Published: Feb. 1, 2002 By

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s perfectly well and she hasn’t a pain,
And it’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
A.A. Milne

[1]   Like the little girl in A. A. Milne’s poem, accused poisoner Madeleine Smith was the object of an intense public scrutiny that seemed to produce only an extreme collective bewilderment. Neither the journalistic nor the legal narratives of Smith’s 1857 trial for murder generated a coherent story of the transgressing woman exposed. Nor did they discover in the details of Smith’s life the more comfortable tale of an innocent victim of sexual predation. However furiously they interrogated her public presence and her private words, 19thcentury accounts of the trial tended finally to agree on only one thing. The case was ambiguous, an ambiguity inseparable from the anomaly of Smith’s position as a middle-class woman on display in court and ratified by the even more exotic anomaly, for English readers, of the Scottish jury’s verdict–“Not Proven.”

[2]   Smith, the twenty-one year old daughter of a Glasgow architect, was tried for poisoning Pierre Emile L’Angelier, a poor Jerseyman of French extraction, in the summer of 1857. Smith and L’Angelier met in 1855 and began a secret correspondence that eventually resulted in a full-blown love affair. In the spring of 1857, Smith became engaged to William Minnoch, a suitor acceptable to her parents, and tried to end her relationship with L’Angelier. Insisting that their prior intimacy meant they were married in the eyes of God, L’Angelier refused to accept Smith’s decision. After threatening to send her letters to her father if she went ahead with the marriage plans, he died suddenly on March 22, 1857. A post-mortem examination revealed that death had been caused by arsenic poisoning, and a search of L’Angelier’s rooms turned up the letters Smith had written to him. Smith was arrested and charged with murder and two counts of attempted murder, based on reports of earlier attacks of a “mysterious” stomach ailment. Despite the evidence of the letters and the fact that Smith was shown to have purchased arsenic several times, the jury acquitted her of attempted murder and brought in a verdict of Not Proven on the final charge.

[3]   If the law’s failure to produce a satisfying narrative of female criminality in this case does not immediately strike us as odd, the widespread public acceptance of that failure should. Victorian newspapers were notorious for trying and retrying troubling cases in public, and they consistently condemned what they felt were improper verdicts (Altick, Scarlet, 63). The outrage generated by the Palmer, Dove and Smethurst proceedings makes it clear that, by mid-century, criminal trials had become accepted occasions for self-reflection and critique (Altick, Deadly, 6-8). For the uncertainties surrounding these middle-class male poisoners were met with anything but acceptance. In the case of William Dove, conflicts between medical and legal definitions of responsibility created a widespread confusion that culminated in a furious debate over the future of trial by jury. According to the Saturday Review, the verdict, guilty with a recommendation to mercy on account of defective intelligence, was a ludicrous example of the “vagueness with which people think about every subject . . . remote from their ordinary avocations” (“Dove,” 292). Dr. William Palmer’s 1856 murder trial offered a similar spectacle of professional disagreement and public dismay. Enraged by what he saw as a dangerous trend, one cantankerous critic excoriated not only newspapers, who played up ambiguity “in the hope of floating themselves into a brief and scandalous notoriety,” but also political parties (“fanatically or foolishly opposed to capital punishment”) and the general public (who did not understand that “science has its laws, its methods, its degrees of certainty”) (“Palmer,” 170). Outrage over flawed verdicts reached a peak in 1859 when Dr. Thomas Smethurst was found guilty of poisoning his wife. In the wake of that conviction, an orchestrated campaign by medical men bolstered by an outpouring of public feeling induced the Crown to grant Smethurst first a reprieve and then a free pardon. Given the furor that accompanied these cases, and the apparent national consensus that trials should provide both legal closure and public satisfaction, why did high Victorian England so readily accept the law’s inability to come up with an adequate reading of Madeleine Smith and her crime? If we agree with Mary Poovey that “so much depended upon maintaining the gendered organization of social relations at mid-century that challenges to it seemed to threaten . . . fundamental principles of the social and natural orders,” than the lack of outrage over Smith’s “escape” from judgement seems almost inexplicable (199).

[4]   As I will argue here, however, the national willingness to accept a failure of controlling structures registers neither moral illogic nor a discursive lack, but a very different kind of necessity. It reflects England’s concern with discovering renewable sources of cultural energy, a concern that contributes to the emergence of a new category of value: the social, professional and aesthetic treasure associated with a certain form of gendered mystery. Like other recent investigations of notorious crimes, including Edward Berenson’s microhistorical study of the 1914 murder trial of Henriette Caillaux and Amy Srebnick’s The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers, this essay focuses on connections between gender and criminality. But while Berenson treats the Caillaux crime as one that embodies a conversation over “the meaning of masculinity and femininity” (11) already existing in society, I share Srebnick’s belief that trials are at once articulated through an available cultural thematics and help create new discursive and gendered possibilities (Srebnick; xv-xvi). Rather than offering an improved take on Smith’s crime, then, I want to ask what her emergence into fame and text tells us about the “rise” of the mysterious and charismatic figure of the respectable woman criminal. I thus seek to reconsider, through an investigation of one of 19th century Britain’s new “stars,” not only the meaning of women’s sudden visibility as legal subjects at mid-century, but also the more general politics of cultural visibility itself.

