10 Things that turn a character bad
All great stories have baddies. Baddies or antagonists are the characters who get in your hero or heroine’s way. They create conflict and problems – all the things readers love. Evil villains help create a story that is exciting and sometimes even scary. Evil is up there with Love, Death, Beauty, Friendship, and Fate. Sooner or later we encounter at least a few of them in a good story. Here are 10 ways you can turn a character bad as a writer.
1. Bad Parents
When King Minos became king of Crete he challenged his brother to a dual. He prayed to Poseidon, the sea god for some help. Poseidon sent him a snow-white bull. The deal was that the king had to kill the bull to show honour to the gods, but he decided to keep it and kill one of his own bulls. To punish Minos, Poseidon made Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. She was so in love that she had craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, then she climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him, and as he grew he became ferocious and started to eat people. Minos went to the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to handle his monstrous son. He had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur under the palace.
Deviant parents give a character a bad start in life as the Greeks knew all too well!
American author Ray Bradbury gave the theme a modern twist with his short story The Veldt in 1950.
The Hadley family live in an automated house called “The Happylife Home,” filled with machines that do every task. The two children, Peter and Wendy, become fascinated with the “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they imagine.
The parents, George and Lydia, begin to wonder if there is something wrong with their way of life.
Lydia tells George, “That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot.”
They are also perplexed and confused as to why the nursery is stuck on an African setting, with lions in the distance, eating a dead figure. There they also find recreations of their personal belongings and hear strangely familiar screams. Wondering why their children are so concerned with this scene of death, they decide to call a psychologist.
The psychologist, David McClean, suggests they turn off the house, move to the country, and learn to be more self-sufficient.
The children, feeling reliant on the nursery, beg their parents to let them have one last visit. Their parents agree and when they come to fetch them, the children lock George and Lydia into the nursery with the pride of lions. Shortly after, it is implied that the lions eat George and Lydia.
When the psychologist comes by to look for George and Lydia, he finds the children enjoying lunch on the veldt and sees the lions eating figures in the distance – George and Lydia, the reader is lead to presume.
Favouritism is a commonly used trope in Fiction Land. Bad enough when you’re an only child, but if you’re among a pack of siblings, this particular trope is nearly guaranteed to raise its head at some point in order to make life even more difficult.
Parental Favouritism is just what it sounds like — one child is given preference over their siblings.
Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve in the biblical Book of Genesis. Cain, the firstborn, tilled the soil, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favoured Abel’s sacrifice instead of Cain’s. Cain murdered Abel.
God punished Cain with a life of wandering and set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch. The narrative never explicitly states Cain’s motive though it does describe him as being wrathful, and his motive is traditionally assumed to be envy.
This biblical story and archetype of brothers locked in dual for their father’s affection is the basis for many a story and many a baddie. Sibling rivalry, envy, and wrath can motivate a character to a lot of very bad behaviour.
Favourites come in a number of varieties: Birth Order, Gender, Personality, Biological versus Adopted or Step Children – just think of all those fairy stories!
Way back in Ancient Greece King Tereus of Trace takes his wife Procne and her sister Philomela to visit their father in Athens. On the way, he lusts after Philomela. One night he rapes her. To stop her telling his wife he cuts out her tongue.
Those Greeks sure knew how to do baddies. Here sexual desire, power, and guilt are the key motivators along with a good dollop of misogyny.
Continuing the story of the now mute Philomela; she weaves a tapestry that tells her story. When her sister finds out what has happened she kills her son by Tereus; boils him up and serves him up to his father for dinner. Philomela is turned into a Nightingale and given a beautiful voice by the gods to make amends for her terrible ordeal.
Yes, this is an extreme case and the origin of the expression revenge is a dish best served cold. Your characters don’t have to murder children to get their revenge putting rotting shrimps in the air conditioning ducts of his nice new apartment might be enough revenge for a women spurned.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth couldn’t just be happy with her Scottish castle and thanedom, could she?
