Framed: The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin de Siecle

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Overview

Framed uses fin de siècle British crime narrative to pose a highly interesting question: why do female criminal characters tend to be alluring and appealing while fictional male criminals of the era are unsympathetic or even grotesque?

In this elegantly argued study, Elizabeth Carolyn Miller addresses this question, examining popular literary and cinematic culture from roughly 1880 to 1914 to shed light on an otherwise overlooked social and cultural type: the conspicuously glamorous New Woman criminal. In so doing, she breaks with the many Foucauldian studies of crime to emphasize the genuinely subversive aspects of these popular female figures. Drawing on a rich body of archival material, Miller argues that the New Woman Criminal exploited iconic elements of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commodity culture, including cosmetics and clothing, to fashion an illicit identity that enabled her to subvert legal authority in both the public and the private spheres.

"This is a truly extraordinary argument, one that will forever alter our view of turn-of-the-century literary culture, and Miller has demonstrated it with an enrapturing series of readings of fictional and filmic criminal figures. In the process, she has filled a gap between feminist studies of the New Woman of the 1890s and more gender-neutral studies of early twentieth-century literary and social change. Her book offers an extraordinarily important new way to think about the changing shape of political culture at the turn of the century."
---John Kucich, Professor of English, Rutgers University

"Given the intellectual adventurousness of these chapters, the rich material that the author has brought to bear, and its combination of archival depth and disciplinary range, any reader of this remarkable book will be amply rewarded."
---Jonathan Freedman, Professor of English and American Culture, University of Michigan

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Davis.

digitalculturebooks is an imprint of the University of Michigan and the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library dedicated to publishing innovative and accessible work exploring new media and their impact on society, culture, and scholarly communication. Visit the website at www.digitalculture.org.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472070442
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2008
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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FRAMED

The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin de Siècle
By ELIZABETH CAROLYN MILLER

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2008 Elizabeth Carolyn Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07044-2


Chapter One

PRIVATE AND PUBLIC EYES Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Woman

Consider figure 7, an illustration from Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia," the first installment in what would become a long-running, endlessly influential series of short detective stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. Outside the context of the narrative, the image seems to represent an exchange of glances between a young man passing through a nighttime street and two gentlemen on the threshold of a residence. The interplay of their gazes is complex: the walker meets one of the gentlemen's eyes, while the second gentleman looks at his companion and digs in his pocket for a key. The picture provides a full, frontal view of the itinerant young man, but an indirect view of the men on the stoop. If the image existed apart from the story, one might interpret the scene as dangerous, shady, or queer: the young man's hat is pulled low over his eyes and his posture is hunched over, while the men on the stoop appear startled and anxious to enter the house. Perhaps the walker is considering robbing the older men, or perhaps his glance is one of sexual invitation. Perhaps the gentlemen fear him as a threat, orperhaps they are disarmed at finding themselves cruised.

In the context of the story, however, the image calls for a very different set of interpretations: we learn that the young man in the picture is actually Irene Adler, Holmes's female adversary. She has cross-dressed and trailed Holmes and Watson, circumventing the trap Holmes has laid so that he will fail to close the case. Holmes's inability to find his key in this image thus reveals his larger failure as a detective: in the moment depicted here, he neglects to identify the cross-dressed Irene Adler, remarking to Watson, "Now, I wonder who the deuce that could have been" (26). As readers and viewers, we might sympathize with Holmes's failure; there seems to be no "clue" in the picture to indicate that Adler is not a man. W. J. T. Mitchell has used the Wittgensteinian concept of the "duck-rabbit picture" to describe "dialectical" or "multistable" images that seem to perfectly accommodate two or more mutually exclusive interpretations (45). Following this notion, we might "read" the picture as an allegory of imagistic ambiguity. It suggests the difficulty of interpreting the world through visual apprehension, or the fundamental inconsistency between imagistic and linguistic modes of representation, or the inevitable change of meaning that occurs when the visual is mediated through language. Without the words of the story, one would never know the walker is a woman. Without the picture, one would never grasp the disarming menace of Irene Adler's transsexual performance. Indeed, as an image and as a literary figure, Adler's identity is radically double. In the "linguistic" version of this scene, she passes by before Holmes can figure out who she is: she is Baudelaire's passante, the desirable but fleeting woman of the modern city who disappears before one can grasp her. Meanwhile, in the "imagistic" version of the scene, she is a criminal or cruising young man whom the other men appear to flee. Like the duck-rabbit, she is predator or prey, depending on how you look at her.

