Writing British Infanticide: Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722-1859

By Jennifer Thorn | Go to book overview

"Most Revolting Murder by a Father":
The Violent Rhetoric of Paternal Child-
Murder in The Times (London), 1826–1849

Melissa Valiska Gregory

IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN, WIDELY VARYING REPRESENTATIONS OF INFANTICIDE shared a common tendency to cast the crime as maternal. Novels such as Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian (1818) or George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859), legal tracts and professional medical texts that focus on child-murder, and the periodical press's coverage of then-current trials for the crime would seem to have little in common generically; yet these diverse forms of writing reified a "typical" murderous mother: young, unmarried, and desperate to conceal the fact that she has borne an illegitimate child. As Christine Krueger has noted, literary treatments of such women tended to portray them as "objects of sympathy."1 No less complex, Victorian representations of infanticidal fathers were far less sympathetic. I consider here the possible professional motives and social effects of a series of representations of paternal child-murder reported in The Times (London). Rather than sympathetically bridging the gap between horrified readers and alleged murderers of children, these accounts foster instead, somewhat paradoxically, both readerly hostility toward lower-class men and sympathy with male acts of violence.

Historians have attributed the Victorian preoccupation with murderous mothers—to the exclusion of fathers—to a variety of social and ideological factors. Ann Higginbotham argues, for instance, that the Victorian public's avid focus on the individual mothers who committed infanticide effectively served to obscure an investigation into the larger social problems which might have contributed to child abuse or murder. Scrutinizing the mothers, she suggests, "emphasized the actions of the individual mother and slighted the role of poverty, lack of extensive child care, low wages for women, and poor social services."2 Perhaps even more importantly, Higginbo

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