Breaking the Codes: Female Criminality in Fin-de-Siècle Paris

Breaking the Codes: Female Criminality in Fin-de-Siècle Paris

Breaking the Codes: Female Criminality in Fin-de-Siècle Paris

Breaking the Codes: Female Criminality in Fin-de-Siècle Paris


Breaking the Codes is a cultural history of the fin-de-siecle that uses the 'problem' of the criminal woman to examine both the debates around the appropriate place of women in French society and the importance of gender to cultural transformation.


There is in female murderers in general a thoroughly delightful mixture of poetry and arsenic, of sentimentalism and rat poison.

Restif de la Bretonne, Les Gynographes, 1777

The French word histoires translates, with felicitous ambiguity, as histories, stories, tales, idle stories, falsehoods, sexual affairs, trifles. Faire des histoires--literally, "to make stories" (or even "to make histories")--means, more idiomatically, "to make a fuss." Embracing the conceptual latitude opened by this intriguing set of possibilities, I want to examine more closely some of the stories told about female crime in the context of different modes of telling, "making a fuss" in order to explore the relationship between the telling, the story, and the meanings thereby derived. This chapter is essentially about translation--the processes that interpreted behavior and conveyed the meaning of written and oral texts--and about the move, rhetorical and social, from trifles and sexual affairs through falsehoods, idle stories, and tales to the writing of a history, to making sense of experience.

As we have seen, criminal stories were told within a cultural frame informed by diverse social values and expectations; they were inflected by literary images drawn from high and low culture and by the writing of bourgeois professionals (criminologists, magistrates, lawyers, forensic psychiatrists). in the construction of the official accounts of crimes presented in the courtroom, the stories were ultimately orchestrated by the structures of the penal process itself (the pretrial investigations, the formal documents of the judicial dossier, the hearing). These stories, presented to juries and popularized through the press, were received by diverse audiences who understood them within particular conditions that gave the stories their credibility. We have, then, not only different kinds of interpreters but different tellings that were produced in different contexts.

If we examine the various representations of the female criminal, we can begin to fill in the details of a process through which gender stereotypes were constructed, confirmed, and deployed, invoking and build-

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