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POISONOUS PLOTS: WOMEN SENSATION NOVELISTS AND MURDERESSES OF THE VICTORIAN PERIOD RANDA HELFlELD University ofMontreal The plot of the nineteenth-century sensation novel almost always revolves around a murder, often a case of poisoning. Stories of this kind were tremendously popular, whether they appeared in novels or in the newspapers; the heavily publicized poison trials were read as eagerly as any sensation novel. Indeed, the prevalence of poison plots in sensation fiction led many critics to complain that the genre was poisonous itself, for it had the potential to corrupt the minds and morals of its readers. Henry Mansel, for example, disparagingly describes the sensational "poison" to be found in the circulating library (486), and Alfred Austin refers to sensation novels as the "worst form of mental food, if we except that which is absolutely poisonous" (424). Even Wilkie Collins, who is generally regarded as the founder of the genre, called sensation fiction a "deadly social poison," which "contaminate[s] the popular literature of a clever and polished people" (393). In his 1868 spoof on sensation fiction entitled, Lucretia, or the Heroine ofthe Nineteenth Century, Francis Edward Paget portrays the dangers of sensational "poison" (301), particularly for young women. Lucretia's cousin John condemns the "unwholesome character of such books, and their corrupting influence" (17), and warns her of their tendency to "poison everybody that looked into them" (22) by teaching "young ladies to flirt, and make run-away matches, and commit theft, and false witness, and bigamy, and murder, and all the rest of it" (17). And sure enough, Lucretia's reading gets her into trouble. Not only does she inadvertently make a "run-away match" with a bigamist and become guilty of theft as her cousin predicts, but she lives up to her name by accidentally poisoning herself and her female Victorian Review 21.2 (Winter 1995) 162Victorian Review companion. Despite its light-hearted and humorous tone, the novel concludes with a serious attack on women writers of sensation fiction who, by "making profligacy attractive," and "detailing with licentious minuteness the workings of unbridled passions," "pollute" not only "their pages," but their readers as well (305). In Paget's view, the female sensation novelist was especially dangerous to members of her own sex; she had become one of the "bitterest enemies of all that remains innocent and maidenly among us" (298). Much has been written in the last fifteen years about the ways in which women writers in the Victorian period were often condemned as immoral, unfeminine, mad, monstrous, or even criminal. Critics like Mary Poovey, Elaine Showalter, and Gilbert and Gubar have thoroughly documented these attacks, explaining that writing thrust more and more women into the public arena in ways that threatened their sociallydesignated roles as quite, passive, and selfless "angels in the house." Female sensation novelists were especially condemned, for it was a widely-held opinion that sensation fiction contained events and expressed emotions which no proper lady could or should know anything about Thus while it is true that male writers in the genre were also accused of disseminating literary "poison," female sensation novelists were particularly vulnerable to charges of this kind: the indelicate content of their writings and the fact that they wrote at all made them doubly 'criminal'. It is perhaps for this reason that critics often singled out the most famous female sensation novelist in their attacks on the genre — Mary Elizabeth Braddon.1 As a woman writer of sensational poison plots, Braddon found herself figuratively on trial. Not surprisingly, her novels often examine the figure of the female poisoner, and explore the relationship between women's criminality and their art While female sensation novelists like Braddon were forced to defend themselves against charges of poisoning, accused murderesses such as Madeleine Smith and Adelaide Bartlett were judged guilty of telling stories that thrilled and shocked the public. They were attacked by the lawyers, thejudges, and the press as much for their narrative abilities as for their alleged crimes. For example, Madeleine Smith's trial and the newspapers focused on her scandalous letters to her victim, Emile, and the sensational love story they told seriously damaged her defense. The more a woman appeared...


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