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)
After reading the letter from her husband which recounts the witches’ prophesy, Lady Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Her husband Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.
The novel, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, begins when the knockout Miss Wonderly walks into Spade’s office. It turns out she’s a knockout with money. And she wants to hire the services of a private detective to find her missing sister, who supposedly ran off with a crook named Thursby. Neither Spade nor his partner Miles Archer, buy her story. But with the money she’s paying, who cares? When Archer and then Thursby are murdered, Spade realizes that he’s getting more than he bargained for. In fact, just about everyone around Sam Spade dies trying to get their hands on a bird figurine worth…$10,000.
Is the love of money the root of all evil? Charles Dickens thought so. Unlike Hammet he saves his character Scrooge from his lonely fate when the author shows him what happens to greedy and selfish men – that it when the author isn’t bumping them off at a rate of knots!
This terribly sad true-life story shows just what can happen when someone feels rejected. Rejection is painful. Being made to look worthless is a frightening experience so rejection can be a powerful motivation for baddies. Children rejected by their parents are often lonely, angry and hostile to a world they perceive does not love them.
Because being left out can be so painful for children, researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why some children are rejected. About half of rejected boys are aggressive. They hit, kick, or shove more than other boys, and they also tend to be more disruptive and argumentative. However, not all rejected boys are aggressive. Another 13-20% are shy and withdrawn. Still, others are socially awkward. Their odd, disruptive, or immature behaviour is off-putting to peers.
The son of a Hollywood assistant director went on a shooting rampage near the UC Santa Barbara campus slaying 6 people and engaging in a shootout with police which left him dead. The young man was 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the son of Hunger Games second unit director Peter Rodger. Prior to the rampage, Rodger submitted recordings to Youtube, chronicling his catastrophic emotional state after admittedly being rejected by women for eight years.
7. Feeling Invisible
In 1917, “Baby Jane” Hudson is an adored yet ill-tempered vaudevillian child star while her older sister Blanche lives in her shadow. By 1935, their fortunes have reversed: Blanche is a successful film actress and Jane lives in obscurity, her films having failed.
One night, Jane mocks Blanche at a party, prompting Blanche to run away in tears. That same night, Blanche is paralysed from the waist down in a mysterious car accident that is unofficially blamed on Jane, who is found three days later in a drunken stupor.
In 1962 a wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are living together in Blanche’s mansion, purchased with Blanche’s movie earnings. By now, Jane has descended into alcoholism and mental illness and treats Blanche with cruelty to punish her for stealing her spotlight.
Later, when Blanche informs Jane she may be selling the house, Jane’s mental health begins to deteriorate further. During an argument, she removes the telephone from Blanche’s bedroom, cutting Blanche off from the outside world.
Jane begins denying Blanche food, until she serves Blanche her dead parakeet on a platter—and, at a later meal, a rat that she killed in the cellar. Jane kills Blanche’s carer and then drives to the beach where she finally goes bonkers as the police arrive to arrest her for the carer’s death and Blanche dies.
This is a powerful case of sibling rivalry, ambition, and ego. The story of these sisters shows just how powerful these motivators can be in the hands of a great writer. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller–horror film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The screenplay by Lukas Heller is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. Upon the film’s release, it was met with widespread critical and box office acclaim and was later nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design, Black and White.
8. Being Thwarted
Varys & Petyr Baelish Speak – Game of Thrones
Lord Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.
Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish: You’re so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I’m going, to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there. Game of Thrones (TV Series), The Climb (2013)
Varys and Littlefinger may seem to be minor players — but the maneuverings of the noble families of Westeros often seem to come back to their ongoing chess game. Varys and Littlefinger articulate two very different philosophies. Lord Petyr Baelish, popularly called Littlefinger, was the Master of Coin on the Small Council under King Robert Baratheon and King Joffrey Baratheon. He was a skilled manipulator and used his ownership of brothels in King’s Landing to both accrue intelligence on political rivals and acquire vast wealth. Baelish’s spy network is eclipsed only by that of his arch-rival Varys.