The Politics of Visibility

[5]   By the middle of the 19th century, Britain had begun to represent woman’s place in the private, and perhaps the whole ideology of separate spheres, as a problem. Committed both to an ideal of domesticity and to invasive programs associated with such ends as the public health, the nation struggled to reconcile its belief that privacy was the source of moral value with its insistence on peering into every hidden corner of life. This paradox at the heart of middle-class authority emerged most powerfully in various Victorian encounters with a new public figure, the respectable criminal woman. Spotlighted on a variety of social and textual stages, she came into her own in 1857 when British law and journalism discovered her as the “heroine” of the New Divorce Court and the Edinburgh criminal court (Altick, Hartman, Trodd, and Morris). Although Victorian England was fascinated by a variety of criminals, including the murdering Doctor, neither the middle-class male killer nor the dangerous mothers who played leading roles in the so-called “infanticide epidemic” of 1860 focused cultural energies in the same way as a Madeleine Smith. Palmer’s trial brought tensions between legal and medical professionals into the public eye, but it did not stage a fundamental interpretive problem. Similarly, though the idea of child killing clearly disturbed the nation, infanticide trials themselves did not expose any particular difficulty with reading the gendered criminal. Time and again, the murdering mother became a generic figure in the 19th century courtroom, victimized by biology and poverty, and rescued from the law’s judgment into the comforting arms of medicine (see Higganbotham). The respectable woman’s sudden emergence as the Victorian criminal “star” thus clearly points toward certain incoherences in the conventional gendering of social and conceptual space, but it also suggests the difficulty of attributing any simple politics to the practices by which a culture makes the hidden visible. [6]   Over the past 20 years, an array of theoreticians have argued that being seen depends on a complex network of social acts. Yet much scholarship of the same period invests itself with significance by asserting, at least indirectly, a rough equivalence between visibility and empowerment. The groundbreaking collection of essays, Hidden From History, implies, for example, a connection between the recovery of a past “suppressed almost as rigorously as gay people themselves” and the liberation of those subjects (3). InThe Ends of History, Christina Crosby explores the relation between Victorian gender politics and a set of discursive practices whose effects are as repressive as their workings are monolithic. But Crosby’s text too conflates erasure and powerlessness-“In their exile from history, ‘women’ confirm its truth” (146)-in order to mark its commitment to re-visioning as an empowering one.

[7]   Though few who struggle against oppression really believe that visibility has any simple connection to power, the academic investment in bringing to light often results in narratives that are either endlessly circular–becoming visible happens over and over again in a movement in which dominance is always both threatened and reconfirmed–or simplistically progressive–becoming visible produces new subjectivities and freedoms. In her critique of histories that seek authority by “merely expanding” the picture, Joan Scott identifies a fundamental problem with positing seeing as an origin both of knowing and power. As she points out, historians can expose the existence of repressive mechanisms without addressing their own involvement with a discourse that is at least partly responsible for the oppression they seek to redress (25). Though largely unsympathetic to Scott’s feminism, a new cohort of ‘traditional’ scholars, spokespersons for post-feminism, and critics of the pc-ing of the university has been quick to echo her concerns, blaming such scholarship for discovering victims rather than agents. What place is there, they ask, in these self-congratulatory narratives for the agency, and resistance, of historical actors?

[8]   It is easy to dismiss this attack as a symptom of what it deplores; for it too assumes that a given meaning resides in women’s becoming visible in any public sphere, whether it be the novel, the platform or the academy. Proponents of this position typically ignore the body of nuanced scholarship in the areas of postcolonial studies, feminist/queer theory, and gay and lesbian history which challenges “the simple equations of discretion and secrecy with … despair and self-hate and of openness with liberation and happiness” (Kennedy, 69). Clearly, we can reject neo-traditionalist claims that the post-modern academic turn enacts a new tyranny without denying that revisionist academics have often avoided complicating their positions as liberators and light-givers. But what no counterattack should ignore is the warning encoded in this critique. Visibility cannot be taken for granted as either a political or an analytic concept. As Nancy Fraser argues in “Sex, Lies and the Public Sphere,” publicity does not “always and unambiguously” function “as an instrument of empowerment & emancipation” (190). Fraser’s essay is particularly valuable for its cogent summary of the complex relations between the modern domains of the public and private:

in highly stratified late capitalist societies not everyone stands in the same relation to privacy and publicity….official governmental public spheres, mass-mediated mainstream public spheres, counterpublic spheres & informal public spheres in everyday life … some of these publics marginalize others (192).

[9]   In light of this warning, the very obviousness of Victorian women’s sudden accession to public presence at mid-century is troubling. It elides questions about where women are seen and how they come into the public eye. The women with whom this essay is concerned force those issues back to the surface, directing our attention to particular milieus and modes of emergence. There are female criminals in England before the 1850’s and public discussions of middle-class women’s moral character. But the collapse of these subjects in this decade indicates some change in the nature of the conversation about criminality and gender. The growing fascination with respectable criminal women suggests that older models of class and criminality can no longer successfully organize the conceptual universe of transgression. The accompanying proliferation of stories about breakdowns in the gendered spheres raises questions about how these women’s troubling lives become public property.

[10]   As I have already suggested, the new Divorce Court was one of the primary places where respectable women found themselves becoming simultaneously visible and suspect at mid-century. In the Parliamentary debates preceding the passage of the 1857 Act for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, it became clear that any legal effort to revise the “marital relationship” would have to attend to the role women’s virtue played in public or state order (Shanley, 40-41). When the bill passed into law, the Divorce Court appeared to offer what James Hammerton calls a “window” into “the darker side of conjugal life,” providing a view of behavior “inconsistent with the middle-class domestic idyll” (2). But women’s virtue or lack of it remained the heart of the issue. Because no man could fail a true angel, broken marriages always registered some woman’s inability to reach an ideal standard of moral influence. The Divorce Court must thus be seen at once as a form of national intervention justified by a generic failure of feminine authority and as a forum where the meaning of gendered visibility was produced on a case by case basis.

[11]   We might assume that, once in place, this new court would engender further debate over how the state should manage private relations. Yet the conversation that immediately followed the law’s reform focused less on the institution than on the public texts it generated. National concern with publicity about divorces ebbed and flowed in waves of “periodic revulsion” until 1926 when a bill to restrain the publication of evidence was finally passed (Horstman,168). But what is most fascinating about the first phase of this debate is not the idea that publicity might function as disciplinary tool, reinforcing middle-class morality through public humiliation, but that it foregrounds what one might call the dark side of that fantasy of control, the fear that public exposure will be used to subvert morality and male authority.

