- Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England by Bridget Walsh
We have in recent years come to appreciate that, beneath the surface of its apparent moral certainties, the ideology of the domestic sphere was troubled and contested in the Victorian era. The traditional notion of a harmonious marital sphere based on a widely accepted separation of spheres has long since broken down, and much attention has been given to what Mary Poovey calls “uneven developments” in nineteenth-century British society (see title). Bridget Walsh looks at these tensions from an angle that Poovey and most of her successors neglected—that of domestic murder and its place in Victorian culture. Building on work done by historians on [End Page 204] domestic murders and their legal treatment as well as by literary scholars on fictional forms of representation, she examines, in successive chapters, the different ways in which the press, street literature, novels, and the theatre from the 1820s to the 1890s represented real and imagined domestic killers. Hers is primarily the selective, intensely focused method of the literary scholar, but she brings within her purview significant secondary historical scholarship. Drawing on the resources of both fields, Walsh undertakes a close analysis of some nineteen cases of the crime—ones that provoked particular interest at the time—along with a selection of the most important imagined domestic murders of novels and plays of the period.
In the course of her investigation, Walsh usefully points out a number of misunderstandings that have been perpetuated by previous scholars. Rather than exhibiting the consistent “Victorian” attitude or sensibility about domestic murder that some have cited, both factual and fictional treatments, she argues, generally moved from a comparatively clear, melodramatic understanding in the century’s early decades to a more morally uncertain, less judgmental response by the century’s end. She also takes issue with Judith Knelman’s—and Annette Ballinger’s, she might have added—single-minded and weakly supported focus on so-called patriarchalism, which led them to assert that female domestic killers—and female killers of any kind—were regarded with especial horror by press and public and held up as inhuman monsters. On the contrary, Walsh points out, they were more likely than their male counterparts to evoke bewilderment and efforts to explain away their crime (as remains true today) (6).1 She could indeed have strengthened this point by drawing on scholarship showing that women consistently received lighter sentences for murder than did men (see Wiener, chapter 4). Walsh also questions the claim made by several writers that the presentation of crime in the mass media could, as Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson put it, “operate as a metaphor for a perceived disorder and decline in society generally, reflecting a feeling of social panic” (38). Instead, she argues—I think correctly—that the press typically portrayed domestic murder as an aberrant phenomenon erupting unpredictably into normal life. Similarly, she warns against placing too much cultural weight upon the sensation novels that appeared after mid-century as signifying a general cultural perception that violence was moving up the social scale; Beth Kalikoff’s argument, for example, that by the later years of the century “it [was] no longer incongruous for anyone to kill” (138) is challenged as perhaps holding true for fiction but not for newspaper coverage, which insisted on domestic murder’s “normal” confinement to the lower classes (see Wiener).
Overall, Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England is a valuable work of interdisciplinary scholarship that takes historical work as seriously as it does literary. Bridget Walsh has usefully juxtaposed imaginative and non-fictional modes of response to an ongoing problem, highlighting the use [End Page 205] of melodramatic forms in non-fictional reportage in the first half of the century and its erosion in the second half. The book helps shift scholarly attention away from relatively ahistorical and rather worn-out interpretive frames such as patriarchy and, more fruitfully, toward a recognition of currents of change in both responses to murder and, more broadly, domestic and gender ideologies...