Deeds Against Nature: women and Crime in Street Literature of Early Modern England

Deeds Against Nature: women and Crime in Street Literature of Early Modern England

Clark Sandra (University of London)

Sederi, Volume 12 (2002)


This paper examines some representations of women who kill in early modern news writing, including pamphlets, ballads, and some domestic tragedies, and considers how they were shaped to fulfil certain cultural functions. The situation of such women, particularly those who murdered their husbands or their children, was problematic in a culture where such behaviour lay far outside the boundaries of what was considered natural to each sex. In this period gender roles were clearly defined, and the ideology of the ìgood womanî informed the culture in various ways, both in legislation and at a popular level in social life and cultural practices. News writing, however sensational, was at this time invariably informed by a didactic imperative, and where possible structured so as to constitute evidence for a providentialist vision of human life. According to such a vision, even the most deviant of criminal acts might be utilised to reveal the mercy of God and the value of penitence. I discuss accounts of two kinds of female crime, husband murder and infanticide, in order to consider the narrative strategies whereby the writers attempt both to handle the difficult question of female agency and to render the crimes culturally intelligible.

This paper deals with a topic of perennial fascination: women who kill. Images of such women acquire and retain a potency rarely accorded to those of men; murders by men have to be deemed exceptionally horrific, as for example those committed by serial killers, to achieve the same notoriety, whereas women who kill are still, by nature, exceptional. In modern Britain, the face of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in 1955 is still a familiar one, and her story was made into a play and two films. More notorious still is Myra Hindley, the so-called Moors murderess, who was sentenced in 1965 for her part in the killings of several children, and still remains in jail, one of the countryís longest-serving prisoners. Whenever the possibility of her release is mooted, there is a huge public outcry.

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