Love them or hate them, Littlefinger and Varys are the series’ real game changers. They also take the reality TV show approach to competition, forming alliances, lying, and manipulating. Basically, they aren’t here to make friends. They are here to win. But, winning means different things to the two characters and the more they can thwart the other the better.
9. Lies and Betrayal
In the song made famous by Tom Jones the price for lies is death – ‘I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more, why, why Delilah?’ The biblical Delilah was approached by the lords of the Philistines, to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. She was offered eleven hundred pieces of silver for her pains. Three times she asked Samson for the secret of his strength but each time he gave her a false answer. On the fourth occasion, he gave her the true reason: that he did not cut his hair in fulfillment of a vow to God. When he was asleep she allowed his enemies to cut off his hair. They took him, put out his eyes, and bound him with fetters. Later, of course, he took his revenge by bringing the whole house down on his foes.
Betrayal destroys trust. If a loved one betrays us it crushes our faith in ourselves and others. The world and everyone in it can become an ugly place to live in. Betrayal is a particularly effective emotion-filled type of conflict that we can use in fiction to create long-lasting problems for our characters.
10. Being a Psychopath
Characteristics of a psychopath: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (i.e. broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.
A recent study suggests that 1-4% of the population is on the psychopathic scale. This means that we’ll probably all meet at least one psychopath in our lives.
Psychopaths love themselves. Even if nobody else loves them. They’ll think they’re the best at whatever it is that they do, even if they suck at it. It’s entirely possible they’ll take credit for other people’s success too – they live vicariously and will work how a way to feel they contributed to it somehow. Ultimately, their world revolves around them and no one else. Psychopaths are great characters to write as they give you so much scope for upsetting others and it’s so rewarding when, as an author, you can give them their comeuppance.
About the author: Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel Sinclair is available worldwide on Amazon.
I loved Mary Wesley’s books. I think I read them all in the 1980s and 1990’s before my children were born. I really enjoyed the TV adaptations too. Her work was refreshing, vivid and bittersweet, her style was effortless. She is a great influence on me still.
Mary Wesley, died aged 90. She amazed the literary world by having her first novel published when she was 70, in 1983.
She went on to write nine more (three of which were filmed for TV), figured regularly in the bestseller lists and was appointed CBE in 1995. A remarkably good-looking woman, she had a commanding presence and could appear reserved when meeting people she did not know. But she was much less confident than she seemed and she had a wonderful sense of humour. She was also a generous friend.
She often claimed that her novels were not autobiographical, but aspects of her life are reflected in the themes that run through them. A typical Wesley heroine is a young woman, damaged by parental dislike or neglect, who ties herself to a conventional man who does not understand her, only to find happiness later with an eccentric, tender lover, who values in her all the qualities no one else has recognised.
The third child of Colonel Harold Mynors Farmar and his wife, Violet, Mary Aline was born at Englefield Green, Windsor Great Park. She grew up hardly knowing her father and believing that her mother preferred her elder sister.
It was assumed that she would never have to work for her living and so she was not sent to school, which added to her isolation. Her beloved nanny was sacked when she was three and her minimal education was left to a series of foreign governesses.
Regretting this, in the 1930s she attended lectures on international politics and anthropology at the London School of Economics (60 years later she was awarded an honorary fellowship there).
She was presented at court and married Lord Swinfen in 1937. Having given birth to two sons, she had fulfilled her parents’ expectations, only to scandalise them when she left her husband. They were divorced in 1945. The second world war, which was to form the background to many of her novels, changed everything for her.
Like so many well-bred young women, she found work in intelligence. She once told an interviewer that the war years gave her generation a very good time: “an atmosphere of terror and exhilaration and parties, parties, parties”.
