Damaging females : representations of women as victims and perpetrators of crime in the mid-nineteenth century
This thesis explores, and seeks an historical interpretation of, representations of women both as victims and perpetrators of crime in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Moving beyond how criminal offences were defined, perceived and disciplined, the analysis highlights their broader social and cultural contexts and effects. Focusing primarily on media accounts and literary narratives of "sensational" and serious cases, it argues that the treatment of crimes of spousal murder, sexual violence and infanticide can be read for cultural and political meanings. At a time when the technological and commercial abilities to satisfy the public appetite for crime stories were rapidly expanding, these narratives became a significant arena in which social preoccupations, anxieties, and conflicts were symbolically explored. As forms of cultural production, therefore, crime narratives constituted, communicated and contested social and political values relating, for example, to issues of class and gender, morality and character, public order and the body. At the heart of this study, therefore, lies the opportunity to explore how the female figures of such accounts, whether murdering women or rape victims, related to their wider world. Unlike court proceedings and legal records, which were accessed by a small minority only, many of the sources on which this analysis is based were produced for popular consumption; they were available to an increasing audience. Thus, local newspaper reporting of Assizes cases are examined alongside the national press, the writings of middle class reformers and social commentators, and a range of literary texts including broadsides, melodramas, "respectable" novels and cheap, sensational fiction. Graphic illustration provides an additional site of representation, particularly influential as it could be read by everyone including the wholly illiterate. However, crime narratives cannot be treated as simple windows into the past - they constitute particularly constructed images, fashioned in accordance with journalistic practices, commercial enterprise and literary conventions as well as the cultural and power dynamics of the period. Female criminals and victims of crime in early Victorian society were defined as damaging and damaged; in order to explore the wider social meaning of these representations close textual analysis of primary sources is allied with a detailed identification and contextualisation of the specificities of the different narrative forms.