Double Jeopardy

Double Jeopardy: Women Who Kill in Victorian Fiction

Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 192
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    Double Jeopardy
    Book Description:

    Murder fascinates readers, and when a woman murders, that fascination is compounded. The paradox of mother, lover, or wife as killer fills us with shock. A woman's violence is unexpected, unacceptable. Yet killing an abusive man can make her a cultural heroine.

    InDouble Jeopardy, Virginia Morris examines the complex roots of contemporary attitudes toward women who kill by providing a new perspective on violent women in Victorian literature. British novelists from Dickens to Hardy, in their characterizations, contradicted the traditional Western assumption that women criminals were "unnatural." The strongest evidence of their view is that the novelists make the women's victims deserve their violent death. Yet the women characters who commit murder are punished because their sympathetic Victorian creators had internalized the cultural biases that expected women to be passive and subservient.

    Fictional women, like their real-life counterparts, were doubly guilty: in defying the law, they also defied their gender role. Because they were "unwomanly," they were thought worse than male criminals -- more vicious and more incorrigible. At the same time, they often got special treatment from the police and the courts simply because they were women. These contradictory attitudes reveal the critical significance of gender in defining criminal behavior and in fixing punishments.

    Morris provides literary and historical background for the novelists' ideas about women killers and traces the evolving notion that abused or misused women were capable of using justifiable -- if unforgivable -- violence. She argues that the criminal women in Victorian literature epitomize the ambivalent position of women generally and the particular vulnerability of a deviant minority. Her book is a valuable resource for readers concerned with criminology, literature, and feminist studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6376-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION. Twice Guiltty: The Double Jeopardy of Women Who Kill
    (pp. 1-7)

    When women murdered in Victorian fiction, they struck home literally and metaphorically. Their victims were usually their husbands, lovers, or children; their crimes almost always occurred in a domestic setting. In committing murder, these otherwise ordinary women also struck hard at the cherished image of Victorian womanhood—the gentle, nurturing guardian of morality and the home.

    Violent crimes committed by women characters focused new attention on the motives for these desperate and unexpected acts. Even the most misogynistic reader had to acknowledge that women did not commit random murder. The simple equation linking unbridled sexuality to criminality did not explain...

  5. ONE The Worst of Women: Sisters in Crime
    (pp. 8-25)

    In creating characters who break the law and suffer for it, writers have articulated a society’s discomfort with crime and affirmed its expectation of punishment. Yet at the same time, the recurrent emphasis on the lawbreakers themselves stresses the fascination they, and their deviant behavior, hold for readers. More often than not criminals are the subjects, the protagonists, the heroes of literature. If they kill, however, their culpability is characteristically made somehow ambiguous. The western literary tradition that extends from Greek and Hebraic civilization to the twentieth century deems killing another human wrong and demands recompense. But victim, motive, circumstance,...

  6. TWO Women and Victorian Law: A Curious Chivalry
    (pp. 26-54)

    Victorian women were exalted as morally superior but treated as legally, intellectually, psychologically, and biologically inferior to men. They were credited with shaping England’s greatest achievements; their “decorum, respect, and propriety” were revered, in part to muffle agitation for real autonomy.¹ Yet they were unable to vote or to control their own property. In fact, until late in the century, married women had no legal identity apart from their husbands. The laws and traditions which relegated women to second-class status were defended—often vociferously—as the best way to protect them from anxiety and safeguard their special role as mothers...

  7. THREE Charles Dickens: The Fiercest Impulses
    (pp. 55-71)

    Charles Dickens was an astute observer of a society where strife among intimates was often the norm. He built his fiction around the parents and children, husbands and wives, teachers and pupils, and partners in business who were embroiled in turmoil that frequently turned violent before it was resolved.¹ Half of that society were women, some of them victims of violence and others the perpetrators, and the novelist, with certain reluctance, included both kinds. While many—perhaps most—of his heroines seem insipid to the modern reader, his unconventional and sometimes physically violent women have a vitality the good women...

  8. FOUR George Eliot: My Heart Said, “Die!”
    (pp. 72-87)

    Women who consider violent solutions to their misery and despair appear throughout George Eliot’s fiction fromScenes of Clerical Life(1858) toDaniel Deronda(1876). Nearly all are English, representing all social classes. The warring urges within them are resolved only when they sublimate their rage and sacrifice themselves for another’s (usually a man’s) wellbeing, adhering to the Christian, Victorian model of acceptable womanly behavior. Those women incapable of self-denial follow a more troubled path, pitching themselves and their domestic environments into turmoil. But it would be a mistake to think, based on this pattern, that Eliot’s treatment of women...

  9. FIVE Mary Elizabeth Braddon: The Most Despicable of Her Sex
    (pp. 88-104)

    The women who shoot, poison, stab, steal, and blackmail their way through the sensation novels of the 1800s changed the nature of crime and criminals in Victorian fiction. These women are more ambitiously independent and less sexually repressed than traditional heroines, and their criminality is pervasive, violent, and even bizarre. Like comparable characters in other Victorian literature, they reaffirm the nineteenth-century precept that female sexuality and criminality are inextricably intertwined. But they also introduce the revolutionary idea that women are capable of committing almost any crime to achieve their personal goals. Ironically, those goals are almost always highly conventional: romantic...

  10. SIX Wilkie Collins: No Deliverance but in Death
    (pp. 105-126)

    Wilkie Collins, writing in the same decade and same genre as Braddon, was bolder in creating criminal women. Using sensational elements to startle and shock, he structured his work around people rather than events at the same time that he deliberately challenged the conventions of middle-class Victorian society. His women are more realistic and their motives more complex than those of most sensation novelists, in part because he was more adept at character development. But he was also convinced that women were not only as intelligent and determined as men, but equally convulsed by the agonies of moral choice and...

  11. SEVEN Thomas Hardy: A Desperate Remedy
    (pp. 127-142)

    Dickens and Eliot portrayed their women criminals (and wouldbe criminals) as complex characters. They touched, sometimes very delicately, on the questions that female criminality posed in mid-Victorian England: how could a true woman kill and how was she to be judged? The sensation writers like Braddon and Collins added bizarre touches—murder victims thrown down wells and suspected killers imprisoned in insane asylums—but emphasized the link between physical and psychological abuse in a woman’s decision to murder. By 1889, Thomas Hardy was prepared to develop the character of the Victorian woman criminal—in the person of Tess Durbeyfield—to...

  12. EIGHT Arthur Conan Doyle: Vengeance Is Hers
    (pp. 143-151)

    At the very end of the Victorian era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote crime fiction that made his detective Sherlock Holmes a protagonist par excellence. The women in Doyle’s Holmes stories are generally dismissed as trivial, no match for the detective or Dr. Watson. True, many of them are ciphers, pale ladies who need to be rescued by clever, strong men from the abusive behavior of other men or the rigidity of social custom. In those cases, Holmes prefers, as he comments in “A Case of Identity” (1891), “to do business with the male relatives.” But other Doyle women are...

    (pp. 152-153)

    When women murdered in Victorian fiction, they killed to escape from intolerable subservience to a man’s will, to avoid the threat of social disgrace and ostracism, or to insure their financial security. Many novelists were more comfortable thinking that if women could tolerate or subvert abuse, they did, obviating the need for violence. But from Dickens to Doyle, with incremental resonance, novelists sympathized with the killers even if they did not openly advocate their decisions and invariably punished them for their assertiveness.

    It is not surprising that there are so few women killers. The fiction was more or less realistic;...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 154-166)
    (pp. 167-173)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 174-182)