It was in 1944, dining at the Ritz, that she met Eric Siepmann, the Winchester and Oxford-educated playwright, and journalist. Siepmann’s father was German and his mother Irish. Her family strongly disapproved.
They lived together until his second wife could be persuaded to divorce him and then married in 1952, settling in Devon. Ten years after their first meeting he wrote in his autobiography, Confessions Of A Nihilist, that she was “somebody whom I really loved, who believed in God and who thought that loving meant what you give and not what you take”.
Their years together were so happy that Siepmann’s death in 1970 devastated Wesley. She felt as though she had been cut in half, “like a carcass at the butcher’s”. Siepmann had changed jobs frequently and never accumulated any capital, and his death left her bereft and without an income. Wesley sold her jewellery and knitted for whatever her customers could pay.
She had been writing for years but had no confidence in what she produced, in spite of her husband’s encouragement, and threw most of it away. Her first published works, in 1968, were two children’s books, and a third followed in 1983. It was only after Siepmann’s death that she found her voice.
Then, in Jumping The Queue, she wrote about a woman who could not bear to go on living after her beloved but eccentric husband’s death and planned a suicidal picnic.
This quirky, sad and very funny novel was quite unlike anything else that was being published in the early 1980s. Had it not been for the intervention of her friend Antonia White, it might have followed its predecessors into the bin. With White’s encouragement, Wesley began to submit the manuscript to publishers.
Several companies turned down Jumping The Queue on the grounds that there was no interest in “that kind of book”, but when her then agent Tessa Sayle sent the book to James Hale of Macmillan, he confounded his rivals. Her work soon found a wide public and was admired by critics.
Much was made of the fact that the novels are full of illicit sex and that the characters are free with the sort of four-letter words that few women of Wesley’s age and class would use. Perhaps more interesting, although it was less remarked at the time, is the hate and violence beneath the surface. Several of her heroines kill, from Mathilda in Jumping The Queue to Sophie, the unloved but deeply lovable child of The Camomile Lawn (1984, and filmed for TV in 1992).
It is the violent expression of long-buried anger and distress, quite as much as the frank sexuality of her heroines, that makes her work so different. Her novels are suffused not only with her humour but also with the emotions she preferred not to discuss, and they are inimitable. A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part Of The Scenery, was published in 2001.
She had always dressed elegantly, even when she couldn’t afford a railway ticket to London. She enjoyed success, the strange circus of book launches and the excitement of planning the film of a book (even if she tended to dislike the films that emerged). Book promotion tours made her feel she was earning her living and doing something for her publishers in return. She delighted in good reviews and was stung when she was attacked, especially since she avoided reviewing books which she did not like.
She really enjoyed writing, and that quality of pleasure is in everything she wrote. She complained bitterly when a plot got stuck, but she was desolate and lonely when a book was completed and had been handed over.
Her best-known book, The Camomile Lawn, set on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, was turned into a television series and is an account of the intertwining lives of three families in rural England during World War II. After The Camomile Lawn (1984) came Harnessing Peacocks (1985 and as a TV film in 1992), The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986 and filmed in 1995), Not That Sort of Girl (1987), Second Fiddle (1988), A Sensible Life (1990), A Dubious Legacy (1992), An Imaginative Experience (1994) and Part of the Furniture(1997). A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part of the Scenery, was published in 2001. Asked why she had stopped writing fiction at the age of 84, she replied: “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.”
Her take on life reveals a sharp and critical eye which neatly dissects the idiosyncrasies of genteel England with humour, compassion, and irony, detailing in particular sexual and emotional values. Her style has been described as “arsenic without the old lace”. Others have described it as “Jane Austen plus sex”, a description Wesley herself thought ridiculous. As a woman who was liberated before her time Mary Wesley challenged social assumptions about the old, confessed to bad behaviour and recommended sex. In doing so she smashed the stereotype of the disapproving, judgemental, past-it, old person. This delighted the old and intrigued the young.
