Female Life in Prison (1864)
William Frederick Robinson, Female life in prison (London : Sampson, Low, Son & Marston, 1864)
The book Female Life in Prison was written by Victorian popular-fiction writer Frederick William Robinson, under the pseudonym ‘A Prison Matron’. It was published in 1864 by ‘Sampson Low, Son, and Marston’, a family firm established, under this name, in 1856.
This text formed part of a collection of volumes: Memoirs of Jane Cameron: Female Convict (1863) and Prison characters drawn from life with suggestions for prison government (1866) and can be seen as a response to the desire for female perspectives on the legal system to be represented. This public interest in the female voice is supported by the account of Robinson’s friend Theodore Watts Duncan who described the novel as a great success; people believed that it was an authentic account, as referenced in Our Convicts. According to Anne Schwan, the readership was mainly from the middle and upper classes. Perhaps the appeal of these criminal studies for such an audience was the entertainment value, it is likely that these shocking tales of violence and promiscuity stimulated intrigue into prison life.
The book covers more general insights into prison life, the day to day activities of the prison matron and her encounters with notable individuals, as told through anecdotes. The accounts themselves are from Brixton and Millbank prisons, and the purpose of writing is to ‘describe the life within the cells, not to write a history of the cells themselves’. With this in mind, the case studies are varying in length and in the crimes which they discuss; approaches to mental health, maternal neglect, violence, prostitution and theft are linked to different individuals and their situations, giving an insight into how certain crimes were perceived.
One of the most interesting studies on Sarah Barker, a young mother tried for the murder of her child, in July 1853, provides information on the relationship between mental health and child neglect. In desperation, after being abandoned by her lover to raise the child, she throws him down a deserted pit-shaft. The attempted acquittal on the grounds of insanity reveals the fine line between leniency for mental health and justice for serious offences. Robinson also highlights the great public sympathy in response to the sentence of death, which was later changed to life imprisonment. There are also interesting comments made about consistencies observed among prisoners convicted of the same crimes; women convicted of murder, for example, tend to be the best behaved according to the ‘prison matron’.
Potentially most fascinating however is how the author of this text and its place in the ‘popular- fiction’ category affects the depictions of female experience. The content itself appears to be pro-feminist, giving a voice to the marginalised and providing, in the words of the author, ‘for the first time, a true and impartial chronicle’. Knowing that an objective account is impossible anyway, the fact that an upper-class male has adopted the voice of the prison matron for himself, and that critics have used the book as a source of evidence, makes this a case worth investigation. The ideological position of the narrative continues to switch between being favourable to the working classes and assessing them from a position of Christian morality. Robinson is not the insider that he pretends to be which makes these writings questionable in their legitimacy but equally not un-useful. It raises questions about female agency, how the penal system was viewed and why the knowledge of authorship is so central to source interpretation.
Looking for more sources?
For more information on female imprisonment during the 19th century, see Stones of Law, Bricks of Shame: Narrating Imprisonment in the Victorian Age, which contains a helpful article by Anne Schwan on how histories of female convicts in this period were written.
The Hypatia Collection includes a wide selection of texts that build on the accounts of female experience within the prison walls, during the 20th century. The novel Under Lock and Key by Xenia Fields, from 1963, has a similar layout to Robinson’s text, with anonymous short character profiles that keep a record of those incarcerated. Particularly insightful is the section titled ‘neglectful mothers’ which includes data on their perceived low mental capacity, as provided by psychologist reports from Durham Prison. There is documentation of attempts to educate female inmates through lectures in domestic life and evidence of prison after-care schemes.
Also from the 1960s are the letters contained within Gate Fever, by Jane Buxton and Margaret Turner, which describe the day-to-day occurrences during the authors’ six month imprisonment in Holloway; they witnessed some very poor treatment of those around them.
There are also later publications that allow for comparison, such as Insiders : women's experience of prison, published in 1988.
Written by Susanna Tufnell