Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman part II

Continuing from Part 1:

The chapter concerning Madeleine Smith and Angélina Lemoine involves murders that occurred as the result of sexual relations outside of marriage. The common thread here 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.  The Lemoine case is interesting for the argument that Victoire Lemoine (Angélina’s mother), who was obviously the main instigator in the murder, was judged not as much as for the crime but for her “Voltairean beliefs, her separation from her husband, and most importantly, her ‘failure’ as a mother,” and the judge zeroed in on the “pernicious literature” Angélina was allowed to read.  While it’s impossible to argue that Angélina’s reading did not play a role in her relationship with the family’s coachman, rather than blame the literature itself, these days we should rather blame the isolated, sterile life Angélina led in which reading added the only available avenue for romance and escape.

Vicorian murderessesWith the reconstruction of the Constance Kent case, the author built an alternative scenario which seemed somewhat questionable, but in the case of Célestine Doudet, a solid case is argued for the homeopathic doctor father’s complicity in deaths of his daughters at the hands of their French governess. The widowed Dr Marsden placed the care of his 5 daughters under the care of Célestine Doudet with explicit directions regarding the manner in which one of the girls was to be ‘cured’ of masturbation. The case against Doudet is clouded by the father’s negligence, instructions, and sexual paranoia. It’s incredible that so many people ‘investigated’ allegations brought by a concerned neighbor, and yet the abuse continued until it could no longer be concealed. The appalling mistreatment of the children, although ostensibly to ‘cure’ sexual behaviour, includes an element of sexual masochism and sexual frustration, and the subsequent case against the governess opened the door onto Victorian sexual repression & corporal punishment (this chapter includes the mention of clitoridectomy–the Victorian cure for masturbation and the development of a locked ‘panty-girdle’ device in use at many boarding schools) ; those Victorians found more ways to not talk about sex than anyone else and that indeed seems to be the case here. Murder and its justification boiled down to the question of masturbation, and just how far one should go to stop it.

The pathetic result of the case was its reduction to the question of whether or not the Marsden girls were or were not masturbators. In the process the children were forced to be as much defendants in the proceedings as Célestine Doudet. Both sides, after all, accepted masturbation as a morally culpable act which produced recognizable physical consequences. The children, then were literally on trial.

I’m not going to delve into the whole book, but chapter 4, for this reader, was the most fascinating in the book. Titled The New Woman, this chapter examines the cases of Florence Bravo and Henriette Francey, both examples of the ‘new woman’ whose increased visibility in society “expanded her theoretical opportunities to raise the moral tone of society [but] it had also, according to observers, made her recognizably more open to dangerous and corrupting influences.”  Sexual improprieties lay at the heart of the cases of Florence Bravo and Henriette Francey. Newspapers of the day went wild with the Florence Bravo case–not only had she separated from her first husband, she had a married lover in her past and had the audacity to dye her hair red! Florence Bravo was a wealthy, independent woman who’d escaped the noose of a miserable marriage only to find that she was in the same state shortly after marrying for the second time. Henriette Francey, also a married woman, shot her victim, hunting him down when he fled her home and finished him off in front of witnesses while stating that she hoped he was dead. Her defense was that the man she shot had tried to rape her–although that version of events becomes somewhat suspect as the chapter continues.  This story’s notoriety was magnified by the dead man’s reputation; he was called  “Don Juan of the subprefecture” by the newspapers.

The author states that the Francey case was just one of many of a “growing number of cases since the 1870s in which women were committing acts of criminal violence and successfully defending themselves by pleading honour or revenge.” Chivalry played no small role in both cases, and when questioned, both of the accused women fell back to, or relied on traditional views of Victorian women, and in these cases, those traditional views of women saved both of the accused. Henriette’s version of events–that she allowed a man who’d try to rape her once–back into the house and was alone with him a second time, while she armed herself a revolver ‘just in case,’ makes little sense, but there was a great deal of intelligent strategic planning; she clearly modeled her case on that of a similar crime involving a certain Mme. Hugues. Witnesses testified that the victim was a relentless Lothario, and thanks to the appeal of her argument, Henriette Francey was acquitted to the sound of cheers. ” She emerged, for the jury  at least, as another of the favorite female creature is Victorian imagination, the wronged woman.”  The author builds a plausible version of the true events of this case, and if she’s correct, then Henriette Francey committed the perfect murder.

Review copy



Filed under Hartman Mary S, Non Fiction

9 responses to “Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman part II

  1. So Lemoine was like Emma Bovary, but pushed a bit farther into desperate straits. It’s incredible that the defendant’s diet of literature entered into the trial, and interesting to think of romantic literature specifically as an outlet for sexual repression – even before Harlequin came along to offer its bodice-ripper book covers.

    • And literature comes up repeatedly in these cases–not all of them but when it crops up, it’s a really big deal. While much is made of the impression books had on the minds of these women as far as the courts, the author makes a potent argument that books did impact the minds of these women and give them expectations or skewed expectations, I should say.

  2. The story of the way that these murders were dealt with by society seems so outright crazy by today’s sensibilities. The stories surrounding the crimes of course are still fascinating.

    Thanks for the great commentary on this one Guy. I am considering reading it.

    • I like the way the author concentrated on the circumstances that led these women to either committing crimes or being accused of committing crimes, and society’s reaction to the cases rather than concentrating on the nitty gritty details of the crimes themselves.

  3. I think it’s importnat to underline that literature may have influenced tjem but only to that extent because they had no real life.

  4. Many of the women, the single ones, weren’t around men at all, and it’s clear when you read the book, that Angélina, for example, just grabbed the first one that came along who happened to be the coachman. Then she made a romantic hero out of him . Reading books must have been a tremendous escape for them.

  5. Fascinating. In a way, it reminds me of Balzac in Lettres de deux jeunes mariées.

    I wasn’t aware that France was so conservative at that time. Reading this, I understand better the trial about Madame Bovary.

    This thing about literature corrupting the mind. For me (not surprisingly) the problem doesn’t come from the books but from the closeted society. These girls had no experience of life, nothing to confront what they were reading to. If they had had a better knowledge of real life, they wouldn’t have read these books or they would have read them with a conscious suspension of belief, knowing perfectly this was not what love or relationships are. Am I making sense? In other words, I don’t think that women who read Harlequins believe that what these novels describe is real; they know it’s not; they indulge in something they find entertaining.

    • Yes I understand what you mean and that’s my conclusion too. While the books some of these women read played a part in their thinking, it was more a problem that their lives were so confined that they envisioned escape as portrayed in fiction. They had no other avenues and most of them couldn’t even talk to men alone.

      I’m working on a long post about this subject.

  6. PS: beautiful landscape. I liked the tortoise, though…

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