Of the Violence of the Working Woman: Collins and Discourses on Criminality, 1860-1880

by Emma Liggins

Debates on the violent impulses of women in the 1860s and 1870s drew on and developed key ideas from discussions of female criminality current at mid- century, seeking to characterize the nature of women who deviated from the norms of Victorian femininity. The prevailing view that female criminals were more depraved than their male counterparts—that “a bad man . . . is not so vile as a bad woman”—contributed to widespread beliefs that they were “irreclaimable” creatures ruled by their “wild”, animal natures (Owen, 152, 156). However, as psychiatrists, prison officers and female philanthropists and visitors began to involve themselves in the plight of criminal women, a more balanced and sympathetic view of their nature emerged, one which took account of factors such as class inequities, lack of education and limited employment opportunities,1 and attempted to understand, rather than simply vilify, offenders. Violent women on trial in the courts generated debates on the cause of the uncontrollable impulses which prompted them to attack men or employers, as these could be attributed to mental disorders or seen as the outcome of women’s fury about the abuse they suffered.

In this article I will examine various interpretations of the violent working woman in both the press and the crime fiction of Wilkie Collins, whose novels often interrogated current definitions and explanations of the criminal nature, particularly their class and gender implications. At the beginning of a gradual shift from a “moralizing stance to psychological interpretations of the supposedly defective nature of criminal women” (Zedner, 43), both crime reports and popular fiction examined the relation between women’s passions and their violence, questioning newly-developed theories about homicidal mania and “frantic” behaviour and considering the links between abuse, social conditions for women workers and women’s resolution to kill.

Classifying the female criminal in the press

Assumptions made about the female criminal in the press drew on well-worn stereotypes of the bad woman, emphasizing her lack of control over her sexuality, her unfeminine qualities and her low social position. M.E. Owen described her as “evil” and “unchaste”, prey to lying, drunkenness and slovenliness (153-5). It was generally accepted that “women, once bad, are utterly hopeless” (Martineau, 364). According to the testimony of a woman worker in an Irish reformatory, they proved “more difficult to reclaim than men” and in need of “more surveillance” and “a stronger effort of self-control, than is usually requisite with men” (cited in Martineau, 367). In her discussions of the oppositions between criminality and the virtuous feminine ideal, Lucia Zedner makes the key point that all criminal women came to be seen as sexually deviant, “so that assessment of sexual conduct was used to measure the depth of their criminality” (32).

However, accounts of bad women were tempered by the growing recognition that economic deprivation clearly motivated many female offenders; it was noted that the majority were “from the lower class of domestic servants downwards” (Owen, 153). As Judith Knelman has argued (19, 273), after mid-century murderesses were “better understood as victims of harsh circumstances” who sought “escape or control”. Knelman’s work is typical of developments in feminist criminology which explain female crime in terms of women’s victimization in society. Frances Heidensohn has suggested that we should approach female criminals “in the context of the structure of conformity and constraint” which governs their lives, though she goes on to warn of the dangers of simplification: “if there were a simple equation that ‘poverty and powerlessness equals criminality’ girls and women would be leaders in crime waves” (Heidensohn, 192, 195). Nonetheless, the more advanced views of philanthropists, feminists and criminologists in the 1870s and 1880s moved further away from the idea of crime as a manifestation of female depravity towards an acknowledgement of the links between criminal tendencies and women’s “political powerlessness” (Zedner, 76). Luke Owen Pike, in his History of Crime in England (1876), claimed that “the more active and energetic women were, the more apt they were to end up as criminals” (cited in Morris, 52), whereas articles in feminist journals about “our unhappy sisters sunk in crime” helped to strengthen perceptions of criminal women as “somewhat pathetic victims of the social structure, of personal circumstance, or of men’s brutality” (Zedner, 74). Links between criminality and woman’s nature were then being contested around the 1870s as the political disability of women became increasingly prominent in the press, though the stereotype of the unchaste and evil female offender still remained in circulation.

