Literature's killer females: The enduring allure of those angels of death from Thomas Hardy to Angela Carter

Lesley McDowell looks at a fascination that authors have long felt for women who kill

In Lyndsey Faye’s new historical crime novel, Jane Steele, her titular heroine follows a narrative similar to that of her fictional favourite, Jane Eyre.

Like Eyre, she’s abused by her cousin and boarding-school headmaster, and a mysterious housekeeper is a malevolent presence. But there’s an important difference: Jane Steele murders her adversaries. 

In her “Historical Afterword”, Faye acknowledges the “ridiculousness” in portraying a Jane Eyre-ish murderess.

But “its ridiculousness is based in both truth and fiction”: Steele attends Lowan Bridge school, based on Jane Eyre’s Lowood, in turn based on Cowan Bridge, the school that destroyed Charlotte Brontë’s sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Jane Steele herself stresses: “I was not a fictional orphan but a real one, however.”

The gap between the real and the fictional is exploited by authors depicting murderesses to a degree, and with an ingenuity, that few other imagined figures enjoy.

Which may be the secret to our fascination with fictional representations, from Snow White’s wicked queen to Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, as well as real-life female killers. When the two combine, our fascination becomes irresistible.

In the 19th century, Thomas Hardy couldn’t resist turning Tess of the D’Urbervilles into a murderess when she stabbed Alec D’Urberville through the heart. Hardy’s recall of a hanging he once witnessed shows the dubious erotic appeal such a woman had for him (“I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back”), an eroticism he carried over to his invented heroine. 

Wilkie Collins’s 1866 novel, Armadale, also relied on a sexually alluring but deadly figure: Lydia Gwilt. Published almost 10 years after the trial of 22-year-old Madeleine Smith, accused of poisoning her French lover with arsenic, it recalled the case too uncomfortably for some.

“Real life,” wrote one critic, “was dominated by [a] sexually ambiguous image – that of the domestic poisoner, the woman … who slips packets of arsenic into her unsuspecting husband’s food and drink.” Smith’s Edinburgh jury couldn’t decide on her guilt, declaring the case “not proven” and thereby releasing back into society a woman some viewed as fatally dangerous.

Lydia Gwilt herself falls in love with a man she means to murder; in art as in life, sex and death become irrevocably intertwined. But Collins also rewrote Smith in fiction as a repentant woman who paid for her alleged crime with her life; both her sexual transgressions and her murderous behaviour were punished.

Hardy and Collins killed their fictional murderesses. James M Cain in the early 20th century took it further. Sex and death combined in the real-life trial of Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray, jointly accused in 1927 of murdering Snyder’s husband.

Snyder’s love letters showed a frivolous, unhappy woman who appeared in photographs as utterly unremarkable. In his 1936 novella, Double Indemnity, based on the case, Cain exaggerated the sexual appeal of Phyllis Nirdlinger, his version of Snyder:

“Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts.” Nirdlinger romanticises herself, too: “(I) think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then.” In Cain’s hands, Snyder became a serial killer, dangerous and demented. 

Wilkie Collins gave the murderess her own voice, Lydia Gwilt speaking through her diary. Cain crystallised a genre of women as femmes fatales, relaying Nirdlinger through her lover’s eyes. Both methods were almost transgressive acts on the authors’ part, though, making us question our perceptions of the murderess, her hidden possibilities for sorrow or horror. 

Female writers, however, chose a different kind of transgressive path, less willing to punish their literary murderesses in this way.

Megan Abbott based her 2009 novel, Bury Me Deep, on the infamous “Trunk Murders” of 1931, letting us inside a murderess’s head as Collins had done and challenging the narrative that sexual transgression led to murder which ended in punishment. Winnie Ruth Judd was accused of shooting two female friends whom she regarded as love rivals, and packing their bodies into a trunk.

Abbott’s imagined version of Judd, Marion Seeley, is lonely and unsure. Abandoned by her addict husband, she becomes a nurse and is corrupted by two unscrupulous women, then framed by an exploitative politician. But her voice has strength, (“she was not such a wilting thing”) and Abbott gives her anti-heroine a chance, celebrates her instinct for survival enough to let her flee. 

This particular literary murderess surpassed her real-life counterpart, who was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Again and again, the literary murderess exploits, challenges, or even subverts, the official story, the accepted version. Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, is based on the life of Grace Marks, who was found guilty of murdering a fellow servant and her employer in 1843.

Grace is given her own voice as she tells her story to a young psychiatrist. That voice veers between truth and fiction, plays games with facts. Is she a killer or not? Atwood leaves it open.

Similarly, Angela Carter avoids judgment in her 1985 short story, “The Fall River Axe Murders”, based on Lizzie Borden.

Carter begins with the heat on the day Borden’s father and step-mother would be bludgeoned to death in their Massachusetts home. “Hot, hot, hot … very early in the morning, before the factory whistle, but even at this hour, everything shimmers and quivers under the attack of white, furious sun already high in the still air.” 

The myth of Lizzie Borden tells us that the heat made her painful menstruation more likely to lead to the murders she was accused of committing. But Sarah Miller’s new study, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century, insists that the heat that day was nothing unusual.

Carter describes a poor home, full of locked doors and suppressed desires. In fact, the house was roomy and Borden adored and respected her father. Found not guilty, she was nevertheless treated like a murderess by the Fall River residents.

Carter portrays an angry woman, an “angel of death” driven to revenge, full of power, and in doing so, subverts the real-life outcome that befell Borden. However, in “Lizzie’s Tiger”, another story about Borden written a few years later, Carter twists her position again, depicting Borden as a child and prophesying her victimisation by the townsfolk. Carter, ever the artist, has it both ways.

The literary murderess doesn’t just tell us something important about how we view women, and women who commit crime in particular. She also exposes the mystery of the transition of life into art.

The literary murderess shows us not only how transgressive a figure she herself is, but also how transgressive inspiration itself can be, what boundaries it may push. Little wonder we are so fascinated, finding her both explicable and inexplicable by turns. If the Muse is female, perhaps it also follows that the Muse is a murderess.  

Lesley McDowell is currently working on a book about literary murderesses.

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