'Mrs. Pace' and the ambiguous language of victimization

Wood, J. Carter (2009). 'Mrs. Pace' and the ambiguous language of victimization. In: Dresdner, Lisa and Peterson, Laurel S. eds. (Re)Interpretations: the Shapes of Justice in Women's Experience. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 79–94.

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'Justice' is a historical phenomenon: legal institutions and cultural attitudes (along with their various languages) vary across geography and time. At the same time, enduring elements of human psychology and recurring patterns in social structures provide continuities which allow the past to speak to contemporary issues. To understand the 'experience of justice', the historical tension between continuity and change and the many factors influencing the perceived boundaries of acceptable behaviour must be addressed. One approach involves examining specific experiences of victimisation, which is particularly important in the case of those who have traditionally been socially, legally and politically disadvantaged, such as women. However, while it is primarily an admission of powerlessness, 'victimhood' - the active claiming of victim status - can also be a source of social power. Only 'victims', after all, are in the position to claim some form of justice, whether retributive or restorative. However, one of the main problems with gaining a historical perspective on female victims of domestic violence is that their voices have relatively rarely survived in the public record. A valuable exception is the case of Beatrice Annie Pace. The wife of a Gloucestershire quarryman and sheep farmer, she was tried and acquitted for murdering her husband with arsenic in 1928. Extensive pre-trial hearings had revealed the horrifying extent of the dead man's physical and psychological brutality throughout eighteen-years of marriage. The dramatic twists and unexpected developments in the case were eagerly picked up by the voracious newspaper media, making the trial a sensation. 'Mrs. Pace', as she was known, achieved celebrity status; no longer simply an individual, she also became a popular and sympathetic media persona. This chapter explores the issue of justice by looking at the languages surrounding the Pace case. While legal issues raised in the trial (such as the accused's treatment by the police and coroner's jury) even led to questions being asked in Parliament, Pace was not only talked about but also received the rare opportunity to present her own version of events to the public which had so eagerly supported her. Following her acquittal, she sold her story to a tabloid, and the married 'martyrdom' which she revealed in a serialised memoir riveted newspaper readers across Britain. In this context, she had a great deal to say about her experience of abuse, the nature of married life and her treatment by the British legal system. The result is an invaluable resource for examining not only how one woman came to grips with her experience but also to compare her own views with those of other observers of the case. For some, Pace's suffering was evidence of serious shortcomings in British society and law. Pace's own commentary is both more personal and, ultimately, more ambiguous about the meaning of her victimisation and ultimate vindication. Thus, this case allows a unique, historically aware consideration of the complicated nature of the ways in which one woman created justice and resisted injustice through one of the only vehicles available to her: language.

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