Women’s history is, broadly speaking, about putting women back into history by, for example, telling the story of forgotten and marginalised women or reassessing women’s contribution to history. I think there’s another important aspect to women’s history, and that’s how we approach the sources we have. We have to learn how to be critical, how to assess the material before us, how to “read against the grain”. This was recently brought home to me (yet again) while I was reading the introduction to The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux edited by Noel McLachlan and published in 1964. Written over fifty years ago, the introduction itself is now effectively a historical document.
Vaux (1772–?) was an English pickpocket and swindler who operated under a number of aliases. Vaux himself uses the words “pickpocket and swindler” in the title of the first edition of the Memoirs published in 1819, although McLachlan’s edition omits them. He was transported to Australia on three separate occasions, and as far as is known ended his days there.
In 1839, the fifty-seven year old Vaux was once again on trial, this time in Sydney, Australia, and for a much more serious offence. He had, said the prosecution, lured an eight year old girl to his room with sweets, placed her on his bed, given her a penny, and indecently assaulted her. At his trial, Vaux admitted having the girl in his room but denied assaulting her. He also admitted that he had offered the girl’s mother money to ignore what had happened, saying that this was so he could avoid being accused of such a revolting crime. He called a number of character witnesses. In spite of all this, the jury found him guilty.
McLachlan, however, does not. His feeling, he writes, is that “this may well have been one crime of which Vaux was really innocent”. His reason is that “the scope for false accusation and blackmail in such cases is obvious, and the only eyewitness in this one was the girl herself, who had probably been too terrified by the dark stairs on the way up to Vaux’s room to give a reliable account of what took place”.
So far as the suggestion of blackmail goes, apparently Vaux made no mention of this in court. Given that this would have strengthened his defence, I can only conclude that there was none. The evidence for the darkness on the stairs is not cited, and it is possible that this detail is mentioned in the depositions. But even if the stairs were dark, I am baffled by the suggestion that this in itself was sufficient to terrify the girl, or that once terrified she was unable to accurately recall what had happened to her. But that isn’t what McLachlan is implying. It is not that the girl was confused, it is that her accusation was “false”.
Now, I am not concerned here with proving or disproving the case against Vaux. What I am concerned with is McLachlan’s account of the case. It is an account based on a concoction of “probably”, generalisations (“such cases”), and insinuation through language that discredits the girl’s testimony: false accusation, blackmail, the doubt cast on the reliability of her account. It is founded on the assumption that if one of the parties is at fault, it is the girl.
But how differently things appear if I rewrite the account with the opposite bias!
“My own feeling is that this may well have been one crime of which Vaux was really guilty. The scope for falsehood and bribery in such cases is obvious, and the only other witness in this one was the defendant himself, who had probably terrorised his victim by taking her up the dark stairs on the way to his room in the hope that she would be unable to remember what took place.”
Well, that doesn’t quite work either. It relies on assumptions just as much as the original version. We don’t know, for example, what the girl could or couldn’t remember or what Vaux hoped. McLachlan does go on to comment that the evidence against Vaux was not “wholly consistent”, but he doesn’t expand upon that. It may well be that the records support this interpretation. On the other hand, given that the jury found Vaux guilty, the documents may also support their interpretation of the evidence.
Whatever the records do or do not reveal, it is of course possible that Vaux told the truth and that the girl’s evidence was, for some reason, unreliable. It is equally possible that the girl was telling the truth and that Vaux was lying. There are no other witnesses and we will never know the truth of what exactly went on in that room. It is a problem to which we still have no solution: as a Rape Crisis representative recently told the BBC, “gathering strong evidence for rape cases was particularly difficult as there was usually no-third party witness”.[i]
It’s not that I want to single out McLachlan as a particularly bad offender when it comes to gender bias in historical accounts. His work on Vaux was prompted by his interest in the history of Australia’s convicts: two of his own ancestors had been convicts. Given that they were sent there by a legal system stacked against the poor, marginalised and dispossessed, his studies contribute towards recovering these overlooked histories.
Nor is there anything unjustified in his questioning of that legal system in Vaux’s case: history is littered with legal injustices. But, like many histories before and since, there’s that dreadful blind spot. The female perspective, if it is acknowledged at all, is immediately discounted in favour of the male. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder why McLachlan felt the need to question the justice of this conviction at all, given that he found no fault with any of Vaux’s other convictions, in spite of the fact that Vaux himself was vociferous in his protestations and self-justifications. Even if there are grounds for doubting the justice of the 1839 trial, they must surely be more convincing than the unsubstantiated suggestion that the girl’s evidence is worthless and the mother a liar.
But it all sounds so objective, so plausible, so reasonable. That’s how “such cases” are. What’s more, having put the suggestion forward, McLachlan immediately qualifies his remarks by acknowledging that the evidence, if not consistent, was circumstantial, and hastily adding, “So the feeling does not amount to conviction, and it is not difficult to understand why the jury were persuaded of his guilt”.
It is magnanimous of McLachlan indeed. However, it does nothing to rehabilitate the plaintiff. The conviction is not based on the evidence of the girl and her mother, but on the circumstances of the case. The decision of the gentlemen of the jury rests on firmer foundations than the (false) evidence of an eight-year old girl and her (blackmailing) mother. When he sentenced Vaux, the judge regretted that the maximum sentence he could impose was two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Property crimes, of course, carried much heavier sentences than crimes against women and children – Vaux had got seven years transportation for stealing a pocket handkerchief – as women’s suffrage campaigners were still pointing out a hundred years later. McLachlan attributes the justice’s comments to his irascibility.
Somewhere in all this an eight-year old girl has got lost, her evidence discounted, and any feelings she might have had about the case ignored. Yet we hear plenty about Vaux’s feelings – how he “reprobated” the offence against which “his own feelings revolted”. And this is what I mean by the need to be critical about how we approach history. Her voice, her experience and her perspective are there, hidden away. It is our job to find them – or at least acknowledge that they existed.
Lest we congratulate ourselves on our own enlightenment, however, it is worth reiterating that McLachlan is not a villain by any means. He’s trapped in the attitudes of his time – as are we all. In another fifty years someone might be reading our work and shaking their heads over our own blind spots – our speciesism, perhaps, or militarism – as we shake our heads over previous generations’ sexism, racism, or homophobia. And we can hardly claim to have eradicated these in our time.
The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux including his Vocabulary of the Flash Language, edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Noel McLachlan (London: Heinemann, 1964)
Image: From The History of New South Wales, including Botany Bay, Port Jackson, Pamaratta [sic], Sydney, and all its dependancies..., George Barrington (London: M Jones, 1802), British Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions
[i] ‘Why are rape prosecutions falling?’ BBC News, 12 September 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48095118