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558 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION 17:3 WritingBritish Infanticide: Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722-1859. Ed. Jennifer Thorn. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003. 292pp. US$52.50. ISBN 0-87413-819-1. This is ultimately a good book, but it is not, for someone of my training, a satisfying one. I am an historian, sometimes a cultural historian, and historicism is not history. Let me begin with the simplest objection. The book is not solely about infanticide or child murder, but the murder of children of all ages, and sometimes their mothers, often by their fathers. And, although I am a proponent ofa long eighteenth century, stretching it to 1859 defies too many historical markers of change for my understanding. For England, the most basic historical marker would be the Reform Act of 1832, which, with die New Poor Law of 1834 and the repeal ofthe Corn Laws in 1846, signalled not only the further rise ofan urban bourgeoisie, but also the arrangements under which the labouring poor would live. Much of Britain was becoming urban rapidly in the years covered by this collection. And if we are to consider the murders discussed in this volume in some sort of historical context, place does matter. Most eighteenth-century child murders legally prosecuted as capital crimes were rural. At the moment the law changed in England in 1803 (1809 in Scotland), making essentially that same crime a misdemeanour, the crime was, in patches, becoming urban. Change comes differently in different regions, and we should bear this in mind. Let me also explain why the terms "infanticide" and "child murder" matter to an historian. Infanticide is a felony with a particular definition, die murder ofa newborn by its mother, possibly abetted by others. This definition ofthe crime arose in Europe in the seventeenth century because it was virtually impossible to prove guilt under die existing laws, often common law, against murder. A mother alone with a newborn was the only witness to what occurred, and the state could not easily show that the child had been born alive, never mind murdered. In a world where stillbirth was hardly rare, a woman who wished to conceal her pregnancy and then claim the child was stillborn was in complete control ofthe child's fate. I have assumed from my readings of hundreds of seventeenth- through nineteenth-century trial records and assorted court papers that, in the beginning, the laws were prompted by bodies of infants turning up with more frequency on the landscape. In other words, the laws came as a response to the crime, not as a means of punishing women for having sex. When one stretches the term "infanticide" beyond the murder ofnewborns by their mothers—and pregnant women murdered by lovers—to include all children murdered by parents and women murdered by husbands, one muddies the social contexts in which the crimes were committed. A young village woman, pregnant and unable or unwilling to marry, and her lover are caught in a very different matrix ofsocial and economic pressures from, for REVIEWS/COMPTES RENDUS 559 example, a married father or mother of eight in Liverpool. The society that produced the first scenario is unlikely to be the same society that produced the second: place matters. That said, the essays in this book have much to tell us about the difficulties offamily formation and die instability offamilies in England between 1722 and 1859. Some are based on reports ofviolence that are meant as direct or legal records. One presents the debates surrounding the London foundling home, others discuss fiction, and some the difficult line between fiction and records of such a touchy matter as unmotherly and unfatherly behaviour in the pressure-cooker ofrapidly transforming British society. I should add that my focus on crime is completely out ofkeepingwith the editor's introduction, which argues that "Writing British Infanticide takes as its purview not childmurderpersebut the ways thatwritingaboutitcredentialed and differentiated writers in different (but often overlapping) genres and moments" (33). In response, I would add that it is difficult to read about murderwithout thinking about murder, and the first essay is very much about who did what to whom, with next to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 558-562
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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