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Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950: Gender and Class (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 36, Number 3, Spring 2003
pp. 813-815 | 10.1353/jsh.2003.0077

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Reviewed by
Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850–1950: Gender and Class. Edited by Shani D’Cruze (Harlow: Longman-Pearson Education, 2000. 233 pp.).

Although the essays in Everyday Violence cover a wide range of subjects, they are coherently held together by recurring interests and interpretive assumptions. One of these is the notion of the “everyday,” which, according to Shani D’Cruze’s introduction, “locates violence, or the possibility of violence, at the core of people’s daily lives” (12). Thus, the book deals with small-scale, interpersonal violence “which eventuates out of people’s ordinary, routine and mundane social interaction” (1) and it “fixes the location of such violence in familiar places: the home and the neighbourhood, the pub or the workplace; the street or the back yard” (11). That approach, applied in varying measures throughout, proves its [End Page 813] potential here as a useful tool for the development of historical violence studies and widens our perspective on what violence “is” and where it is “located” in social and cultural contexts. In broadening “violence” beyond its legal definitions (which, as some of the essays in this collection emphasize, were themselves subject to change over time), the connections between criminal violence and other aspects of social life—for example, marriage, youth, masculine identity, suburban living, childbirth, drinking and socializing—become more apparent.

“Everyday life” is intersected by numerous other conceptual themes; in this collection, as suggested by its title, the emphasis is upon class and gender. The book focuses almost exclusively upon working-class violence, or perceptions thereof, while eschewing a simple duality of social control and social resistance (4). Its gender interests revolve around two main issues: first, the ways that gendered expectations shaped attitudes to violence and, second, the interactions among gender, class and violence in the fashioning of personal identity. Violence is largely depicted as a product of cultural and social interaction, gender and class differences, and distributions of state and economic power.

The twelve essays are grouped in three thematic sections that respectively address the “uses,” “regulation” and “representations” of violence. In practice, such divisions break down and their interconnections are apparent in most of the book’s component parts. Anna Clark argues that innovative nineteenth-century domestic ideals, while they might have improved women’s lives in some ways, did not prevent spousal violence, “and may even have excused it” (28). John E. Archer explores several links between masculinity and violence, emphasizing the elements of ritual and national identity inherent in particular masculine cultures of aggression. Margaret L. Arnot considers newborn child murder, pointing to the specific Victorian contexts of the crime while also using modern psychological knowledge to shed light on trans-historical problems in infanticide. Andrew Davies provides a focused study of Manchester youth gangs while giving new insight into the complex and active role of female gang members. Kim Stevenson focuses on rape, the generally held belief that women made untrustworthy witnesses, and the euphemistic codes that surrounded rape trials and their reporting. Joanne Jones presents patterns in the depiction of sex crimes in local (Manchester) press accounts, emphasising the prevalence and importance of depictions of mainly working-class (sexual) violence to a largely middle-class audience. Louise Jackson provides an intriguing analysis of women professionals’ (mainly doctors and police officers) involvement in treating female crime victims in the interwar period. Jacky Burnett focuses on the contribution of the Women’s Cooperative Guild to the divorce law debate, particularly its efforts to give voice to victimized women with few other avenues to be heard in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Judith Rowbotham looks at popular fiction writing as a vehicle promoting stereotyped attitudes toward violence. Julie English Early uses a famed murder case in order to explore Edwardian uncertainties about the suburbs, the relationship between narratives of violence and class (particularly regarding the lower middle class), and the instabilities inherent therein. Lucy Bland similarly uses an illustrative murder trial to highlight the intersection of gender and violence with “Orientalism,” focusing particularly on discourses of ethnic difference, sexual perversity and fears of miscegenation. Catherine Euler evaluates particular strategic uses of language [End Page 814] by feminists while critiquing...