Becky, Tess, and Moll
NICOLA LACEY (2008), Women, Crime, and Character: From Moll Flanders to Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Early in the 1870s, the London publishing house Leadham and Loiter published a new work on female criminality. Entitled Criminal Queens, it appealed to popular fascination with extreme female behaviour and crime-generating mental states. Its author, however—a middle-aged widow struggling to support two adult children on a literary income—refused to pander by depicting women as frail pathological creatures incapable of responsible moral agency. “After all,” she writes to a prominent critic, justifying her decision to write the biographies of famous criminal royalty, “how few women there are who can raise themselves above the quagmire of what we call love, and make themselves anything but playthings for men.” The author herself, not surprisingly, aspires to the same condition: a clever con artist, who “used her beauty … with a well-considered calculation that she could obtain material assistance in the procuring of bread and cheese, which was very necessary to her,” Matilda Carbury seeks financial independence and control over her future, a difficult goal for a woman of slender means and equally slender talent.
Matilda Carbury and her book are of course fictitious, the invention of Anthony Trollope in The Way We Live Now (1875). The portrait derives additional interest from Trollope’s suggestion, in his Autobiography, that it is partly based on the career of his mother. Fanny Trollope was a successful novelist who actually did support her struggling family on a literary income, producing her first volume at the age of fifty and completing 114 books in all. She, however, probably did not seduce her reviewers, and her topics were industrial life and the evils of slavery, not female criminality. But Lady Carbury’s fictional career neatly draws together the central themes of Nicola Lacey’s engrossing historical narrative: the British public’s fascination with female crime and extreme mental states; the restrictions to women’s freedom that the Victorian era brought; and the resilience of women in the