Martha Brown, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, and How We Keep Punishing Women
CW: sexual violence including rape
Around 2 AM on Sunday, July 6, 1856 in Dorset, Elizabeth Martha Brown waited for her husband John to return from a long night at the tavern. Upon his return, Martha inquired about her husband’s missing hat, followed by an accusation of infidelity with their neighbor Mary Davis. The confrontation turned violent when John struck Martha’s head before locating his whip and threatening her murder. Near their fireplace sat a hatchet used for breaking coal, which Martha used to chop at John’s skull multiple times until he fell dead. A few hours later, Martha woke her neighbors to tell them the terrible news — a horse killed her husband. A coroner’s inquest soon disproved her story.
Before a packed court on July 21, a jury of 12 men found Martha guilty of ‘wilful murder’. The trial lasted one day, and the judge sentenced Martha to death. Awaiting her execution, she confessed to the prison chaplain, and petitions for a reprieve reached the Secretary of State in London, to no avail. Her public hanging was scheduled for August 9.
On that misty Saturday morning, a crowd of 4,000 gathered to witness the execution. The chaplain escorted Martha to the gallows, where she ascended eleven steps — fewer than standard, as this executioner favored the ‘short drop technique’ with the less likelihood of the rope snapping, though the victim likely dies from asphyxiation rather than a merciful broken neck. The executioner placed a white hood over Martha’s head, released the gallows trap, and after about five minutes of struggling, the onlookers witnessed Elizabeth Martha Brown’s life leave her body, 34 days after her husband threatened her murder.
Amongst the witnesses was 16 year-old Thomas Hardy, whose recollection 70 years later has a noticeable erotic bent:
I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back….And then it began to rain, and then I saw — they had put a cloth over the face — how as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.
Hardy cited Brown’s execution as the inspiration for his 1891 Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Reading the novel can challenge the will: Tess, the eldest teenage daughter of a full-time mother and poor alcoholic peddler, seeks employment from wealthy distant relatives. The prospect of an elevated economic status blinds her family to the dangers of her libertine cousin, who immediately starts grooming Tess before raping her early in the novel. Their child — whom Tess names Sorrow — dies shortly into infancy, after which Tess leaves her childhood home, falls in love with a Good Man (his name is Angel and he plays the harp) who abandons her on their wedding night, forcing Tess to return to her rapist, eventually murdering him, and, like Martha Brown, hangs for her actions.
Subtitled A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, Tess’s narrator maintains the protagonist’s pastoral innocence throughout her Job-like trials, directing blame upon “the ache of modernism”, particularly the fatal intersection of Victorian morals, industrial capitalism, and what Hardy named “The President of the Immortals”, a Aeschylean allusion to an indifferent creator.
Romantics had a knack for killing their heroines, and as nineteenth-century thinkers contemplated whether we’re part of some benevolent cosmic plan, Hardy — who completed Tess 17 years after his more hopeful Far from the Madding Crowd — appears to have rounded out the 19th century with a resounding ‘No’.
(The narrator frequently returns to Tess’s angelic beauty as evidence of cosmic dissonance: how could all this unique cruelty fall upon such an ideal vision? Echoes of the “fine figure” of Martha Brown’s corpse permeate Hardy’s tragedy, and the misperceived seduction of Tess’s mere existence requires her to uglify herself later in the novel to ward off suitors.)
Abiding by his Greek influences (and appeasing the censors), Hardy obscures the novel’s two central incidents — Tess’s rape and the subsequent murder of her rapist. While the murder is undeniable, 130 years of Hardian scholarship argue whether Alec d’Urberville did, in fact, rape his cousin. Arguments to the contrary reveal rape culture’s violent apathy, while explorations like Ashley Gedraitis’ excellent Tess of the d’Urbervilles: The Modern Date Rape Case Study lay out the dynamics of gender, class, employment, and grooming that show a pattern of rape, notwithstanding the simple truth that Tess has no recollection of consent.
The different ways that people comprehend or respond to their rape or assault do not delegitimize their experiences (Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, in part inspired by her own assault, explores this masterfully). Using the 2014 hashtag #WhyIStayed, people detailed why they did not leave their abusers, presenting thousands of real-world cases for why women like Tess would return to dangerous relationships.
Meanwhile, criminal defense attorneys will seek the raped individual’s perceived motivations to discredit accusations. False rape accusations do not occur as frequency as they are bandied about, and discourse surrounding the Clarence Thomas hearings and Juanita Broaddrick’s rape accusation of Bill Clinton preceded years of dissecting one’s political affiliation or agenda as evidence, foregrounding tribalism rather than the individual.
Notably, Hardy described Tess’s rape as “a seduction, pure and simple,” though the novel’s major screen adaptations from 1979, 1998, and 2008— all of which were adapted and directed by men — present a nonconsensual, violent coercion. Even child rapist Roman Polanski’s 1979 film, which starts the scene with consensual kissing, ends with an unambiguous rape. Ian Sharp’s 1998 miniseries also presents the moment as unambiguously nonconsensual, though that adaptation inserts a Freudian addendum to Hardy’s novel where Angel pressures Tess into admitting that her rapist wasn’t all to blame.