[12]   Published everywhere from penny papers to the Times, reports of divorce actions testified to the public fascination with the proceedings of Sir Cresswell Cresswell’s court. But they also became a problem in themselves. So troubling was the avid interest in domestic dirt that Queen Victoria compared the Times‘ Divorce Court column to “the worst French novel” against which “careful parents … try to protect their children” (qted in Horstman, 86). Victoria was certainly not the first to link the publication of unsavory texts with corrupting the young nor would she be the last. But given the object of her attack the Queen’s response seems extreme. The Times was expensive. Its readership elite. And what it published was only what the law said was necessary. The private had to be made public when it was horrible enough to require regulation.

[13]   If we take Victoria’s fears seriously, however, we might conclude that the by now traditional equation of social danger with questionable materials directed to a mass audience was being revised. Either some contents were so dangerous that no reader could be secured against their effects or the problem was something more than content. Others who shared the Queen’s disgust made the source of their discomfort more clear, identifying the problem of Divorce Court News as a problem of publication itself. A Saturday Review article on “The Divorce Court at Work” is troubled about what divorce says about the nation’s moral character. But it is even more disturbed about what it sees as a new stimulus to divorce

it is of evil omen to society that the newspapers bear daily witness that provocation on one side and petulance on the other. . . may at length be nursed into the legal amount of cruelty” (“Work,”809)

The notion of “nursing into” implies that cruelty might be controlled by those who experience it, once they learn what distinguishes unpleasant behavior from what the law defines as injury, the tortious act (Leckie, 77). The court’s need to make this distinction underlined the fact that divorce was nominally a matter of civil law. Procedurally, however, divorce actions approximated more closely actions in criminal law, and the fear, expressed by other journals as well, that this civil action might be used in an essentially fraudulent way reminds us of how easily complainants could be positioned as quasi-criminal actors in this new courtroom space. Without explicitly gendering its complaint, then, The Saturday Review simultaneously genders and criminalizes its attack on those who might misuse the knowledge they gleaned from published stories of legally insupportable marriages. As all England knew after the debates of 1856 and 1857, only wives needed to prove cruelty in addition to adultery to get a divorce (they actually had to establish adultery in combination with incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, cruelty, or desertion for two years: Horstman, 79). Thus, only women had a motive to manipulate their private lives to reproduce the conditions that would make them legal “victims.”

[14]   The idea that private pain might be the product of a need to render experience publicly readable took on an even more threatening cast when articulated as a social phenomenon. Neither divorces nor divorce court narratives simply happened. They grew out of the interaction of private desires, legal procedures and market conditions. When divorce court reports taught women how to produce the requirements for divorce, for example, they created a need for solicitors to serve them and detectives to transform their stories into evidence. In this context, public access to the law’s text became the trigger for a potentially terrifying transformation of the private (Leckie, 98-9).

Better almost that moral delinquents were altogether undiscovered than that society should be harassed, and mutual confidence in the sanctities of domestic life dislocated, by the bare suspicion that our steps are dogged and our every action misinterpreted by the hired agency of fellows who … bring into English life the vile practices fiction has reserved for . . . romance (“Work,” 810).


Pressured by this new industry, the moral space of domesticity was being redefined as an arena full of suspicion, a source not of certain identity, but of endless insecurities about supposedly foundational experience (Leckie, 91).


[15]   Read in this way, the debate over divorce court news appeared to mark the emergence of a new social story. This story nominally retained the notion of separate spheres, but those spheres now revealed a threatening tendency to become the same. When that fixity dissolved, the binary opposition of gender that underwrote the natural organization of home and work was also at risk (Poovey, 12). The problem of becoming public in this new forum must therefore be read as threatening sexual difference as well, which in turn meant, in the complex logic of the discourse, different narratives of danger for men and women. Publishing the marital scandals of the respectable produced the possibility of a gendered criminality–of women who might use their knowledge to free themselves from being wives and mothers–and a gendered weakness–of men who could no longer securely occupy the private positions of husband, father and lover. A private sphere beset by the tensions and self-interests of the public realm was not a place where middle-class men could perform themselves unselfconsciously. In such a home, every “thoughtless” act of life, every bit of temper was being stored up for future use in the public arena.

[16]   Whatever one may want to claim about the general meaning of visibility, then, what we see at this moment is no more obviously about women becoming empowered than it is about how women’s movement between private and public became a national problem. If we agree with Mary Poovey that the passage of the 1857 Divorce Act enacted a conflict between reformist ideologies (is change to be undertaken because women are unequally treated by the law or because current remedies are not equally open to all classes), it makes sense that the issue of rights was replaced in responses to the new law by a problem of power (13). What made a horror story out of women becoming visible was not their appearance as victims, but the power that might be produced by an understanding that such an identity was a legal construct rather than a condition of being. To defeat the male order, women had only to become conscious shapers of marital experience, to poke and prod at day-to-day reality until it resembled the public story the Divorce Court was designed to relieve.

[17]   As the nation moved from debating what the 1857 Act for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes might do to assessing what the Divorce Court News was doing, it reconstructed the object of public anxiety. The law now provided a coherent and accessible way of redressing private impasses. But, in the process of uncovering hidden domestic tragedies, it also “discovered” an idea of female agency that was criminally destructive of the very possibility of authentic private experience. Like the forger who was dangerous because he had mastered the style of public virtue, the manipulative respectable woman threatened the trust on which the security of private relations depended. If the knowledge of legal systems produced women who could orchestrate their entrance into the public realm, than what the divorce court news really revealed was how the law had become a tool of individual gendered desire. In light of this disturbing possibility, this disruption of the conventional association between publication and the revelation of hidden truth, how could men trust the narratives the law produced? To what extent could they even know their own domestic experience?

