Revisiting the murderess representations of Victorian women's violence in mid-nineteenth- and late-twentieth-century fiction
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
The murderess in the twenty-first century is a figure of particular cultural fascination; she is the subject of innumerable books, websites, documentaries and award-winning movies. With female violence reportedly on the increase, a rethinking of beliefs about women's natural propensity towards violent and aggressive behaviours is inevitable. Using the Victorian period as a central focus, this thesis explores the contradictory ideologies regarding women's violence and also suggests an alternative approach to the relationship between gender and violence in the future. A study of violent women in representation reveals how Victorian attitudes towards violence and femininity persist today. On the one hand, women have traditionally been cast as the naturally non-aggressive victims of violence rather than its perpetrators; on the other hand, the destructive potential of womanhood has been a cause of anxiety since the earliest Western mythology. I suggest that it is a desire to resolve this contradiction that has resulted in the proliferation of violent women in representation over the last one and a half centuries. In particular, an analysis of mid-nineteenth-century popular fiction indicates that the stronger the ideal of the angelic woman was, the greater the anxiety produced by her demonic antithesis. Wilkie Collins's Armadale and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret illustrate both the contradictory Victorian attitudes towards violent women and a need to reconcile the combination of good and bad femininity that the murderess represents. Revisiting the Victorian murderess in the late twentieth century provides a potential means for resolving this contradiction; specifically, it enables the violent woman to engage in a process of self-representation that was not available to her in the nineteenth century. Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace suggests that any insight into the murderess begins with listening to the previously silenced voice of the violent woman herself.