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Women, crime and character

A legal and literary look at the changing face of England from Moll Flanders to Tess of the d'Urbervilles 

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.

Women, Crime and Character by Nicola LaceyAccording to Nicola Lacey, an LSE law professor, the disappearance of a Moll Flanders, and her supercession in the annals of literary female offenders by heroines like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, serves as a metaphor for fundamental social changes in 18th and 19th Century England. Drawing on law, literature, philosophy and social and economic history, Lacey argues that these broad changes underpinned a radical shift in mechanisms of responsibility-attribution, with decisive implications for the criminalisation of women. 

'In Tess, Hardy gave us an enduring image of the stereotype of female criminality that pervaded the Victorian era and indeed cast its shadow over 20th-century popular culture and criminology," she explains. 

'The image of the female offender has often approached the ultimate stereotype of conventional femininity: passive; driven by emotion rather than reason; moved by impulses located in the body rather than the mind. 

'Tess sprang in part from Hardy's reaction to the case of Martha Brown, hanged in 1856 for the murder of her abusive husband. Like most female criminals in novels of the Victorian period, Tess's position as a woman underlines her social powerlessness.' 

Moll, on the other hand, was bold and brilliantly resourceful, using her beauty and ingenuity to escape poverty through crime.

Professor Lacey explains: 'For most of the novel she is involved in distinctly unromantic property offences, including shoplifting, swindling and even stealing from children. Born in Newgate jail of a mother who has escaped execution by 'pleading her belly', Moll enjoys an active and varied love life, with plentiful instances of fornication and adultery."

Professor Lacey's ideas are explored in a book based on an expanded version of the 2007 Clarendon Lectures, which in turn grew out of a broader project that could be described as a socio-legal history of criminal responsibility. This project shares the ambition elegantly expressed in John Baker's Clarendon Lectures seven years ago: to illuminate The Law's Two Bodies by bringing its doctrinal and conceptual being into dialogue with its other, harder to reveal, institutional and practical reality. 

Professor Lacey's aim in the book was also to contribute to the small but growing literature which historicises our understanding of key social concepts such as agency, identity, selfhood, responsibility, rights, truth and credibility.

She focuses 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 sexual difference, social order and individual agency. 

Moll could not be a greater contrast to the stereotype of female criminality embodied in Tess. Moll is autonomous, brimming with ambitions and strategies for pursuing them. Unlike Tess, she shapes her own destiny. Women similar to herself people a strong, active and dominant woman, Moll's world. The men in this world are often weak, indecisive and passive.

Lacey says: "Defoe, we must conclude, found it natural to have a sexually active, socially marginal female thief as his protagonist. And the success of Moll implies early readers received her as being entirely plausible; exceptionally, during that period, women constituted half the defendants before London's main criminal court.

'Moll's supercession by very different models of female criminality, like Tess, serves as a metaphor for fundamental changes in society. Moll's descendants were caught up in a cluster of social developments that contributed to the unthinkability of such a character in Tess's era.' 


Useful links

Women, Crime and Character: From Moll Flanders to Tess of the d'Urbervilles is published by Oxford University Press (2008). A working paper| on the same subject is available in LSE Research Online.

For full details of Professor Nicola Lacey's research and publications see her entry in LSE's Experts Directory: Professor Nicola Lacey|