Force and Fraud, Ellen Davitt

 Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018

That’s a wrap for AWW Gen 1 week. By readership, participation and above all by the number and quality of the reviews and essays that were written especially, at reasonably short notice, it has been a tremendous success. Thank you to everyone who took part. There is a list at the end of this post of everyone who appeared here, or let me know that they had written a review. Keep letting me know and I will keep adding to the AWW Gen 1 page.

Grattan Street Press Edition

Force and Fraud was the lead serial in the first issue of the Australian Journal: a Weekly Record of Literature, Science and the Arts (2 Sept. 1865). Ellen Davitt must have been a staff writer as over the course of the year she contributed three more stories, though apparently of lesser quality. The Australian Journal was presumably a Melbourne paper, a weekly, with the story serialised at the rate of about 6,000 words or 20 (book) pages per issue, over 12 issues. She must have been busy!

The (paper) edition I read was published in 2017 by Grattan Street Press (an arm of Melbourne Uni) with an Introduction by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver. It was first brought out in book form in 1993, by Mulini Press edited and introduced by Lucy Sussex who also wrote the Introduction to the Clan Destine Press -e-book edition. I was put on to Force and Fraud by Lisa of ANZLitLovers when she wrote about Grattan Street Press in November (here).

Ellen Davitt might have been born in Hull, Yorks, in 1812, in which case she married Arthur Davitt at age 33. However Arthur’s ADB entry says he married Marie Antoinette Hélène Léontine (Ellen) Heseltine, b. 1820, of Dublin. He had been a scholar in Ireland and France and then an Inspector of schools in Dublin. Ellen taught drawing. In 1853 they migrated to Australia to take up the positions of Principal and Superintendent for the new Model and Normal School in East Melbourne, which implies that Ellen was educated. As would the fact that the novelist Anthony Trollope was married to her younger sister, Rose (who was Irish, so I think Dr Sussex and Prof.s Gelder and Weaver are mistaken about Hull).

After a few years the school failed. Ellen made an attempt to start a girls school in Carlton which also failed. Arthur died of TB, and Ellen for some years from 1861, made her living as a public speaker throughout Victoria with lectures on such wide-ranging topics as: The Rise and Progress of the Fine Arts in Spain; The Influence of Art; Colonisation v. Convictism; and The Vixens of Shakespeare. Dr Sussex says that Ellen Davitt was “positioning herself as what we would now term ‘a public intellectual’ an extraordinary undertaking at the time – given her gender, the contemporary bias against women orators, and the frontier society of colonial Australia.”

Which brings us up to 1865 and the writing of Force and Fraud, “Australia’s first murder mystery”.

In the years after her stint at the Australian Journal, Davitt taught for a while at Kangaroo Flat near Bendigo (a gold mining city 130 km north of Melbourne) before retiring to live in poverty in working class Fitzroy, Melbourne where she died of cancer in 1879.

The settings for the novel are the property of irascible Scotsman McAlpin; the unnamed neighbouring village which is about 10 miles away and in particular the Southern Cross Hotel run by the Roberts; and Mrs Garlick’s boarding house on the western side of the city of Melbourne (ie. near Spencer Street). McAlpin’s property is about a day by coach from the nearest railhead and then some hours to Melbourne. In 1865 the possible railheads would have been one of Geelong (completed 1859), Ballarat (1862, via Geelong) and Bendigo (1862). Davitt had made speaking tours to these cities and beyond and describes the country of McAlpin’s property as open plains and dry, heavy bush (forest) so maybe she was thinking of somewhere like Ararat, west of Ballarat (map), especially as travellers often push on to South Australia.

At the centre of the story is Flora McAlpin who turns 21 and so inherits her mother’s fortune and independence in the first few pages. Flora is engaged to Herbert Lindsey, a young well-born Australian artist who has blown his own inheritance on a grand tour of Europe and now makes a precarious living in Australia as a portrait painter. Flora’s mother, who supported the engagement, has died and Flora’s father is violently opposed.

Lindsey, who has been away, has an assignation with Flora and shortly after, McAlpin is found in the bush, murdered, his throat cut. Back at the Southern Cross Lindsey is seen to have blood on his clothes, not to mention an obvious motive, and is arrested. His best friend, Pierce Silverton, who has been McAlpin’s agent (does his buying and selling) is also in love with Flora and it turns out that McAlpin’s will leaves him a great deal, especially if he marries Flora.

Flora is distraught for some time on hearing of her father’s death, but on news of Lindsey’s arrest she becomes resolute, instructs a legal team for his defense and makes her way to Melbourne, to Mrs Garlick’s, to do all she can to have him released. There is much byplay at Mrs Garlick’s as her unlovely daughters do their best to secure Silverton.

It has been said that frankness is a quality never seen in the vulgar, and vulgar the Misses Garlick were, not on account of red faces or extreme coarseness, but as being stamped with that type of the half-educated – affectation.

Ellen Davitt is an acute observer, and a forceful writer, and she has created in Flora McAlpin a fiercely independent heroine. There is no detective-hero as we might now expect, but rather the locals pitch in to gather clues, while the constables stand back to see what eventuates, and Flora’s friends bring what they discover to her or her lawyer, Argueville (yes, many of the names are expressive). As Dr Sussex writes:

that narrative mode [detective as hero] had not gained genre dominance. An alternative model equally existed, splitting the role of detective among various characters: it can be seen in works such as Wilkie Collins’ 1860 The Woman in White, and even as late as Fergus Hume’s 1886 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, the best selling detective novel of the 1800s.

