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The Obscure Subject of Desire of Lucretia Borgia

The Obscure Subject of Desire of Lucretia Borgia
© Photograph by Roy Lemme

Among the norms and values that shaped the ideal nineteenth-century subject, domestic solidity, middle-class respectability and concern for morality figure first and foremost. However, if we consider the many pitfalls this subject was subjected to at a time of rapid and massive technological change, urbanisation, and industrialisation, it is clear that the balance between right and wrong, good and evil, subject and Other was rather delicate at times. The way to money and property did not always follow moral and religious requirements; scientific discoveries shaped new methods of achieving collective goals — and new ways of doing so in secret at the same time. Where the virtues of the subject were redefined with more strictness than ever before, its shadowy Other began to haunt the collective unconscious in crime novels and magazines, in reports on bank fraud and murder scandals.

Rather than dealing with crime in the conventional sense — where the line between ideal subject and Other seems all to clear—, I will be concerned with the more secretive technique of poisoning in order to pursue a kind of non-subject that reaches out for subjecthood and negates it at the same time. I will use the Kristevan term of the abject in order to describe a figure whose formation reflects a) a gender economy that denies access to full subjecthood to women, b) a specific balance between surface and substance, seeming and seeing, linked to this gender economy, and c) the edges of that economy linked to notions of the Other as much as the sublime or love. Legal offence is, from this perspective, framed by an emerging order of secrecy that renegotiates the lines between those who know and those who do not, whether on the basis of scientific knowledge, financial genius or psychological wisdom. Where poisoning draws on the secret workings of substances — and thus on scientific secrets —, its most frequent motive — bank fraud and legacy hunting — draw on the secret workings of money, which in the nineteenth century gain a new complexity especially with the spread of life insurances. At the same time, the traditionally male figures of the detective, the toxicologist, and the reporter emerge on the scene to counterbalance this new configuration.

Within that context, the legendary star poisoner Lucretia Borgia — as myth rather than historical fact — will serve as a foil for reading the figure of the female poisoner, whose motive is money, power and respectability. The poisoner in that sense is never the common criminal and cruel barbarian we associate with murder, but an intelligent, overly civilised and often knowledgeable person, who seems to confirm rather than contradict collective ideals. As a woman, she is also on the less powerful side, but in spite of her gendered position (she is rarely a scientist herself), she increases her power through knowledge, finding an ally in scientific advancements, which provide more and more elaborate means of destruction. Magazines and newspapers, from the nineteenth century onwards, collaborate with science in satisfying an ever-increasing thirst for knowledge, but they also represent a critical instance when science is abused for immoral purposes. Questions of guilt and innocence gain a public dimension hitherto unforeseen, and while the female reading public is growing steadily, categories of gender seem to become more central in public negotiations of subjecthood. If, like in the case of Lucretia, the murderer is female, a whole series of new questions enter the scene. Besides the traditional affiliation of women and poisoning and the fear of powerful women, or of the association of sexuality and death, the debate of several concrete poisoning scandals framed — and might have triggered — new representations of Lucretia in the second half of the nineteenth century.1 From the many existing versions, those of Bulwer-Lytton, Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo reveal different contextualizations of gender while discussing the poisoner as non-subject, a poisoner whose desire corresponds to collective ideals while her methods reflect the dark side of that same configuration and at the same time comment on the secret workings of money and murder. Non-subjecthood here is what Kristeva’s term of the abject points to, as it is produced by the same logic as the subject herself, but reveals that logic in its negatory rather than affirmative power. The abject is the hidden underside of the subject, it is, as Kristeva says, “opposed to ‘I'” and in that quality resembles the object, which is always in some way subjected to something. Abjection in that sense is the rejection of “that which is not me” (Kristeva, Powers 2), the rejection by which “I” is made possible, through the exclusion of Not-I. Whereas the abject can manifest itself in any form of “uninhabitable zone” (Butler 3) that challenges the borders of the self, the female poisoner is a more complicated phenomenon as she reaches out for the status of subject, claiming free will, autonomy and reason as her defining features.

To begin with, a few words on the historical Lucretia Borgia, who entered history as the daughter of Pope Alexander VI: The originally Spanish family of the Borgias came to Italy in the late Renaissance, and became soon known for cold-blooded murder, bribery, and sexual orgies. Lucretia’s son Giovanni was thought to be the result of incestuous relations with her father or brother. Like many others who stood in the way of the Borgias’ political or economic aspirations, one of her husbands, as well as several of her lovers, died under mysterious circumstances, and considering the Borgias’ traditional stratagems of swords, daggers, garrotting and poison, the identity of the murderer was never questioned. There is no historical evidence, though, that Lucretia participated actively in any of these murders: In spite of her reputation as the husband-killing wife and master-poisoner she might not have killed a single person in her whole life. Nevertheless, history chose her as an icon in a long tradition of female poisoners, which is closely associated with Italy herself, and continued to have different repercussions in the following centuries.

