"The Agony of Despair": Pain and the Cultural Script of Infanticide in England and Wales, 1860–1960

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Pain — both physical and emotional — was central to the cultural script of infanticide in England and Wales between 1860 and 1960. Despite Elaine Scarry’s famous suggestion that ‘Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability’,1 recent scholarship has emphasised that pain is indeed both ‘shareable’ through visual, textual and oral means, and that it is assigned historically and culturally specific meanings by those who witness and experience it.2 By ‘cultural script’, in this instance, I refer to a commonly accepted set of assumptions about what it meant to be ‘infanticidal’ between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, beliefs that were shared by a diverse cohort of English and Welsh men and women. This included, but was not confined to, politicians from across the political spectrum, doctors, lawyers and social scientists. It was generally understood that the ‘typical’ infanticide defendant was a young woman who had been perceived as virtuous and hard-working prior to the crime, was then seduced and abandoned by a feckless or malicious man under false promises of marriage and ‘respectable motherhood’, and was left facing economic and reputational ruin if her condition were discovered. The more closely a woman could ‘fit’ the story of her individual circumstances into this narrative, the more likely it was that a judge and jury would view her sympathetically
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPain and Emotion in Modern History
EditorsRob Boddice
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-137-37243-7
ISBN (Print)978-1-349-47613-8
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jul 2014

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in the History of Emotions
PublisherPalgrave Mamillan


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