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Among the topics on the long list of unspeakables: VD, masturbation, the sexual appetites of well-bred young ladies, abortion, and infanticide. All of them. suggests historian Hartman, contributed to these thirteen murder cases. Since the inquests and trials of Marie LaFarge, Madeline Smith, and the other women killers received lavish publicity, Hartman has ample material to work from. Prying away the euphemisms that obscured the true condition and motives of the murderesses, she contends that they were ""ordinary women who found extreme solutions to ordinary problems""; their stories tell much about the unbearable stresses built into the sexual roles and familial relationships of the age. Nor is this a static view of French and English Victorian society: a number of the aberrant antiheroines were affected--or infected--by the ""romantic revolution,"" the novels of George Sand, and the emergent bourgeois consciousness that women deserved some say about whom they married and how many children they bore. In a very real sense these women are all victims who became victimizers--a syndrome familiar to the 20th century psychiatrist, but one totally uncomprehended by 19th-century fathers, husbands, journalists, and judges. By rescuing these wretched women from authors intent on shock or titillation, Hartman has also rescued them from freakishness and moral perdition; the suspicion grows that others must have taken similar deadly recourse against intolerable constraints and escaped detection entirely. Though inference and speculation are inevitable in a study which digs up old corpses, in every case Hartman's detection and surmises are appallingly plausible.

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 1976
Publisher: Schocken