“Stop the wretched woman in her horrid career” a study of competing representations of femininity in social and legal responses to female poisoners, 1846- 1851

2017-01-31T04:11:22Z (GMT) by Nagy, Victoria Maria
This thesis examines the cases of three rural working-class women from Essex who, in a five year period between the years of 1846 and 1851, were arrested, tried, and, in two instances, executed for poisoning crimes. From the cases of these three women (Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate) this thesis studies the various competing narratives about their femininity which appeared in newspapers, Hansard transcripts, social commentary, witness depositions, personal correspondence and petitions against their sentences. The main research question this thesis asks is what narratives about femininity exist in available sources regarding female poisoners from the mid-Victorian era and how can these narratives enable us to better understand the contradictory and competing constructions of femininity in nineteenth century England? Currently research into how the femininity of female poisoners was constructed, why it was constructed in such a manner, and the varying differences in depictions of their womanhood is underrepresented. To tackle the issue of limited source material (both because the women were not tried in London courts and because of their social standing) I have chosen to find a broad range of sources as advocated by microhistorians and some feminist historians. The methodology adopted to collect and analyse these data sources is incorporated from microhistorical methods (interest in the normal exception, broad ranging source material and concern with individual cases in order to interpret societal changes and occurrences), and partly from feminist scholars who have investigated legal as well as media narratives to discover how female criminals are represented therein. The methodology is situated within a discourse analysis frame. The findings of this research suggest that the construction of the femininity of the three accused women varied according to the discourse into which each case was linked regardless of whether the case was in fact related to the discourse (e.g. Mary May’s case was linked with the debates around infanticide even though she was on trial for the poisoning murder of her half-brother in his forties). Each woman was depicted as deviating from the societal expectations of respectable womanhood, however, contemporaries did not outline what good womanhood entailed, nor was there agreement about what manner a bad woman looked or behaved. There was often a lot of difference between how each woman had her femininity represented even within newspapers, let alone witness depositions, petitions, parliamentary debates, etc. This illustrates that there was no single distinct idea about femininity, but rather that femininity was often in flux within discourses.