Medical classification of criminals intensified from mid-century onwards as the new sciences of psychology and psychiatry opened up alternative frameworks for interpreting illegal acts, particularly those committed by women. Changes in the law reflected the increased attention paid to the supposed insanity of violent offenders. In 1860, in response to overcrowding in asylums and concern about the insanity plea in criminal trials, under the Criminal Lunatics Asylum Act Broadmoor was established as an institution for offenders pronounced insane, many of whom were convicted murderers (Smith, 23-4). After 1865, it became compulsory for prison inmates to undergo medical inspections, which revealed that large numbers of prisoners did appear to be “mentally defective” or insane (Zedner, 84). According to statistics relating to criminal trials 1860-9, out of the 686 people committed for trial, 63 were acquitted as insane and 36 found or declared to be insane, around 15% of all committed ((The Times, 31 Mar 1871, 4). Theories about the criminal impulse were developed in response to such findings. Harriet Martineau cited the opinion of a Newgate Ordinary that some criminals committed violence under “some sudden impulse or some single overwhelming temptation” (Martineau, 341), recalling medical research earlier in the century by alienists such as Esquirol and Prichard into the behaviour of homicidal maniacs, where the mind is affected by “partial” insanity (Smith, 37, 62). Legal and medical opinion was divided on this subject, as illustrated in an article in the Saturday Review considering the medical evidence on the mental states of three men recently convicted of murder. The medical confirmation of “an irresistible tendency to kill, founded on a disease of the brain” was believed to be “dangerous” by one presiding judge, leading the writer to conclude that “homicidal mania is only a morbid desire for blood” and “many so-called mental disorders are, in fact, only moral depravity” (“Homicidal Mania and Moral Insanity”, Saturday Review, 21 Mar 1863, 371-2). Despite the conservative tone of this response, it was apparent that the drive to classify violence in terms of depravity was being challenged by new theories of mental disorder, which provided alternative readings of impulsive acts.

Typically, theories of mental disorder seemed to fit more comfortably into discussions of female than male criminality, given the associations between femininity and insanity current at this time. Eliza Orme noted that women’s prisons were full of “poor creatures who are diseased and often insane” (791), while Mary Carpenter, a prison officer who conducted a study of prison inmates entitled Our Convicts (1864), claimed that “[women’s] offences are of a different character, and depend very much on impulse” (cited in Martineau, 364). Yet other female writers were not so sympathetic; whilst accepting that criminals were more likely to suffer from “hysteria, epilepsy and insanity” in which they “are unable to resist the power of a force, that usurps the direction of their functions,” Susanna Meredith felt that attributing crime to some “extraneous influence” was simply a way of denying guilt and responsibility (Meredith, 217, 223). However, the work of Henry Maudsley, the influential alienist and psychiatrist, lent scientific weight to claims that women were more liable to experience such criminal impulses; in Physiology and Pathology of Mind (1867) Maudsley considered the case of a mother’s sudden impulsive attempt to kill her daughter in terms of her “unconscious mental life” (cited in Smith, 52). In 1874 he linked irresistible criminal impulses, including violence, to “the influence of the derangement of their special bodily functions” on women, reinforcing the view of women as ruled by their menstrual cycles (cited in Zedner, 87). Theories about loss of control and unconscious activity lent force to prevalent views of woman’s nature and empirical work on female convicts, often subject to “wilful violence and passion”, leading Mary Carpenter to conclude that “the restless excitable nature of these women requires a vent in something” in order to “calm their spirits” (cited in Martineau, 365). Developments in psychiatry then tended to refocus attention on the mental states of female offenders, implying that they were not depraved but passionate, excitable and disturbed.

Despite these developments, stereotypes of violent women as passionate and lacking in control were perpetuated in the crime reports and transcripts of trials included in the daily press, which often reinforced the perception of the female criminal as sexually deviant. Women brought to trial for violence against men or adults excited curiosity, desire, revulsion and sometimes sympathy, depending on the details about their sexualities, appearances and criminal behaviour included in the press. Although the general view suggested that “aggressive, sociopathic women” did not deserve tolerance or pity, according to Knelman (229), “by mid-century the press had become adept at exploiting public interest in the criminal because she was a woman.”2 Knelman goes on to examine the disparity between the everyday drabness of murder and the image of the murderess, which acquired a sexual frisson after the celebrated trials of such glamorous criminals as Maria Manning, who in 1849 was hanged with her husband for murdering their lodger.3

