I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Thirteen Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman. Originally I thought I was going to read the details of the cases, but while the cases are covered, the book’s emphasis is on the circumstances that lead to murder, and if the women were (possibly) innocent, what led them to being accused and society’s reaction to these women who seemed to be the antithesis of everything Victorian Womanhood was supposed to be.
The book takes a different, much less sensationalistic approach than let’s say a ‘true crime’ book, but one of the issues brought up by the author sticks out, and that is the role of literature in some of the crimes examined here. Repeatedly, during the trials, the reading material consumed by these women became an issue, and an explanation for their deviant behaviour.
The author argues that in the cases of both Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy architect, who lived in Glasgow and Angélina Lemoine, the daughter of a lawyer, “their educations, in different ways, contributed to their decisions” to engage in actions that led to murders that occurred as the result of sexual relations outside of marriage. The common thread here between the two cases is that both women, fed a steady diet of romantic literature, initiated sexual relationships laced with faux romantic ideals, which compromised their social standing, and that they then took actions to remedy their errors. Both young women had a less-than-stellar education, but that’s hardly unusual for the times; Madeleine Smith attended Mrs. Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies near London, a finishing school with a drab daily programme of “prayers, piano lessons and practice, walking trips, discussions of current affairs, needlework, and most important, deportment.”
Madeleine Smith was eventually accused of murdering her lover with arsenic, and although there was considerable circumstantial evidence pointing to her guilt, the Scottish jury returned the verdict of “not proven.” Angélina Lemoine was accused and later acquitted of murdering a baby born out-of-wedlock. Since the murder took place immediately after the birth, and with Angélina’s mother in charge making all the arrangements for the disposal of the infant’s body, it’s obvious that she made the fatal decision to kill the newborn baby.
Both trials included evidence from letters written from the accused women to their lovers. Most of us don’t expect our letters to be read out in public, let alone in a court of law, and it’s in these letters that the issue is raised of just what these young women were reading. Madeleine, in her letters to her lover “announced her intention to abandon Byron, who stood, she knew, for all that was unhealthy and impure.” Angélina Lemoine’s father wrote her a letter (her parents were separated) in which he admonished her to read history (“a lot of it“) and travel literature.
But above everything do not read these products of the imagination of our so-called modern men of letters, these novelists, the reading of whose works leaves nothing behind, either in the heart or the memory.
Angélina adored the novels of George Sand–including The Confessions of Marion Delorme, a 17th century courtesan, and Angélina, clearly a precocious girl who was eager for sexual experience, saw herself as the heroine in a George Sand novel, at one point stating that “her pregnancy was “the only way to complete my novel.’”
Marie Lefarge, convicted of the arsenic poisoning of her husband, is another woman who seemed to want to live in a romantic novel. Marriage to Charles Lefarge was less than ideal, and Marie, another fan of George Sand, took drastic measures to end the relationship. Author Mary S. Hartman makes the point that “the natural result for the avid readers of such fiction, especially given their limited experience, must have been the creation of a huge ‘credibility gap’ as the realities of actual courtship and marriage in their society dawned on them. But documented evidence of such casualties among bourgeois daughters is difficult to uncover, except in literary portraits themselves, such as Emma Bovary.”
Another point made in Mary Hartman’s book Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes is that so many ‘respectable’ 19th C women, fascinated by the headlines of murder by ‘respectable’ women, dashed off to the courts to hear the juicy details of these crimes. But is that so surprising given the popularity of Sensation fiction–books that delve into the deep, dark depths of pathological male/female relationships? In the book’s conclusion, Hartman brings up Sensation fiction and how it subverts the “stereotypes of the domestic novel” and that the characters “display ‘female anger, frustration, and sexual energy.’ ” (Elaine Showalter).
Since I began reading Victorian Sensation fiction, I’ve become fascinated with the genre. In an art-mirrors-life-way, Sensation fiction seemed to fit perfectly with Mary S. Hartman’s scholarly book about Victorian Murderesses. M.E. Braddon doesn’t shy away from those lurid topics of murder, blackmail and bigamy, and let’s not forget that in The Doctor’s Wife, (written by Braddon as a response to Madame Bovary’s “hideous immorality,”) poor Isabel’s mind is ruined by Sensation fiction. Of course, Braddon can’t be serious about Flaubert since her own novels were also criticized as immoral. Perhaps she is having a laugh, I think at her notoriety, and why not? That very notoriety gave her a career. Nonetheless, Isabel’s dreams of romance lead her to a sad little marriage, and then once shackled for life, she meets a man, a romantic hero, who could very well have walked out of the pages of one of her books.
Victorian Sensation literature is aptly named and great fun, but I’m going to throw another name out here now–a writer who scandalized, whose books were censored and labeled ‘obscene.’ Yes, Zola. Hardly Sensation fiction since it lacks all the melodrama and convenient coincidence, but nonetheless Zola bravely confronted the issue of the unhappily married woman and how women ‘fit’ into 19th century society. Just consider the female characters he created:
Therese Raquin–another woman locked in a loveless marriage, a woman with sexual desires which combined with a “duplicitous nature” lead to an explosive adulterous relationship and murder. Then think of all the women in Zola’s Rougon–Macquart cycle: Gervaise worked to death in a three-way relationship by two exploitive men, and Nana, one of Paris’s most popular prostitutes. In La Bête Humaine, Severine commits adultery and then conspires with her cuckolded husband to murder her lover. Charming. In The Kill, Renee has an adulterous affair with her step-son. The Conquest of Plassans gives us a masochistic woman whose misplaced sexual desires land on religion before she turns into a pyromaniac. In The Earth, two sisters turn on each other. Zola isn’t afraid to show his readers bitterly unhappily marriages and the way people try to compensate and cope with those devilishly difficult relationships.