The Law and The Lady

Probably the first crime novel with a female detective

A short review of the crime novel "The Lady and the Law" by the Victorian writer William Wilkie Collins (1824 - 1889).

I bought the book because I have been reading detective novels for a long time and was made aware of the author Wilkie Collings on Bluesky's 200th birthday. Published by Chatto and Windus, London, in 1875 under the title "The Law and the Lady", it is considered to be the first detective novel whose detective is a woman. If you want to be more precise, a lady. The novel contains elements of gothic fiction (founded by Horace Walpole with his novel "The Castle of Otranto"). In the fight against the law, the role of women in society and the omnipresent men who always know better for the young lady, the novel has its own appeal alongside the investigation and uncovering of the true story (the crime element). If only it weren't for the completely outdated translation and the many mistakes. If only I had known when I bought it what I experienced later! And so this short contribution itself contains elements of a crime sub-genre, the "Had I but known" novel - if only I had known!

Note for my English-speaking readers

This blog post is mainly about the quality of a translation into German, then somewhat expanded to include another translation of The Law and the Lady. Please judge for yourself whether this is of interest to you.

In battle with the law

The abandoned wife as a detective

The story is quickly told. Young Valeria Brinton marries Eustace Woodville against the wishes of her relatives. Soon after the wedding, it transpires that there is a terrible secret in the husband's life that nobody wants to talk about with the young bride. The husband has a false name and the husband's mother has tried in vain to prevent the wedding out of consideration for the bride. Valeria has no choice but to uncover her husband's secret. Her honour, the truthfulness of her love and the honour of her husband are at stake - in other words, everything. Of course, she has to contend with numerous obstacles and well-characterised characters. Without spoiling anything further, it turns out that her husband was on trial for the murder of his first wife and was not acquitted by a Scottish court. Instead, he was released under the so-called Scottish verdict of "not proven" in the novel. In Victorian times, this acquittal for lack of evidence was a mark of shame for the person concerned. And while the husband plunges into an unnamed war in Spain out of shame, the straw widow's love is great enough for her to want to wash away this stain on her husband's reputation.

Experienced crime readers know that poison is usually a woman's weapon in crime novels. Told from a first-person perspective, this is a thoroughly entertaining read, but the language and especially the term 'Weib' can be a real stumbling block.

Photo by Cundall, Downes & Co, Bond Street, London ~1864.
Photo by Cundall, Downes & Co, Bond Street, London ~1864. / Link :
Vull of errors

The translation and spelling

Wilkie Collins

William Wilkie Collins, born on 8 January 1824 as the son of Harriet Geddes and the London painter William Collins, lived for a time in Italy and France, then worked for a time as a tea merchant. He was an English novelist and playwright best known for The Woman in White (1859), a detective story and early sensation novel, and for The Moonstone (1868), which laid down many of the ground rules of the modern detective novel and is also perhaps the earliest clear example of the police investigation genre. After 1850 he met the author Charles Dickens, was friends with him throughout his life and collaborated with him on drama and fiction. Collins died after a long illness on 23 September 1889 at the age of 65.

Another reason I'm writing this short post is the edition I bought:

Wilkie Collins
Die Dame und das Gesetz
Erstdruck 1875. Übersetzung: Adolf von Winterfeld.
Auflage 1. Europäischer Literaturverlag GmbH, Berlin 2018
ISBN 978-3-95909-252-4

The publisher writes in the preface: The spelling has been adapted to the new German orthography and the punctuation has been carefully modernised.

Well, that's true so far. If you had ... The first thing I should have looked at is the translator. Adolf von Winterfeld (1824 - 1889) - the year of his birth and death are a strange coincidence - was a German military officer, translator and writer. I wish I had known that beforehand. So then I read:

»Nie sah ich ein Weib, das mir so sympathisch war, als Du es bist, und das mir so süßen Trost gewährte. ist hart Dich zu verlieren, es ist hart, in das freudlose Leben zurückzukehren.«

Weib? What? I hadn't yet looked carefully at the translator. So I looked it up in the original English because I thought, your English isn't that good now, maybe they still used terms for women in the 19th century that are completely outdated today. And that's true, but in a different way than I thought.

And what did it say:

»I have never found in any other woman the sympathy with me, the sweet comfort and companionship, that I find in you. Oh, it is hard to lose you! it is hard to go back again to my unfriended life!«

Now I had to learn something, because the word Weib, like other words in the German language, has undergone a deterioration in meaning over the last two centuries. In my opinion, nobody can write Weib today without it being derogatory or vilifying. It might be acceptable as a swear word. Or in a joking family context. It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries, and perhaps even in the 19th century, that it was quite common to say "Weib" until the introduction of the word "Dame" - due to the increasing French influence. "Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann / Reichen an die Gottheit an" is still said, of course, in Mozart's Magic Flute.

So there is just as much an explanation for this as there is for the language and grammar, which are sometimes a little awkward from today's perspective.

But what I don't understand at all when I spend money on a book is, firstly, poor typesetting (the letters sometimes run in strange waves) and secondly, and more significantly, really noticeably incorrect spelling. I know I'm not a very good proofreader myself, but when I do manage it, I always get someone to proofread my texts before I publish them. And I always read them out loud to myself.

