In the 19th century, the society of the time was experiencing a number of rapid changes: urbanisation was beginning to take effect, parts of the country were living in poverty, and the female rights movement was truly underway. The old way of life was disappearing, threatened by the challenges of new technologies and new ways of living. These anxieties led to at least a perceived increase in crime rates, and an interest in the criminal. It was during this time that Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) founded the practice of criminal anthropology. He used his knowledge as a physician and psychiatrist to plot what he believed to be the defining features of the criminal body and mind in accordance to the practice of physiognomy. This particular practice was of interest to the 19th century person, as the rise of eugenics was prominent at the time with some of the greatest minds in the world subscribing to the idea. His works were influential, and though written in his mother tongue of Italian, his theories became globally known, are even quoted in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Lombroso’s works were translated in to English from 1895, including his work on the criminal that this post will address. The primary assumption of this blog post is that not only Clemence Housman, but her readership was aware of his theories and the school of thought that surrounded it.
Lombroso wrote on three kinds of women who formed the title of one of his books: La donna delinquente, la prostitute e la donna normale. Translated, it means The Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman. Lombroso fails to define the true difference between the criminal woman and a prostitute, thus many of his ideas like homosexuality in the prostitute overlap. His definition of prostitution includes not only selling one’s body, but engaging in sex outside of marriage.
Just as with men, the criminal woman is lower on the evolutionary scale, and thus more atavistic than her law-abiding counterpart. Women differ from men through their degenerative physical “secondary sex characteristics” (Lombroso, 2004: 52) and substandard psychological development. Degeneration is what links the criminal to the monster; it is the primal side of the criminal that makes them monstrous to behold.
It was Lombroso’s belief that women of all calibres were naturally inferior to men, proven by a series of factors he discusses. Women have an innate “instinct of lying” (ibid: 64), something he attributes to their lesser developed brains which keep them at a state of infantilism. It is because of this lesser development that women have “unstable personalities” (ibid: 78).
The criminal woman is “sexually abnormal” (ibid: 114), in that she is virile and her desires may manifest in “perversion” (ibid: 171). Lombroso’s example of perversion is the perceived increase of homosexual urges amongst criminals. This is attributed to “an atavistic tendency to return to a stage of hermaphroditism” (ibid: 178), and is expressed in a preference for masculine dress and “avoiding female work” (ibid.). Though more commonly linked to the prostitute figure of his studies, he emphasises the importance of environmental factors by specifying that said homosexuality can be exacerbated in places where women spend a lot of time together, and a woman’s lower developmental skills makes this reversion to hermaphroditism more likely. A woman without her femininity is to Lombroso a “true monster” (ibid. 174).
In 1896, Clemence Housman penned her best known piece of written work The Were-Wolf. Considered the “classic werewolf tale of the late nineteenth century” (Frost, 2003: 81), The Were-Wolf tells the tale of Christian, the only one in the village that sees the beautiful White Fell as the she-wolf that is killing the villagers. The story goes that there are three knocks on the door, each time followed by a voice: the first time a child, the second time an old person and the third time an old man. Finally, the door is opened to reveal White Fell. White Fell is a beautiful and enchanting woman, who instantly wins the heart of Sweyn. The only one to see White Fell as a monster is Sweyn’s twin brother Christian, but no one believes him. Soon two of the villagers die, and to stop Sweyn being the next death Christian sacrifices himself to kill White Fell, who in her final moments is revealed to Sweyn as a great white wolf.
The Were-Wolf is one of the few werewolf stories of the time to include a female werewolf as a primary antagonist. This is a reflection of Housman’s life at the time, as both she and her brother Laurence were “active in a number of suffrage organisations” (Holton, 2002: 142). Their home became a centre for banner-making for the organisations, and Housman was even arrested on occasions for the cause. White Fell is in this way an amalgamation of her suffrage beliefs; she is strong, she is powerful, she is beautiful, and she is contrary to most of Lombroso’s theories on degenerate women. Though Lombroso did not write his theories with monsters in mind, White Fell is a murderer and thus a criminal. She premeditates her attacks, thus making her a viable case study for the theory.
