"The Sorceress of the Strand."
By L. T. Meade, 1854-1914 and Robert Eustace, 1854-1943.
First appeared in The Strand Magazine, Volume XXIV ["Madame Sara," "The Blood Red Cross," "The Face of the Abbot"] July-December, 1902;
Volume XXV ["The Talk of the Town", "The Bloodstone," and "The Teeth of the Wolf"] January-June, 1903.
It's terribly awkward to have an evil genius for a best friend. At least, that could be the take-away from "The Sorceress of the Strand", a collection of six short stories which appeared in The Strand Magazine in the early years of the 20th century. It seems as though every young woman that Madame Sarah befriends is the target or the means of extortion or murder -- sometimes both! For Madame Sara is an evil chemical genius. For good or ill, she has the secrets of the chemical world at her elegantly manicured fingertips. She has returned from the wilds of the Amazon and other remote areas of the world with all sorts of arcane chemical knowledge, which she uses to remain stunningly beautiful -- retaining the looks of a women in her 20s or 30s when she must be a generation or two older. Both her appearance and her knowledge enable her to charm London society. Gentlemen and ladies both succumb to her charm, and seek her help to remain young and beautiful themselves. Yet Madame Sara cannot seem to resist the lure of crime, particularly when unique, strange, and priceless treasures are involved. And it seems that she must have a positive delight in destroying fortunes, reputations, and lives, so often does she indulge in such pastimes.
One can't help having some feminist sympathy for her. Here is a women so brilliant that she can quickly deduce, from stolen glimpses at the draft of a technical paper, conclusions that the writer himself has completely failed to draw. An expert chemist who works for the police, who finally reaches similar conclusions after several sleepless nights, at least has the honesty to recognize her brilliance as he enlightens the inventor: "she read your notes, and at a glance saw what you have not grasped at all, and what I have taken days to discover." But however brilliant Madame Sara may be, and whatever secrets she has brought back from exotic places, she is clearly and bluntly put in her place by the male protagonists of the stories. Without credentials, without official diplomas, she cannot be credited as anything but a quack. However marvellous her scientific attainments (and they are acknowledged to be considerable), the very fact that she is a woman raises questions. As one of her opponents states, "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." Surely, a little reflection must suggest that knowledge can make either men or women dangerous? The authors, however, make it clear that the "official" detective "would be sure to suspect any very clever woman."
Honestly, what's a brilliant woman to do but become an evil genius?
Slightly less facetiously, it's always interesting to see how women are portrayed and not portrayed, and Madame Sara gives the attentive reader much to think about. From the viewpoint of the somewhat stuffed-shirt male protagonists, women are predominantly valued for their beauty and their integrity. Intellectual intelligence is not required; indeed most of the young women that the heroes attempt to protect are more than a bit gullible. Admittedly, they are usually pointed out to be quite young, and Madame Sara is both much older than she looks, and much cannier, giving her the advantage in any battle of wits. The male protagonists do seem to prefer their women young and stupid: it quite upsets them that Madame Sara combines the appearance of youth with keen intelligence. The authors, on the other hand, may well have different views. How tongue-in-cheek were L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace when they wrote sentences like: "No," I answered, boldly, "I cannot understand any circumstances in which a wife could rightly have a trouble apart from her husband." Now I ask you, does that sentence suggest that she should share her troubles with her husband? or that he is most likely to be the cause of them?
Whether you cheer on the heroes, Dixon Druce and his friend the mildly Holmesian Vandeleur, or confess to a sneaking sympathy for the evil Madame Sara, you cannot help but enjoy these clever tales of chemically-inspired mayhem. After all, how often does the denouement of a thriller occur at a Royal Society lecture?