A snowy day today. School’s out and the kids are luxuriating in free play. So far, they’ve spent the day playing lego, arguing, reading, playing chess, playing wii, arguing, eating waffles, and playing in the snow. Now, as we reach late afternoon, they’re back to reading and lego.
Their laughter, energy, arguments, and general busy-ness has been the backdrop upon which I’ve spent my snow day considering narratives of infanticide. I’ve spent the day reading the trial records so easily available at the Old Bailey’s online home. This collection is a treasure and I’ve played here before. I strongly encourage anyone interested in the law, class, gender, politics, crime… it’s an incredible resource that I’ve also been able to bring into the classroom.
But I digress.
My focus today was infanticide. I’ve been searching out the life writings of women who were brought to trial for killing their children. They only emerge in bits and pieces. Their narratives are fractured, and sometimes it’s hard to pick out anything at all. Sometimes they remain completely silent. Shadowy figures, they haunt the trial, present but unaccounted for. In other instances, they take the stand and speak for themselves.
In most of the cases, however, the stories must be pieced together, quilted lives that bring together their words with their actions, all read through the damning evidence of a dead infant. Most women denied their pregnancies, even when pressed. Most women laboured alone and in silence and denied childbirth, even when pressed. Blood on the sheets, blood on the floor, trails of blood through the house. A denial. A shrug.
How do we read these stories? How do we piece together these lives, so partial, so fragmentary… and so very compromised, not only by the inherent power imbalances that marked British society but also by the disciplinary power of the court itself?
I listen to what they said. I listen to what they did. I listen to how they are positioned by others. I listen to how the court responds. And I put the cases in conversation with one another. Each case is unique, but each was played out under similarly oppressive conditions. Together, they allow me to build a composite picture of the court itself: how it operated, what was expected, how it was understood. From there, I can get more deeply into the individual life narratives that played themselves out in this space.
Ethel Harding. Jennie Button. Maria Poulton. Mary Baker. Sarah Hunter. Sarah Allen. Mercy Hornby. Margaret Adams. Annie Walters. Amelia Sachs. Mary Lucas. Eleanor Casson. Over 400 women tried at London’s Central Court between the late seventeenth and early twentieth century. 400 stories. 400 voices. 400 lives.
As I transition from scholar to mother, it is no longer play that forms the backdrop to my thoughts, but these stories that form the canvas upon which I will mother.