Liz Reads: A Scandal in Bohemia by Gideon Haigh

Despite the title stolen from Conan Doyle, there are no brilliant detectives or glamorous, worldly courtesans in this account of the 1930 murder of a young Melbourne woman. The murder remains unsolved; A Scandal in Bohemia is more interested in the life of the victim, Mollie Dean, and her afterlife as an Australian literary muse.

Mollie was attractive, intelligent, educated and ambitious. Unfortunately, she was also a lower middle class girl from the suburbs who existed on the fringe of Melbourne’s bohemian set. As a teacher, she struggled to earn enough money to get away from her abusive mother and creepy cousin; as a writer, she fought to be taken seriously, and to find time to work. And as model and mistress to artist Colin Colahan, she had to balance her desire to learn painting, to be accepted among the artists, with the fear that she would lose her job and reputation if her identity as a nude model was discovered.

And then, walking home from the train station after midnight, having missed the last tram from St Kilda to Elwood, she was attacked, dragged into an alley, assaulted and left for dead. She survived for hours, but eventually died in hospital.

Little of Dean’s writing survives, and the fiction is pseudonymous, Haigh deducing authorship based on content, themes and — I’ve gotta say — wishful thinking. We have some of her letters, but we get our picture of Dean comes from the impressions of people around her.

Which were … well, negative. She was ambitious. Some women regarded her as lazy, or sexually aggressive, because she preferred talking art with men than waiting on them. Men complained that she dominated conversations, from which we can assume she spoke about thirty percent of the time.

Following her death, the men in her life told harrowing stories of that time they were ACCUSED of THE CRIME (they weren’t) AND ARRESTED (they weren’t) and IT WAS SO HARD (I mean, I guess?), and Mollie went on to inspire various characters in Australian literature — most written by men, and far less complicated and intelligent than her true self. In the last decade, she’s been reclaimed, if you will, by feminist artists and writers, but Haigh’s painstakingly researched book is probably as close as we’ll come to knowing the real woman.

There are really several stories here: Mollie’s life, the various depictions of her through the years, the investigation of her murder, and, finally, Haigh’s journey into the archives. It’s slightly disjointed and a little unsatisfying — Mollie never got to achieve her ambitions, her murder was never conclusively solved, and it remains sadly impossible to go back in time and kick awful men in the shins. But it’s also interesting and well-written, and gives us a glimpse into Melbourne’s rather staid interwar bohemian set, and a clique of artists who are largely — and possibly fortunately — forgotten.

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