Nineteenth-Century Female Fiends

April 1, 2020

At JSTOR Daily, Erin Blakemore takes a look at a small publishing trend from the 1840s and 1850s that followed female murderers and gave middle-class women a brief escape from Victorian values. Literary scholar Dawn Keetley studied the “relatively unknown literary form” extensively. “It’s a genre with conventions of its own: a beautiful white heroine who murders her man, then embarks on a crime spree, ‘indulging in everything from sexual promiscuity, drinking, gambling, and dressing as a man to counterfeiting, robbery, infanticide, and serial murder.’ Dime novels weren’t a thing yet—the stories were printed in pamphlets and sold by traveling salesmen. Keetley thinks they were mainly read by middle-class women. Since the stories masqueraded as morality plays, they were seen as appropriate for women readers.”

Image credit: U.S. National Library of Medicine

is a writer and illustrator. She is the author of two illustrated books, Last Night's Reading (Penguin Books, 2015) and Sanpaku (Archaia 2018).

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