Sexually dominant women and those unafraid to voice their hatred of men formed a significant subsection of violent women. Priscilla Biggadike, hanged in 1868 for the murder of her husband, had proclaimed that she “couldn’t abide” him and was vilified for the “obdurate” tone she maintained after her conviction (The Times, 12 Dec 1868, 11, and 28 Dec 1868, 10). Constant allusions were made to the rampant sexuality of Ellen Kittel, tried for the murder of her husband’s former wife in 1872: she was pregnant during her trial due to her “intense” attachment to her husband and the “criminal intercourse” they had enjoyed and she is quoted as having said of him, “That’s the man I want, and that’s the man I’ll have,” even if it meant poisoning her rival (The Times, 16 Jul 1872, 11). Many of the women tried for assault, murder or manslaughter had become involved in quarrels with husbands or lovers or were responding to violent or verbal provocation. When their crimes appeared particularly unfeminine, due to the method of killing or related behaviour, they were given harsher sentences: Ann Lane was sentenced to twelve years’ penal servitude for stabbing her lover after a drunken quarrel and Diblanc nearly executed because her use of a mallet to bludgeon her mistress was “certainly more suggestive of the man than the woman” (The Times, 7 Dec 1871, 11, and 12 Apr 1872, 8).

In the sample of cases I examined in The Times between 1867 and 1872, the word insanity was barely mentioned, though the verdict of “temporary insanity” was frequently used in cases of women indicted for the deaths of children. Reflecting changing perceptions of women’s mental states, the reports tended instead to highlight women’s excitable, passionate natures and their subjection to impulses beyond their control. In the case of Mary Sadler, indicted for feloniously wounding her lover in 1871, her epilepsy, “violent paroxysms of rage” and “hysterical attacks” are confirmed by a doctor, who claims that she became “very much excited, partly . . . from stimulants and partly from mental emotion.” Although her sexually dominant personality is linked to her violence, the judge still debated her degree of control, putting forward the notion that the act might have been “committed under circumstances of such great excitement that the mind had no time to form any intention at all.” She was ultimately found guilty of unlawful wounding, because the evidence suggested that “the state of her mind was such that she could not control herself in the use of the weapon” (The Times, 18 Aug 1871, 9). In a similar case in which the woman’s violence did result in the death of her partner, the judge used the same argument to stress Flora Davy’s guilt, claiming that “there was something like provocation on the part of the deceased, and that it was under the influence of excited feelings that this unhappy event occurred” (The Times, 17 Jul 1871, 12). Although she was proved to have stabbed Frederick Moon impulsively during a quarrel, this impulse was not linked to a specific mental disorder but to the passionate nature of women, as the prosecuting counsel reiterated phrases such as “a violent fit of passion” and “a frenzy of passion”. The prosecutor went on to imply that a woman who picked up a knife must by definition be a “woman of violent passions” and asked: “What a temper and state of mind did that exhibit?” Although Flora claimed that her lover was also behaving violently, her testimony was seen as irrelevant. In the Diblanc trial, the cook was ultimately recommended to mercy and her sentence commuted, presumably because it was felt that her attack on her mistress, “the result of sudden and irresistible impulse”, had been provoked by Madame Riel’s insults and refusal to pay her servant (“The Park-Lane Murder”, The Times, 22 Jun 1872, 9).

Issues about provocation, women’s passions and the violent impulses experienced in quarrels sparked off a debate about the distinctions between murder and manslaughter, relating to the very different sentences women might receive if premeditation could be disproved. One article asked, “is it murder rather than manslaughter if it happens in a quarrel?” and went on to caution “we hope it will not be hastily assumed that murderers who have acted under the impulse of sudden and violent passion have a claim to mercy” (The Times, 15 Jun 1872, 9). Given the equation of impulses and violent passions with violent women, this article appears to be articulating the fear that murderous women are receiving lighter sentences because of new medical theories and hence not being sufficiently punished and controlled. Whereas the medicalization of women’s fury sometimes went in their favour, it could also condemn them for responding spontaneously to provocation, particularly if it was implied that their retaliatory violence rendered them unfeminine.

However, as details of domestic abuse were more widely publicized from the late 1860s onwards, particularly by the feminist campaigner Frances Power Cobbe, crime reports began to acknowledge the extent of the provocation some women received prior to their violent acts. Morris has highlighted the violent tendencies of abused women in this period, noting that:

several individual cases publicized in the press aroused enormous public sympathy for the accused woman and corresponding outrage at the abuse which had precipitated the murder . . . After mid-century cases in which women murdered abusive husbands were not always taken to trial.

