Alyson Hunt, Not to Be Sniffed At: The Handkerchief in Victorian Crime Fiction

Alyson Hunt is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent.  Her current research explores the concept of Victorian crime short fiction as a vehicle for social anxieties and considers how dress and clothing illuminates and encrypts these anxieties. She also works as a Research Associate for the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers.

The humble handkerchief has played at best a marginal role within Victorian society. Peeping disconsolately from a gentleman’s top pocket, tucked away from view in the elegant ladies’ sleeve, protecting the victuals of the lower-class worker from the grime of manual labour; the handkerchief silently awaits the moment for its deployment. Within the ever popular household manuals of the nineteenth century such as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) and Cassells Household Guide (1880), the handkerchief is mentioned in a number of different uses: from cooking to first aid, philosophy to art, plumbing to deportment, as a cleaning device for all manner of household items and even as a map like this 1832 map of London printed on a silk handkerchief. Although it is taken for granted that every person owns one and has one readily available to produce in a moment of need, it is also so insignificant an object that it requires no special introduction and no instructions for use. One does not need to retrieve a handkerchief from a special box, buy one from a particular shopkeeper or borrow one from a kindly neighbour. Few other domestic items possesses this versatility, practicability and portability and yet the handkerchief seems barely worth a mention in fiction. Yet the handkerchief appears in crime fiction more often than you might think.

So what exactly is the handkerchief, and what is it designed for? The OED defines the handkerchief as ‘a small square of cotton, silk, or other material carried on the person and used for wiping the nose, hands, etc.’ recording the earliest textual citation from 1530. However, in his 1995 article Richard II and the Invention of the Pocket Handkerchief, George B Stow convincingly argues that the handkerchief was invented at least one hundred and fifty years earlier, by King Richard II. A wardrobe order from 1384, requests “small pieces of linen […] to be given to the lord king for blowing and covering his nose” (221).[1] Evidently Richard had a great regard for personal hygiene and comfort, requiring the use of handkerchiefs for practical purposes. But Richard also used the handkerchief as a symbol of his new style of rule, esteeming beauty and refinement over traditional Kingly pastimes of warfare and barbarianism. As Richard attempted to shake off the constrictive oppressions of the Royal advisers, he surrounded himself with a more youthful court who wielded the handkerchief as an outward symbol of the new Royal ‘brand’, instilling the handkerchief with an indirect political power that asserted Richard’s right to reign exactly as he pleased. Even in the Middle Ages, the handkerchief was far more than a simple personal cleaning device.

Silk handkerchief depicting the coronation of Queen Victoria in Westminster Abbey. The inscription reads: 'LONG LIVE VICTORIA QUEEN OF ENGLAND' 'CORONATION OF HER MOST GRACIOUS MAJESTY QUEEN VICTORIA JUNE 1838‘
Silk handkerchief depicting the coronation of Queen Victoria in Westminster Abbey. The inscription reads: 'LONG LIVE VICTORIA QUEEN OF ENGLAND' 'CORONATION OF HER MOST GRACIOUS MAJESTY QUEEN VICTORIA JUNE 1838‘

Within Victorian fiction appears variously as an item of clothing, as a disguise, to wipe the hands and face, to conceal goods, to protect and encase, as a souvenir of an event, to surrender and even to convey magic, but it is almost never used to blow one’s nose. Charles Warren Adams’ crime novella The Notting Hill Mystery [2] offers a minor exception to this rule. The duty sergeant reports that the chief murder suspect, the mysterious Baron R___ ‘turned regularly pale but he was just blowing his nose with a large yellow silk handkerchief, and I could not be sure’ (202). The handkerchief functions as a handy shield for the Baron to hide his surprise at the policeman’s questions and buys him time to regain his composure whilst expelling the policeman’s enquiries with a sort of trumpet of superiority as he successfully hides his emotions. On the whole though it seems that the Victorian readership was not quite ready to demean itself with the particulars of bodily functions in literature.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret introduces a rather more refined use of the handkerchief upon the amateur detective Robert Audley, laying nonchalantly under a tree ‘with his shirt collar turned down and a blue silk handkerchief tied loosely about his neck’ (27).[3] His open collar and loose neckerchief suggest European frippery, evinced by his French novels and German cigars. He seems more likely to turn criminal than detective, his loose code of dress suggesting a reflection of his loose morals. Yet the lavish silk belies his financial position. Evidently, he has the resources to be a man of leisure and the free time to investigate a mystery, and he can afford to show it not just in his habits but also in his dress. The sumptuous fabric is redolent of the silk robes worn in law courts, the career for which Audley is trained but too idle to practice. The silk handkerchief image is brought full circle later in the narrative wiping the wrinkled face of the alcoholic petty criminal Mr Maldon who clings to the ragged cloth as a symbol of long since lost wealth and gentlemanly behaviour which, like him, is now past its best. The handkerchief thus functions here as a metonymic symbol of a fallen man, its opacity and impermanence mocking the instability of both his mind and his social position.

