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Josephine McDonagh, Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900

Sunday, April 20, 2008 - 18:35
Josephine McDonagh, Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiii + 278pp; illus. (6 halftones). $95.00 (Hdbk; ISBN-10: 0-521-78193-0; ISBN-13: 978-0-521-78193-0); $32.99 (Pbk.; ISBN-13:978-0-521-05456-0).

Reviewed by
Lynne Vallone
Texas A&M University-College Station

For Josephine McDonagh, child murder from the eighteenth through nineteenth centuries—both actual cases and, in particular, the "idea" of child murder—is an especially sensitive barometer that reveals cultural values, anxieties and obsessions that change over time. Through probing and cogent readings of court records, newspaper articles, novels, poems, political and polemical tracts, medical treatises, legislation (such as the 1803 Offenses against the Person Act), works of philosophy and economics, McDonagh's book, Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900, convinces the reader that the motif of child murder is indeed at the heart of Britain's self-fashioning and self-imagining. She concludes the introduction: "I hope to confront and come to terms with the obvious disjunction between the unnatural and violent deaths of infants . . . —events which demand our most sober regard—and the extraordinarily potent array of traces—tragic, grotesque, trenchant, and ludic—which child murder left in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture" (13). Thus, McDonagh's project must juggle the various and often competing discussions about child murder, the contexts of these debates, and the interpretive moments—moments of cultural imagination—that inhere to the figure of the murdered child. This is a difficult trick, yet one which McDonagh achieves with panache.

The first chapter considers Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729) and Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1714, 1723), two works that use the figure of child murder to critique commercial society. Swift uses child death as a bitter indictment of a society ruled by desire and appetite, while Mandeville sets the murder of children within his larger discussion of the public benefit of vice. McDonagh concludes, "For Swift . . . there is a suggestion that child murder might be a redemptive act, a sacrifice made in the interests of the renovation of society. . . . For Mandeville, on the other hand, the joke is that there can be no redemption: modern society is irredeemably corrupt—but for him, and generations who follow him, that is its source of profit and its pleasure" (34).

The 1790s saw a shift in discussions of child murder in Britain, McDonagh argues, from emotional responses to the deed in (primarily) male spectators, to the killers themselves (who were typically women). Chapter Three highlights two key issues of the book as a whole—gender and politics—and considers the means by which child murder was politicized and the murderers demonized or sentimentalized. Romantic-era views of women promoted by writers such as Blake and Wordsworth in their poetry, and Thomas Malthus, in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), informed both arguments. Malthus's theory about the necessity of poverty, disease and starvation to check the dire consequences of a geometric growth in population and an arithmetical growth in subsistence (the work was revised in 1803 to posit that greed and sexual activity would work as more acceptable constrictions of population growth), though widely attacked, also substantially informed nineteenth-century social thinking, affecting attitudes toward child murder. Wordsworth's poem "The Thorn," published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, is about Martha Ray, a jilted and despairing mother who probably kills her child and who is forever haunted by its loss. The hopeless figure grieving in nature formed a powerful image often replicated in literature. As McDonagh notes, "Wordsworth's rendition of the perpetrator of child murder, in which madness, maternity, and elemental nature are woven together, becomes a new and pervasive image of pathetic womanhood, and a determinant in a frequently evoked plot throughout the nineteenth century" (70). An equally powerful image of the sinister female, often "a mother without being a wife," was simultaneously advanced. Thus, McDonagh argues, two figures emerged from the panic of the revolutionary years of the 1790s: Wordsworth's unmarried and wretched Martha Ray and Malthus's allegorical "Dame Nature" who functions as both killer and "moral regulator," disciplining the poor and maintaining social order through death and a fear of the female.

Chapter Four considers the role of child murder in the discourse of radicalism and class warfare as it emerged from debates over The New Poor Law of 1834, which was based upon Malthusian principles of reducing the cost of relieving the wants of the poor and encouraging, through disciplinary measures, their self-reliance. McDonagh also reviews the furor that surrounded the so-called "Marcus" pamphlets that advocated limiting poor families to two children and gassing the "superfluous" children of paupers. Although the exact purpose and identity of the author of these works from the 1830s and 1840s have not been proved, their significance is emphasized by the uproar they caused in the popular and radical press. The "Marcus" pamphlets and the reactions to them, McDonagh relates, "illustrate vividly the way in which ideas and motifs circulated within the culture, and were co-opted by different individuals and groups to support widely different political positions: in this case, child murder is incorporated in the rhetoric of people of party and opinion as different as the Tory Radical, Baxter, Chartists of various complexion . . . as well as the Owenite, Mudie" (112).

McDonagh's overarching insight—that "the real horror of child murder comes to exist in the workings of the imagination" (116)—informs her next chapter on Adam Bede (1859) and "national forgetting." That the fact of child murder—or its eradication—could be construed as either a "sign of a national disorder" or a matter of "patriotic pride" (124), undergirds this point. George Eliot's novel about a seduced and abandoned mother unmarried who kills her newborn and is tried and convicted for the crime, McDonagh argues, contains both ideas; thus, "child murder is at once the marker of cultural alterity; but also the redemptive sacrifice" (128). More specifically, and interestingly, McDonagh considers the murdered child in the mid-Victorian era to represent, to carry, the "national forgotten" (132). Like the relation between England and colonial India (whose "proclivity" to infanticide was reported in the press and widely believed to indicate the inherent barbarism and immorality of the Indians), the mid-century disciplinary reforms such as education, sanitation, censuses wrought upon the lower classes—among which child murder was thought to be epidemic—positioned the poor as "subaltern" (144). McDonagh suggests that in Adam Bede child murder functions as a reminder of the repudiation of orientalism and the violent conflict; it is "the bearer of memories that have been forgotten for the perpetuation of the nation" (145).

McDonagh concludes her study with a consideration of Ireland, an important theme in the infanticide debates. Like India's, Ireland's child murders (or those perpetrated by Irish immigrants) confirmed belief in the primitivism of its people; however, McDonagh reveals, by the end of the century, Irish infanticide was transformed by Irish writers from an indicator of degeneracy to one of noble sacrifice: "If, in the nineteenth century, child murder provided a set of discourses through which a writer like George Eliot could negotiate ideas of British national belonging, in the 1890s, the very same discourses provided the basis for Irish writers to articulate a divergent notion of Irish national independence" (186).

Though child murder is certainly a grisly subject, McDonagh's book is not sensationalistic or simplistic in its arguments. Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900 takes its place as a worthy companion to other recent books about child death: Pat Jalland's Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford University Press, 1996); and Laurence Lerner's Angels and Absences: Child Deaths in the Nineteenth Century (Vanderbilt University Press, 1997). The book will appeal to those interested in the Romantic and Victorian eras, as well as historians of the family and cultural critics more generally.

The Child is a figure that has historically often been hard done by: both literally through abuse and neglect of varying degrees, and in ways more abstruse—though no less real—through politicization, objectification, sentimentalization or marginalization. In academia, too, the Child has often been overlooked or relegated to specialist volumes that are often ignored by Romanticists or Victorianists who work on canonical authors and texts. McDonagh, while less interested in the actual child victims than in the ideological and cultural forces that surrounded the protean meanings of child murder, nevertheless positions the Child at the center of cultural and literary histories of Britain and simultaneously calls into question (though never explicitly) more conventional histories of British culture that ignore children and childhood altogether. Through her learned and ingenious book, McDonagh demonstrates that looking to the Child—here, in particular, to child murder—offers a particularly well-focused and informative illumination of British culture writ large.