(Morris, 36-7)

Women’s disturbed mental states could then be seen as products of abuse; in the trial of Sarah Delaney for murdering her lover, it was recorded that she stabbed him “while under excitement, consequent on a blow inflicted upon her by the deceased” (The Times, 29 Apr 1871, 5).

Many other cases of violence against men include details of violence or verbal abuse by men. An unrepentant servant remanded for attempted murder in 1871 spoke out in court to the effect that “she was not to blame, that her husband treated her most cruelly, and that what she had done was only in self- defence,” a rare instance of a woman demanding that her abuse be recognized and taken into account (The Times, 13 Dec 1871, 9). In the Diblanc case and another involving an attempt by a younger servant to poison her employers, the unreasonable and offensive behaviour of employers is cited as a contributory factor, particularly the mistress’s powerful threat that she will dismiss servants without a character or pay if they do not obey her commands (The Times, 10 Aug 1871, 11). Diblanc’s lawyer dwelt on the “offensive” names her mistress used in the quarrel, claiming “any respectable girl would have felt outraged at such a suggestion, especially susceptible as she would be from the very consciousness of her respectability” (“The Park-Lane Murder”, The Times, 14 Jun 1872, 10). What is perhaps more significant is that judges and defence lawyers were beginning to emphasize the stories of abuse behind the convictions, as men’s immoral conduct was no longer unspoken. Men who had entered into illicit unions were reminded of the greater dangers that they posed for women, and their drunkenness frowned upon. Narratives which dwelt on the emotional, passionate and angry nature of women were then partially grounded in the details of their abuse at the hands of husbands, lovers and employers, so that violence could be categorized as an understandable response to allegations about sexual conduct, slurs on respectability, reminders of women’s financial dependency and continued domestic violence.

However, unlike their counterparts in France, where women were rarely seen as responsible for crimes of passion against their partners, “English judges and juries, recoiling at the havoc wreaked by furious women, saw to it that they suffered for the indulgence of their passions” (Knelman, 87). The oppression of working-class women had not yet been fully considered as one of the root causes of their passionate impulses, nor were their mental disorders always being recognized, as assumptions about sexually deviant women were still influential in the courts and in the press.

Wilkie Collins’s Violent Women: Abused or Disturbed?
According to Virginia Morris (107), “Collins . . . infuriated the critics by assailing the Victorian assumption that depravity was a primary cause of women’s criminality,” stressing the “normalcy” of the female criminal and downplaying the links between women’s sexual desires and their decision to kill. Arguably, in many of his accounts of women’s violence and the motives underlying it, often narrated by the women themselves, he considered what it means to explain crime as a response to abuse or as a result of mental disorder. He also sustained an ongoing interest in female servants whose dependency led them to cross the border between crime and respectability, drawing on fears about the class antagonism explored in the Diblanc case. As Anthea Trodd has argued, servants often played “highly visible and sinister roles” in Victorian crime plots, in particular those female servants whose “distraught appearance and unguarded utterances pose a threat of exposure” to the middle-class household (Trodd, 46, 54). Many of Collins’s novels include servant narratives and testimonies, which map out the alienation of the servant within the household, showing how their respectability is governed by a set of rigidly- defined rules. “Servants were showered with advice, abuse and admonitions,” claims Frank E. Huggett (53). They had “few rights” (Huggett, 113), and were generally regarded as criminal and unchaste. Knelman has located the homicidal inclinations of servants in their position as “abused” individuals, fighting back against oppressors; Marguerite Diblanc is only one example of a female servant who used violence to challenge her mistress’s authority (Knelman, 181).4 In the texts that I will consider below, Man and Wife (1870), the short story “Mr Policeman and the Cook” (1880),5 and The Legacy of Cain (1888), Collins focuses on female servants and working women, whose violence is rooted in their position as abused victims but who also ambiguously display the signs of mental disorder. Working women might commit murder because their dependence on employers made them feel “powerless to change the system” (Huggett, 158-59), but the fury which led to their criminal impulses did not correspond in a simple way to their sense of powerlessness.

