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From Clytemnestra to Villanelle: why are we fascinated by women who kill?

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About 2,500 years ago, an audience took their places at a theatre in Athens for the premiere of a new murder drama. The protagonist, a returning war hero, was savagely stabbed to death, naked in his bath. The crime was thought particularly heinous as the killer was the victim’s wife, Clytemnestra. Her name has become notorious for a uniquely feminine sort of villainy, and the story of the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, seen in Aeschylus’s play of the same title in 458BC, has become an archetypal domestic murder plot.

Even though female murderers are much rarer than male murderers in reality, the image of the female killer continues to fascinate. Killing Eve is just the latest example of popular culture’s preoccupation with attractive young women who conceal a dark psychopathy: Villanelle is the embodiment of the classic female killer, who both seduces and repels.

For hundreds of years, executions for capital crimes took place in public. As well as a community ritual of punishment and a warning to potential miscreants, executions were regarded very much as entertainment. By the 1850s, when newspapers had reached the mass market, a voracious appetite for crime stories had grown, particularly for murders involving women. In 1849, Maria Manning, a Swiss ladies’ maid, shot her former lover. Her husband, Frederick, finished him off with a crowbar before they buried the body under the kitchen flagstones. The case, suffused with a heady atmosphere of greed and sex, was a sensation in the press, which dubbed it the “Bermondsey Horror”. Though it was a joint enterprise, the alluring Maria was the primary focus of the news reports. One publisher sold 2.5m pamphlets about the case, at a time when the population of Britain was only 20 million. The execution of the Mannings was witnessed by as many as 50,000 people; murder committed by a woman was a national event and Maria’s demise had become a national sport.

A milestone in female murderers as subjects of mass entertainment was 1835, when Madame Tussauds first opened its Chamber of Horrors in London. Just a few years before the arrival of practical photography, an extra sixpence allowed visitors to the waxworks museum to see a gallery of infamous killers at close quarters, 14 of whom were “murderesses”. The figures of accused murderers were crafted during their trials and would be put on display as soon as the perpetrators were executed. Such speedy turnarounds were a response to insatiable public demand. The wax model of Mary Pearcey, executed on 23 December 1890 for killing her lover’s wife and baby, was unveiled three days later, on Boxing Day, ghoulishly surrounded by much of the furniture from the murder scene, which had been purchased from the police. She attracted a record crowd of 31,000 visitors in one day. Such was the cachet of the malevolent murderess that the model of Maria Manning remained on display from 1849 until 1971, making her the longest-serving murderer in the Chamber of Horrors’ history.

Gemma Arterton in Tess of the d’Urbervilles



Gemma Arterton in
Tess of the d’Urbervilles Photograph: BBC

In 2013, while working as editor at The Archers, I became interested in the case of Sally Challen, who three years earlier had murdered her abusive husband of 31 years. I wondered if it was possible to tell the story of an ordinary middle-class woman driven to kill her husband over hundreds of episodes. My impulse coincided with plans to change the law regarding coercive control. Could we dramatise this new law in action? Helen Archer, hitherto famous for her cheese and her difficult past, would fall for Rob Titchener, who would systematically undermine Helen’s sense of herself. The murder scene itself was modelled on Winnie Verloc’s murder of her husband in Conrad’s The Secret Agent – she stabs him with a carving knife in the parlour – as well as the climactic killing in Tess of the D’Ubervilles; again the story of an abused wife pushed beyond the limit. While discussing the story with our legal researchers, we learned that it would be a cut and dried case if Helen killed Rob. She could make a manslaughter plea and probably be out of custody in time for Christmas. But it would be much more complicated if Rob survived and was able to give evidence against Helen in court. Then she might actually be convicted for attempted murder, imprisoned for life and parted from her son and baby, who would then be in the custody of her husband, who the audience knew was a serial abuser. We would have listeners screaming at the radio. Being a soap opera, we of course took the more complex route, but allowed Helen to be found not guilty after some damning evidence from Rob’s first wife; much to the relief of the 5 million Archers listeners who had been moved, gripped and appalled by Helen’s story.

