- Framed: The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin de Siècle
From the cover of Framed—featuring the unapologetic "Three Fingered Kate" flashing her three fingers—to its combination of texts ranging from the canonical (by Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, Joseph Conrad) to the obscure (early British cinema), Elizabeth Carolyn Miller's book takes a refreshing, wide-ranging look at a complex figure emerging in the Victorian twilight: the New Woman criminal. In apprehending this criminal, a figure who, Miller argues, unsettles our current understanding of the relationship between feminism, consumerism, crime, and modernity itself, readers can [End Page 310] "recover the often surprising forms that feminism took at this crucial moment in women's history" (22). The New Woman criminal is neither strictly the New Woman, the much-studied turn-of-the-century figure from the shopgirl to the suffragette, nor a real-life criminal. Miller is careful to point out that her focus is not on the "real, historical female criminals of the period" who were often "poor and desperate," but rather "an imaginative creation within a wildly expanding popular culture of crime narrative" (4).
Framed explores three popular crime genres: detective fiction, with one chapter on female characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories and another on L. T. Meade's series The Sorceress of the Strand (1903) and the real-life case of 1860s criminal Madame Rachel; crime film, with a chapter on British cinema from 1896 to 1913, which Miller argues "didn't begin from scratch" but grew out of existing genres like the detective series (106); and "dynamite narratives" (3), with one chapter on the failed terror novels of James and Conrad and one on female revolutionaries. Dynamite narratives were written in the context of real-life bombings and a rise in political violence at the end of the century. Terrorism is a political crime and therefore raises questions that more straightforward crimes might not. For example, how does our understanding of agents and victims change in the more diffusive context of terror? Can women be considered political criminals without being political subjects? This section, which includes a fascinating reading of Oscar Wilde's play Vera; Or, the Nihilists (1883), shows how these late-nineteenth-century texts negotiate this new space in part by looking back at an earlier figure of political crime, the French Revolution's Charlotte Corday (who assassinated Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat), to explore not only questions of gender and violence but of national identity as well.
Much like the cagey New Woman criminal, Miller's textual subjects are diverse and elusive (a number of the films, for example, no longer exist). There is no single argument about the New Woman criminal. In the section on cinema, for example, Miller is more interested in class politics and the audience's largely anti-authoritarian celebration of the brazen New Woman criminal, a reaction that recalls early-nineteenth-century hostility to the New Police. The section on detective narratives focuses on the rise of an image-centered culture that shaped and was shaped by scientific innovation and consumerism. The final chapters ponder the implications of gender for political and social activism. These are familiar concerns, but what Miller adds—the argument that unites these diverse subjects—is a new look at the role of consumerism and visual culture, "a conception of modern life wherein women's public presence seems indivisible from a consumerist, image-centered, and chaotically freewheeling democratic modernity that is always changing but not always progressing" (225). Here she indicates one of the complexities of the figure of the New Woman and her criminal sister: consumerism liberates women (as workers, models, shoppers) yet also enlists them in their own oppression as they become sexual commodities. This kind of complexity is found everywhere in Framed. Miller explains how rather than challenging state authority, feminists supported a rise in legal interventionism as it sought to bring...