The imagistic and linguistic duality of Irene Adler previews what I will identify as a broader problem with detection and the criminal female body in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes, the expert eye, finds his visual acumen continually thwarted by the female body's resistance to interpretation. Critical work on the series has focused on the stories' innovative faith in the power of vision and detection, their empiricism, their panopticism, their modern certainty about identity's location in the body, and their revolutionary merging of the science of crime and the science of physiology. By focusing on Conan Doyle's female criminals, however, this chapter uncovers a crisis of image and sex that undercuts Holmes's system of visual detection. In the course of the stories, the body is extolled as the location of a new, "scientific" form of identity, as Ronald Thomas has recently argued; Holmes, however, finds that female identity is easily detached from visually comprehensible bodily moorings. Published in heavily illustrated periodical formats, the detective series was generically and formally suited to make this point; thus I begin my argument by discussing the visual culture of the detective series, especially in terms of late-Victorian criminology, racial anthropology, and theories of visual epistemology. The series's treatment of race and criminality usefully reveals how Holmes prioritizes visually mediated knowledge. Such knowledge continually fails in his interactions with female criminals, however-a disparity that emerges, I argue, from a fundamental opposition: the revelatory mandates of law, policing, and legal interventionism conflict with the stories' impulse to veil the private, feminized sphere. Thus the first half of the chapter shows the female criminal as a representational problem in the series, while the second half shows the political and social ramifications of this figural crisis.

THE PICTORIAL PAST OF DETECTIVE SERIES

Victorian narrative often seems to parallel or even predict developments in visual technology, as recent critics have explored with regard to photography and realism. My chapter takes up this line of inquiry in another cultural field: the visual composition of gender and criminality in Conan Doyle's detective series, 1891-1904. In the years surrounding the emergence of cinema in 1896, detective series expressed with particular force a burgeoning shift toward a visually oriented culture of knowledge, and their magazine format was part of this expression. In 1891, Conan Doyle began publishing short detective stories about Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine, a new and innovative periodical that established a distinctly visual narrative medium. Conan Doyle had already published two novels about Holmes, but the franchise only took off when packaged as a short fiction series in a thickly illustrated monthly magazine. The stories and the Strand were immediately and enormously popular, and a host of publications with similar content and format soon cropped up. In Britain, detective series thus emerged simultaneously with the mass-market illustrated monthly magazine, and the impact of the two cultural forms is virtually inseparable.

The visual narrative form of Conan Doyle's stories was a crucial factor in the way contemporary readers perceived them. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin claims that vision is historically constructed, that "human sense perception changes with humanity's entire mode of existence" and that the "manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well" (222). With a "historicized" notion of sight, Conan Doyle's treatment of imagistic codes of gender, criminality, and femininity appears interwoven with concurrent developments in visual technology. Beginning in the 1890s, image-rich periodicals like the Strand made a tremendous cultural impact. According to Graham Law, the 1890s saw "an entirely new generation of illustrated monthly miscellanies, the first and most successful of which was George Newnes's Strand Magazine (1891-1950)" (32). The circulation of the Strand was huge-around 350,000 copies a month-and its format was widely imitated (Weedon 173). This new brand of periodical was made possible by rapid shifts in publishing, which was becoming a modern, mass-market industry. Universal education and higher literacy rates had expanded the market of readers, just as the development of more efficient means of production and distribution lowered the costs of reading materials. The combined effect of these shifts was the explosion of inexpensive mass-market periodicals.