Sources: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jan/01/guardianobituaries.books1, Wikipedia
Jeanne Baret was born on July 27, 1740, in the village of La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France. Her record of baptism survives and identifies her as the legitimate issue of Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard. Her father is identified as a day labourer and seems likely to have been illiterate, as he did not sign the parish register.
Housekeeper and Servant
At some point between 1760 and 1764, Baret became employed as housekeeper to naturalist, Philibert Commerson, who had settled in Toulon-sur-Arroux, some 20 km to the south of La Comelle, upon his marriage in 1760. Commerson’s wife, who was the sister of the parish priest, died shortly after giving birth to a son in April 1762, and it seems that Baret took over management of Commerson’s household at that time, if not before.
Lover and Friend
It seems Baret and Commerson shared a more than an interest in his household as she became pregnant in 1764. French law at that time required women who became pregnant out of wedlock to obtain a “certificate of pregnancy” in which they could name the father of their unborn child. Baret’s certificate, from August 1764, survives; it was filed in a town 30 km away and witnessed by two men of substance who likewise had travelled a considerable distance from their homes. She refused to name the father of her child, but historians do not doubt that it was Commerson and that it was Commerson who had made the arrangements with the lawyer and witnesses on her behalf.
Paris and a Child
Shortly afterward, Baret and Commerson moved together to Paris, where she continued in the role of his housekeeper having left his legitimate son in the care of his brother-in-law in Toulon-sur-Arroux and never saw him again in his lifetime. Baret apparently changed her name to “Jeanne de Bonnefoy” during this period. Her child was born in December 1764 and was given the name Jean-Pierre Baret. Baret gave the child up to the Paris Foundlings Hospital and he was quickly placed with a foster mother. The child suffered the fate of so many at that time and died in the summer of 1765.
That year Commerson was invited to join Bougainville’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe to claim territory for the French king similar to the expeditions of his contemporary the English Captain Cook. Commerson hesitated in accepting because he was often in poor health; he required Baret’s assistance as a nurse as well as in running his household and managing his collections and papers. Finally, he accepted and as his appointment allowed him a servant, paid as a royal expense, he decided to take his companion and helpmate Jeanne with him. The problem was that women were completely prohibited on French navy ships at this time. Together they devised a plan for Jeanne to disguise herself as a man and join the ship just before it sailed. Before leaving Paris, Commerson drew up a will in which he left to “Jeanne Baret, known as de Bonnefoi, my housekeeper”, a lump sum of 600 livres along with back wages owed and the furnishings of their Paris apartment.
Breaking the Rules
The pair boarded the ship Étoile in December 1766 and because of the vast quantity of equipment Commerson brought with him the ship’s captain, François Chesnard de la Giraudais, gave up his own large cabin to Commerson and his “assistant”. This fortuitous act gave Baret significantly more privacy than she might otherwise have expected on board and she did not have to use the shared heads like other members of the crew to relieve herself.
Surviving accounts of the expedition differ on when Baret’s gender was first discovered. According to Bougainville, rumours that Baret was a woman had circulated for some time, but her gender was not finally confirmed until the expedition reached Tahiti in April 1768. As soon as she and Commerson landed on shore to botanize, Baret was immediately surrounded by Tahitians who cried out that she was a woman. It was necessary to return her to the ship to protect her from the excited Tahitians. Bougainville recorded this incident in his journal some weeks after it happened when he had an opportunity to visit the Étoile to interview Baret personally.
Another account says that there was much speculation about Baret’s gender early in the voyage and asserts that Baret claimed to be a eunuch when confronted directly by the Captain, La Giraudais (whose own official log has not survived). After crossing the Pacific, the expedition was desperately short of food. After a brief stop for supplies in the Dutch East Indies, the ships made a longer stop at the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. This island, known as Isle de France, was then an important French trading station. Commerson was delighted to find that an old friend and fellow botanist Pierre Poivre was serving as governor on the island, and Commerson and Baret remained behind as Poivre’s guests, probably encouraged by Bougainville as it allowed him to rid himself of the problem of a woman illegally on board his expedition.