“As regards society, we think that the Lesson is better and more impressive as it stands” Saturday Review(1857)

[18]   The divorce court was not the only place where respectable Victorian women suddenly found themselves becoming visible. In 1857, the same year the court was established, the nation was captured by another spectacle of suspect femininity, this one centered on the fascinating figure of Madeleine Hamilton Smith. Cultural observers past and present have argued the meaning of the case, focusing sometimes on Smith and her actions and sometimes on responses to the trial (See, for example, Roughead, Jesse, House and Hartman). I am concerned, by contrast, not only with the difficulty of distinguishing between those two phenomena, but also with why a visibility one might expect to produce either truth, by way of the trial, or meaning, by way of narrative, was accepted as producing neither. The modern impulse to see Smith’s ambiguity as a register of resistance, or subversion, is understandable. But the case finally suggests something far less comfortable, forcing us to acknowledge how much women’s visibility can be controlled by representational practices that define their emergence as an aesthetic and cultural challenge.

[19]   The history I embark on here is one whose basic shape has been rendered familiar by Michel Foucault and imported into literary criticism by a variety of texts, most influentially D.A. Miller’s pioneering, The Novel and the Police. Miller’s particular contribution to this revisionist history is to argue persuasively for a “radicalentanglement between the nature of the novel and the practices of the police” (2) that at once aligns the novel with the network of practices Foucault associates with modern power/knowledge and makes literature central to the discipline now comfortably associated with the Victorian period. What follows clearly reflects a debt to Miller and Foucault; but it also, through its excursion into the discipline of publicity and the rise of a cultural subject whose function it is to embody mystery rather than what can be known, reflects upon a pervasive absence in both men’s work-the lack of any serious effort to understand the gendering of different modalities of power. In addition, it suggests that whether we or not accept Miller’s reading of the novel’s disciplinary effects, we should not generalize from that analysis to other kinds of representational practice. It is a mistake to assume, to put it another way, that the collectively authored intertext of the sensational trial works in the same way as Miller’s novel.

As part of what both Miller and Foucault would describe as the larger movement linking surveillance and power, seeing and knowing, Victorian professionals came to believe that the key to disciplining criminality lay in scrutinizing its every facet. In the same decades that moral statisticians were investigating the hidden courts of London and journalists invading the dark interior of the prison, the nation began to reform its police forces. Retraining constables and creating detective divisions, it sought to ensure that no crime would go unseen. By mid-century, the techniques and institutions developed for use against the dangerous classes were being widely applied to new subjects and experiences. England began appointing medical doctors as coroners and regularizing the use of expert witnesses, changes which reflected a growing concern with the criminality that might lurk in the most common events of everyday life from the deaths of children to the bilious indispositions that dogged respectable citizens. As the nation’s understanding of its own progress became bound up with the idea that murder could not be hidden, domestic crime emerged as the most serious test of how the state was to balance its commitment to middle-class privacy against the need to monitor what might flourish in that unregulated realm. And among domestic criminals, the female poisoner, who disguised death in the nurturing gesture, became the most terrifying symbol of the kind of private violence that had to be exposed.

[20]   The classic version of national necessity, in which privacy is breached only when public order >has been broken, can easily be invoked to justify the law’s treatment of Madeleine Smith. But another, and more disturbing, model of private/public interaction underwrote the initial representation of Smith’s crime, providing the logic which connected a respectable girl to acts her sex, class and situation should make impossible. According to this model, the most terrible of crimes grew out of a desperate desire to maintain privacy. Smith killed her lover to stop him from making their relations public. As a tribute to the cultural weight of this construction of what shaped the female subject, Smith’s defender, the Dean of Faculty (John Ingles), used the same logical structure to argue her innocence. What sane person, he asked, would commit a crime that would inevitably produce what she did not want, the publication of her secret life? Both defense and prosecution thus agreed that wanting to maintain the separation of spheres, to remain private, was a realistic reason for respectable women to kill.

[21]   Privacy as cloak of crime. Privacy as motive for crime. But these were not the only issues of public and private raised by Smith’s trial. By its very visibility as a topic of national attention, the case forces us to consider the texts that make a woman’s presence in the courtroom a part of history. For it was the unprecedented storm of publicity surrounding the trial that united readers from all over the world as spectators of the newly public (and criminal) woman. The Illustrated London News of July 11, 1857 clearly enumerates the qualities that have expanded the audience for criminal narratives:

the youth and sex of the accused, the nature of the charges against her . . . the extraordinary nerve with which she has borne up through the terrible ordeal . . . . have roused to a high pitch the feelings not only of the immediate auditors at the trial, but of that vast audience which through the press has been from day to day present at the scene (“Glasgow,”27).

It was not Smith’s fate alone that the public cared about, of course. As the detailed reports of the trial suggest, what England wanted was to participate in a theatre of exposure. To justify that desire, the sedateTimes goes so far as to remove the case from the crime page giving its readers both a lengthy reprise of the testimony of the previous day and, next to that, a report by “Electric and international telegraph” of what was happening at the moment. Taken together, these features affirmed that the sensational event was really vital public news.

[22]   And that news was, in part, the news that the middle-class woman had the power to criminalize the private by manipulating her privileged relation to that sphere. What was on trial here was a hidden potentiality of gender that had to be made visible. Not surprisingly, the journalists attempting to write that story organized it around the dramatic instant when Madeleine Smith stepped into the Edinburgh courtroom. The Times opens its report, for example, with an apparently neutral image of the accused: “a very young lady of short stature and slight form, with features sharp and prominent, and restless and sparkling eye”(7/2/57, 5). Framed for us as she might be in any public space, Smith “stepped up the stair into the dock with all the buoyancy with which she might have entered the box of a theater” (5). The report deploys familiar images of visible women in an effort to make sense of one woman’s appearance in a shockingly incongruous place. Time and again, the Times and other newspapers follow this course, relieving their summaries of testimony and evidence with set-pieces on Smith’s dress, look and manner. Their formulations of such scenes reveal that they, like an increasingly realistic Victorian novel, depend on minutely observed differences of voice, face and demeanor to reveal the human character.

