‘Victorian Values’ and ‘Fast Young Ladies’: from Madeleine Smith to Ruth Rendell



Ruskin’s ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ is often invoked as epitomising Victorian male complacency about what was supposed to be an inherent female capacity to discharge the office of ‘angel in the house’. However, the text barely testifies to complacency. Not disposed to dispute the maxim that ‘La donna e mobile’ Ruskin merely proffers as a bromide his own rose-tinted gloss: her changefulness consists of ‘an infinitely variable, because infinitely applicable, modesty of service’.1 Moreover, a sacred trust of Ruskin’s queen is to muster evidence for the continuing participation in earthly affairs of a Providence which, however, apparently is at least bashful, and yet which presumably needs to be invoked as underwriting the essentially feminine nature which Ruskin celebrates and which equips her morally for the task: ‘it is for her to trace the hidden equities of divine reward, and catch sight, through the darkness, of the fateful threads of woven fire that connect error with retribution’? If Ruskin is tentative in his address of 1865 to the young ladies of Manchester, one of the incitements would be the trial in 1857 of Madeleine Smith, the prosperous Glaswegian architect’s daughter who instigated a torrid affair with a Channel Islander of comparatively paltry means and circumstances, Emile L’Angelier, and then was and is widely presumed to have murdered him by lacing his cocoa with arsenic, though the jury returned the Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’.


Detective Novelist Royal Commission Sexual Double Standard Young Lady Female Nature 
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    Fraser Harrison, The Dark Angel: Aspects of Victorian Sexuality (London: Sheldon Press, 1977), p. 11.Google Scholar
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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