Advances in printing technique had simultaneously made the reproduction of illustrations and photographs a cheaper and easier process, and as Andrew King and John Plunkett note, prominent illustration was a distinctive feature of the "New Journalism" of the 1890s and its characteristic "human interest" style (377). Illustrated periodicals had existed since the advent of lithography in the early nineteenth century, and photographs had been included in magazines and newspapers from mid-century, but the illustrated monthlies of the 1890s relied upon an intensely visual narrative format. Throughout the Victorian era, crime stories were more thoroughly "pictorialized" than other genres; George Cruikshank's famous illustrations for W. Harrison Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard (1839) and Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838) helped establish a pictorial legacy within crime fiction, as Martin Meisel has explored. For most of the century, however, illustrated magazine fiction featured very few images for many pages of text; in contrast, George Newnes, the originator of the Strand, envisioned a magazine with "a picture on every page" (Pound 30). The 1880s saw a "photomechanical revolution" in printing, according to Geoffrey Wakeman, which made a more imagistic narrative landscape possible. Early editions of Newnes's Strand include a drawing, photograph, illustration, or cartoon on nearly every page, and many pages have multiple images. Recurring features like the "Portraits of Celebrities" series consist almost entirely of pictures, reminding us how modern forms of celebrity depend on image-rich media. Mass-market illustrated monthlies like the Strand thus put a great deal of weight on illustration and stimulate multiple intersections or tensions between picture and text, such as I describe at the beginning of this chapter.

The inexpensive, image-rich format of the Strand was instantly appealing to the British reading public. Critics have linked the publication's popularity to many different factors. Some have argued that Sherlock Holmes was responsible for its spiraling circulation; Conan Doyle's protagonist captured the imagination of his public to an unprecedented degree, and the Strand's sales peaked when a Holmes story ran. It is impossible to isolate how much Holmes's new context was responsible for this appeal, however; the earlier Holmes novels had not sold as well. Critics such as Ed Wiltse have argued that Conan Doyle's unique brand of serialization incited public demand for periodicals publishing such stories, and mass-market illustrated magazines of the 1890s, following Conan Doyle's success, changed their formats to emphasize narrative series over serial narratives (Law 33). Audiences found the uniquely autonomous continuity provided by this format addictive: like television sitcoms today, the series allowed readers to move effortlessly in and out of readership without the commitment necessary for reading an entire serialized novel. It didn't matter if one missed an episode or even a few. Once a reader grasped the underlying formula and the central characters, the stories could be read in almost any order.

Holmes's deepest cultural impact, however, was in many ways a specifically visual one. Conan Doyle provided his audience with an unusually visible fictional world. Many critics have discussed the "iconic" status of Holmes, the crystallization of his image in early theatrical and filmic productions, the accumulated visual detail in Conan Doyle's brand of realism, the stories' emphasis on observation and surveillance, Holmes's particularly visual mode of detection, and the author's own special interest in visual perception. Trained as a physician, Conan Doyle had received advanced preparation in ophthalmology, and as an eye specialist he was highly attuned to the human capacity for visual perception and misperception. It is hardly surprising, then, that the stories challenge the foundations of vision and knowledge amid a newly imagistic and consumerist cultural terrain; nor is it surprising that the stories exhibit, as I argue, a profound ambivalence about the image-centric culture that they seemingly showcase.