[23]   But in the absence of a controlling interpretive framework–like a verdict or a plot–the evidence derived from minute scrutiny remained peculiarly ambiguous. What are we to conclude from this moment of vision offered by the Times, for example?

During the whole day, she maintained a firm and unmoved appearance, her…animated expression and healthful complexion evincing how little, outwardly at least, she had suffered by the period of her imprisonment and the horror of her situation (7/2/57, 5).

Smith’s self-possession is reminiscent of the manipulative femininity Victorian readers will soon come to associate with sensational heroines like Lucy Audley and Lydia Gwilt. Yet that control also resonates with the classed conventions of proper gender performance.

[24]   Trying to make Smith’s body tell its story without any controlling textual structure, journalists constantly reiterated her public ambiguity. Smith resisted the discipline of being read even when she was read over time.

Though on once looking round a dark veil was thrown over her face, the interest she took in the proceedings was yet evident. Her head never sank for a moment, and she even seemed to scan the witnesses with a scrutinizing glance. Her perfect self-possession, indeed, could only be accounted for either by…a consciousness of innocence or by her possessing an almost unparalleled amount of self-control. She even sometimes smiled with all the air and grace of a young lady in the drawing-room, as her agents came forward at intervals to communicate with her (7/2/57, 5).

After days of watching the law expose her, the Times could only suggest two incompatible ways to see the relation between Smith’s public face, what everyone saw, and her private truth. She remained veiled–private in public. That Smith’s peculiar ambiguity was not a register of class status alone becomes clearer when we compare these representations with the way that a middle-class male criminal, like Palmer, was pictured. Trial reports also stressed Dr Palmer’s self-possession, his control of expression. But while critics admitted that the general public might find it difficult to see such a man as a criminal type, they had no problem making that connection. As Charles Dickens insists in hisHousehold Words essay, “The Demeanor of the Murderer”, Palmer’s “complete self-possession . . . coolness . . . perfect composure” are not signs of innocence, but “the natural companion” of his crimes and evidence of the danger he presents to society (506). The mastery of appearance thus appears to be part of the repertoire of powers granted both to respectable criminal women and respectable criminal men. But while the fear that criminality might not swamp control in women shadowed all discussions of Madeleine Smith, it was not finally a fear that could be directly addressed in narratives of her crime.

[25]   The Time’s peculiar summation ends with a description of Smith’s dress and a reiteration of her affect: “all together she had a most attractive appearance, and her very aspect and demeanor seemed to advocate her cause” (7/2/57, 5). In such moments, the author connects the court as a public space of performance and spectacle with those others, the novel and the drawing-room, with which the reader is familiar as if to admit that Smith can be known through no single lens. But trying to construe the private truth of the woman who sits so coolly in the courtroom though those conventional modes reveals them all as inadequate. The public text of the drawing room is only a useful interpretive frame when we agree that a certain value, but no particular content, inheres in the disposition of the female body in public. And fictional representations of women satisfy only if they are controlled by an authorial power which can discover the discontinuities between public and private and make them readable.

[26]   In the public arena of the trial, no respectable woman could be truly known by the way she arranged her public presence or through a single narrative. If the verdict provided the shape of that narrative, it could do so only after the fact. Sitting quietly behind her veil, very little separated Madeleine Smith from the women assembled to view her. “Her features wore an expression indicative of extreme reserve; and it was only by those nearest to the dock that any difference could be seen in the manner of the prisoner from that of the surrounding spectators ” (Forbes, Trial, 3). Although they pay lip service to the idea that it would be possible to see Madeleine’s difference if one were close enough, journalistic representations of her entry into the space of the courtroom effectively constitute the visible woman as an interpretive battleground. As the trial went on, wonder about Smith’s relation to her supposed crime slid into amazement at her resistance to the stress of being on display. The Times‘s telegraphic report of the verdict opens with a description of the crowd outside–“trying every means in their possession to gain an entrance into the court”–whose disruptive energy contrasts dramatically with Smith’s calm (7/10/57, 12). Unlike the audience, she showed

no trace of that anxiety and deep mental suffering to be expected in a woman charged with such a dread crime . . . she presented that coolness and indifference that she has all along exhibited in a most remarkable and extraordinary manner” (7/10/57, 12).

Even in the awful moments before she learned her fate, Smith maintained her mystery.

[27]   Efforts to read Smith’s public body were only a minor feature of the case, largely overshadowed by the problem of publication at the center of the trial–the prisoner’s letters to her lover. Under criminal law at this time, accused felons could not testify in their own defense. Only their written statements became part of the public record. Through that limit, Victorian England silenced the criminal at the point of his/her publication to the world, demonstrating that the law controlled the production of the story that became truth. Bound in practice by those procedural constraints, Madeleine Smith was not silenced in exactly the same way at her trial; hundreds of her letters to L’Angelier and others form the main evidence in the case against her.

[28]   Given the fiction of the letter as an authentic form and the love letter as an especially intimate revelation of the soul, it was not surprising that the legal task of discovering whether Smith killed her lover became virtually the same as the “literary” problem of reading her letters properly. Both defense and prosecution organized their closing addresses around highly selective narratives of the letters; while the crime-minded Annual Registerdevoted much of its 1857 Law Cases section to a report comprised of quotations from those texts. Pamphlet accounts of the trial announced in bold letters on their outer covers that they contained the complete letters in the case (Full Report, Trial). Even in the limited compass of the newspaper story, they occupied an inordinate amount of space. On Monday, July 6, the Times‘ report consists almost entirely of a series of letters that “show the nature and the process of the intimacy between the prisoner and the deceased” (7). Is not this the publication of the private, the link between sexuality and criminality, which will finally authorize public intervention and underwrite one master narrative of the private woman and the private crime?