Earlier this year, Sally Challen’s case was reviewed in the light of the Serious Crime Act, which made coercive control an offence, leading to her release. Her case – as well as Helen Archer’s – feels very much of our time, revealing changing attitudes to female killers and domestic abuse, a recognition that murder can be more complex than a rigid dichotomy of killer and victim. Researching the trials of various female killers for Helen’s story, I was struck by how murder cases involving women always shone a light on the age and culture in which they took place. This led me to the story of Alma Rattenbury, which I knew to be one of the great murder trials of the early tabloid age. As I read more about this tragic case, it seemed to reveal the tensions and prejudices of interwar Britain with startling clarity.

Alma Rattenbury.



Real-life soap … Alma Rattenbury, who was tried for her husband’s murder in 1935. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

On 27 May 1935, Rattenbury, a middle-aged song-writer from Canada, three times married and with two young sons, stood trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her husband. In the dock next to her was her co-accused, her 18-year-old chauffeur, George Stoner. At the Rattenburys’ retirement villa in Bournemouth, Francis Rattenbury had been struck three times with a mallet with such force that his false teeth had fallen out. He was left to bleed to death. The story seemed to be a classic farce scenario – the elderly miser cuckolded by a randy young servant and his insatiable wife. Alma was, the press insisted, “an inhuman ghoul” who had seduced and incited her chauffeur to commit a “peculiarly horrible murder”, a seaside Lady Macbeth. The Daily Express sent, not a crime correspondent, but its theatre critic, James Agate, to “review” the proceedings. Each day there were long queues for the public gallery and seats changed hands for £10 a piece. Alma’s trial was public theatre with a highly engaged national audience. She was the leading lady.

The newspapers were obsessed with Alma’s appearance. Her clothing, even her gestures and sighs were scrutinised as indications either of her guilt or, at least, her moral degeneracy. Attractive, stylish and photogenic, she was perfect casting for the tabloids that had been ushered in by the press baron Lord Northcliffe, whose infamous motto was “Get Me a Murder a Day”. Alma’s story played out on the front pages for months, a soap opera with all the elements to keep readers titillated and addicted to the latest twist: sex, drugs, violence and a real-life siren pleading for her life at the heart of the plot. From a 21st-century perspective, the Rattenbury trial looks like an exercise in misogyny, condoned by the law in the full glare of the tabloid press. Acquitted of the murder, she took her own life days later. She had been tried less for what she might have done and more for the sort of woman she seemed to be. She bobbed her hair, smoked, drank, took drugs and regarded herself as the friend, not the employer, of her servants.

Sally Challen



Sally Challen, whose conviction in 2011 for murdering her husband was overturned this year. Photograph: PA

Similarly, in the original press reports of her case in 2010, Challen was depicted as a neurotic and jealous wife who counted her husband’s condoms and Viagra pills as evidence of his infidelity. She was the textbook spurned woman whose man had done her wrong. Tabloids gleefully quoted her saying: “If I can’t have him, no one can.” But since 2015 – with media attention on the insidious nature of coercive control, together with a campaign by Challen’s two sons for a retrial – there has been a sea change in the tone of the reporting of her case, with the press looking beyond the cliche of the vengeful wife and now depicting her sympathetically as an abused woman provoked to kill.

Women who kill are exceptional. As with child killers, it is their very rareness that has both fascinated and repelled us through the ages. But how to explain the recent proliferation of homicidal women in novels, films and television – from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to Gone Girl, to Prevenge, Killing Eve and Us? Perhaps, by wielding the knife, Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide and Jodie Comer’s Villanelle are demonstrating a desire to kill off a 21st-century form of patriarchy just as Clytemnestra did 2,500 years ago. Much may have changed, but we clearly find murderous women just as seductive, just as repellent – and just as fascinating today

The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury by Sean O’Connor is published by Simon & Schuster.

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