Violent Women and Sensation Fiction: Crime, Medicine and Victorian Popular Culture

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Based on a doctoral thesis at the University of Sheffield supervised by Sally Shuttleworth, with Jenny Bourne Taylor as external examiner, Violent Women and Sensation Fiction is the first monograph by Andrew Mangham, who has recently taken up a tenured position at Reading University. The result is in many ways a worthy successor to Taylor’s In the Secret Theatre of Home (1988) and Shuttleworth’s Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (1996). In his book, Mangham treats the idea of the violent woman as it is encountered not only in works of fiction of the mid-Victorian period, but also in contemporary accounts of cases in the criminal courts and in the prevailing medical discourses of mind and body. In attempting to draw all three strands together into a single “complex web” (210), Mangham is above all concerned to investigate the challenges that this pattern of representation created for a domestic ideology centring on Patmore’s image of the “angel in the house”.

The violent women in question are found in a range of around thirty sensational works, principally from the 1860s and by Wilkie Collins, Ellen Wood, and Mary Braddon. They begin with but are by no means restricted to the “usual suspects”, Lydia Gwilt in Armadale, Isabel Vane from East Lynne, and Lady Audley herself. As recorded in his bibliography, Mangham makes significant use of more than a dozen criminal trials. These of course include notorious examples like the Madeline Smith case of 1857 (the poisoning by arsenic of a lover in Glasgow), and the Constance Kent case of 1860 (the bloody murder of her little brother in Road, Somerset), which coincided with the sensation boom and have often been considered in relation to it in recent criticism; but also dealt with in some detail are earlier and lesser known examples, such as the Maria Manning case of 1849 (the battery and fatal shooting of a soldier in London’s East End) and the Mary Ann Brough case of 1854 (the cut-throat massacre of six of her own children in Esher, Surrey). Mangham also cites around fifty medical sources, including journal articles as well as single volumes, almost all written by male professionals for a specialist male readership. The most prominent are the works of Jean Esquirol in the 1830s, Forbes Winslow in the 1840s and 50s, and Henry Maudsley in the 1860s and 70s, all of which engage to a greater or lesser extent with the complex question of the relations between the female body, mental disorder, and legal responsibility.

The book thus opens with two chapters where the primary focus is on court records and clinical theories; literary echoes and parallels are duly noted here but are assigned a subsidiary role. The first deals with general legal and medical profiles of three phases of female violence, from childhood and adolescence, through maternity and motherhood, to aging and senescence. The second describes the main preoccupations during the lengthy press coverage of the Road Murder case, before analyzing how those representations of female aberrance are refracted consciously and unconsciously in three specific literary works: Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (1863), Wood’s St Martin’s Eve (1866), and Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). The remaining three chapters dwell in turn on the dangerous feminine in a range of works by that trio of writers, in each case drawing attention explicitly to parallel problematics in medical and legal writings. It is perhaps only because her work has received the least sustained critical attention that the chapter on domestic disruption in Wood’s novels seems to cover most new ground (the section on “evil heritages” in The Shadow of Ashlydat is especially acute); there is also much that is highly original in the treatment of sexual violence in Braddon, and of mental disease in Collins. Altogether, Mangham’s meticulously researched, neatly organized and carefully argued thesis represents the most stimulating contribution to sensation fiction studies to have appeared for quite some time.

Yet Mangham’s study does have its weak points. Often the delight in metaphorical correspondence prevents sustained attention to a particular train of thought, so that, for example, the distinct medical discourses of Esquirol, Winslow and Maudsley all seem to merge into a single symphonic refrain, making it difficult to detect dialectic or development. Sometimes the close textual analysis of literary symbolism seems to derive less from mid-Victorian psychological preoccupations than from classical Freudianism. This is especially true in the Braddon chapter, where the lush metaphorical pastures of her prose provide a rich harvest if you wish to gather sexual signs in the shape of orifices or protuberances. For me, though, the biggest problem concerns the casually ahistorical employment of the third term in Mangham’s triadic sub-title, “popular culture”. It is simply not the case, as claimed in the Introduction, that Braddon, Wood and Collins “were the best-selling writers of their period” (3). As Collins himself noted perceptively in “The Unknown Public”, the family magazines in which their work was typically serialized, such as All the Year Round and Temple Bar, reached a bourgeois readership measured only in the tens of thousands, whereas penny-fiction-journals like the Family Herald and London Journal addressed a proletarian audience measure in the hundreds of thousands. Mangham’s book has nothing to say about the representations of women in the serial stories found in the columns of periodicals such as these. (The most luridly melodramatic tales that Mangham discusses, Braddon’s first novel Three Times Dead (1860) and Mary Fortune’s “The White Maniac” (1867), were in fact addressed to a proletarian audience, respectively in weekly penny parts and in the Melbourne Australian Journal, a cheap fiction weekly, but Mangham shows no awareness of this and indeed cites the stories in modern editions based on later versions.) In the same way, if this volume were truly concerned with popular culture, the author would have needed to consult reporting of violent crimes by women, not only in a prestigious journal of record like The Times, but also in cheap papers like the Illustrated Police News. In sum, while the author is outstanding at drawing parallels, he is less successful in tracing series; he enjoys plumbing psychological and ideological depth but tends to avoid charting historical continuity or change. All the same, the fact that I am inclined to make such unreasonable demands of promising young scholar should be taken as a sign of the high expectations aroused by this stimulating book. I look forward to Mangham’s subsequent work.