From Moll Flanders to Tess of the D'Urbervilles: Women, Autonomy and Criminal Responsibility in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century England
32 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2007
Date Written: September 2007
In the early 18th Century, Daniel Defoe found it natural to write a novel whose heroine was a sexually adventurous, socially marginal property offender. Only half a century later, this would have been next to unthinkable. In this paper, the disappearance of Moll Flanders, and her supercession in the annals of literary female offenders by heroines like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, serves as a metaphor for fundamental changes in ideas of selfhood, gender and social order in 18th and 19th Century England. Drawing on law, literature, philosophy and social history, I argue that these broad changes underpinned a radical shift in mechanisms of responsibility-attribution, with decisive implications for the criminalisation of women. I focus in particular on the question of how the treatment and understanding of female criminality was changing during the era which saw the construction of the main building blocks of the modern criminal process, and of how these understandings related in turn to broader ideas about gender, social order and individual agency.
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