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

By Jennifer Thorn | Go to book overview

Confession and Profession:
Adam Bede, Infanticide and the New Coroner

Laura C. Berry

Those who can write, let them do it as boldly as they like, and let
no one hesitate at the proper season to make a full confession
(far better than a profession).

—George Eliot

AT A CERTAIN MOMENT IN ENGLISH HISTORY, LET US SAY IN SEPTEMBER 1858, child-murder became a modern secret. The modernity of this secret was signaled in the vigorous publicity that surrounded it: everybody was talking about how no one was willing to talk about it. Child-murder was obsessively unveiled as if subject to the strictest repression, and the murdered innocent was exhumed in article after article, as in William Burke Ryan's Infanticide: its law, prevalence, prevention and history (1862):

"T"he feeble wail of murdered childhood in its agony assails our ears at
every turn, and is borne on every breeze. The sight is horrified as, day
after day, the melancholy catalogue of murders meets the view, and we
try to turn away the gaze in hope of some momentary relief. But turn
where we may, still we are met by the evidence of a wide spread crime.
In the quiet of the bedroom we raise the box-lid, and the skeletons are
there. In the calm evening walk we see in the distance the suspicious-
looking bundle, and the mangled infant is within. By the canal side, or
in the water, we find the dead child. In the solitude of the wood we are
horrified by the ghastly sight; and if we betake ourselves to the rapid rail
in order to escape the pollution, we find at journey's end that the mould-
ering remains of a murdered innocent have been our travelling compan-
ion; and that the odour from that unsuspected parcel truly indicates
what may be found within.1

In Burke's essay, the "sensation" over infanticide was literally registered in the senses of the bourgeois bystander, whose refusal to face the truth is belied by his neurotic inability to sidestep it. "That un-

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