Violet Vane (1889) Spotlight
About the novel
Violet Vane, the Velvet Sport; or, The Jubilee at Jacktown was the first story to feature Violet Vane, a detective dandy character with implicit homosexual overtones.
The novel follows the exploits of the titular “Violet Vane.” The dandy-ish, well-dressed, well-spoken man is a stranger to Jacktown, and arrives just before a major jubilee. The townsfolk are derisive of the his dress and manner, and a local hooligan called Wagg dubs him “Sweet Violets,” assuming that he would "wilt" in a fight. However, in a scuffle with bullies from the neighboring Jasper City, it is revealed that despite his soft-seeming exterior, Violet Vane is a capable brawler. His abilities lead him on a quest to rescue a kidnapping victim as he tries to clear his name of murder and reunite with his beloved.
The character of Violet Vane is an example of the “dandy detective,” a character trope that became more common as detective fiction gained in popularity. (Arguably, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes belongs in this category, too.) Elements of the story also echo something akin to a gay experience in an assumedly heterosexual world. Reading with a sense of dandyism as a symbol for homosexuality can open questions of masculinity and homophobia in the late 19th century.
Violet Vane encounters derision and insult in most of his first meetings with others. What are the insults used against him? What are the common themes used against him? What does that tell you about what is a valued characteristic to have?
How does Miss Howard’s quest shape the actions of the male characters in the story? How does Violet Vane treat her? Dandy Dirk? Wagg? Does their behavior toward her change how her search goes?
What causes the strife between the “old-time lovers”? Why does Ione act coldly toward Violet Vane? Why might she seemed distressed to be “more” in love with him?
What is the role of violence in the story? Why does Violet Vane fight so often? What are the expectations of those watching?
At the end on the novel, what has changed to make the townspeople proud of “the Velvet Sport?”
Examine the article “Black Dandyism: When dressing got political.” How does the concept of dandyism in a marginalized community relate to dandyism in the frontier of the 19th century? Think particularly about the early responses to Violet Vane in the story.
In dime novels, dialect sometimes is used to alienate or include characters in different groups, usually racial or ethnic minorities. How does dialect include or exclude characters in this novel? Who is not written with dialect?
- Susan Lee Johnson. "'A Memory Sweet to Soldiers': The Significance of Gender in the History of the 'American West'." The Western Historical Quarterly 24, 4 (1993), 495-517.
Discusses the history of gender and sexual queering of the American West, particularly dime novels featuring women adventurers.
- Emery, Kim. "Steers, Queers, and Manifest Destiny: Representing the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century Texas." Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, 1 (1994), 26-57.
Discusses homoerotic text and subtext in dime novels and other early American popular literature, and in particular how “low” culture materials expressed social mores on topics of sexuality more clearly than “high” culture materials.
- Bedore, Pamela. "Foxy Ladies and Dandy Detectives in American Dime Novels." Studies in Popular Culture 31.1 Fall 2008, 19-37.
Examines transgressed gender in dime novels, specifically focusing on lady detectives and the trope character of the “dandy,” which includes Velvet Vane.
- Adams, James E. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Discusses Victorian dandyism, but focuses primarily on England. However, this book does an excellent job of discussing masculinity and how dandyism weaves in and out of society.
- Hill, Richard A. “You've Come a Long Way, Dude: A History.” American Speech 69, 3, 1994, 321–327.
An article about slang terms describing masculine positioning. It offers examples of levels of respectability for “dandies” and “dudes.”