Assistant and Housekeeper
On Mauritius, Baret continued in her role as Commerson’s assistant and housekeeper. It is likely that she accompanied him to botanize on Madagascar and Bourbon Island in 1770-1772. Commerson continued to have serious health problems, and he died in Mauritius in February 1773. After Commerson’s death, Baret seems to have found work running a tavern in Port Louis for a time. Then, on 17 May 1774, she married Jean Dubernat, a non-commissioned officer in the French Army who was most likely on the island on his way home to France.
Marriage and Return to France
There is no record of exactly when Baret and her husband arrived in France, thus completing her voyage of circumnavigation. Most likely it was sometime in 1775. In April 1776, she received the money that was due to her under Commerson’s will after applying directly to the Attorney General. With this money, she settled with Dubernat in his native village of Saint-Aulaye where he may have set up as a blacksmith.
State Recognition of Services to Botany
In 1785, Baret was granted a pension of 200 livres a year by the Ministry of Marine. The document granting her this pension makes clear the high regard with which she was held by this point:
Jeanne Baret, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit…. His Lordship has been gracious enough to grant to this extraordinary woman a pension of two hundred livres a year to be drawn from the fund for invalid servicemen and this pension shall be payable from 1 January 1785. She died in Saint-Aulaye on August 5, 1807, at the age of 67.
Honours and Publications
Commerson named many of the plants he collected after friends and acquaintances. One of them, a tall shrub with dark green leaves and white flowers that he found on Madagascar, he named Baretia Bonafidia. But Commerson’s name for this genus did not survive, as it had already been named by the time his reports reached Paris; it is currently known as Turraea. While over seventy species are named in honour of Commerson, only one, Solanum baretiae, honors Baret.
For many years, Bougainville’s published journal – a popular best-seller in its day, in English translation as well as the original French – was the only widely available source of information about Baret. More recent scholarship has uncovered additional facts and documentation about her life, but much of the new information remained little-known and inaccessible to the general public, particularly outside France. The first English-language biography of Baret, by John Dunmore, was not published until 2002, and then only in New Zealand. Other articles appeared only in scholarly journals.
The 2010 biography of Baret by Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, brought Baret to the attention of a wider audience and helped to overturn some of the old misconceptions about her life.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon
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Through most of history, men were thought of as the stronger sex. Men were and in many cases still are considered to be the more violent, more intelligent, more courageous, and the more determined sex.
Women were considered more placid and at worst governed by their unpredictable emotions. The ideal woman was expected to be passive, chaste, modest, compassionate, and pious.
Historians claim that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a significant separation of the sexes in society. For example, at that time women and men to started to develop separate social lives. Women took tea at home, while men frequented the coffee shops in town. Women started to withdraw from the dining table after a meal to let the men smoke and talk politics while they concerned themselves with more domestic topics of conversation, played cards and drank tea. These social changes were in part due to increased wealth and to some extent, the growing influence of evangelical Christianity, which placed a high moral value on female domesticity, virtue, and religiosity. The women of the comfortably off were not expected to want for anything and if they did they were expected to keep their desires to themselves.
Those girls and women of the lower classes who broke society’s rules were treated with a mixture of cruelty and disdain. When it came to crime, women were accused of fewer, and different, crimes to men. At the Old Bailey women accounted for only 21% of the defendants tried between 1674 and 1913. This figure masks a significant chronological change, however. While women accounted for around 40% of the defendants from the 1690s to the 1740s (and, highly unusually, over half the defendants in the first decade of the eighteenth century), over the course of the period this proportion declined significantly.