Both Man and Wife and “Mr Policeman and the Cook” represent the respectability of servants as a cover for their violence. Servants were dependent on the goodwill of their mistresses for their characters, without which they would find it “virtually impossible to get another situation” (Huggett, 113). Both Priscilla Thurlby in the short story and Hester Dethridge in the novel are described as “trustworthy” servants; Priscilla is proclaimed to be a “good girl” quite fit for “any respectable employment” by the parson who writes her character (Collins, The Dream-Woman, 208), whilst Hester is seen as “eminently respectable”, even “one of the best cooks in England” (Collins, Man and Wife, 113). However, the latter is particularly valued because she has suffered loss of speech after an assault by her husband; Patrick Lundie’s comment, “A woman who can’ t talk, and a woman who can cook—is simply a woman who has arrived at absolute perfection” (Collins, Man and Wife, 271), ominously equates women’s silence and submission with the ideal fulfilment of a servant’s duties. Both wives and servants are described throughout the novel as behaving in a “mechanical” manner, slavishly adhering to men’s rules and the “lifetime of personal subordination” which was perceived to be their lot (Davidoff, 409). The instability of the cook’s respectability is underlined when Hester is accused of insolence by her mistress for disobeying orders and threatened with dismissal without a character. Geoffrey Delamayn also assumes that she is only “some crazed old servant . . . kept, out of charity, now” (Collins, Man and Wife, 241). It is implied that the “insolence” of servants who live “on the brink of dismissal” and must constantly kowtow to their employers might develop into acts of violence: Hester’s defiance of her mistress aligns her with criminals such as Marguerite Diblanc, and is bound up with her antagonism towards Geoffrey, who also gives her orders. The power which he is able to exert over her after reading her confession is also the power of the employer: she expresses “the same lifeless submission to him, the same mute horror of him,” which an oppressed servant might feel and is said to behave “like a machine waiting to be set in movement” (629).6

In the short story Priscilla kills Zebedee, her former lover, because of his insults; like Geoffrey, he also lodges in a house where she is employed as cook. She explains to the policeman that “her duties as a cook kept her in the kitchen—and Zebedee never discovered that she was in the house” (Collins, The Dream-Woman, 215), implying that her performance of the duties of cook, and the “virtual invisibility”to which servants were supposed to aspire (Trodd, 51), effectively facilitates her violence. In the later tale the homicidal cook appears more sinister; Priscilla is never indicted for the murder and remains “mistress of her own movements” in her search for a new situation (Collins, The Dream-Woman, 208), secure in the possession of the “good character” guaranteed by her perfection of the cook’s role.

Man and Wife also identities the abuse of the working wife as a motivating force to kill, where women’s fury can be seen as a reaction both to the exercising of male power and to a legal system which perpetuated that power. Hester’s confession rejects myths of the criminal woman as depraved in favour of economic explanations; as Morris has pointed out, “Collins repeatedly stresses the social causes of criminality—alienation, abuse, economic deprivation—and shows profound sympathy for women faced with the unpalatable choice between suffering and violence” (Morris, 106). In his earlier novel Armadale (1866), Lydia Gwilt poisons her first husband as a response to his brutality which culminates in his striking her across the face with a riding-whip. She is later pardoned because her respectable appearance in court helps to convince the public of her innocence. As Donald E. Hall notes (167), in Collins’s fiction “[t]he abused woman becomes an even more active abuser of men.”

The details of Hester’s abuse are taken from the contemporary case of Susanna Palmer, tried for assaulting her violent husband in 1869. Like Mr Palmer, Joel Dethridge subjects his wife to repeated acts of violence. He knocks out her front teeth, sells her furniture and uses her earnings to finance his drinking, both the property and the money being legally his at this time. What is significant in the Palmer case is the sympathy Susanna’s retaliatory violence provoked and the judgment passed on her husband. The Timesreport noted that “the prisoner in her defence told a touching story, which appeared to produce a very strong feeling of commiseration for her among the whole audience,” whilst the judge upbraided the husband for his “abominable” conduct and added that “very few persons who committed crime and were sentenced were half so bad as he was” (The Times, 15 Jan 1869, 9). Similarly, the provocation which Hester endured ensures that her story is also “touching”, though her capacity to carry out a premeditated act of violence makes her appear more depraved. In her Blackwood’s review of the novel, Margaret Oliphant found Hester to be both an unnatural and improbable character despite the topicality of her challenge to abusive husbands, calling her a “deathly-faced weird woman . . . [who] belongs to the category of sprites and demons” (Oliphant, 630). By contrast Hall has argued that the novel’s revelation of the “traditionally hidden, horrifying experiences of an abused woman” means that “we are in full sympathy with Hester” (Hall, 172), though I would suggest that Collins’s partial vilification of the violent woman militated against such “full sympathy” with murderers. Assault and manslaughter might inspire “commiseration” for women desperate to escape from a cycle of abuse but it still proved difficult to disengage the idea of premeditated violence from images of the murderess as demonic, unnatural and depraved, whatever the provocation she received.

