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Reviews Judith Knelman, Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and The English Press. Toronto: U ofToronto P, 1998. ix+322. $50.00 CAN (cloth); $21.95 CAN (paper); ê32.50 UK (cloth); êl4.50 UK (paper). Victorianists might greet the publication of Twisting in the Wind with some anticipation, for this book promises to provide a much fuller discussion ofwomen and murder than Mary Hartmans 1977 study, Victorian Murderesses, which admirably contextualizes women previously treated as bizarre objects, but considers only a few middleclass defendants. Drawing from extensive newspaper research, Judith Knelman, an associate professor ofjournalism at the University of Western Ontario, attempts to determine why nineteenth-century women killed and how the press and the public responded to these women. The book is organized into three parts: "Patterns and Perceptions," "Murder," and "Meaning," and several pages ofwonderful illustrations precede the first chapter. Unfortunately, although amateur criminologists and casual readers may find the narrative accounts of the crimes interesting, this book has little to offer academics, many ofwhom will undoubtedly take issue with Knelman's simplistic characterizations of the Victorians as repressed and repressive, ofmen as oppressors and women as oppressed, and the poor as ignorant and immoral. This short review addresses the book's most serious flaws: the limitations ofits sample, the failure to engage its sources critically and to provide sufficient evidence for its claims, and the emphasis on narrative rather than analysis. Knelman argues that the press, eager to satisfy the appetite of a public hungry to read about female deviance, sensationalized women who killed. This argument is inevitable, however, for Knelrtian studies only the "fifty most notorious accused murderesses" between 1807 and 1899 (8), a sample she collected from choosing the most heavily publicized murder trials listed in Palmer's Index to the Times. Knelman claims that these cases provide insights into the lives of"ordinary working-class women" (12), but she does not demonstrate that the press coverage ofa few dozen apparently atypical murderesses can teach us anything about ordinary women who killed, or women in general. Indeed Knelman, unlike either Mary Hartman or Angus Victorian Review127 Reviews McLaren in his study of the late-Victorian serial killer Thomas Neill Cream, consistently fails to approach her subjects as part oftheir gender and classes, choosing instead to judge various defendants as "vicious" (58), "thoroughly disreputable" (70), "hardened criminals" (77), or "justly" deserving of the hatred their "gratuitous brutality" inspired (128), thereby marking these women as aberrations. Knelman goes on to argue that the perception and depiction of murderesses as monsters meant that women who killed were punished more severely than their male counterparts. Certainly the majority of women in her sample were hanged, but a significant proportion of these women used poison, a method regarded as indicative ofsneaky, cold-blooded premeditation and thus reviled whether used by women or men. Many hundreds of nineteenth-century women charged with murder did not use poison, did not become the subjects oflengthy and sensational newspaper stories, and were not hanged. Not only does Knelman use a limited sample to make broad generalizations, but she also consistently fails to engage with her sources in a critical or meaningful way. She notes that the press is subjective and selective (13), but she displays a disconcerting faith in the accuracy of newspaper stories, and repeatedly reports rumours as substantiated facts. For example, Knelman's account of the "Essex Poisonings" of the late 1840s takes a number of incredible allegations made by the press at face value (55-69), and she credits another woman with an extraordinary number ofpoisonings, writing as though the figures she cites are proven rather than mere conjecture (74). Although Knelman purports to critique the media's sensationalist practices, she herselfsuccumbs to the temptation to exaggerate and distort. In a chapter entitled "The Case ofthe Vanishing Murderess," she creates the false impression that Victorian women committed far more murders than their twentieth-century counterparts (4). However, although few Victorians conflated infanticide with premeditated spousal murder, Knelman includes infanticide in her study; if infanticide is separated from murder statistics, the murder rate ofVictorian women shrinks to less than one-quarter of murders. She also suggests that "the true murder rate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 127-131
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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