But the many mistakes make reading this new translation from the 19th century a real misery. Care for a few examples?

»Erging an meiner Seite« (P. 15 Center)

» Nein Es war zwischen uns ausgemacht worden, seiner Mutter nicht zu erwähnen ...« (P. 25, two mistakes in one sentence)

»... ich habe kein anderes Gefühl als das der Sympathie für sie. Hatten sie mich vor ihrer Heirat um Rat gefragt, ...« (P. 38)

And so it goes on in the book. Am I being too picky?

Because I do a lot of digital text recognition myself, I had a hunch and had a look at what else ELV publishes. Basically all texts in the public domain whose copyright has expired. There's nothing wrong with that.

There are just the same typos that can be found in the publicly accessible translation on . Nevertheless, the text reproduced there is not the same in other parts as the one printed here.

New translation

Fresher but possibly simplified

So perhaps you should go for the new translation, which Sebastian Vogel published himself in 2018 under ISBN 978-3-746719-14-6. The title is different: "A woman wants justice"

Unfortunately, the excerpt I read on Google Books gives me hope for modern language, but unfortunately also for a simpler one that doesn't do justice to the original.

Perhaps a slightly longer extract from page 15 would make this clearer.

Adolf von Winterfeld's translation

Er wollte nicht darauf hören, sondern bat mich nur, nach Hause zu gehen und die Kleidung zu wechseln. Ich machte mir nichts aus der Durchnässung, aber ich gehorchte ihm, ohne zu wissen, warum.

Erging an meiner Seite. Mein Heimweg zum Pfarrhause war sein Heimweg zum Gasthof.

Er hatte unsere Gegend ausgesucht, erzählte er mir, nicht allein des Fischens, sondern auch der ruhigen Zurückgezogenheit wegen. Er hatte mich schon einige Male von seinem Fenster aus bemerkt; er fragte mich, ob ich des Predigers Tochter sei. Ich klärte ihn auf über meine Verhältnisse. Ich erzählte ihm, dass der Prediger meiner Mutter Schwester geheiratet, und dass die beiden dann, nach dem Tode meiner Eltern, Vater- und Mutterstelle bei mir vertreten hätten.


Sebastian Vogels translation

Er hörte nicht darauf, sondern forderte mich auf, nach Hause zu gehen und die nasse Kleidung zu wechseln. Mir machte die Nässe nichts aus, aber ich gehorchte ihm, ohne zu wissen, warum.

Er begleitete mich. Mein Rückweg ins Pfarrhaus war auch sein Rückweg zum Gasthaus.

Wie er mir erzählte, war er nicht nur wegen der Fischerei in unsere Gegend gekommen, sondern auch wegen der Ruhe und Zurückgezogenheit. Mich hatte er vom Fenster des Gasthauses aus schon ein- oder zweimal gesehen. Jetzt fragte er, ob ich die Tochter des Pfarrers sei. Ich erklärte es ihm. Ich sagte, dass der Geistliche die Schwester meine Mutter geheiratet hatte und dass die beiden seit dem Tod meiner Eltern wie Vater und Mutter zu mir gewesen waren.


In the Original (Source :

He would not hear of it; he entreated me to go home and change my wet dress. I cared nothing for the wetting, but I obeyed him without knowing why.

He walked with me. My way back to the Vicarage was his way back to the inn.

He had come to our parts, he told me, for the quiet and retirement as much as for the fishing. He had noticed me once or twice from the window of his room at the inn. He asked if I were not the vicar's daughter. I set him right. I told him that the vicar had married my mother's sister, and that the two had been father and mother to me since the death of my parents.


That's actually quite interesting. "He walked with me." becomes either »Er ging an meiner Seite.« or more modern »Er begleitete mich.«

Deepl schlägt als Übersetzung »Er begleitete mich.« und »Er ging mit mir.« vor. Poetischer und liebevoller ist aber - in meinen Augen und etwas überraschend - Adolf von Winterfelds Übersetzung.

Deepl suggests the translation "Er begleitete mich." and "Er ging mit mir.". However, Adolf von Winterfeld's translation is more poetic and loving - in my eyes and somewhat surprisingly.

»Er ging an meiner Seite.«

Isn't that the case? Isn't there more to it than just walking side by side? They walked side by side. He walked by her side. He stood by her side.

Mmh. What about:

Adolf von Winterfelds translation

Er hatte mich schon einige Male von seinem Fenster aus bemerkt

Sebastian Vogels translation

Mich hatte er vom Fenster des Gasthauses aus schon ein- oder zweimal gesehen.

Im Original

He had noticed me once or twice from the window of his room at the inn.

Seeing is - in my opinion - something different from noticing.
Maybe I'm making it too easy for myself. On the other hand, translating is very difficult and quite rightly a profession. I regularly fail at it myself, even though I keep trying.

Perhaps you would like to see for yourself? See the possible sources below

tl, dr;

Wilkie Collins' crime thriller is exciting and in parts also a portrait of 19th century morals and the role of women in the Victorian era. And, of course, you can earn money with public domain texts.But a little more effort should be made when publishing them.

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