect Mary as an equal and not make sweeping generalisations about women being romantic or frivolous. The series makes it clear that he must become more open-minded in order to be a worthy love interest for Mary, but also shows just how many ingrained assumptions there are and how difficult it is to overcome them.
I’ve spoken a lot about the social and cultural themes in this series, and they’re a large part of what makes these books so compelling, but they are, at their core, mystery novels, and each book is an engaging adventure into the seedier side of Victorian London, a city that was at once a hub of scientific and social advancement and a place rife with poverty and inequality. If you’re interested in the Victorian era, detective fiction, or just generally badass women, then The Agency belongs on your TBR.
Nicola has long been fascinated with the study in contrasts that was Victorian society, and it’s one of her favourite eras to read about – provided there are plenty of kickass women in the story, of course. You can find her on Twitter.