Women, Crime and Character: From Moll Flanders to Tess of the D'Urbervilles

November 13, 2008

Nicola Lacey's book is a version of her 2007 Clarendon Law Lectures; although "expanded", it is shorter, and with a narrower, tighter focus than the usual academic monograph. Her argument participates in, and adds to, the growing field of law and literature studies, which includes Alexander Welsh's Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England (1992), and Jan-Melissa Schramm's Testimony and Advocacy in Victorian Law, Literature and Theology (2000). But whereas these books conduct detailed and illuminating readings of literary texts in the light of 19th-century legal changes, Lacey's book works the other way round: a complex argument about the development of legal concepts is backed up by readings of literary texts.

These are either extremely broad, consisting of a paragraph of plot summary, or extremely detailed, focusing on a few individual passages. Good examples of the latter are the appearance of Parson Adams before the Justice in Fielding's Joseph Andrews, where the sudden arrival of the Squire to testify to Adams' good character as a clergyman frees him; or Lydgate's complex thoughts about Bulstrode's possible responsibility for Raffles' death in George Eliot's Middlemarch - does his guilt consist in what he wished would happen, or what he actually did?

As someone who comes from the literary direction, it is these detailed readings that interest me most. Readers based in law studies, who may not have encountered the literary texts before, may be more interested in the broader plot descriptions. Lacey tends to support her arguments by references to "magisterial" studies: the one she relies on in the literary sphere is Ian Watts' 1957 The Rise of the Novel - hardly news to the literary scholar.

The extreme detail of her argumentation may be characteristic of legal studies, and may throw the laxer habits of literary studies into relief. I would recommend any literary reader to start with the second chapter, which begins by summarising the complex argument of the first chapter, and then introduces the literary examples. Lacey's overall thesis, however, contains many points that are of obvious usefulness to literary scholars and could be picked up and made use of in interpretations of the realist novel.

She argues that in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a general development away from ideas of external "character" as a legal concept and defence and towards more internal concepts of individual responsibility - although she also shows that both these ways of thinking coexisted for a long while. Women are affected by these changes - when recognisable markers of social status become more difficult to rely on, as a result of urbanisation, women's correct behaviour is the more policed as a sign of respectability.

The central development that Lacey attempts to explain relates to the ways in which female offenders are portrayed in the novel. Moll Flanders, the cheerful criminal heroine of Defoe's early 18th-century novel, becomes unthinkable in the 19th century, supplanted by victim-heroines such as Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Lacey, however, argues against the idea that women were perceived as without agency in this later period. Instead, they can be seen as agents who were hampered by social constraints and codes.

Here, almost entirely literary evidence is invoked, from works such as Vanity Fair and Middlemarch, the novels being used to demonstrate widespread cultural assumptions.

It could, however, be argued that these are critiquing an equally widespread assumption that women are "weaker" mentally and morally than men. I take it that Lacey is using her examples to suggest that a different construction was possible, and could operate. It is heartening to see literature being of such use to a scholar in another discipline.

Women, Crime and Character: From Moll Flanders to Tess of the D'Urbervilles

By Nicola Lacey
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199544363
Published 31 July 2008

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