Sunday, 29 September 2013

Modern Women on Trial

I'm very pleased to draw your attention to the release of Lucy Bland's new book, Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper.

I hope to get a chance to read it soon and post some comments here; however, having spoken to the author several times about the book during its later stages, I'm eagerly looking forward to it.

From the Manchester University Press description: 

Modern women on trial looks at several sensational trials involving drugs, murder, adultery, miscegenation and sexual perversion in the period 1918–24. The trials, all with young female defendants, were presented in the media as morality tales, warning of the dangers of sensation-seeking and sexual transgression. The book scrutinises the trials and their coverage in the press to identify concerns about modern femininity. The flapper later became closely associated with the 'roaring' 1920s, but in the period immediately after the Great War she represented not only newness and hedonism, but also a frightening, uncertain future. This figure of the modern woman was a personification of the upheavals of the time, representing anxieties about modernity, and instabilities of gender, class, race and national identity. This accessible, extensively researched book will be of interest to all those interested in social, cultural or gender history.
As I discuss in The Most Remarkable Woman in England, when Beatrice Pace first came to the attention of the press in January 1928, was in many ways not the image of the 'modern woman' that proved such a magnet for comment and controversy in the 1920s. Indeed, her image as a 'traditional' woman -- a faithful, caring wife and a doting mother -- positively inflected her treatment in the press accounts surrounding the 'Fetter Hill Mystery'.

However, after her acquittal, Beatrice underwent a 'makeover' of sorts, in a sense 'becoming modern' while building her 'new life' away from the shadow of the gallows.

In her new book, Bland provides a broad contextual analysis of the narratives of 'modernity' that surrounded women on trial in the early 1920s. 

Careful readers of The Most Remarkable Woman in England will note the many citations of Lucy Bland's previous important research on images of women on trial in inter-war Britain (especially Edith Thompson and Marguerite Fahmy). This was work that I found very helpful while constructing my own analysis of the 'tragic widow of Coleford'.

Not least for that reason, I'm very pleased to see the book's release, and it certainly deserves a wide readership.

Academic reviews roundup

After the slew of more popular-press reviews of and comments on The Most Remarkable Woman in England (which were resoundingly positive) a few academic and specialist reviews have recently begun to appear.

From the beginning, I had aimed to write a book that would both satisfy the specialist and fascinate the general reader. As I discovered, striking that balance is very difficult: indeed, these are imperatives that very often pull in opposite directions. (Having taken a look through the book again recently, I felt confirmed in the view that -- far more often than not -- I managed to hit the right note.)

As is their nature, this first round of academic reviews are more subdued in tone, but I'm pleased to see that they have had many positive things to say about the book.

For example, Matthew Houlbrook writes in Media History:

What became known as the ‘Fetter Hill mystery’ was one of the most sensational criminal cases of the 1920s. Then ‘still relatively new’, the media frenzy that surrounded Beatrice Pace allows John Carter Wood to tease out an engaging and suggestive analysis of the relationship between crime, culture, and politics in a formative historical period (5). The Most Remarkable Woman in England draws on an impressive body of archival research: an extensive survey of local and national newspapers, records of courts, coroners, and police, and (most strikingly) the hundreds of letters Pace received from her supporters at the trial’s conclusion. The result is a rich and textured archeology of a case that unfolded as much through new forms of mass media as the institutions of criminal justice. If the detail sometimes becomes overwhelming, it is hard to imagine a more thorough account of the processes through which crime became news. -- Media History, 19.3 (2013), 391-92.

At Gender & History, Gwyneth Nair thinks that the book could have emphasised analysis more than narrative  and that I might have made more comparisons of the Pace case with even more trials of women than I do. (Please see my above comments about trying to please academic and popular audiences alike.) Nonetheless, she concludes that The Most Remarkable Woman in England is 'a thoughtful, readable account of an intriguing case, and has valuable things to say about the nature of interwar English society.' --Gender & History, 25.2 (2013), 385-86.

(I should perhaps mention that one thing that Houlbrook and Nair share is the minor error of giving me a double-barrelled surname. My actual last name -- as it stands on the spine of the book -- is 'Wood'. 'Carter' is a middle name I use for publications and online to make myself easier to find among the countless other John Woods in the world...) 

At the open-access crime history journal Law, Crime and History, Tony Ward opens his review of my book with an interesting comparison to a television crime drama:

I started reading this book on the evening when the TV crime drama Broadchurch reached its finale, and the parallels are readily apparent: a suspicious death in a small community brings family conflicts to the surface, rumours abound, an arrogant policeman from London comes to investigate, the national press scent a good story, and the family of the deceased find themselves briefly famous.

Ward concludes:

The Most Remarkable Woman in England is a scholarly book and Wood resists any temptation to ‘solve’ the case, though he argues that the suicide theory was plausible and Beatrice was rightly acquitted. He urges historians to take ‘into account both those women who were demonised by the public and unfairly condemned and those who received public support and were – all things considered – treated fairly’ (195). In this respect his work usefully complements studies of women convicted of murder, such as Anette Balinger’s Dead Woman Walking (2000). But if one sees early twentieth century murder trials as a kind of morality play in which the moral invariably serves to reinforce the subordination of women, Beatrice Pace’s trial fits the mould as well as any of those that sent women to the gallows. -- Law, Crime and History, 3.2 (2013), 193-94. (PDF version of the full review)