Why is Victorian crime so appealing?
Kate Colquhoun on her new book, Did She Kill Him?
Exclusive author piece
What is it about Victorian crime that still manages to grab us by the throat? We seem to have a limitless appetite for stories that similarly gripped the imaginations of our great-grandparents. Is it that we live in comparatively anxious times? Is it because – as it did during the Industrial Revolution – our world is changing so rapidly that we feel nervous, as if the very ground we stand on is no longer reliable? As a result, do we look for scapegoats, crises that seem to prove that bad stuff ‘happens to someone else’?
Every new book begins, for me, with a small shock, a moment when I read something, or hear about something being discussed and when I think ‘Really? Did that REALLY happen?' This is the spark, the moment the story promises to shine a light on an aspect of the past, picking out its surprises. Usually it is also true that some element of the idea has a modern relevance – that it turns out to be, in some way, utterly recognisable. These are the stories that, for me, punch a hole in time, allowing us to peer backwards and, almost, to hold hands with the past.
The story of Florence Maybrick – a young American married to a much older, hypochondriacal, Liverpool cotton broker in the 1880s – pricked my interest on so many levels. First, her situation was not unique: as the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James so compellingly chart, there was a flurry of marriages around this time between vibrant young girls from the New World and older, dourer English men drawn both by the girls' joie de vivre and their cash. Isolated in the cold seaport city of Liverpool, a cuckoo in its social nest, Florence’s loneliness – her difference –paralleled the lot of so many of her peers.
The Maybrick case cracked the varnish of Victorian middle-class respectability – seeming to prove that even apparently ideal marriages could conceal suffocating loneliness and falsity, that women had sexual appetites and that scandal and violence might incubate in suburban villas. Then there was her husband James’s addiction to arsenic – an ugly dependence that made him moody and unstable. The poison was everywhere in the Victorian home – in candles, wallpapers, insect poisons, pants and prams. It was also associated, in real life as much as in lurid novels, with a fear of stealthy violence, particularly by women.
More than all this, the double-standards by which Florence was judged when tried for James’ murder revealed the hypocrisies lurking at the heart of late Victorian society. The trial – considered by many to be the greatest miscarriage of English justice of its day, similar to the Dreyfus affair in France – galvanized those concerned with establishing a more equal society for women. Those who asked: Why should juries be all male? Indeed, how could an all-male justice system ever be quite fair? Wasn’t it clear that Mrs Maybrick was judged for her perceived immorality rather than on the scientific evidence? And wasn’t this an ‘immorality’ that would pass without comment in a man?
Whether or not she killed him, Florence Maybrick’s story was suffused with the tensions and hypocrisies that seethed at the heart of late Victorian society. Yes, it made me ask ‘Did that really happen?’ but it also made me wonder how far we have really come in the last 125 years.
Did She Kill Him? by Kate Colquhoun is published on March 6th in hardback and ebook formats. Follow Kate on twitter: @wearyhousewife