In the later novel The Legacy of Cain, Collins expresses even more explicit reservations about sympathizing with women capable of such acts, opening his novel with the story of an unnamed woman awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. Although the beginning of the story takes place between 1858 and 1859, when women were more likely to be hanged for murder than in 1888, when the novel was written, it was still comparatively rare, suggesting that Collins feels the need to stress the importance of subjecting such depraved women to the ultimate punishment. We are told that:

They had lived together in matrimony for little more than two years. The husband, a gentleman by birth and education, had mortally offended his relations by marrying a woman in an inferior rank of life. He was fast declining into a state of poverty, through his own reckless extravagance, at the time when he met with his death at his wife’s hand. Without attempting to excuse him, he deserved, to my mind, some tribute of regret. It is not to be denied that he was profligate in his habits and violent in his temper. . . If his wife had killed him in a fit of jealous rage—under provocation, be it remembered, which the witnesses proved—she might have been convicted of manslaughter, and might have received a lighter sentence. But the evidence so undeniably revealed deliberate and merciless premeditation, that the only defence attempted by her trial was madness, and the only alternative left to a righteous jury was a verdict which condemned the woman to death. Those mischievous members of the community, whose topsy-turvy sympathies feel for the living criminal, and forget the dead victim, attempted to save her by means of highflown petitions and contemptible correspondence in the newspapers. But the Judge held firm; and the Home Secretary held firm. They were entirely right; and the public was scandalously wrong.

(Collins, The Legacy of Cain, 2-3)

The domestic abuse and the violent temper of the husband are all but discounted by the narrating voice of the Prison Governor, who clearly sympathizes with the male victim, as the paragraph quickly moves towards a categorization of the woman in terms of the “deliberate and merciless premeditation” behind her violent act. Despite the provocation, her act is viewed with horror because it is premeditated, rather than impulsive, the “fit of jealous rage” associated with the violent woman. The woman’s denial of madness, and the horror occasioned by her language and unrepentant attitude in prison, serve to bolster views of her “wicked” and “obdurate” nature. At this point there seems little distance between the voice of the narrator and that of the author, so that Collins unmistakably aligns himself with those who condemn her. Here the “topsy-turvy sympathies” of the public identifying with the victimized wife are overruled by the legal verdict, deemed “entirely right”. Issues of wife abuse and the exploitation of the working woman are once again glossed over and details about her life withheld as woman’s fury is once again located in her “wicked” nature.

Images of the murderess as both sexually dominant and activated by the madness of jealousy link this convicted woman to Priscilla Thurlby, who also refuses to attribute her criminality to mental disorder. Typically, the male representatives of the law, the Prison Governor and the policeman in the short story, are attracted to the women they should condemn; both men comment on the women’s bodies, and the policeman shares “delicious kisses” with Priscilla. In a short story Collins published earlier in his career, “The Dream Woman” (1855), violence is linked to sexual dominance in the figure of Rebecca Scatchard, a “fine, fair woman” who significantly attacks her husband with a knife whilst he is in bed. Priscilla stabs the lover who deserted her whilst he is sleeping in the same room as his new wife, hoping to frame her for the deed. Collins characterizes all three women in terms of their “fury” and their “frenzied”, “frantic” behaviour, linking women’s rage to their inability to sustain their sexual dominance over men. However, he also implies that this fury may be a product of either mental disorder or the menstrual cycle; Rebecca experiences furies of passion, the condemned prisoner has fits and an “outburst of rage”, and Priscilla is introduced to us as a “frantic woman” when she bursts into the police station. Women’s fury is thus used to signal the possibilities of mental disturbance in sexualized female criminals but only in order to distract readers from the more threatening notion that such frantic behaviour may be only a cover for women’s capacity to commit “merciless”, premeditated violence.