Andrew Forrester uses the handkerchief as a misleading plot device to create an apparent motive in his short story “The Unknown Weapon.” The female detective examines the particularly distinctive handkerchief found on the body of the male victim and determines that it must belong to a woman. Described as ‘new; [it] had apparently never been used; there was no crease nor dirt upon it, as there would have been had it been carried long in the pocket; and it was marked in the corner “Freddy”-undoubtedly the diminutive of Frederica’ (59).[4] The handkerchief is used as a device to show the detective’s method of rational deduction in which the reader is explicitly told the meaning of the object, that it must be a gift from a lover even though the lover does not turn out to be involved in the murder. Forrester renders the handkerchief a mute witness of events and relationships leading up to the murder, an interior footprint to show the presence or absence of a character where it would be otherwise difficult to do so and an ideal tool to insinuate impropriety.

Wilkie Collins uses the same function in The Moonstone whilst describing the search for Mr Franklin Blake as the narrator exclaims: ‘there was his handkerchief on the floor, to prove that he had drifted in. And there was the empty room to prove that he had drifted out again’ (178).[5] Collins’ repetition of the word ‘prove’ brings significance to the scene and misleads the reader into accepting circumstantial evidence. Indeed, the dropped handkerchief also forms the key evidence in Anna Katherine Green’s 1878 novel The Leavenworth Case in which “a handkerchief curiously soiled” (60)[6] and embroidered with the owner’s initials is found alongside the victim’s body. Identified as “the only one like it in the house” (61) and covered in grease marks from the murder weapon it appears as damning evidence against the innocent owner, the stitched letters seeming to be a statement of permanent truth.

The material attributes of the handkerchief are also particularly useful in crime fiction, especially properties of absorbency. In E.W. Hornung’s short story Nine Points of the Law (1898) the gentleman-thief Raffles uses a chloroformed handkerchief to anaesthetise his victim in order to extract keys from their unconscious owner. Matthias McDonnell Bodkin employed an identical method in his 1900 short story How He Cut his Stick, in which a bank clerk is anaesthetised by a chloroformed handkerchief by a mysterious railway passenger intent on stealing his money-filled bag, and of course the hugely successful The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) also relied upon the chloroformed handkerchief to overcome the unfortunate victim before his murder. The handkerchief is thus transformed from a benign square of cloth to a readily-available murder weapon which anyone could wield.

The handkerchief’s versatility and ordinariness render it an unlikely tool in the Victorian crime writer’s cache but its contribution to the genre is certainly not to be sniffed at! Next time you see Sherlock Holmes reaching into his pocket imagine the possibilities that lay ahead….

[1] Stow, George B., ‘Richard II and the Invention of the Pocket Handkerchief’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 27 (1995), 221-235 <>

[2] Charles Warren Adams, The Notting Hill Mystery (London: The British Library, 2012 [1865])

[3] Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, Wordsworth Editions edn, Wordsworth Classics (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1997).

[4] Andrew Forrester, ‘The Unknown Weapon’, in The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime , Penguin Classics edn (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2011 [1864?]), 31-101.

[5] Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1997 [1868]).

[6] Anna Katharine Green, The Leavenworth Case /, Penguin Classics. (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2010).

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