First is the belief that the female criminal, and thus the female monster, is of an unstable personality. White Fell shows little towards this, and is in fact bound by ritual. Though we predominantly see her through the eyes of Christian, her actions are meticulous and calm. She dotes upon the children who fall under her spell, and is kind to all she comes across. She disappears with regularity with the phases of the moon, as her lycanthropy would dictate. Even her reasons for her crimes are simple to consider; she requires food, and her prey is decided by the voices she casts at the door and those who receive her kisses. Rol, the child “kissed her one—twice” (Housman, 2004: 18), and he is the first to die. The first voice heard at the door is a child. The second to die is Trella the elder, who upon hearing White Fell sing “bent forward and kissed” (Housman, 2004: 42) her, and dies soon after that. The second voice heard at the door is of an old person. It is because of this stable ritual that Christian knows Sweyn will be the next to die, ergo White Fell is damned for not having the unstable personality that Lombroso claims she must have.
White Fell does lie in accordance to Lombroso’s study, as her nature as a werewolf dictates she do. This for Lombroso is a key attribute of any criminal woman. Housman still manages to subvert this characteristic however by purposefully avoiding the seven key reasons a woman lies: “weakness”, “menstruation”, “shame”, “sexual struggle”, “the desire to be interesting”, “suggestibility” and “the duties of maternity” (Lombroso, 2004: 78). White Fell has no children, nor is there any mention of menstruation within the narrative. Likewise, White Fell is stronger than most of the characters in the novella, thus cannot be described as weak or suggestible, and is sexually secure in the knowledge that Sweyn is besotted with her. Though she is considered interesting by the villages for her beauty and foreign ways, these are not lies she tells and are instead her own charm and stories. White Fell is not ashamed of who she is either; The Were-Wolf is not the tale of a reluctant werewolf, but of a creature of instinct who marks her prey and then devours them without remorse. Housman seemingly consciously avoids Lombroso’s classifications, and Lombroso forgets an important reason for a woman’s lies: safety. White Fell’s naturally lies, because the truth would certainly be her demise. Her supposed degeneration here makes her more human than any of her other traits.
White Fell is described in her initial description as wearing “half masculine and yet not unwomanly” (Housman, 2004: 15). The fact that her clothes are not feminine to Lombroso would be an indication of atavistic and possibly homosexual tendencies in White Fell, but it is quickly undermined by the fact that Sweyn doesn’t see her as unwomanly for it. There is also the juxtaposition of the “ivory-studded girdle” and the “axe” (ibid. 16) she carries with it. She is marked as beautiful, half-feminine and a hunter, with quick reflexes when she is attacked by the wolfhound. While her beauty makes her enchanting, it these abilities which make her irresistible to Sweyn. These masculine tendencies are not linked to homosexuality as she is seen only to show carnal interest in Sweyn. It is perceived as a romantic or sexual interest by the villagers, but to White Fell he is nothing more than prey.
The analysis of The Were-Wolf has shown that only does Lombroso’s theories not apply to White Fell, but they are constantly subverted. The effect is a formidable and dangerous antagonist, who easily bewitches those who view this phrenology as an indicator. White Fell does embody the anxieties of a society that feared the new roles that women were campaigning for, but she subverts many of the assumptions. When she is killed, it is not the slaying of a strong woman that is being represented, but a Christian allegory of one dying for the sake of his brother, and the creature that bewitches them being rightfully punished for her transgressions. Housman manages to show women as dangerous and more developed than what the thinking of the time gave them credit for. It was that line of thinking that much of the opposition used to deny women the rights that they wanted; they claimed that women were not developed enough to know what to do with the right to vote. White Fell should be more atavistic; she is a wolf in her truest form. But by being an intelligent, beautiful and primal woman, she completely subverts the theories that Lombroso was being lauded for, making her a character of the time and a revolutionary antagonist that only Housman and her political ideals could conceive of.
Frost, B.J. 2003. The Essential Guide to Werewolf Literature. London: University of Wisconsin Press.
Holton, S. 2002. Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women’s Suffrage Movement. London: Routledge
Housman, C. (ed. Shell, S). 2004. The Were-Wolf. [ebook] Available at: Project Gutenburg [Accessed 27 Feb. 2014]
Lombroso, C. (ed. Rafter, N.H and Gibson, M). 2004. Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman. Durham: Duke University Press.