In Man and Wife, Collins defines madness in terms of the loss of control, inviting a consideration of women’s ability to control their actions in a society bent on confining them. Lillian Nayder’s view that Collins treats Hester’s crime as “the logical outcome of her own victimization under common law” needs to be modified by a consideration of explanations of criminality based on women’s control over their minds as well as their property (Nayder, 98; see also Hall, 173). Hester, like the condemned woman in The Legacy of Cain, denies her own madness on the grounds that mad people are those who “have lost control over their own minds” (Collins, Man and Wife, 591), acknowledging that her violence was premeditated: “If my husband came back to me, my mind was made up to kill him” (594). Reflecting the clash over the workings of the will by medical and legal authorities, the text draws attention to Hester’s control over her own mental processes whilst also indicating that if she is perfectly sane, her behaviour is threateningly subversive. As Knelman has argued (88, 227, 273), the murder of husbands was seen as subversive and links murder to resistance and the attempt to gain control. In Man and Wife, Hester’s behaviour is subjected to medical scrutiny, due to her loss of speech: we are told that “medical men consulted about her case, discovered certain physiological anomalies in it, which led them to suspect the woman of feigning dumbness, for some reason best known to herself” (113). The subtext of her decision to live “a separate and silent life” (604), as a way of setting her “guilty self” apart from others, is that she refuses to speak as a further act of resistance to her employers. Even when Geoffrey has discovered that the dumbness is not the product of a nervous condition, she still refuses to speak, preferring to communicate with him by writing on her slate as if to emphasize the distance between employer and servant and her own “separateness”. The behaviour which is construed as mad by previous employers, the “strange impulses” and “sudden panics” which seize her periodically, affects her ability to work, at one point leading her to complain of being “overworked with all the company in the house” (247), but she is able to control her reactions to the delusions in order to keep her situations. Susanna Palmer, said to be in “a state of great excitement and mental distress,” had begged a policeman to restrain her after her assault on her husband, claiming that “she could not control her feelings, and, if left alone, . . . feared that she would ‘finish’ him before the morning” (The Times, 15 Jan 1869, 9). In contrast, Hester’s violence stems from her ability to control her fury to the extent that she is able to “finish” her husband and his abuse without feeling the need to be restrained by the law.

Having said this, it is undeniable that Collins also implies that some of his murderous women are suffering from the partial insanity of homicidal mania. Morris has contended that he effectively “rejected biomedical explanations [for women’s violence]” perhaps because “they are so often employed . . . to denigrate women.” She claims that “he never suggests, as his medical contemporaries would have done, that the hallucinations that tempt Hester Dethridge to murder may be related to menopause” (Morris, 109). I think this is a reductive reading of Hester’s mental state, not least because the admission “there was a change coming” (Collins, Man and Wife, 588) in her confession can surely be read in this light. Hester’s descriptions of the “overpowering strength of the temptation” (606) to kill and the delusions in which an outside force, “the vision of MY OWN SELF” (605), orders her to kill, again recall Maudsley’s and Meredith’s recordings of violent women whose unconscious impulses are attributed to Satan. In Priscilla’s confession, she explains her violence in the same way: “the devil entered into me” and “the thought came to me to do it” (Collins, The Dream-Woman, 215). Hester’s condition is later described unequivocally as “the homicidal frenzy raised in her by the hideous creation of her own distempered brain” (Collins, Man and Wife, 606). In his research on homicidal mania, however, Prichard demonstrated that this kind of violence was distinguished by a lack of motive, the number of victims killed and lack of accomplices and escape plans, none of which apply to Hester’s case; in 1863 Crichton Browne claimed that it revealed “reflex functions out of control” (Smith, 62, 53). In the final scene where in a “homicidal frenzy” she flies at Geoffrey’s throat “like a wild beast”, she still appears to be challenging medical readings of women’s impulses. Geoffrey’s fears that the premeditated murder of his wife in which she is assisting him might be “more than the woman’s brain can bear” (Collins, Man and Wife, 636) are ridiculed as she effectively causes his death, liberating Anne Silvester from her abusive husband and freeing herself from an employer who sought to control her behaviour. This final act of feminine wildness, however, cannot go unpunished, as Hester is confined for life in an asylum, an “unhappy woman”, “unconscious of her dreadful position” and “resigned to the existence that she leads” (639), rather as if she is returned to the subordinate position of an oppressed servant. The threat of women’s control over their violent impulses has to be contained in order to recast their passionate fury in terms of mental derangement.

