Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Anne Greenfield: “Women, Murder & Equity”

Anne Greenfield

Book Review

Randall Martin, Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England.  Routledge (New York, 2008), 288 pp. + xii.  ISBN (10): 0-415-96115-7.  ISBN (13): 978-0-415-96115-8.  $125.00 (USD).

1> Randall Martin’s Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England offers a comprehensive analysis of female homicide as it was represented in printed crime news from 1573 to 1697. The emergence and growth of print journalism in the seventeenth century meant that Early Modern readers learned about murderesses from a variety of news genres and authorial perspectives. As Martin convincingly argues, this diversity of interpretation opened a space for readers to question official court decisions, to weigh evidence (and sources for evidence) critically, and—most importantly—to sympathize with murderesses to a degree unprecedented in English history.

2> The first of Martin’s five chapters contextualizes the theoretical underpinnings of the study, the climate and procedures of Early Modern trials for female homicide, and the production and circulation of crime news at that time. As Martin explains, female capital offenders had little opportunity to rebut the charges against them. Without defense attorneys, without the right to claim the benefit of clergy, and with no initial presumption of innocence, women accused of murder possessed little agency in crafting their own defenses. Fascinatingly, however, Martin points out that female defendants enjoyed more leniency in convictions and sentencing than did male defendants. The source for this leniency, compassion, and—as Martin terms it—equity for murderesses is the subject of the remaining four chapters.

3> Chapter 2 focuses on crime stories that encouraged (or, at least, allowed for) equitable interpretations of female homicides by reporting on single crimes from multiple points of view and/or by presenting the facts of a case in a way that required active reader interpretation. One such crime narrative involved the case of Elizabeth Abbot, who was executed in 1608 for allegedly killing her employer, Mrs. Killingworth, burning the body, and fleeing the area. In his analysis of Abbot’s news story, Martin calls to light a variety of interpretations that could have emerged from a single report. Abbot’s case could be read as “a story of irredeemable wickedness ultimately brought to light by wonderfully timed acts of providence; of inner fortitude pointing to doubts about her actual guilt (for the crime itself); of absent material evidence linking her to the murder, to which the desperately impromptu re-trial in Cree Church drew attention; or of taxed but justified civil and judicial authorities” (46-7). As Martin demonstrates in this and many other crime reports, readers could, for the first time, begin to interpret news of female homicide in various ways, critically weigh circumstantial evidence on their own, and seize on narrative ambiguities to form their own judgments of female offenders. Often, these judgments differed from the official verdicts leveled on female offenders from the court.

4> In Chapter 3, Martin turns his attention to gallows speeches, confessions, and conversion narratives revolving around convicted murderesses. Martin argues that these narratives, written by prison “visitors” (clergymen who were employed to convert prisoners and extract confessions), encouraged equitable views of convicted women in unique, if subtle, ways. At times, these narratives betrayed the fact that the convicted woman was coerced or blackmailed into confessing (as in Henry Goodcole’s Heavens Speedie Hue and Cry); elsewhere, these texts hinted that an official verdict against a murderess was based on contradictory evidence (as in John Newton’s The Penitent Recognition of Joseph’s Brethren), and it was not uncommon for prison visitors to admit that they extracted confessions only after “some suggestions of pardon” (as was the case in the anonymous Horrid News from St. Martins [105]). In these ways, narratives of confession and conversion opened up spaces for readers to question the guilt of convicted women, to debate the justness of official verdicts, and even to sympathize with female offenders who were otherwise dismissed as wicked or demonic.

5> Chapter 4 focuses on female homicides revolving around poison, a means of killing that was considered exceptionally immoral, since poison was associated with betrayal and its use required premeditation. Poisoning was also popularly associated with female agents and male victims, and as a result this crime was linked conceptually to power imbalances. At times, poisoning was even seen as an act of desperation, performed by victimized women on the men who serially abused them. As Martin puts it, “poison represented a unique opportunity for wives or servants under physical and legal authority to correct perceived abuses of power or debilitating dependency. The economic and class imbalances of such cases opened women’s motives to equitable dispute among neighbors and friends of defendants, and subsequently readers, even if the law disallowed accused or convicted women any formal means of mitigation” (132).

6> The fifth and final chapter deals with women accused and convicted of infanticide. While many news reports on child murder painted such murderesses as unambiguously monstrous figures (often as religious or political allegories), others opened up spaces for more equitable interpretations. An example of the latter can be found in Goodcole’s Natures Cruell Step-Dames, which recounts the case of Elizabeth Barnes, a woman who allegedly murdered her young daughter. Although Goodcole (like many of his contemporaries) figures his murderess as a fallen Eve figure early in the narrative, he also explains Barnes’ desperation in killing her child through the fact that she had been made pregnant, made poor, and finally abandoned by her lover, Richard Evans. As Martin points out, Goodcole’s naming of Barnes’ blameworthy lover is significant and unprecedented: “By shifting responsibility for Barnes’s behavior partly on to a disordered male offender, Goodcole re-imagined the female criminal subject not simply as an autonomous victim of her own moral weakness, but constrained by hostile social agencies” (174). In this news report and many others discussed in Women, Murder, and Equity, Martin impressively exposes the opportunities for equitable interpretations of murderesses in texts that appear unmitigating and unsympathetic on the surface.

7> Martin’s study is remarkable for several reasons. First, the book’s diachronic methodology, based on 123 crime news reports over the course of 124 years, generates a comprehensive analysis of its subject—an analysis that acknowledges the complexity of representations of female homicide, and that calls to light the slow and unsteady emergence of equitable interpretations over time. Second, Martin’s scholarship is truly interdisciplinary in nature, balancing astute literary interpretation and close reading with rigorous (quantitative and qualitative) historical research at every turn. Third, in focusing on the years between 1573 and 1697, Martin not only covers a large and unwieldy span of time carefully and adeptly, but he also bridges Early Modern studies with Restoration studies, something that is often avoided in studies of print culture as well as crime studies.

8> Any work of this magnitude also brings with it minor shortcomings and errors. The book contains a surprising number of typos, as can be seen on pages 15, 24, 47, 55, 64, 88, 101, 142, 162, 167—to name some of the more glaring examples. Also, Martin erroneously classifies the sexual violation of Mary Hobry by her husband as “legally” a rape (71). Martin does not acknowledge that nonconsensual sex between husbands and wives was not defined as “rape” according to British law until 1991.  As the famous jurist Sir Matthew Hale would later reflect in his History of the Pleas of the Crown (1736), “the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” Perhaps more conspicuous is the lack of discussion as to why news sources began to represent female homicides in more complex, critical, and sympathetic ways during this era. While Martin offers several quite reasonable explanations, including increased news coverage, the multiplicity of news genres, ever increasing publisher competition, and emerging faith and interest in empirical evidence, he devotes little discussion to each of these specific causes. All the same, Martin’s study is thorough, original, and groundbreaking. No doubt, his book stands on its own as a valuable piece of scholarship on both the emerging and changing forms Early Modern printed news and on perceptions of female transgressors at this time. Scholars will find, in Women, Murder, and Equity, an invaluable source for further research on female homicide in Early Modern news reports.

Anne Greenfield is an Assistant Professor of English at Valdosta State University, and she is a member of the Editorial Board of Appositions: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture and Aphra Behn Online: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts 1640-1830. She has published articles on Restoration / eighteenth-century drama and Aphra Behn, and her current research focuses on depictions of sexual violence in drama from 1660 to 1720.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature & Culture,
ISSN: 1946-1992,
Volume Four (2011): Texts & Contexts

No comments: