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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

Little, Brown

Did She Kill Him?

By Kate Colquhoun

In the summer of 1889, young Southern belle Florence Maybrick stood trial for the alleged arsenic poisoning of her much older husband, Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick.

'The Maybrick Mystery' had all the makings of a sensation: a pretty, flirtatious young girl; resentful, gossiping servants; rumours of gambling and debt; and torrid mutual infidelity. The case cracked the varnish of Victorian respectability, shocking and exciting the public in equal measure as they clambered to read the latest revelations of Florence's past and glimpse her likeness in Madame Tussaud's.

Florence's fate was fiercely debated in the courtroom, on the front pages of the newspapers and in parlours and backyards across the country. Did she poison her husband? Was her previous infidelity proof of murderous intentions? Was James' own habit of self-medicating to blame for his demise?

Historian Kate Colquhoun recounts an utterly absorbing tale of addiction, deception and adultery that keeps you asking to the very last page, did she kill him?

Kate Colquhoun's account of the Maybrick case is brilliantly detailed - her knowledge of the uses and misuses of poison would put that of many pharmacists to shameThe case is thrilling, the trial harrowing and Colquhoun does them justiceA perfect mirror of mid-Victorian moralityKate Colquhoun's fascinating history . . . critiques thoroughly and carefully the attitudes of the timeLapping up the court reports, our forbears were "entertained and delighted". Present-day readers will feel the same[An] intriguing and forensic bookA story rich in atmosphereA real-life case as thrilling as any crime novelThis is a gripping, beautifully detailed story redolent with danger and impending tragedyAccomplished biographer and social commentator Kate Colquhoun is taking on Victorian murder in Did She Kill Him? Conveying the hypocrisy and claustrophobia of middle-class life at the time it is likely to hit the spot with anyone who was intrigued by The Suspicions of Mr WhicherWith deliciously dark elements of addiction, deception, torrid adultery and poison, this is the riveting true story of a sensational Victorian trial of 1889 . . . Colquhoun's writing has a wonderful slow burn to it, and until the final page, she keeps us guessing: guilty, or not guilty?Exhaustively researched and not for the faint-hearted. Her descriptions of the autopsy carried out in the victim's bedroom would make Kay Scarpetta wince . . . But there is another element that Colquhoun hauls blinking into the light: the changing moral climate of the time and the conflict between the patriarchal ancien régime and the emergence of the New WomanSensibly, if tantalisingly, Kate Colquhoun offers no final answers in her absorbing review of this old scandal . . . she highlights what the case can tell us about late Victorian England - its flawed legal processes and dangerous medical practices, its predatory appetite for gossip, and above all the uncertain position of its women. What Colquhoun reveals is a persistent doubleness - respectability concealing transgression . . . Restlessness, rather than complacency, characterises the society that she describesIntriguing, forensic . . . a moral fable of the age, intelligently told by Colquhoun, who places her sources cleverly within historical and literary context . . . grippingWhile [Did She Kill Him] is a carefully researched account, based on contemporary sources, it reads more like a novel[Colquhoun] builds an almost unbearable tension into the events . . . This book is much more than a real-life murder mystery. Colquhoun has researched her subject thoroughly and presents a forensic account of the facts as known . . . Colquhoun spins a tale rich in detail and atmosphere, and her meticulous research never overshadows her obvious talent for storytellingKate Colquhoun has complicated and fascinating story to tell. She has researched the case well, reading the original trial transcripts and contemporary newspaper reports in addition to the many previous accounts of the Maybrick caseMeticulously researched, this vivid account follows every twist and turn of the case that's threaded with adultery, poison and addiction. It kept me guessing to the endColquhoun's account . . . is vivid and shocking . . . giving us a keyhole through which to peep into an era when gender relations were almost as toxic as the pick-me-ups that probably killed James [Maybrick]Colquhoun presents an absorbing picture of a society which would rather hang a woman, despite lack of evidence, than besmirch her husband's nameA fascinating, meticulously researched book, full of period detail. Colquhoun's success in weaving together a series of complex topics is no mean feat and an even greater achievement is to have presented them clearly and simplyKate Colquhoun renders the story in a vivid, novelistic style . . . grippingA fascinating taleEnlivened by imaginative detail, Colquhoun's lively and perceptive narrative has the reader rooting for the friendless defendantThis is a gripping, beautifully detailed story redolent with danger and impending tragedy.Accomplished biographer and social commentator Kate Colquhoun is taking on Victorian murder in Did She Kill Him? Conveying the hypocrisy and claustrophobia of middle-class life at the time it is likely to hit the spot with anyone who was intrigued by The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. With deliciously dark elements of addiction, deception, torrid adultery and poison, this is the riveting true story of a sensational Victorian trial of 1889 . . . Colquhoun's writing has a wonderful slow burn to it, and until the final page, she keeps us guessing: guilty, or not guilty?Exhaustively researched and not for the faint-hearted. Her descriptions of the autopsy carried out in the victim's bedroom would make Kay Scarpetta wince . . . But there is another element that Colquhoun hauls blinking into the light: the changing moral climate of the time and the conflict between the patriarchal ancien régime and the emergence of the New WomanSensibly, if tantalisingly, Kate Colquhoun offers no final answers in her absorbing review of this old scandal . . . she highlights what the case can tell us about late Victorian England - its flawed legal processes and dangerous medical practices, its predatory appetite for gossip, and above all the uncertain position of its women. What Colquhoun reveals is a persistent doubleness - respectability concealing transgression . . . Restlessness, rather than complacency, characterises the society that she describesIntriguing, forensic . . . a moral fable of the age, intelligently told by Colquhoun, who places her sources cleverly within historical and literary context . . . grippingWhile [Did She Kill Him] is a carefully researched account, based on contemporary sources, it reads more like a novel[Colquhoun] builds an almost unbearable tension into the events . . . This book is much more than a real-life murder mystery. Colquhoun has researched her subject thoroughly and presents a forensic account of the facts as known . . . Colquhoun spins a tale rich in detail and atmosphere, and her meticulous research never overshadows her obvious talent for storytellingKate Colquhoun has complicated and fascinating story to tell. She has researched the case well, reading the original trial transcripts and contemporary newspaper reports in addition to the many previous accounts of the Maybrick caseMeticulously researched, this vivid account follows every twist and turn of the case that's threaded with adultery, poison and addiction. It kept me guessing to the end.Colquhoun's account . . . is vivid and shocking . . . giving us a keyhole through which to peep into an era when gender relations were almost as toxic as the pick-me-ups that probably killed James [Maybrick]Colquhoun presents an absorbing picture of a society which would rather hang a woman, despite lack of evidence, than besmirch her husband's nameA fascinating, meticulously researched book, full of period detail. Colquhoun's success in weaving together a series of complex topics is no mean feat and an even greater achievement is to have presented them clearly and simplyKate Colquhoun renders the story in a vivid, novelistic style . . . grippingA fascinating taleEnlivened by imaginative detail, Colquhoun's lively and perceptive narrative has the reader rooting for the friendless defendantThe sensational murder trial of Florence Maybrick that gripped Victorian society.Kate Colquhoun's previous non-fiction titles were shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize 2004 and longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2004. Her most recent books were both shortlisted for the CWA Daggers: Non-fiction Prize: Mr Briggs' Hat in 2011 and Did She Kill Him? in 2014. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines, she appears regularly on national radio and television. She lives in London with her two sons.A fast-paced, absorbing tale combining scandal, family disputes, social history and gripping court-room drama.Will appeal to fans of Kate Summerscales and Jane Robins.Mr Briggs' Hat received rave reviews and was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA Daggers: Non-fiction Prize.The author writes regularly for the Telegraph, Sunday Times, Asda magazine and the Financial Times.
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