Monday 2 September 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Mrs Beauly

A nineteenth-century divorce court
Moving on from the transparent innocence of Mary Barton and Esther Lyon, and the deceitful doubleness of Braddon’s two heroines, Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875) gives us yet another perspective on the fictional trial and the Victorian female witness. While she is not the one on trial here, merely a witness like Mary or Esther, Mrs Beauly encapsulates the difficulties of court ‘performance’, as the reader, as much as the assembled crowd, is left in total doubt as to how much she should be trusted.

Again, we see an emphasis on the female witness’ appearance, perhaps more than on what she says – Mrs Beauly, like Lady Audley or Phoebe, is powerful because her attractiveness can win her sympathy in a potentially dangerous way:

‘An interest of a new kind was excited by the appearance of the next witness. This was no less a person than Mrs Beauly herself. The Report describes her as a remarkably attractive person; modest and lady-like in her manner, and, to all appearance, feeling sensitively the public position in which she was placed.’

While this passage seems initially to praise Mrs Beauly, there are hints of unease. The insertion ‘to all appearance’ suggests the possibility of the kind of duplicity we have seen elsewhere, while the ‘interest of a new kind’ is undoubtedly a sexual one. This is complicated by the fact that we cannot be sure who this cynicism about Mrs Beauly’s performance originates with – with the narrator Valeria, who is naturally suspicious about a woman who previously enjoyed her husband’s affections, or with the written ‘Report’ of the trial she is summarising. In the sections quoted verbatim from the Report however, there are suggestions that this work plays up the dramatic nature of the criminal court (even if Valeria contributes to this likewise). The legal professionals (who are described by Valeria as ‘actors in the Judicial Drama’) are even laid out in the Report in a list formatted to resemble the dramatis personae section of a play text. Collins seems to be taking the destabilising theatricality of the court even further by suggesting it continues outside the courtroom, in the way cases are reported in the press and presented to the public in volumes presented very similarly to his own fiction.

The Law and the Lady destroys the ideal of the court as a place of truth telling entirely, with the ‘Not Proven’ verdict leaving legal process in an ambiguous state of uncertainty. The verdict, as well as other details of the crime Valeria’s husband has been tried for (the revelation of private documents, the use of arsenic etc.), also deliberately recalls a famous real life murder trial – that of Madeleine Smith in 1857 – which had been highly theatrical in its playing out in the press, and was seen by many as the ultimate example of a woman getting away with murder because of her youth and attractiveness.

Madeleine Smith
While the potential murderer in this novel then is male, the inconclusiveness of the novel on the question of Mrs Beauly and its debt to the Madeleine Smith case (dealt with well here), makes it a great read for those interested in the courtroom, performance and gender. Again (as in the other sensation novels I have dealt with in this series) we can have no faith in the Law, and, consequently, the truth can only come to light through investigation outside the courtroom – and, perhaps for the first time in English literature, Collins makes his ‘detective’ figure a woman.

Who should be next in my witness box? Let me know on Facebook, Twitter (@SVictorianist) or below!

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