Indeed, while many critics have argued that the Victorians inveterately privileged the visual, Kate Flint has identified a counterdiscourse that challenged "the sufficiency of the visible," arguing that the visual was "of paramount importance to the Victorians," yet also "a heavily problematised category" (25). Focusing on the late-Victorian period, Jonathan Crary has argued that the 1880s and 1890s saw a "generalized crisis in perception" amid "new technological forms of spectacle, display, [and] projection" (Suspensions 2). The quick succession of visual innovations toward the end of the century-including cinema, x-rays, and other new technologies-demanded new kinds of attention and sight. Such perceptive instability created a kind of "visual vertigo" in writers like Conan Doyle: he is powerfully attracted to the idea of visual semiotics, and palpably optimistic about the brave new world of visual technology, but often contradictory about how images make meaning. Fecund with images and marked by an accelerating rate of change in audiences' visual acumen, this era saw the rise of the image-saturated consumerist environment that we still live in today. It is no wonder that the visual innovations of the period could be confusedly deployed: not only did they transform audience's ways of seeing and knowing the world, but they dismantled cherished definitional categories such as "art" and "authenticity." Benjamin's now-familiar discussion of how the ideology of artistic "aura" was flattened by the proliferation of mechanical reproducibility suggests how visual innovations have called into question Western epistemological categories that had seemed both ageless and historically impermeable ("Work of Art"). Excavating the perceptive and cultural shifts that occurred in the context of such visual developments has long interested historians of cinema, but magazine crime series of this period likewise demanded new kinds of visual attentiveness and understanding from readers.

The Holmes stories participate in such large-scale shifts by emphasizing how identity categories such as "criminality" and "femininity" function-or don't function-as imagistic systems of signs. On the surface, the stories privilege and celebrate the eye and the image to an unprecedented degree, but on another level, they manifest deep doubt about this theory of visibility. The stories' underlying ambivalence regarding visual epistemologies and imagistic meaning clusters around a series of problems related to the female criminal. In their depiction of women, the stories acknowledge that changing visual sensibilities are entangled with shifts in ideologies of gender, privacy, and publicity. To insist on the primacy of the visual in the making of meaning challenges the imperative to "veil" the private patriarchal family or private feminized space. In order to render these social spheres meaningful, in the logic of the stories, they must be visually and publicly accessible. Thus Holmes's theory that crime and criminality are visually ascertainable categories, when subject to an expert gaze, comes into conflict with ideologies of domestic intactness and feminine concealment. This collision of values is most apparent in stories about female criminals; that such narratives are at odds with the visible criminological semiotics at work in most of the series reveals the influential resonance of contemporary debates about criminality, interventionism, and feminist challenges to patriarchal social organization.

RACE, VISUAL EPISTEMOLOGY, AND THE CRIMINOLOGICAL GAZE

We will see how women in the Holmes series disrupt the imagistic codes of meaning that govern Conan Doyle's treatment of criminality, but let me first establish how the stories construct criminality as a set of specifically visual codes, and hence assert the primacy of visually mediated knowledge. Conan Doyle's model of visible criminality was borrowed from contemporary criminal science, which emerged as a discipline in late-nineteenth-century Europe. Early criminologists operated from the premise that European criminals were throwbacks to an earlier, more "primitive" form of humanity. Like the term homosexual, which also emerged in this period, criminal came to signify a new form of identity. Criminal experts claimed this identity could be recognized via trained observation: criminals supposedly had an atavistic physiology, a distinct physical "type," and the visual traits of inborn pathology. Early criminology echoed the logic and assumptions of physiognomy and phrenology, which came to prominence in the 1820s-1840s, but was a more empirical, visual discipline. Criminologists viewed these earlier practices as inadequately "scientific" in concept and method.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from FRAMED by ELIZABETH CAROLYN MILLER Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Carolyn Miller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

List of Illustrations....................xi
Introduction....................1
ONE Private and Public Eyes Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Woman....................25
TWO Beautiful For Ever! Cosmetics, Consumerism, L. T. Meade, and Madame Rachel....................70
THREE The Limits of the Gaze Class, Gender, and Authority in Early British Cinema....................103
FOUR Dynamite, Interrupted Gender in James's and Conrad's Novels of Failed Terror....................149
FIVE "An Invitation to Dynamite" Female Revolutionaries in Late-Victorian Dynamite Narrative....................186
Afterword....................223
Notes....................227
Films Cited....................253
Works Cited....................255
Index....................273
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