Sarah Lloyd’s epitaph, featured right, was initially difficult to take seriously in a modern context. Like a piece of black comedy or a Monty Python sketch, its total implausibility and incomprehensibility made its morbid reality somewhat surreal. However, its dated novelty soon revealed vicious undertones; these clearly portrayed its historical significance in understanding the relationship between previous and current discourses of gender, class, age, crime and punishment, power, law and sexuality. The completely unbalanced and unjust nature of Sarah’s deed and its consequences made it quite impossible for me to practice anything other than an oppositional (resistant) reading – which Moon (2001, p.129) describes as “readings which are unacceptable in terms of the dominant cultural beliefs, and which challenge prevailing views”. In this instance, the dominant cultural beliefs are 21st century values, and the prevailing views are those in practice 210 years ago.
Similarly, my cohort negotiated meanings within resistant re/readings, via their own sources of available cultural capital. In modern, democratic western societies, death by hanging for unwilling accessory to theft and arson has long since been abolished. Our activities exposed the gap between current levels of public reaction, judgement and punishment for such scenarios, and those of the text’s era. Interpretations of the historical language used revealed the multiple discourses present in the epitaph’s invited reading, which is, as Mellor stated, “impossible to read…as was originally intended” (1987, p.67). What I found remarkable, and totally repositioned my own possible meaning/s into a personal polysemy, was the breadth of infinite possibilities that the cohort created through explorations of the text’s gaps and silences – could a cunning and lusty Sarah have been a co-conspirator rather than a scapegoat? These silences combined with additional meanings negotiated through a variety of ‘kernels’ the text presents; Jetnikoff defines these as“pieces of information introduced into a narrative to hint at a larger world but not fully developed within the story itself” (2010, n.p.).
Drawing attention through a hailing statement of “Reader”, the epitaph asks one to pause and reflect on the tragic tale of the young, (presumed) innocent Sarah Lloyd’s downfall by sexual treachery. After elaborating on the circumstances leading to her execution, a final quote is placed as a footnote. Of course, this begs the obvious question of authorial intention and motive; with Sarah (and the actual perpetrator) eternally silenced, who has judged, sentenced, delivered and dictated her fate? Was her trial public or private? As a product of my environment, my assumptions of justice are formed through current Australian socio-cultural values and norms, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or class: we have rights to legal representation, a fair trial, and punishment befitting not only the crime but in line with global human rights standards and ethics. However, my innate renaissance man understands that such accepted practices, now taken for granted, were not the reality in 1800. A woman of servant class would more likely have been morally vilified for her promiscuity and inadvertent error of judgement, resulting in a verdict of guilty without any chance of proving innocence. While this is clearly unacceptable in my present eyes, such injustices were most likely commonplace at the time. This led me to question links between the epitaph’s historically intended reading, and a currently naturalised resistant reading; how has society and culture shifted its moral and ethical positions over the centuries, to where we locate ourselves today? Such outrageous disregard for women and the lower class surely shaped feminist criticism – Moon describes these as “methods to demonstrate, explain and challenge the oppression of women” (2001, p.44) – and gave impetus to such discourses, ultimately bringing about the freedoms and equality we enjoy today. That our learned reading practices are able to critically sift and sort through texts to expose such inherent bias is credit to the educational opportunities we collectively enjoy as young (or borderline middle-aged, in my case) Australians.
Since education does not exist in a chronological vacuum, and is truly a social and cultural construct, the presence of such texts have merit on the basis of understanding the intertextual nature of past, present and even future discourses. Classrooms have an endless array of options with this epitaph: a creative re-writing from a silenced or omitted character such as Sarah, the seducer or a family member; an historically biased courtroom role-play, versus a modern celebrity circus trial by media; time-framed journal entries from Sarah’s point-of-view during the gap between event and execution; even combinations or collaborations of all of these are possibilities. I would personally enjoy teaching such scenarios within senior schooling – taking written history to write for our future.
Jetnikoff, A. (2010). Workshop Week 5 Worksheet. Retrieved August 20, 2010 from http://blackboard.qut.edu.au/webapps/blackboard/content/contentWrapper.jsp?attachment=true&navItem=content&content_id=_3353553_1&displayName=Fan+fiction+worksheet&course_id=_63057_1&href=/%40%40/36FAA0A53919E0F057F6E5693D45A3AC/courses/1/CLB322_10se2/content/_3353553_1/fanficworksheet.pdf
No Author. (1800). The Epitaph of Sarah Lloyd. In Mellor, B., Reading Stories (pp.65-67). Scarborough, WA: Chalkface Press.
Mellor, B. (1987). Reading Stories. Scarborough, WA: Chalkface Press.
Moon, B. (2001). Literary Terms: A Practical Glossary (2nd ed.). Cottesloe, WA: Chalkface Press.