When I picked up Framed, I was expecting merely a pleasant investigation into an idiosyncratic sort of character. I thought the book would identify key female criminals in fin-de-siècle texts, perform close readings of those figures, and probably conclude that they were subversive by virtue of being active agents rather than passively domestic figures.
However, in Framed Miller does not just do a localized study of a few characters. Instead of asking “who were the female criminals?” Miller asks a much more profound question: “why did the female criminal emerge as a major figure in this period?” In other words, the “female criminal” is not the extent of the study, but the excuse for it, and I mean that in the best possible way. For Miller uses the genre of this character to reread the entire culture.
What Miller does is nothing more or less than a dissection of fundamental cultural conditions at the turn of the century. Framed is a book that is remarkable for its steady erudition, its calm authority, and its consistent maintenance of a very high standard indeed for itself. There is not a wasted word or a subpar argument. This is a meticulous and intelligent treatment of what makes modernity. This book should attract anyone who wants a more profound idea of the anxieties experienced by British subjects during the emergence of modernity.
In Framed, Miller analyzes why female criminals emerged in the culture of the fin de siècle. She explores the functions this figure fulfilled, the way the female criminal allowed people to articulate complex ideas about consumerism, representation, political efficacy, and bodies. The female criminal, according to Miller, became the locus for shifting, controversial ideas about the subject in modernity, and came to stand for key elements of modern life, through stories, films, popular fiction, and canonical novels.
As Miller herself explains, the book shows how female criminals worked “to embody and explain the shock of modern life” (3). Indeed, “detective series, crime film, and dynamite narrative – three emergent genres of the era – use the figure of the female criminal to define a particular vision of modern life wherein feminism, democracy, and an image-centered consumer culture are mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing” (22). Surprisingly, female criminals are protean and successful figures who use their glamorous disguises to evade capture. The audience identifies with them and hopes for their triumph.
In Part I, Miller discusses female criminals in detective fiction. In a fascinating discussion of the “Sherlock Holmes” stories, she points out that although Holmes can easily use visual technologies to locate men, he has trouble “seeing” women (39). Women in the Holmes stories are inscrutable, morphing easily into other figures, and often depicted on the threshold between light and dark states. Interestingly, L.T. Meade’s popular detective fiction shares the notion that women are visible in public spaces, yet remain opaque. Miller focuses on Meade’s adaptation of a scandal of the 1860s, Madame Rachel’s trial for fraud. Rachel was a successful cosmetics entrepreneur, and when her business was put on trial (both in the real case in the 1860s and in Meade’s version, starring “Madame Sara,” a generation later) it evoked worries about the mutable female body, the racial body, consumerism, and Orientalism. Meade made Madame Sara into a modern female professional, able to mobilize scientific prowess in the cause of remarkable bodily mutability in order to gain her ends.
Part II takes these concerns into early cinema. Miller uncovers a fascinating series called “Three-Fingered Kate.” “Three-Fingered Kate” and other early films make the audience identify with the female criminal, glamorizing her femininity and comparing her cleverness to the hapless male detective. The female criminal wants material goods, and the audience, sharing this consumerist ethos, cheers her on. On the other hand, these films were quite hostile to the suffrage movement, often using male actors to play suffragettes. In turn, suffrage was shaped by the popularization of film, as suffrage demonstrations increasingly played to the camera. Miller sets this discussion in a sensitive reading of film’s specific conditions, noting for instance that cinema was working-class entertainment and therefore had a different relation to class politics than crime fiction did. “These films,” Miller concludes, “depict the female criminal as the emblem of modern, democratic, individualist, and consumerist values” (143).
Part III explores “dynamite narrative,” the genre of fiction that focuses on politically motivated crime and terror. Its most famous examples are probably Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886), although Miller pairs readings of these major texts with three other dynamite narratives, Wilde’s first play Vera; Or, the Nihilists (1883), Helen and Olivia Rossetti’s A Girl among the Anarchists (1902), and a satire coauthored by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny, The Dynamiter (1885). Miller points out how anomalous Conrad’s and James’s versions of this plot really are. In spite of the fact that 1880s Britain saw multiple Fenian bombings, both Conrad and James eschew the Irish Question. In spite of the fact that the period’s real dynamiters were male, Conrad and James depict their bombers as effete, degenerate failures while locating terrifying political violence in their female characters instead. The dynamite narrative becomes a way to explore the failed male body, the “enervated and ineffectual male radicals” (157) in contrast with their fearsomely energetic female counterparts. The novels also hold a soulless, feminized mass culture responsible for the corruption of its subjects. Wilde’s Vera, however, had a more robust political engagement, as Miller argues. She claims that the figure of the “female revolutionary conveys a newly modern, new deindividualized, and newly ‘public’ narrative of crime” (190), and in the case of Vera, the use of melodrama allows Vera to link her gender position to her political engagement. All these depictions of female revolutionaries deal with the problem of how to represent women in a society in which they have no legal standing. As she notes, “Women cannot commit political crimes if they are not recognized as political agents” (221).
Overall, Framed shows that readers and viewers often rooted for female criminals, who embodied the period’s sense that consumerism and modern mass culture were the province of women. The female criminal was the master of this new domain. She gleefully appropriated desirable consumer goods (as when Three-Fingered Kate steals a whole suite of wedding gifts). She skillfully altered her appearance to slip past the hapless male detective (as when Madame Sara changes her clients’ bodies). She promulgated a new mass culture that demasculinized her men while empowering her (as when Millicent Henning, the ultimate shopgirl, triumphs over Hyacinth). From short stories to film to novels, the female criminal represented modernity rampant.
As I hope I’ve shown, Framed is remarkably rich and consistently works at a high level indeed. I have not even mentioned some of the minor rewards for any reader, like Miller’s adept, authoritative outline of the difference between popular and mass culture, or Miller’s fresh reading of a well-known joke of Lady Bracknell’s. I’m tempted to say that, like the brilliant Madame Sara or the insousciant Three-Fingered Kate, Miller gets away with all the loot, while we are the hapless detectives following her clues, a long way behind her.
It is testimony to the persuasiveness of Miller’s analysis that on reading Framed one begins to see its subject as inevitable and omnipresent. Yet by teaching us to see modern female consumerism as all-pervasive, she in a sense demotes her own particular project about criminality. Miller could have reached the same conclusions about the pervasiveness of the period’s cultural anxiety about the female body, consumerism, and mass culture through almost any female fictional figure of the fin de siècle: women in advertising, journalism, medicine, acting, or department stores. Why, then, just do the criminal? I am trying to say that Framed is, in a sense, a victim of its own success. It makes the female criminal mean so much that one loses the sense of the specific meaningfulness of the criminal per se. In this respect, Miller is perhaps like Conan Doyle’s famous female character, who loses the specificity of Irene Adler to become “always the woman.” The great achievement – as well as the limit – of Framed is that it makes the female criminal into the constitutive subject of modernity, “the woman” herself.
Talia Schaffer is a professor of English at Queens College CUNY and the Graduate Center CUNY. She is the author of The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (2000); co-editor with Kathy A. Psomiades of Women and British Aestheticism (1999); editor of The History of Sir Richard Calmady (2003); and editor of Literature and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (2006). She has published widely on late-Victorian material culture, women’s writing, and noncanonical fiction. Her new book on Victorian women’s amateur craft objects, Novel Craft: Fiction and the Victorian Domestic Handicraft, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2011.