[29]   The popular press certainly looked to the letters to supply the certainty it could not make Smith’s visible presence produce. Moving from the text of the woman’s body to the private texts she authors, it abbreviated and shaped the hidden history the latter supposedly contained. The Times, for example, compresses Smith’s letters into a narrative that proceeds inexorably from the ominous intimacy of exhibit #1, “I do not feel as if I were writing you for the first time,” through the letters which open with the fervent “My own, my beloved,” to those which formally register Smith’s sexual corruption by transforming her beloved into a real lover, “My own, my darling husband.” A careful reader can trace Madeleine’s sense of that reconstruction in her changing pattern of self-description. She moves from calling herself Madeleine to Mimi to Mimi L’Angelier. Smith’s “own” words reveal the connection between secret correspondence and secret engagement, between mental and physical corruption. In this context, Letters 23 and 37 are particularly important. In 23, Smith writes to L’Angelier immediately after they have had sex for the first time. Her apparently calm acceptance of the details of intercourse–“I did not bleed in the least . . . but I had a good deal of pain during the night” (Jesse, 317), in combination with her refusal to express guilt, suggests an absolute loss of principle. Letter 37 similarly foregrounds Smith’s apparent pleasure in sex. “Will I not pet and fondle and love you . . . .Oh! To be with you tonight. But I fear I would ask you to love me . . . . It is hard to restrain one’s passions” (Jesse, 328-29).

[30]   This narrative accelerates towards tragedy with the appearance of an acceptable suitor, Smith’s attempts to free herself from Emile, and the words of Smith’s final letter, #149, posted on March 21st.

Why my beloved did you not come to me. Oh beloved are you ill. Come to me sweet one. I waited and waited for you but you came not. I shall wait again tomorrow night same hour and arrangement. Do come sweet love my own dear love of a sweetheart. Come beloved and clasp me to your heart. Come and we shall be happy. A kiss fond love. Adieu with tender embraces ever believe me to be your own dear fond, Mini (sic) (7/6/57, 7).

[31]   Even today, the narrative is chilling. Uncomplicated by a sense of time passing, shorn of the trivial, stripped of its interactive quality, this powerful piece of literature details a woman’s fall into sexual criminality and her abuse of the freedom granted her by conventional gender stories. It supplies an apparently coherent logic for Smith’s evolution into a transgressor against her class and sex. It allows us to see L’Angelier’s murder as an act that simultaneously realizes Smith’s criminal lack of control and registers a lingering middle-class desire to repair herself by erasing the evidence of her error. But while this text is psychically satisfying, it is also deeply problematic. Most notably because the same narrative of corruption and fall could be used to account for an innocent Madeleine. One could imagine, as the defense did, just such a narrative as proof that Smith was too corrupt to act powerfully. Weakness and passion, not power and foresight are the keys to this story. Unable to deny his client’s private history, Ingles constantly returns in his closing address to Smith’s response to Emile’s threat to expose her sexual fall. He links her expressions of terror with the onset of a weakness that would necessarily preclude any decisive action.

Is this the state of mind of a murderess, or can anyone affect that state of mind… . Is shame for past sin–burning shame–the dread of exposure–what leads a woman . . . to plunge into the deepest depths of human wickedness . . . .The thing is preposterously incredible (Jessie, 265).

[32]   Although Smith’s letters initially seemed to guarantee a satisfying public narrative of private crime, once they became a site for interpretive disagreement any potentially unifying narrative that might be made from them was resubmitted to the uncertainty that characterized this mid-Victorian scandal of publication. It was impossible to know what this story of a woman’s pain and fall had to do with the story of murder that occasioned the trial. While the prosecution tried to construct its case as a chain whose “links” were so tightly bound as to prove their truth, the Dean of Faculty argued that observers had to separate the interpretive model or narrative they wanted to believe in from the legal structure belief it was tested against. In this curious evocation of the model of separate spheres, the Dean reminds us that Madeleine’s story is radically incomplete without L’Angelier, “The Unknown adventurer.” L’Angelier is a man who preys on his betters by preying on their women: “Once and again we find him engaged in attempts to get married to women of some station at least in society” (Jesse, 234). When this character is re-inserted in the private story, Smith’s letters can be read as responding to male plans and desires. According to Ingles’ account, these texts re-enact the familiar story of a girl under siege by a man whose race and class mark him criminal. “Influence from without–most corrupting influence–can alone account for such a fall” (Jesse, 237). This story encompasses and explains all of Smith’s subsequent failures of character at the same time it becomes evidence of her innocence. Both the novel-reading and the trial-going public share a standard for what makes for a realistic text–internal consistency, foreshadowing, emotional truth–and the Dean plays off that standard to insist that a sordid domestic tale cannot be transformed, without warning, into a tragedy of gendered depravity. Smith’s story cannot suddenly become a narrative of “the savage grandeur of Medea, or the appalling wickedness of a Borgia” (Jesse, 242).

[33]   From this appeal for an “aesthetically” coherent story of Smith’s private self, the defense went on to condemn the letters in another context. As circumstantial evidence, they proved intimacy rather than the right meeting on the right day or any meeting on the night before L’Angelier died. The Dean of Faculty separates the narrative that condemns Smith morally from an evidentiary narrative dependant on “inference and conjecture” (Jessie, 573). The law may have absolute power over the body and words of Madeleine Smith, but what does this power mean if it produces coherence by illegitimate means?