As in the novel, Angel, Hardy’s Apollonian leading man and “slave to custom and conventionality”, confesses to his past dalliances with a sex worker, creating a falsely understood safe space for Tess to share her sexual history. Floored by her revelation, Angel titles Tess’s rapist her “husband in nature”, revealing Angel’s misinterpretation of the natural world as patriarchy.
Sex at Dawn’s premise that the mainstream embrace of patriarchal monogamy had more to do with landowning and plowmanship than jealousy or natural behavior exposes the big lie at the heart of Angel’s belief system — he craves pagan naturalism, but he cannot shake his Christian upbringing, so Tess represents an Eve-like pastoral ideal rather than an individual. When reality hits, he flees to Brazil, laying the groundwork for Tess’s economically-motivated return to her rapist.
Abuses towards women and girls remain in the foreground of our cultural consciousness. This past weekend, a second aide accused Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment, while over three dozen sources detailed a pattern of harassment and assault from Representative Madison Cawthorn. Additionally, the #FreeBritney Movement has opened the floodgates of a dense history of mistreated women in entertainment, The Lolita Podcast has closely examined our fractured cultural depictions of young women and girls, and Allen v. Farrow, like 2019’s Surviving R. Kelly, has endeavored to reclaim the public narrative away from the abuser. All of these examples share the pattern of sexualized young women and girls facing the belittlement or blatant disregard of their experiences.
All of this is happening at a time when seven times as many women are currently incarcerated in American prisons compared to 40 years ago, including 51 women on death row (and at least 500 worldwide). The American prison system also continues to systemically and disproportionately oppress women of color, who make up two-thirds of all incarcerated women. Black women ages 18–19 are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white women of the same age, as white victims of abuse are more likely enter child welfare and mental health systems. Trans women of color are even more disproportionately incarcerated — often due to laws that criminalize poverty, homelessness, and survival economies — and are frequently assigned to men’s prisons, where they are 13 times more likely than men to be sexually assaulted by a correctional officer or inmate.
And the pattern of abuse is undeniable. Among incarcerated women, 86% are victims of sexual violence.
The most recent woman executed in America was Lisa Marie Montgomery, one of the Trump Administration’s spree of lame duck executions and the first woman executed by the federal government since Ethel Rosenberg in 1953.
In 2004, Montgomery murdered Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight-months pregnant. Montgomery then abducted the unborn child after carving her from Stinnett’s womb. (The child survived and turned 16 this past December).
Such brutal crimes often point towards the assailant’s survived trauma, and several appeals and petitions referenced Montgomery’s extensive history of torture, trafficking, rape, and abuse.
Ms. Montgomery has bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, traumatic brain injury and most likely fetal alcohol syndrome. She was born into a family rife with mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Ms. Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, claimed to have been sexually assaulted by her father.
Ms. Montgomery’s own father left when she was a toddler. Her family moved every year, sometimes more than that — to Washington, Kansas, Colorado, back to Kansas. She was abused by her mother in extreme and sadistic ways, according to court documents and mitigation investigations with nearly 450 family members, neighbors, lawyers, social workers and teachers, most done only at the behest of the post-conviction attorneys.
She was forced to sit for hours in a highchair if she didn’t finish her food. Ms. Shaughnessy so regularly covered her daughter’s mouth with duct tape to keep her quiet, Lisa learned not to cry. Ms. Shaughnessy told an investigator that Lisa’s first words were, “Don’t spank me. It hurts.”
Lisa’s stepfather, Jack Kleiner, began to sexually assault her when she was around 13. He built a shed-like room with its own entrance on the side of the family’s trailer outside Tulsa, Okla., and kept Ms. Montgomery there. Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team learned that Mr. Kleiner, who was a rampant alcoholic, would bring friends over to rape her, often for hours, often three at once. Ms. Shaughnessy also began to prostitute her daughter to offset bills for plumbing and electric work.
Montgomery’s three male attorneys failed to adequately present this gender-based trauma during the trial, and the court sentenced her to death.
The American criminal justice system remains overwhelming punitive rather than restorative despite evidence that our carceral system doesn’t protect communities. The federal government defaulted on Lisa Marie Montgomery’s existence rather than investing in treatment and recovery, continuing the same oppressive system that has decimated communities and executed Martha Brown.
HMP Dorchester, the prison where Martha Brown was buried, closed in 2013; the land was sold to developers who plan to build 185 homes and a parking lot. As part of the efforts to deconsecrate the prison, Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey showrunner and President of the Thomas Hardy Society, and others have called for the exhumation of all buried bodies for “a proper Christian reinternment” at a nearby cemetery.
Such a delayed action merits Hardy’s damning scare quotes following Tess’s execution:
“Justice” was done.
One hundred sixty-five years later, Martha Brown may finally receive an echo of justice.
Now, if only for the living.
- The ACLU has compiled a list of initiatives and organizations actively combatting the rise in incarcerated women and girls.
- Black and Pink supports formerly incarcerated LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV and AIDS
- National Domestic Violence Hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of domestic violence so they can live their lives free of abuse. They offer 24/7 free and confidential live chat and phone hotline: 800–799-SAFE (7233).
- RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization and offers a 24/7 national sexual assault hotline that is free and confidential: 800-656-HOPE (4673).
- The Bail Project “combats mass incarceration by disrupting the money bail system”.
- OneLove educates young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships, empowering them to identify and avoid abuse and learn how to love better.