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  • Murder in the Feminine: Marie Lafarge and the Sexualization of the Nineteenth-Century Criminal Woman
  • Lisa Downing (bio)

This article examines a series of European nineteenth-century discourses—medical, literary, and popular—about the female murderer in France in particular and in Europe more generally and traces their persistence in present-day thinking. It examines the ways in which discourses of criminality produced by inaugurators of criminology such as Cesare Lombroso in Italy and Alexandre Lacassagne in France were informed by and intersected with contemporaneous ideas about deviations of sexual and gendered behavior that were underpinned by a belief in heredity and degeneration theory. The “personage” of the murderer was thus constructed as a type in the nineteenth-century science of criminology in the same way that—as Michel Foucault has famously argued—the figure of the homosexual became a “personage” by means of the “specification of individuals” central to the classificatory systems of sexology and psychoanalysis.1 Examining what was written in autobiographical, literary, journalistic, medical, and criminological texts about those figures who transgressed social and legal edicts most forcefully by killing offers a particularly powerful insight into contemporaneous ideas about normality and abnormality and how the distance between them may be measured and reduced as well as how different yardsticks of acceptable or normal behavior were applied to men and women.

The case study on which I focus here is that of the Frenchwoman Marie Lafarge, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the poisoning of her husband in 1841. The trial and imprisonment of Lafarge attracted considerable media attention in France in the 1840s, and she went on to become key raw material for the theories of the burgeoning science of criminology toward the end of the century; for example, Lombroso used her as an example of the inborn female criminal. Passivity and benevolent maternal [End Page 121] instinct were lauded as feminine virtues par excellence in the years of the July Monarchy in France (1830–48). The specter of the violent, husband-dispatching woman that Lafarge presented thus posed a particularly threatening refutation of gender expectations in an era in which women’s civic freedom (for example, her right to initiate divorce) was strictly curtailed by conservative governmental policy. The fact that Marie Lafarge was also a published writer problematizes her status even further in a century and a culture that recognized only partially and grudgingly the possibility of female creativity. As I shall demonstrate, a creative female murderer was constructed as the most deviant and monstrous of social subjects by her contemporaries. However, we should not assume that the nineteenth- century male murderer was attributed an unambiguous virility. Class as well as gender determined the conceptualization of the murderer, separating the sexually ambivalent figure of the gentleman criminal or poet criminal, celebrated most notably by the French Romantic writers in the figure of Pierre-François Lacenaire (executed in 1836), from the projected threat offered by the anonymous proletarian criminal. Murder, as an extreme act, functions as a surprisingly complex social marker, both exaggerating and mitigating gender and class stereotypes in unexpected ways.

The beginning of the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of the institution of public hygiene. To quote Pierre Cabanis, one of the most famous early-nineteenth-century medical writers, doctors in this period aspired to be “the guardian of morality as well as of public health.”2 1829 saw the foundation in France of the Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale (Annales of Public Hygiene and Legal Medicine), an influential journal whose rubric explicitly set out the role of medicine in the social control of criminality:

The aim of medicine is not only to study and cure illnesses, it also has an intimate relationship with social organization. By means of its associations with both philosophy and legislation it can exercise a strong influence over the progress of humanity. It must enlighten the moralist and assume the noble task of reducing the number of social ills. Wrongdoings and crimes are the diseases of society that we must work to cure or at least to cut in number, and the means of this cure are never so great as...


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pp. 121-137
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