Violent women in both newspaper reports and Collins’s crime fiction were then depicted as passionate and angry, capable of both premeditated murder and impulsive acts of violence. Whilst the provocation received by working women abused by men and employers ensured varying degrees of sympathy for their crimes in the courts and in the press, there was still a tendency to interpret their lack of control over their actions as horrific, unfeminine and a clear sign of mental disorder. Social explanations of female criminality gave way to biomedical interpretations, as the uncontrollable impulses attending homicidal mania and other mental disorders were given more credence. In his focus on female servants and working women bound by their dependency on husbands and employers, Collins explored the relation between economic, sexual and biomedical accounts of female violence, suggesting that women’s fury could be interpreted either in terms of class oppression or mental disturbance. As Knelman points out, “there is a fine line dividing murderous rage from insanity” (137). In the variety of working-class women killers he portrayed, the links between female violence and a loss of control attendant on mental disorder are contested as women’s passions and fury have more complex causes. Discourses on female violence from the 1860s to the early 1880s, when theories about the criminal nature provided a variety of contradictory views on female offenders, acknowledged new medical perspectives but had not entirely disengaged themselves from entrenched stereotypes of criminal women, so that the fury of the working woman was never adequately explained.

Works Cited

(Unsigned articles in Victorian newspapers are cited fully in the text but excluded here.)

Collins, Wilkie. The Dream-Woman and other Stories. Ed. Peter Miles. London: Phoenix, 1998.

_________. The Legacy of Cain. Ed. William M. Clarke. 1888; Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1995.

_________. Man and Wife. Ed. Norman Page. 1870; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Davidoff, Leonore. “Mastered for Life: Servant and Wife in Victorian and Edwardian England.” In Journal of Social History 7 (1974) 406-28.

Hall, Donald E. Fixing Patriarchy: Feminism and Mid-Victorian Male Novelists. London: Macmillan, 1996.

Heidensohn, Frances. Women and Crime. 1985; London: Macmillan, 1996.

Horn, Pamela. The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1975.

Huggett, Frank E. Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian Times. London: John Murray, 1977.

Knelman, Judith. Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

[Martineau, Harriet.] “Life in the Criminal Class.” In Edinburgh Review 122 (1865) 337-71.

Meredith, Susanna. A Book about Criminals. London: Ballantyne Press, 1881.

Morris, Virginia B. Double Jeopardy: Women who Kill in Victorian Fiction. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997.

[Oliphant, Margaret.]. Review of Man and Wife. In Blackwood’ s 108 (1870) 628-31.

Orme, Eliza. “Our Female Criminals.” In Fortnightly Review NS 63 (1898) 790-96.

Owen, M.E. “Criminal Women.” In Cornhill 14 (1866) 152-60.

Pike, Luke Owen. History of Crime in England. London: Smith and Elder, 1876.

Smith, Roger. Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.

Trodd, Anthea. Domestic Crime in the Victorian Novel. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Zedner, Lucia. Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.


  1. See, for example, the views of Susanna Meredith, a prison visitor, who links crime to “want of proper discipline” (236), and Owen’s more constructive comments about the lack of training and education available to poor women (153). []
  2. Knelman notes that this was partly because few women hanged for murder at this time: in the period 1861-70 only 7 out of the 124 people hanged for this offence were women. []
  3. See the discussion in Knelman, 14. Female violence was also likely to be associated with “foreignness” at this time; both Manning and Marguerite Diblanc, a cook who murdered her employer in 1871, were Belgian and accounts of French women murdering their husbands in “crimes of passion” appeared in the English press.See, for example, the reports of a French woman who stabbed and mutilated her husband and of the group of French women who had poisoned their husbands, respecitvely in (The Times, 16 Jul 1868, 10, and 11 Dec 1868, 5. []
  4. Knelman also discusses the trials of Hannah Dobbs in 1877 and Kate Webster in 1879, who were both found guilty of murdering their mistresses. []
  5. The story was originally published under the title “Who Killed Zebedee?” on 24 Dec 1880 in the Bolton Weekly Journal and other weekly newspapers, syndicated by Tillotsons of Bolton, as well as in The Spirit of The Times (New York) on 25 Dec 1880, but was retitled “Mr Policeman and the Cook” when reprinted in Little Novels in 1887. []
  6. Trodd (66) has argued that Hester “with her professional expertise [and] satisfactory dumbness . . . seems to summarize all the threats which Victorian fiction attributed to servants.” []

Of the Violence of the Working Woman: Collins and Discourses on Criminality, 1860-1880 by Emma Liggins
The Wilkie Collins Journal 03 (2000)

[ back to top | more articles ]

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Share or save this page