The heart of the story however is Flora and Lindsey’s betrothal and the many ups and downs that takes as Flora alternately proffers and withdraws her hand; not to mention Silverton’s pursuit of Flora in Lindsey’s absence and Bessie Garlick’s pursuit of Silverton. At one stage Silverton faints and Davitt, who really does have a sharp tongue after years as a school marm, writes: “Bessie Garlick, who hoped to take care of him for life, ran screaming about, as if to convince people how unfit she was for such a duty.”

It is only as we make our way through all this, and almost in the background, that pieces of the murder puzzle fall into place until we reach a classic denoument.

Davitt, despite not being born here, is full of praise for the country – “the sweet Australian spring!” and “those rich Australian plains” – though less so for the dusty streets of the less salubrious end of the city; and has written a lively murder mystery (which I guessed wrong) and a perceptive account of small town life.


Ellen Davitt, Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush, Grattan Street Press, Melbourne, 2017, Introduction by Ken Gelder & Rachael Weaver. Originally published as a serial in Australian Journal, 1865. First pub. in book form 1993. E-book pub. Clan Destine Press, Introduction by Dr Lucy Sussex. here

Posts/Reviews for Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week

Australia’s First Women Writers, Michelle Scott Tucker

Ada Cambridge, Sisters, Brona’s Books

Ada Cambridge, The Three Miss Kings, Books Around the Corner

Ada Cambridge, A Marked Man, Narelle Ontivero

Annabella Boswell, Annabella Boswell’s Journal, wadh

Catherine Helen Spence, Mr Hogarth’s Will, ANZLitLovers

Ellen Davitt, Force and Fraud, wadh

Georgiana McCrae, Georgiana’s Journal, The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Rosa Praed, Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land, wadh

Tasma (aka Jessie Couvreur), Whispering Gums

Margaret Seymour in Australia’s First Century, ANZLitLovers

Mary Gaunt in Australia’s First Century, ANZLitLovers

Georgiana Molloy: Collector of Seeds and Words, Jessica White

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, Whispering Gums

18 thoughts on “Force and Fraud, Ellen Davitt

  1. Oh, and loved your write-up of Ellen Davitt too, particularly re her origins and becoming an orator. So many interesting things to unearth about our past and the way women, in particular, found ways to support themselves in ways that used their skills and interests. Independent women didn’t just pop out of nowhere as some people believe I think, but have always been there.


    • Yes. I can understand why modern women writers put independent women into historical fiction but I think it is important not to lose sight of those who were really there.

      Working back from the mid C19th I mentioned George Sand to Emma, but I also find Phillipa Gregory interesting from this point of view (she is an historian) despite her less than stellar literary values.


      • I’m not sure what you mean by not losing sight of “those who were really there”? Do you mean the “real” independent women versus the “fictional” ones? If so, yes of course. I was mainly thinking about readers who read historical fiction (which of course Uncle Piper is not) and call it anachronistic if there’s a female character acting independently or fighting the social norms. Novels like Uncle Piper – along with the “real” people like George Sand as you say – confirm that these ideas were around. After all, the “fictional” independent woman was written by someone who clearly had the ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad you made some sense of my hurried response! Tasma is a writer ‘who was there’ and Gregory’s Queens are real women ‘who were there’ and I don’t make much distinction between them, compared with say Phryne Fisher who was/is put back ‘there’ albeit to make a point.

        What I was really think out loud about was: who comes before CH Spence? Emma is right in that there was an atmosphere of freedom in Australia – despite its official adherence to stuffy Britishness – which women were able to take advantage of and may even have been instrumental in.

        But you are right too in that there may always have been independent women whose stories have been suppressed so as not to threaten “the sacred bonds of marriage” which has always been code for male privilege.

        I’ve been thinking about what is my project for this year and I think that rather than going straight on to Gen 2 literature I will go first to suffragism, which is roughly contemporaneous with Gen 2, and look back from there – to the New Woman movement and to JS MIll of course but also to … I don’t know yet.


  2. I am so pleased you’ve reviewed this… its youthful publishers will be delighted. I’d forgotten all about it, in terms of AWW Gen 1 but of course it definitely belongs in the hall of fame:)
    I have emailed Grattan Street Press and would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone to keep an eye on their publications because reissuing forgotten texts is what they do…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I saw in my background reading that Grattan Street Press is a project for students to learn publishing, hence I guess they are using out of copyright work (suits me!). I think they did a fine job though I hope the professors don’t hog all the Introductions.


      • I hadn’t taken that in. that’s interesting. Juvenilia Press operating out of UNSW is a teaching press too – I haven’t checked them for a couple of years but I hope they are still going. Their introductions were written by a variety of people.


  3. I wish I knew more about why serial novels were abandoned. It seems to have happened before easy access to the internet. I can think of no better way to get me to buy every magazine than to make me wait for the next bit if plot! In over of my classes last spring we talked about serialization in fiction, TV, and radio. Dickens was the big cheese on the scene.


    • Yes, by coincidence I have been ‘talking’ today with Sue/Whispering Gums about the serials which I read in SF magazines (Analog, IF and so on) in the 1970s and some of which I still own. Serials still work, as we know from TV and podcasts (and once upon a time, from cinemas) but for whatever reason magazines that you read rather than just look at the pictures seem to have died out, at least partly no doubt reflecting the decline in rural populations. There is probably a place – which probably already exists – for text serials on the internet.


      • One of the best selling forms of serials in Japan in the cell phone novel. They are almost always anonymous, written by teen-aged or early 20s women, and are sent out one text at a time! If the writer messes up, oh well. If the writer is busy or goes to sleep, all readers must wait.


      • In English that would be 3-4,000 texts. A major distraction to keep track of as they arrived. And what if more than one person started sending you a story.


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