The shadow of Newgate Prison looms over the book Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe just as the real building must have loomed over surrounding London. Moll starts her life in that cold place, and she comes pretty close to ending it there, too. The prison is mentioned nearly forty times over the course of the book, more than any other place or even any other character’s name. Moll enters the prison as a thief and says looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place.
‘I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.'(Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe.)
By the early nineteenth century only 22% of defendants were women, and as the twentieth century dawned that percentage had dropped to 9%. By the early twentieth century serious crime had become a mainly male problem and female deviance was viewed as a consequence of sexual immorality and mental defectiveness and was addressed through other agencies such as the asylum. Reasons for admission were various and included Egotism, Fever and Jealousy, Immoral Life, Novel Reading, Nymphomania, Shooting a daughter, Greediness and Self Abuse between 1864 and 1889 according to a poster from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the US.Similar practices occurred in the UK.
During the 18th century women tended to be accused of certain kinds of theft – pickpocketing, shoplifting, theft from lodging houses, theft from their masters stores, and for receiving stolen goods. The more serious crimes that women were involved in included coining, kidnapping, keeping a brothel, and offences surrounding childbirth such as infanticide, concealing a birth or illegal abortions. Young women who fell prey to their employers and their employer’s sons often found themselves with an unwanted child and no job.Although prostitution itself was not tried at the Old Bailey, keeping a brothel was, and women account for about a third of those prosecuted for brothel keeping.
Of the 47 infanticide cases Naomi Clifford read researching her book, It is Women and the Gallows: Unfortunate Wretches, 13 ended in the acquittal of the manslaughter or murder charge but the conviction rate for the lesser crime of concealing a birth, for which the defendants were given prison sentences ranging from 14 days to 2 years more commonly brought in a guilty verdict. When convicted of infanticide a woman was usually hanged.
Appearing as a defendant at the Old Bailey must have been a significantly more intimidating experience for women than it was for men. All court personnel, from the judges and jury to lawyers and court officials were men except when a panel of all women was convened. These all female juries were known as a ‘jury of matrons’ and were called to determine the validity of a convicted woman’s plea that she was pregnant. Pregnant women could not be hanged until they had delivered their unborn child.
There is some evidence that juries treated evidence presented by female witnesses more sceptically than that delivered by men. The testimony of women was more likely to be omitted from court proceedings. At the same time, other evidence suggests that juries may have been more reluctant to convict women because women were perceived to be less of a threat to society. The legal principle of the feme covert, which made women responsible for crimes committed in the presence of their husbands (they were presumed to be following their husbands’ commands) was not often applied. A married man was legally responsible for any debts his wife ran up with or without his knowledge.
The pattern of punishments for convicted women was significantly different from that of men, though when sentences for the same offence are compared, the differences are not so significant.
Before 1691, women convicted of the theft of goods worth more than 10 shillings could not receive the benefit of clergy unlike men and were sentenced to death. In practice, they were often acquitted, convicted on a reduced charge, or pardoned. Juries are usually reluctant to convict when they feel the punishment does not fit the crime.
Women convicted of treason or petty treason were sentenced to death by being burned at the stake until 1790 while men convicted of the same offences were hanged, drawn and quartered. It seems the authorities did not want to expose women to this humiliating fate of being undressed in public when they were being executed. Women sentenced to death who successfully pleaded that they were pregnant had their punishments respited and often remitted entirely. From 1848, reprieves granted to pregnant women were always permanent.
Following the suspension of transportation to America in 1776, a statute authorised judges to sentence male offenders otherwise liable to transportation to hard labour improving the navigation of the Thames (they were incarcerated on the hulks), while women, and those men unfit for working on the river, were to be imprisoned and put to hard labour. Only men could be sentenced to military or naval duty, and fewer women were selected for transportation when transportation to Australia began in 1787. The public whipping of women was abolished in 1817 (having been in decline since the 1770s), while the public flogging of men continued into the 1830s (and was not abolished until 1862).
