Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England
Given that "one of the most fundamental obstacles to social order and peace has been the nature of males," (1) masculinity's relevance to the topic of violence would seem self-evident. Nevertheless, despite the rapid expansion of criminal justice history, masculinity has tended—with some exceptions—to either be ignored or viewed rather simplistically. Furthermore, gendered analyses of Victorian violence have largely focused on constructions of dutiful femininity that excused men's "disciplinary" violence and an all-male judiciary that stood idly by or even actively supported male household dominance. In Men of Blood, Martin Wiener adds not only a great deal of new information but also a much needed conceptual subtlety to our understandings of violence, gender and the law.
Wiener offers a detailed analysis of legal and newspaper evidence without losing sight of wider-ranging social issues. He examines cases of serious violent crime (mainly homicide and rape), links them to constructions of gender and locates a decisive shift in attitudes toward male violence. As a central theme, Wiener emphasizes a "reconstruction of gender" (hitherto "unappreciated" in criminal justice history): women came to be seen as more moral and vulnerable while men were perceived as "more dangerous, more than ever in need of external disciplines and, most of all, self-discipline" (3). This emphasis on the interrelationship between masculinity and femininity continues throughout the book.
An introduction and first chapter usefully summarize the relevant historical background: a general decline in the acceptability of cruelty and violence, an overall expansion in the scope of the criminal law, improving medical knowledge and an intensification of state policing. Particular attention is given to advancing legislative strictures on violence and a "sea change" in attitudes toward gender. The former limited the customary tolerance of violent behavior; the latter meant that "the nineteenth-century criminal courts—in spite of their all-male composition—focused more and more on men" (38). The second chapter focuses on male-on-male violence, exploring the world of male dueling and fist-fighting. While upper-class dueling had become rare by the 1840s, highly ritualized forms of working-class fighting continued throughout the century. The drive to end the tradition of public fighting was blunted by ambivalent (or even positive) attitudes toward it. Although vivid and insightful, this chapter's focus [End Page 266] on men as both offenders and victims marks a relatively brief interlude: the remainder of the work concentrates on Victorian views of men's violence against women.
Rape trials are considered in chapter three, which sees an increasing willingness to treat rape as violence and punish men for perpetrating it. In particular, those women who could prove their good character began to receive far more protection from the state. Chapter four points to increasing differences in the treatment of male and female killers: as men faced "hardening attitudes," there was a "fading of the powerful fears and horror earlier evoked by female killers" (123). Both of these changing attitudes had an impact on judicial practice. As homicidal women tended to be treated more leniently (whether through being convicted of lesser offences or declared insane), homicidal men had a narrowing range of excuses to legitimate their violence and faced increasingly harsh sentences upon conviction. This was particularly true of wife killing, a crime which nonetheless—unlike many other kinds of violence—proved "resistant to the nineteenth-century 'civilizing offensive'" (146). The next three chapters deal with the defenses offered by wife-killers, focusing on female victims' provocations (whether harsh words, drunkenness or adultery) and changes in the legal view of criminal intent. The scope of provocation was narrowed and that of intention was widened: thus, violent men confronted not only growing social disapproval but also increasing levels of legal responsibility for fatal violence against women.
Men of Blood addresses a plethora of conceptual issues regarding masculinity, violence and the criminal justice system, and only a few can be mentioned here. While emphasizing men's destructive potential, Wiener also points to men's experiences as victims of other men, a topic that has only begun to be explored. Since violence against other men was different (in terms of both motive and form) than that against women, this cross-victim approach helps to draw out the complexities of gendered violence. Other emphases are equally thought provoking. English judges—often depicted as either cold-hearted noose enthusiasts or stern defenders of patriarchy (or, indeed, as both)—are presented as having been often in advance of public opinion with regard to harshly punishing violence against women. Indeed, the most important factor in delaying judicial initiatives to protect women seems to have been public sympathies with violent men. Wiener draws attention to an important tension between an increasing desire to hold perpetrators responsible and a concern about subjecting them to overly-harsh penalties.
At the heart of Wiener's analysis, though, is more than simply a detailed consideration of violent men: he uses the topic of violence to examine the broader world of Victorian gender roles. For instance, many studies have explored (and decried) the catalogue of new restrictions associated with idealized notions of domesticity faced by Victorian women. Wiener looks at Victorianism from another perspective: increasingly strict notions of self-control were largely aimed at men and these, ultimately, benefited women. Here, Wiener's study can be seen as a sustained (if understated) critique of some aspects of feminist history. While the Victorian emphasis on chastity and domesticity clearly placed particular burdens on women, with regard to the crime of rape "the new higher valuation of female character weakened class barriers, as well as enhancing the claims of [End Page 267] women of all ages to protection against bodily assault" (92). Whether as victim or perpetrator, women received more understanding and sympathy from a justice system that nevertheless remained male dominated. In balancing that argument with evidence of continuing hypocrisy and tendencies toward blaming the victim, this intricate study is far more convincing than the long-established image of cross-class male collusion to oppress women, providing a subtle and enlightening analysis of gender and its utility in understanding not only the victims but also the perpetrators of violence.