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145 AUTUMN 2016 Schwan’s selection of cases and events and the range of literature—both factual and fictional—is impressive and the analysis is generally persuasive. I do not know of another work that ranges with such brio from street-sold broadsheets to Victorian and Modern literature and culture. She might nevertheless have done more justice to herself and to her subjects (and readers) had she managed more frequently to escape the Foucauldian cloisters and given freer rein to her own judgements: certainly Schwan has the necessary instinct and sensibility. At her best she writes with subtlety and flair, but at her devotions the language inevitably takes a turgid turn. The nearest equivalent to this book is Philip Priestley’s Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography, 1830–1914 (1985) and the two books pleasingly complement each other. Schwan took on the greater challenge. By and large she has met it by delivering a book that will provoke much thought—as well as just provoke. Seán McConville Queen Mary University of London doi:10.2979/victorianstudies.59.1.20 Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners: Three English Women Who Used Arsenic to Kill, by Victoria Nagy; pp. x + 224. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015,£63.00, £60.00 paper, $95.00, $90.00 paper. In Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners: Three English Women Who Used Arsenic to Kill, Victoria Nagy takes a microhistorical approach to the trials of three women accused of poisoning in mid-nineteenth-century rural Essex. Nagy’s writing is somewhat repetitive and her analysis is not always as nuanced as it could be, but her fundamental arguments about her cases are convincing and, at times, quite insightful. Between 1846 and 1851, Sarah Chesham, Mary May, and Hannah Southgate—all working-class women in rural Essex—were tried for murder by arsenic poisoning (May and Chesham were both found guilty and executed). The cases received attention in the national as well as local press. Placing these representations in the larger context of nineteenth-century understandings of acceptable female behavior, Nagy argues that the cases should be treated together as a single cultural panic, one that revolved primarily around gender. Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners is organized into six chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion. The first three chapters—which lay the groundwork for the analysis in chapters 4, 5, and 6—move a bit slowly; much of the material in them could have been condensed, put into explanatory footnotes, or woven into the central analysis . Chapter 1 provides a narrative and historiographical look at crime and prosecution during the nineteenth century. (The chapter is not really about gender and crime, as Nagy claims: she looks at the existing scholarship on women and crime, but the short section on male criminality is based almost entirely on Martin Weiner’s work, and ignores relevant work by Charles Upchurch and Harry Cocks.) Nagy correctly notes that her work adds to the existing scholarship on female poisoners, which looks only at middle-class women. However, it would have been helpful if she had also placed her work in the larger 146 VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 59, NO. 1 literatures on murder and arsenic poisoning. She also notes that most work on women and criminal trials examines women accused of infanticide or of prostitution; some discussion of the special status of these as Victorian crimes would have been helpful. Chapter 2—an explanation of Nagy’s methodology and sources—reminds readers most forcefully of the book’s recent roots in a Ph.D. dissertation, and would have benefitted from more distance and revision. Chapter 3 narrates and summarizes trials for poisoning between 1839 and 1851, emphasizes that poisoning was seen as a women’s crime, and explains the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Act (1851), the debate around which was influenced by the trials of Nagy’s three subjects. The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters consider, in turn, the cases against Chesham, May, and Southgate. Nagy argues that all three women were constructed—by the prosecution and by the press—as bad women who had violated standards of acceptable female behavior. This assertion, while true, does not really add to what we know about the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 145-147
Launched on MUSE
2017-03-05
Open Access
No
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