Good heavens! Inference and conjecture! A matter of inference and conjecture whether, on the night he was poisoned, he was in the presence of the person who is charged with his murder! I have never heard such an expression in the mouth of a Crown prosecutor in a capital charge before, as indicating or describing a link in the chain of the prosecutors case . . . . for the prosecutor himself to describe one part of his evidence as a piece of conjecture and hypothesis is to me an entire and most startling novelty–and yet my learned friend could not help it. It was honest and fair . . . for he can ask for this verdict on nothing but a set of unfounded and incredible suspicions and hypotheses (Jesse, 258-59; “Full Report,” 79-81)

The Dean of Faculty uses his final statement to problematize the case’s demand on the jury. Moving from inference, an acceptable but problematic feature of cases based on circumstantial evidence, to conjecture, suspicion and hypothesis, he argues that the Prosecution’s narrative is not a great chain of evidence but “a web of sophistry” (Jesse, 106), a product of human ingenuity that has no other claim to authority than its appeal to private presuppositions and desires. Unable to convert fragments of information into knowledge beyond reasonable doubt, the jury must accept their limits, as men and agents of the law: “Raise not, then, your rash and impotent hands to rend aside the veil in which Providence has been pleased to shroud the circumstances of this mysterious story.” (Jesse, 115)

[34]   Though we might expect this “impotence” to be profoundly disturbing to the Victorian public, anxiety does not properly describe the response to the non-resolution of the case. In its July 11 issue, The Saturday Review publishes two columns which function as final remarks on the trial. One, “Not Proven,” details the journal’s response to the verdict, reprising the facts of the case and summarizing the legal problems with establishing another verdict. The other article, “Madeleine Smith,” asks what the case means. Although the author admits that the question of Smith’s guilt or innocence will continue to be a moot point, he applauds the verdict of the court.

It may be that the most solemn lessons in life require an element of mystery and doubt …. Even Justice declines to interfere in the presence of something beyond our powers to deal with. The most inhuman, and perhaps unparalleled, of crimes is in some sort lifted above the legitimate sphere of human punishment. (26)

The Saturday Review was not alone in claiming that this exotic verdict, often criticized in England, was both legally proper and culturally necessary. Indeed, what makes the Smith case so compelling is, as I have already said, the widespread agreement on exactly this point.

[35]   On what grounds could the culture applaud the failure of its ordering disciplines? The Saturday Review‘s essay identifies three possible sources of value. Suggesting that “sexual passion” is “necessary in the highest form even of evil,” the trial first produces stories it cannot reconcile (26). The act that becomes public is characterized by “a cool-settled malignity of self-possession” (26). The private subject revealed in letters displays the “burning intensity of mere sexual passion” (26). According to the writer, “The problem to solve–and it is inscrutable … is the co-existence” of these stories (26). While modern readers may imagine many ways to combine them, most notably in a narrative of a woman with both passion and control, a master criminal, the verdict of Not Proven allowed England’s male authorities to maintain the fundamentally enigmatic relation between women’s private sexuality and the possibility of their public agency.

[36]   Second, this enigma does not subvert the authorities who have insisted on it. It rather suggests new modes of cultural authority and a new source of aesthetic energy. “The very nature of the verdict leaves us at full liberty to canvass the moral antecedents of the event and reason about what is not disproved” (“Smith,” 27). The authorities who fail to provide closure identify a mystery that will test other disciplines and other men. The writer of the article demonstrates the truth of that fertile productivity by re-reading Smith’s mystery through the lens of character. Borrowing from the developing discourse of Victorian psychology, he discovers the key to Smith’s crime in L’Angelier’s nature. “His was just the sort of mind to work this horrible change in MADELEINE SMITH” (27). Like soft wax, Smith is shaped by her lover’s impression of passion, first sexualized and then, in response to his calculation, translated into something beyond feeling. This analysis ends with a description of a subject in the grip of something very like the new category of monomania.

not unparalleled acting . . . not a mere superhuman effort of the strong will . . . . there are moral and spiritual conditions in which feeling is simply obliterated . . . the whole moral nature is converted into . . . unimpressionable black marble (27).

The appeal of this narrative is clear. It erases the problematic relation between Smith’s gender and her will, her sex and her control of appearances. This Madeleine’s public unreadability merely reflects the degree to which gendered nature has been erased by private trauma. She is both abnormal, in the clinical sense, and a subject of normal forces.

[37]   Finally, as this creative speculation reveals, the law’s affirmation of Smith’s mystery teaches an impressive lesson in the complexities of the age. What is not known about her case shadows forth the unending differences that animate even a world increasingly measured, studied and known. This association between energy and mystery was, it must be stressed, true almost entirely for the middle-class woman. Incessantly photographed, measured and read from the 1850’s on, poor women were generally presented as either essentially knowable, because their sexuality and their character were visibly inscribed in their bodies, or as a cultural problem. In either case, they were not exhilarating in an aesthetic sense.

[38]   To the extent that Smith’s case resonated with reminders of the mysterious possibilities “going on in the inmost core of all that is apparently pure and respectable,” it denied that the age of industry and science had reduced the circumstances of existence to a dreary catalogue of getting and spending (“Smith,” 27). This consolation is fascinating because its construction of the value of mystery was so necessarily gendered. Only a woman’s publication could provide this kind of interest, and only around her ambiguity could this capital of mystery be created. It is not surprising, then, that the new star of the law courts, the respectable criminal woman, also became the central figure in the most notorious cultural product of the 1860s, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (Altick, Deadly, 149-158).

[39]   In this context, Freud’s plaintive, but clearly rhetorical, query about what women want is only one late manifestation of Victorian England’s location of interest, mystery and fascination in woman. For all his power, the modern man was being defined as one who lacked the qualities necessary to the production of art and artistic crime. The respectable criminal woman thus became visible not as an object of certain knowledge, but as a stimulus for interpretative and aesthetic impulses. We can more clearly understand the significance of this objectification, when we remember what it entails. The Smith case did inspire professional and artistic reconsideration for the rest of the century. But Madeleine Smith too continued to live. A few years after her trial, she married George Wardle and, as Lena Wardle, attended London dinner parties where her own case would have been revived as a topic of conversation with every new poisoning that caught the public fancy. We know that Shaw and others met, and identified her, at Fabian gatherings. The narratives that seek to master her have, however, no interest in the continuity of her life or identity. The fact that Smith outlasted Queen Victoria to die, unknown and alone, in America matters to no one. For her audience, she must remain an enigmatic public figure and a dangerous private history embodied in compact and malleable form. In that guise, she is a provocation to speculative enquiry that need never end.

