- Intimate Violence and Victorian Print Culture: Representational Tensions by Suzanne Rintoul
The subject of gendered violence in nineteenth-century history and culture has received some welcome attention in the twenty-first century—most notably in studies by Marlene Tromp, Kate Lawson and Lynn Shakinovsky, Martin Wiener, and Lisa Surridge. Suzanne Rintoul joins these scholars in shedding light on representations of physical and emotional abuse of women by their husbands and lovers from 1817 to 1888. Her project is to investigate nineteenth-century representations of abused women in street literature, novels, periodicals, non-fiction prose, and illustrations. In keeping with her subtitle, she argues that textual and pictorial representations of intimate violence enact tensions between its exposure and its concealment that intersect with hierarchies of class and with competing beliefs about the status of women. The imagined "brutalized female body" is a contested site for Rintoul that holds the potential to trouble dichotomies and to "destabilize social and cultural hierarchies" (10).
Rintoul begins her study with intriguing information about the street broadside, an ephemeral genre, which Rintoul describes as "akin to modern-day news" (25). Printed on a single sheet of cheap paper, broadsides often included illustrations and verses concerning sensational events. Whereas other critics, according to Rintoul, have tended to overgeneralize about broadsides and other street literature, dismissing them as didactic or moralizing, she stresses their continuity with reputable journalism through their common treatment of the abused woman's body: in each genre, the working-woman's body "carried the burden, so to speak, of expressing the depravity of middle-class intimacy" (34). Rintoul discovers that working-class male perpetrators were usually portrayed as middle-class in images and occasionally text, while descriptions of attacks on middle-class women typically lacked detail; a poor woman's abused body was substituted for an absent middle-class body. Rintoul's source material is similar to that used in a work too recent to have been incorporated into her study: Bridget Walsh's Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations (2014). Both include famous cases, such as those of Maria Marten and Mary Ashford, and both examine representations in the Illustrated Police News. However, unlike Walsh, Rintoul is concerned with changing attitudes toward victims rather than murderers.
Considered together, chapters 1 and 2 present a challenge to genre histories by identifying continuities between media. The novel is often privileged as a cultural form to which the working classes were denied access because of its high price. This class distinction among readers was encouraged by [End Page 377] Charles Dickens as he strove to distance himself and his work from the lower classes. However, Rintoul observes in her second chapter that the tales in the working-class Newgate Calendar share formal conventions with Dickens's middle-class novel Oliver Twist (1837–39) concerning what can be shown and what concealed: graphic descriptions of violence are permissible for working-class figures but not for middle-class ones. By treating the novel as just one element of the broader print culture, Rintoul demonstrates that the cultural divide between genres, and potentially audiences, is merely a fine line.
The most compelling part of Intimate Violence and Victorian Print Culture is the final chapter, "Marital Cruelty and The History of Mary Prince." As in earlier examples, Rintoul observes the representational tension between the expression and suppression of gendered violence. Prince's project is to raise sympathy for the cause of abolition, a project that justifies her revealing the physical abuse suffered by slaves. By contrast, Prince merely implies the assault of white women's bodies through narrative gaps in her autobiography. Rintoul argues that Prince's diction connects the two oppressed groups even as the narrative separates them. Because Prince most frequently employs the word "poor" for "slaves enduring extreme violence or the breaking apart of their families" (143), her use of it to describe battered white women suggests a sympathetic identification. This analogy aligns with contemporary proto-feminist discourse that figured marriage as slavery. Yet the mistresses' displacement...