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The Age of Arsenic

There’s little in history more depressing than the collapse of the first wave of feminism after about 1820. It is one sort of shock that the “civilized” mask of a culture can fall, revealing men who possess wristwatches and radios but who are prepared to send their neighbors to a gas chamber. It is a different shock, perhaps more insidious, to realize that an achievement of the mind in the modern era can be lost as surely and totally as an achievement like the building of metaled highways was lost in the European Dark Ages. The demand for women’s rights was plainly and splendidly formulated in the years of the French Revolution, and came to the attention of literate women and men all over Europe and North America. But then, after the execution of the king and the long wars against France, the very idea of the rights of women came to be identified as “French” and subversive. (How ironic that it was the moderate Girondins and their intellectual friends who took such an interest in feminism, while the radical revolutionaries of the Montagne who overthrew them regarded the cause as a sick deviation typical of the leisured classes! The story is well told in Claire Tomalin’s life of Mary Wollstonecraft.* )

There followed for the middle-class woman a century of regression. As that class established its ascendancy over the decrepit restoration regimes of the early nineteenth century, so its ethic turned against the feminist pioneers who had given the middle class brave intellectual support in its revolt against “irrational” feudalism. Enough was enough. Yesterday’s heroine of reason and feeling was today’s termagant and psychopath. A barrage of reactionary abuse, much of it written by lady authors, drove women back from the barricade and the lecture hall to the kitchen, the nursery, and the pious hypocrisies of Victorian family life. The clever, sharp faces of women in turn-of-the-century portraits are replaced by the silly nymphs of Ingres and Etty who seem to carry their brains, as Brontosauri did, in their buttocks.

The early male fashion in Victorian women was for girlishness and infantility—for Dora, in David Copperfield. As the century passed, this passive ideal gave way to something less mushy but even harder to attain: the woman of active virtue who maintained and propagated a saintly purity which mere men—by their natures, of course—couldn’t easily reach by themselves. The greater the wealth and confidence of the Victorian bourgeoisie, the more elaborate and restrictive became the theatrical part which women were expected to play.

The laborer’s woman, who probably went out to work herself, had the very concrete horrors of poverty, filth, and violence to deal with: enemies well enough known to women throughout history. But the grocer’s wife, the fiancée of the elderly cotton broker, the daughter of the Inspector of Factories were fighting not for survival but for esteem. All around them stood fathers, husbands, lovers, and neighbors demanding “womanly” behavior on grounds which owed singularly little to common sense. How far must a woman submit? What could she get away with, and still avoid the disgrace which could mean social and economic annihilation?

Ms. Hartman’s book has the subtitle “A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes.” This is unfair to the book. It isn’t a jolly album of ghouleries, introduced by some music-hall master of ceremonies, but a serious work, which sets out to draw more general conclusions about Victorian women from the extreme examples of the sisters who broke under pressure.

But there is something ghoulish here, all the same, something which recalls the chamber of horrors in a Victorian waxworks. Here, however, the exhibits are not the women themselves, those ladies who stand unwinking in Madame Tussaud’s with their spoonfuls of arsenic and phials of antimony. The exhibits are the men they killed.

On display is the small-town seducer Hippolyte Bazard (a good Flaubertian name), brandishing his phallus at Madame Francey and threatening to disclose her liaison with a young priest unless she submits to him; Edwin Bartlett, the Methodist grocer who married on condition that there should be as little sex as possible and who pressed his wife’s “favors” on the preacher who was his own best friend; and, beside him, James Maybrick, elderly businessman of Liverpool, censuring his girl-wife for her debts while secretly maintaining a mistress and five illegitimate children.

James Marsden is the nastiest figure in the show. He points his bony fingers at three little girls in tartan outfits and black velvet caps, the clothes they wore to testify against the French governess who starved and beat them until two of their sisters died. Their father let all this happen because he was obsessed by the fear that they were masturbators, and supposed that only the most ruthless treatment could save them from “corruption.”

Not all these exhibits are so spectacular. At the end of the row stand several unimaginative boors whose main offense was to stand in the way of a repressed woman’s fantasy. Charles Lafarge, provincial ironmaster, earned a gutful of arsenic because his little Marie found him boring and resented the dirt under his fingernails. Charles Bravo, gentleman, of Balham in south London, got on the nerves of his rich wife Florence and succumbed to antimony poisoning. Euphémie Lacoste’s husband was as brutal as any, but Ms. Hartman produces evidence missing at her trial which suggests that he died of the arsenic in the medicine he was taking for syphilis. And poor little L’Angelier, the Frenchman living in Glasgow who was seduced by Madeleine Smith and threatened to tell tales if she dropped him to marry the dreary Mr. Minnoch, was not a boor at all. He was just in her way, but in her way with a solidity hard to imagine now. By producing her letters to him, he could have turned a mere lesson in her sentimental education into the wreck of her entire life. So he died, full of arsenic like far more objectionable figures in Ms. Hartman’s gallery. Pretty Madeleine got off with a Scottish verdict of “not proven”; she lost Mr. Minnoch, but ended up with one of Tussy Marx’s socialist friends for a husband instead.