“It represents indeed the type perfect case, with nothing to be taken from it or added” (Henry James)

[40]   The imperatives of certain discourses of knowledge and value collided in England in the second half of the 19th century, and the figure who most often generated such collisions was the respectable woman criminal. In a recent article, Wai-Chee Dimock defines “the literary,“simply, as that “which resonates for readers past, present, and future” (1064), and according to that definition the interplay of texts and institutions which I have discussed here clearly produced a certain class of visible female subjects as a cultural literature. For what was Madeleine Smith to Henry James, whose words I quote above, but a species of art? Sick with gout and sleepless, he found relief in reading William Roughead’s “true crime” account of the decades old case with “my eyes attached to the prodigious Madeleine” (qted in Roughhead; 118). His “type perfect case” is perfect not despite, but because it is incomplete. It is only after the law formally admits that Smith is beyond its ken that she becomes an object worth studying. In a recent essay on Victorian sensation fiction, Jessica Maynard also connects James’s fascination with Smith to the case’s inconclusiveness (187). She suggests that, for James, artistic veracity becomes equivalent with representations that resist analysis, and ends by stressing his commitment to the ‘truth’ that Smith symbolizes, the truth of our inability to know what goes on “beneath the vast smug surface” of society (190, 197).

[41]   Unlike Maynard, I see this commitment as important because of what it does not say about the relation between male artist and gendered “inspiration.” Even when James imagines a Madeleine grown older, he does not think of her as the agent of her own actions, as a criminal subject in her own right. She is rather a woman who “lived on to admire with the rest of us . . . the rare work of art with which she had been the means of enriching humanity” (qted in Roughead, 118). James admits to feeling horror at “her victim’s” suffering, finding it odd that the jury could ignore the evidence of “what he went through that last night” (119). But he ends his meditation with only one regret, that Smith was almost of “the pre-photographic age–I would give so much for a veracious portrait of her then face” (119). James’s desire to see her as she was, to possess an image to stand in for the intersection of notorious crime and permanently unknowable woman, did not register any belief that he could know Smith through her image. Rather, like Roughead’s text, the photograph would function as a reminder of the mysteries that only art could assay, the only capital that could never be exhausted.

[42]   In a world increasingly populated by middle-class women who sought to claim the agency associated with public identity, being visible could not have a simple or uncontested meaning. And the visibility granted to the respectable, erring woman only extended that complexity. That which 19th century law found incomprehensible in individual gendered subjects increasingly became a legitimate professional problem for disciplines that could interrogate an entire class’s movement towards the public sphere. As the century wore on, social theorists and scientists took the division of labor as the feature that distinguished civilized from savage society, and gender specialization as the most important register of that division. According to men as different as Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, and Sir Henry Maine, sex both “provided the basis for the most elementary of task division” and led to the general civilizing of emotions that was a precondition for progressive social evolution (Russett, 139-40). In a similar slight of hand, the respected Victorian legal historian, Lucas Owen Pike, argues that individual women’s aspirations have to be judged not in light of particular abilities, but in relation to a collective or mass effect. Appealing to this larger imagined context, Pike concludes that “every step made by woman toward her independence is a step towards that precipice at the bottom of which lies prison”(Crime II, 529). As avatars of a looming historical crisis, a potentially pervasive criminalization of modern society, middle-class women thus suddenly became necessary objects of study for such emergent professions as political science, psychology and sociology. Mirroring that fascination, writers too discovered in woman’s efforts to assert her agency an apparently inexhaustible object of study and representation. Whether played out in the delicate disorder that circulates around an Isabel Archer or in the indefinable power associated with an Irene Adler, this gendered affect is the inexhaustible mystery whose exploration at once demonstrates the power of the artist and guarantees for him an arena that other, more definitive forms of knowing cannot close off.

[43]   Over the past twenty years, studies of the discipline exercised on poor women in the name of knowledge have given credence to the claims, made by women such as Hannah Cullwick, that invisibility might sometimes offer a kind of freedom. Yet we have remained oddly faithful to the assumption that a simpler politics underlies the sudden visibility of middle-class women at mid-century. As this essay has tried to demonstrate, however, some of those women, including Madeleine Smith, become resonant for their culture, and visible to us, in ways which render that assumption suspect. Frozen at the moment of their apparent emergence as public subjects, they are objects whose mysteriousness titillates rather than appalls. There is no place in this new cultural text for the self-knowledge granted to middle-class men or for descriptions of their struggle to mediate between public and private identities. Middle-class women who attempt to move into the public sphere must therefore struggle with a constant awareness of their own criminal potential in part because middle-class art is busy translating the uncertainty associated with that struggle into the basis for new form of power.

[44]   What initially seemed most incomprehensible about the Smith case, the easy acceptance of discursive and professional failure, thus resolves itself into the key to understanding the cultural significance of a new genre of gendered visibility. Any threat to order posed by the respectable criminal woman is more than balanced by the value derived from keeping her legally ambiguous and personally mysterious. That mystery is not the marker of narrative frustrated or a culture paralyzed by its own incoherences, but the visible sign of the emergence of new species of narratives about classed and gendered crime. In this new space of possibility, this opening in the cultural imagination, a nation that is conquering more and more of the natural world “discovers” a mystery that can act as a spur to human (or rather male) endeavor, and most particularly as an inspiration for art. That spur is the shadowy criminal potential that becomes fundamental to high Victorian theories of femininity and to the disciplines whose authority depends on the skillful management, through appropriate public representation, of women’s essential unknowability. The Madeleine Smith who so exhilarates contemporary discourses and whose type so inspires 19th century art thus finally reminds us that gendered visibility is never simply a register of individual agency, but rather a complex and situated process whose form always encodes a narrative of cultural instrumentality.

Acknowledgements: I thank my Genders readers for their helpful comments, and Robert Santurri and Julie Early (for patiently reading this essay in its earliest form). My appreciation as well to my father, Martin, who introduced me to Madeleine Smith long ago.


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