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Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900.

Child Murder & British Culture, 1720-1900. By Josephine McDonagh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiii plus 278 pp. $65.00).

Josephine McDonagh's richly textured study evokes the changing cultural preoccupations surrounding child murder, as seen across a wide range of 18th and 19th c. British historical and literary sources. McDonagh argues that British discourse about child murder yields a "bewildering excess of meanings" (8), which cannot be reduced to fit a simplistic, progressive historical schema. Instead of tracing the development of more humane attitudes toward child murder over time, McDonagh suggests an alternative model of temporal layering, whereby the motif of child murder "acts as a bearer of meanings from previous contexts, and functions as a mechanism of historical memory" (11).

The work proceeds in chronological fashion, with each chapter centered on a group of contemporaneous texts. Jonathan Swift and Bernard Mandeville's contrasting visions of child murder as sacrifice and spectacle are contextualized as reflections on commercial society in the early 18th c. The notion of male spectatorship is explored through a variety of late 18th c. texts, examining philosophical tracts from Adam Smith and David Hume alongside anthropological travel narratives describing child murder amongst the uncivilized brown people of the world. The focus then shifts to the many guises of female perpetrators of child murder in texts from the turn of the 18th century William Wordsworth's poetic reformulation of a pitiable, infanticidal mother is placed opposite Thomas Malthus's sketch of the insatiable appetite of Dame Nature in his famous essay on population. Coverage of infanticide cases in radical newspapers and pamphlets during anti-New Poor Law agitation draws attention to 19th c. print culture and critiques of the state. An in-depth analysis of George Eliot's novel Adam Bede (1859), discussed below, forms the keystone of the study. New social roles for women are dissected through an examination of late 19th c. scientific texts on evolution, eugenics and birth control. The brief final chapter touches upon the recurrent theme of Irish status in debates of child murder.

McDonagh distinguishes her work, which takes an eclectic cultural approach to child murder, from other historical and literary studies of infanticide, which focus more narrowly on the legal aspects of particular cases or remain within the confines of literature and print culture. (1) The strength of McDonagh's work is that it manages both careful historical research and insightful textual readings with equal aplomb. Compared to other studies, McDonagh succeeds in giving the reader a much better sense of the general anxieties that permeated the cultural and social milieus of her many commentators. This deftly woven cultural tapestry provides an extensive backdrop to her analyses of selected texts referencing child murder. Particularly impressive are those chapters that draw upon a tightly-bounded range of texts, as in McDonagh's analysis of the anonymous Marcus pamphlets of the 1840s. These singular writings, dark political satires on child murder alleging that working class children were targets of insidious government plots, are situated in the broader context of Chartist newspaper critiques of infanticide as a deplorable outcome of the harshness of the 1834 New Poor Law.

The most convincing demonstration of child murder as a "mechanism of historical memory," though, occurs in Chapter 5, which focuses on an analysis of George Eliot's novel about child murder, Adam Bede. Suddenly, the dates of 1803, 1839 and 1857--signal moments in the Eliot's creation of Adam Bede--resurface and take on a much deeper hue. Here and in previous chapters McDonagh lays out the importance of these years as temporal nodes during which a flurry of discourse surrounding child murder was recorded in a wide variety of official and imaginative texts. Yet these same divisive historical moments--after the Act of Union with Ireland, during protests against the New Poor Law, and around the time of the Indian Mutiny--must be forgotten in order to forge a unified British national identity. McDonagh argues, "In Adam Bede, child murder is a figure in which the less than consensual national past has been buried--a burial that duplicates Hetty's attempt to evade the consequences of her past by burying the baby" (132). Beyond elucidating temporal resonances, McDonagh foregrounds the interplay of child murder and historical memory within the text of Eliot's novel itself. The theme of burial and forgetting replays itself in the novel's "emotional restraint" (148), which eventually becomes identified as a fully British characteristic, superimposed on the racial and religious excesses of village folk.

If Chapter 5 were the main feature of a study devoted to the motif of child murder in George Eliot's work, then the general structure of the book would suffice, as the preceding chapters properly set the stage for it. But since the motive of the study is, purportedly, to investigate the varied meanings of child murder within the broader context of 18th and 19th c. British culture, then this dynamic seems less satisfying. The earlier chapters, as rich as they are in providing dense historical and literary contexts, lack the same coherent analytical force that would allow them to stand in their own right. Without a critical framework of child murder that moves beyond a "bewildering excess of meanings," the reader loses the sense of any necessary centripetal force keeping all of these examples together within the pages of the same book. In other words, the very strength of the book--its careful analysis of an extremely wide range of historical texts and contexts surrounding child murder--is also the source of its ambivalent core argument.

The openness of McDonagh's argument may in the end be a disciplinary wrinkle. By attending to child murder as a motif across a span of time, one gains a general perspective on British cultural preoccupations of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet one loses sight of child murder as a specific social practice demonstrated by actual cases, which might address the notion of change over time without being restricted to a positivist narrative of humanitarian progress.


1. For recent anthologies of historical and literary studies of child murder, see Mark Jackson, ed., Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (Aldershot, 2002), and Jennifer Thorn, ed., Writing British Infanticide: Child-Murder, Gender and Print, 1722-1859 (Newark, DE, 2003).

Michelle T. King

University of California, Berkeley
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Author:King, Michelle T.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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