It is all juicy stuff. Too much so: in some ways the material keeps pushing Ms. Hartman aside from her real theme. Her argument for using these murder trials to illuminate the condition of middle-class women is that these were “women especially vulnerable to the same pressures experienced by the majority of their peers,” and “ordinary women who found extreme solutions to ordinary problems.” This is fair enough, and so is her justification that the public reception of the trials, the behavior not only of advocates and judges but above all of the women who so often packed the public galleries, casts further light on those who never dared to solve their “ordinary problems” with poison or pistol. The trouble is that many of these trial verdicts were disputed at the time, that Ms. Hartman finds further reasons to dispute them today, and that in consequence she gets sidetracked into the question of “who done it.”

The question is hard to resist. And Ms. Hartman does detective work very well. Euphémie Lacoste, as we have seen, may have had her problem solved for her by Fowler’s Solution, an arsenical solution for venereal disease. Young Constance Kent confessed to cutting her little stepbrother’s throat and her confession was accepted: Ms. Hartman quite rightly piles up all the evidence which suggests that this was a hysterical confession (her father might well have killed his own child), and that times and circumstances make it implausible. The author is rather too keen to believe that Madame Francey was indeed having an affair with the priest which the bounder Bazard had discovered, and she leaves the ground altogether over Adelaide Bartlett. If grocer Edwin Bartlett really was persuaded to swallow a long drink of corrosive liquid chloroform by means of mesmerism, the reader can swallow anything too.

Much of this fascinating private-eye investigation has nothing to do with the history of feminism. It doesn’t much matter whether Madeleine Smith poisoned L’Angelier or not. The trial, the reaction of the public, the state of mind shown in her letters are what count if it is sociological—rather than forensic—evidence we are after. It is not really central to the affair of Constance Kent, the imaginative young girl of sixteen who was accused of a ferocious family killing, that her confession can be pulled to pieces. The point about the case was that the law and the newspapers suggested she suffered from “hereditary insanity” because her mother had been depressive, and that they used the fact that she had put on boy’s clothing to run away to sea (what clothing was she supposed to wear? asks Ms. Hartman reasonably) to back up their diagnosis of madness.

There is a weakness about the book’s historical logic. It isn’t that what Ms. Hartman is saying is wrong: probably she is right in many conclusions. But her method of drawing generalizations from particulars in every other paragraph is creaking with over-use by the end of the book. “Historians are only beginning to explore the uses of the exceptional individual in defining the hidden features of the typical,” says the author, a shade on the defensive. A servant steams open an envelope in the Maybrick case, and at once there follows the comment that “servants were becoming less loyal toward the end of the century….” Or, in the same chapter, the easy transition which recurs throughout Ms. Hartman’s book in different forms: “For women such as Florence Maybrick….” It may well be true about servants and women “such as” Florence Maybrick, but it doesn’t follow that it is true.

Not all the reasoning is like that. Ms. Hartman talks acutely about what she calls the “New Morality” of the second half of the century, and shows that while in Anglo-Saxon countries the double standard of sexual morals began to fall into discredit, in France the change was expressed in growing tolerance for the “crime passionel.” The rate of acquittals of women accused of murder in “passionel” circumstances rose steeply, reaching 52 percent in 1892. The convention was accepted that women too had the right of violent revenge on a partner who had betrayed the sexual compact. This was the beginning of all those Montmartre scripts with little Mimi holding a steaming gun and sobbing over her lover’s corpse: harder times had dawned for French “coureurs de femmes.”

Henriette Francey provided one example, chasing Hippolyte Bazard as he fled with open flybuttons down the street, drilling him with slug after well-aimed slug—and getting acquitted for it. The rising rate of female adultery in France was another sort of token. Prosecutions (adultery was a criminal offense) went up from a rate of about 50 a year in 1825 to 1,657 in 1891—partly because the new divorce law of 1884 had made adultery a ground for divorce. Frenchwomen had not exactly become more equal, but they had certainly become much more dangerous.

The change in Britain was more subtle. As Ms. Hartman puts it, “in England, by contrast, the distrust of women was countered by a new endorsement of their growing public roles as ‘purifiers’ concerned to alleviate the alleged evils caused by…male sexual promiscuity. For every woman who ‘fell’, there was a fallen man who deserved to share her guilt.” Judges might still consider an adulterous wife as a potential murderess, while her husband’s adventures implied little worse than weakness and thoughtlessness about his character. But the people who sat in court and who wrote in the papers began to think differently.

After the Maybrick case, in which the wife’s admission of adultery had blatantly inclined judge and jury to convict her for killing an adulterous husband, there was a great outcry, and if Queen Victoria had not insisted that she was “a wicked woman,” Florence Maybrick might have been released very early in her sentence. Men were puzzled and disgusted by the way that women “brought up in refined society” would struggle to get into the courtroom during these cases, but their compulsive attending and the sympathy they showed for the sister on trial were not really paradoxical. “The men’s remarks often display that they understood precisely what was happening, namely, that the ‘female element’ was showing a supportive identification with women accused of adultery and murder. Covertly at first, and then openly, female onlookers were sympathizing with the plight of the accused, if not with the solutions….” When these onlookers had admitted to themselves that these trials were not really about murder, and that it was not women, individually or collectively, who were the real defendants, the second age of feminist rebellion was ready to begin.

  1. *

    The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).

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