In the nineteenth-century, representations of Lucretia were strongly influenced by a renewed interest in the poisoning business in general. A whole series of new poisons was discovered: Morphine, strychnine, brucine, quinine, conium, and nicotine are just some of the items added to an already substantial list that included arsenic, antimony, mercury, and opium. Another important factor in this revival of interest is the birth of modern toxicology, triggered by the work of the Spanish scientist Orfila. He published his Treatise on Poisons, Or General Toxicology in 1814/15, and was soon consulted as a kind of court of the last appeal where he decided whether somebody had been poisoned or not.

While chemistry thus claimed a new kind of authority in the domain of law and justice, the media collaborated with science in that they provided the common reader with information he/she would otherwise not have been able to access. Needless to say that some of the information was inaccurate or mere speculation, and that the reader’s desire was not always for mere knowledge. Murder trials were well documented in most European countries, and the reading public eagerly followed every detail, not only in newspapers, but also in magazines that included both fiction and fact, accounts of real murder cases and murder stories.The line between fact and fiction could be thin at times. Thus Dickens’ short story “Hunted Down” is about two real murder cases that scandalised the public at the time. De Quincey comments on the voyeuristic inclinations, the addiction to scandal of his contemporaries, in his essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827), pointing to the effects of “mixed horror and exultation,” and the “sublime sort of magnetic contagion” (55) that murder scandals had on the public. Newspapers and journals then — further transformed by the advent of photography —, not only produced new ways of writing, but answered to newly emerging public expectations.

In his 1846 novel Lucretia, Or, The Children of the Night, Bulwer-Lytton uses the Lucretia-legend as the source of inspiration for his utterly British version of the Italian heroine. This is particularly interesting because Italy in general was — at least since the Renaissance — often used to represent anything England felt it was not, and the poisoner in particular stands in stark contrast to an English puritan ideal. A female poisoner for the Victorians is even more of a clash, as it figures as the Other of the Victorian angel in the house, or the Other of the conventional female biography as, for example, illustrated in Jane Austen’s novels. More than that, the image of Lucretia seems to hold the hidden romantic spirit of the Englishman who, in Stocqueler’s version of the legend two years earlier, falls in love with what is clearly quite un-English: “Italia! oh Italia! thou who hast/ The fatal gift of beauty, which became/ A funeral dower of present woes and past,/ Oh thy sweet brow is sorrow, plough’d by shame,/And annals graved in characters of flame”.

The main issue in Bulwer-Lytton’s narrative is, of course, a poisoning scheme that covers well over 500 pages, and which is essentially motivated by economic interest: Lucretia wants to inherit her uncle’s estate and money, and on the way, her first husband is murdered, the second poisoned, and the daughter of her half-sister nearly killed by poison as well. Varney, her consort, serves as the male subject needed for the confrontation with the world of money, and is actually taken from the real world: England had its most famous poisoning case with Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who had killed most of his family by poison and inspired not only Bulwer-Lytton, but also Dickens, and, most famously, Oscar Wilde’s essay “Pen, Pencil, and Poison.” What is striking about the real Wainewright, and what appears rather new in the nineteenth century, is that he was far from figuring as the traditional Other of society, and rather documents how the Other, the criminal can look pretty much like the Same: He was right in the centre of civilized society, a friend of Charles Lamb’s, a poet and painter, an art critic and an antiquarian. However, he was also, as Oscar Wilde stresses in his essay, “a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rivals in this or any age”.

While Dickens puts Wainewright in the centre of his short story “Hunted Down” (1859), which basically deals with a poisoning case revolving around life-insurance fraud, he remains a rather marginal figure in Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, securing the link between the main figure and the complicated world of finances, which women presumably cannot master by themselves. Thus he leaves Lucretia free to construct her scheme with all its moral and aesthetic ambivalence. In that respect, Bulwer-Lytton echoes Thomas de Quincey, who rejects poisoning as a dishonest, illegitimate, and therefore effeminate version of the art of murder. Correspondingly, Lucretia’s French husband Dalibard comments on poisoning as the “saturnalia of the weak” (Bulwer-Lytton 214). However, then he gives his argument a strange twist, one who recalls a unique version of the Burkean sublime, that mixture of utter pleasure and horror which seizes body and mind equally. Considering the historical context of the French revolution — which Burke had commented on —, it also forms part of the connection between a woman’s descent into crime and the fear of a nation’s collapse into political turmoil: “It is a mighty thing to feel in one’s self that one is an army, — more than an army. What thousands and millions of men, with trumpet and banner, and under the sanction of glory, strive to do, — destroy a foe, — that, with little more than an effort of the will, with a drop, a grain, for all his arsenal, — one man can do. (Bulwer-Lytton 215)”

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