The perception of women as passive and weak and the types of misdemeanours most frequently committed by them made them seem far less of a threat to society than the crimes committed by men. However, when a woman transgressed into the world of ‘male crime’, her punishment was likely to be more severe because as a woman she had not only committed a crime against society she had transgressed the ideal of womanhood and stepped outside her expected gender role.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction.
Sinclair is available of Amazon. Click here to get your copy.
Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street. Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.
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Throughout her life, Florence Nightingale’s gift for mathematics was often to be a source of frustration for her. This was because many of those she sought to influence simple did not understand numbers. In 1891 she wrote that: “Though the great majority of cabinet ministers, of the army, of the executive, of both Houses of Parliament, have received a university education, what has that university education taught them of the practical application of statistics?”
Nightingale came to prominence while training and managing nurses during the Crimean War, where she organised the tending to wounded soldiers. She gave nursing a highly favourable reputation and became an icon of Victorian culture, especially in the persona of “The Lady with the Lamp” making rounds of wounded soldiers at night. She was revered more as a representative of the female carer than the promoter of scientific medicine.
Florence Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820 into a rich, upper-class, well-connected British family at the Villa Colombaia,in Florence, Italy, and was named after the city of her birth. Florence’s older sister Frances Parthenope had similarly been named after her place of birth, Parthenope, a Greek settlement now part of the city of Naples. The family moved back to England in 1821, with Nightingale being brought up in the family’s homes at Embley, Hampshire and Lea Hurst, Derbyshire.
As a young woman, Nightingale was described as attractive, slender and graceful. While her demeanour was often severe, she was said to be very charming and possess a radiant smile. Her most persistent suitor was the politician and poet Richard Monckton Milnes, but after a nine-year courtship she rejected him, convinced that marriage would interfere with her ability to follow her calling to nursing.
In 1853, Nightingale took the post of superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London, a position she held until October 1854. Her father had given her an annual income of £500 (roughly £40,000/US$65,000 in present terms), which allowed her to live comfortably and to pursue her career. A year later, on 21 October 1854, Nightingale and a staff of 38 women volunteer nurses that she trained arrived in Scutari, the base for casualties from the war being waged in Crimea between the British, France, The Ottoman Empire and Sardinia on one side and the Russian Empire on the other.
Immediately, Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the information to campaign for better food, hygiene, and clothing for the troops. She persuaded the government to commission Isambard Kingdom Brunel to design a prefabricated hospital to be shipped out to Scutari, though it arrived after hostilities had ceased.
Upon returning to England, Florence continued her work and calculated that, even in times of peace, mortality among supposedly healthy soldiers, aged 25–35 and living in barracks, was double that of the civilian population. She wrote to Sir John McNeill (who was conducting the inquiry into the mismanagement of the Crimean campaign): “It is as criminal to have a mortality of 17, 19 and 20 per thousand in the line, artillery and guards, when that in civil life is only 11 per thousand, as it would be to take 1,100 men out upon Salisbury Plain and shoot them.”
She bombarded the commissioners with questions about the relationship between the death rates in barracks and such factors as the provision of water, sewerage, ventilation, accommodation, and food, using a ‘coxcomb’ chart (a sort of pie chart) to press home her points. She used her contacts to ensure that her views received publicity in newspapers. The commission reported in 1863, accepting most of her recommendations and Florence then used her royal connections to ensure that they were put into effect. Death rates fell by 75 percent.
Florence’s campaigns continued to the end of her life,1891. She didn’t get everything right. Her analysis of the 19th‑century cholera epidemics convinced her that they were caused by foul air, not polluted water and her influence was such that she probably hampered the fight against the disease. But, despite such miscalculations, she was certainly a passionate statistician and reformer.
Sources: Wikipedia, http://www.historyextra.com/article/people-history/florence-nightingale-nursing-numbers
Illustration: A portrait of Florence aged about 20 by August Egg.c. 1840.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback and Kindle. Also available on:
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