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Australian Firsts: Mary Fortune, The World's First Female Detective Author

Fortune was writing detective stories before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

21/04/2017 10:29 AM AEST | Updated 26/04/2017 10:13 AM AEST
Wildside Press
Mary Fortune should have been a household name but, in the 1880s she was forced to write under a pen name because, back then, females were not 'supposed to' write about crime.

While many Australians know the name Mary Fortune thanks to a Melbourne wine bar that was named after her, her incredible achievements as a prolific detective fiction writer remain, sadly, quite neglected.

Fortune was writing mystery, horror and suspense stories years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes. And while Doyle wrote 56 stories, Fortune wrote a staggering 500.

Fortune was born Mary Wilson in Ireland in 1833 and migrated to Canada with her father following the death of her mother. She married Joseph Fortune and had a son, before leaving her husband and following her father to make a home in the Australian goldfields in Melbourne in 1855.

She later had a second son but it's not know who the father was – although Joseph Fortune is officially named as the father, there is no record of Joseph ever being in Australia.

Australian Journal
Mary Fortune wrote detective stories for The Australian Journal. The owners thought so highly of her that when she fell into hard times, they kept paying her, even though she had stopped writing for them.

According to author Chrystopher Spicer, who has written about Fortune in 'Great Australian World Firsts', details about Fortune's early education isn't known. But, because she was writing from a young age, he believes she clearly enjoyed the privilege of a good education.

"It was unusual for girls in those days to have more than a basic education but Fortune was writing so early in the piece, so it's clear she was quite well educated. Her mother must have died when Fortune was very young because she makes a brief reference in her memoirs that she grew up without her mother," Spicer said.

"From a young age, Fortune was fairly well known for her detective stories but, of course, she didn't write under her own name. There was a lot of prejudice against women writers – especially crime stories featuring murder and mayhem. It just wasn't done! She was offered an editing job at a magazine but, as soon as they found out she was a woman, that job offer disappeared."

Lucy Sussex
Author Lucy Sussex has written about Mary Fortune's life.

Fortune wrote under the pseudonym 'Waif Wander' or sometimes simply 'WW'. The fact that she used a pen name means that she hasn't enjoyed 'household name' status she truly deserves. By 1858, Fortune married again – this time to a police constable, Percy Rollo Brett.

"She probably picked up a lot of crime stories through her police officer husband. Fortune's crime stories featured a lot of police procedure, which wasn't something a woman knew about that. Her stories revealed a lot of that inside knowledge," Spicer said.

Around 1865 she had started to write for the Australian Journal and had a popular series called The Detective Album. At first, she co-wrote with another writer James Skipp Borlase but, when he was fired, Fortune continued as the sole author of the detective series; still using the name Waif Wander or WW. In 1866 she wrote 'Bertha's Legacy' which was the first of six serialised novels, while continuing to write journalism for the Australian Journal.

Many of Fortune's stories featured a detective who was always sitting in his arm chair and going through his photo album of criminal mugshots, reminiscing about the cases.

"Fortune was incredibly prolific. In one year, 1868, she wrote 14 short stories and three novels. She wrote a story a month and they were published as a book in 1871. The Dectective's Album was the first Australian detective fiction book, making Fortune the first female detective fiction writer in the world," Spicer said.

Fairfax Media
Author Lucy Sussex was instrumental in tracking down Mary Fortune's grave.

The tragedy was that because she wrote under a pseudonym, she was not well known to her many readers and nobody had a clue as to her true identity. Most people would never have guessed their favourite author was...shock, horror... a woman!

"The last few years of her life were not terribly good. Her first son died and her second son ended up being a petty criminal who spent time on and off in prison. Fortune's second husband ran off and married another woman so she ended up with nobody to support her. Later in her life, she was homeless," Spicer said.

By the late 1880s, Fortune was destitute and turned to alcohol. Thankfully, The Australian Journal did the right thing by Fortune and continued to support her.

"It was a great thing that the owners of the Australian Journal, who must have been eternally grateful for her enormous supply of popular stories, kept paying her for the rest of her life, even when she was no longer writing for them. Then she lost her eyesight and was in a very bad way before she died in 1910," Spicer said.

Author Lucy Sussex, who has written a book about Fortune, was instrumental in the search for Mary Fortune's grave. It had been almost impossible to locate the grave because, in the official records, her name was misspelt. In fact, it wasn't until the 1950s that the true identity of 'Waif Wander' was revealed to be Mary Fortune.

Chrystopher Spicer said it's a type of cruel irony that most Australians only know the name Mary Fortune as the name of the popular Melbourne bar.

"Given that poor Mary Fortune died an alcoholic, having a bar named after her is quite a cruel twist of fate. She really should be remembered as being a leader, paving the way for other writers in the same genre," Spicer said.

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