- Victim and Victimizer: Female Fiends and Unease over Marriage in Antebellum Sensational Fiction
In an 1854 pamphlet published by A. R. Orton, called Isabella Narvaez, the Female Fiend, the newly-married and as yet un-fiendish Isabella finds out that her husband is intemperate. At first, her reaction is that of the dutiful wife: she asks him to give up liquor and writes that she resolved to bear her burden “meekly,” adding “[I] doubled my kindness toward him, hoping by moral suasion to reclaim him from the pit into which he had fallen, and in which he was wallowing.” Isabella is far from having the patience of the “true woman,” however, and her intent to reform her husband through “moral suasion”—that is, through the beneficence of her exemplary influence—is as fleeting as the vow she extracts from her husband to steer clear of alcohol. Feeling her love for her husband grow cold, Isabella bestows it instead on another man, since her husband is “unworthy to hold it any longer.” When she finds out that her husband also gambles, Isabella’s waning love “turn[s] to hate, and from that hour I loathed the sight of him.” Finally, within a page of her initial impulse to redeem her husband, Isabella vows to kill him: “of one thing I felt certain, and that was that he must die, and that by my own hands.” 1 Isabella’s decision to rid herself of a disagreeable husband utterly subverts the course of the ubiquitous antebellum sentimental narrative, which was founded on the efficacy of that “moral suasion” which Isabella discards virtually untried. Far from modeling herself as the long-suffering wife who reclaims her wicked husband’s [End Page 344] soul with her expiatory pain and even death, Isabella decides to save herself—her husband be damned.
Isabella’s story is only one example of a relatively unknown literary form that flourished in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, produced mostly by two little-known northeastern publishers, Erastus Elmer Barclay and Arthur Orton. These sensational fictions about “female fiends” share formulaic elements of character and plot: the heroines are always white (although often endowed with a vaguely Spanish heritage), of ambiguous class status (although not desperately poor), and always young and attractive. Their adventures typically begin with the murder of a husband or lover; from there, the heroine heads straight down the slippery slope of crime, indulging in everything from sexual promiscuity, drinking, gambling, and dressing as a man to counterfeiting, robbery, infanticide, and serial murder. There is very little information about Barclay or Orton, so any discussion of who may have read their fiction and why can only be speculative. Barclay ran a thriving business that lasted until 1896 and issued 163 different titles—including some works by his close friend, George Lippard. 2 Reflecting the generally local distribution of fiction before the Civil War, Barclay’s pamphlets appear to have been sold primarily by traveling salesmen, who would disburse advertising broadsides to homes and then come back later either to retrieve them or to sell the pamphlet. A testimonial from one salesman reports that he sold on average 400 pamphlets each week. They were relatively inexpensive, within the price range of working-class readers, and clearly the forerunners of the immensely successful dime novels of the early 1860s. Historian Thomas McDade notes that in the 1840s, for example, the price was around 7 cents a copy, though the occasional long pamphlet (around 60 pages rather than the usual 30 pages) was sold for 19 cents. 3 Even the latter price is significantly lower than the 25-cent editions that Ronald Zboray has identified as the most inexpensively-priced paperbacks available (of American authors) in the antebellum period. 4
While the price makes a working-class audience likely, there are indicators that middle-class readers, including women, were avid consumers of crime literature. An 1852 article called “The Fascination of Crime” published in The Yankee Blade claims that
[t]imid, delicate women, who swoon at the sight of blood, and could not even see a fly winged without screaming aloud, and gentle, high-bred men, who...