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Why Are We So Fixated on the Crimes of the Victorians?

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In Wilkie Collins’s 1868 mystery novel, The Moonstone, the otherwise respectable household steward Gabriel Betteredge finds himself gripped by a powerful—but, it seems, not altogether unpleasant—compulsion. “Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?” he asks another character. “I call it the detective-fever.”

We seem to have caught “detective-fever”—a preoccupation with the sensational aspects of crime and punishment—when it comes to the Victorians themselves. Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper are both back on-screen, and the era has become a popular backdrop for crime novelists, true crime writers, and film directors. After a while, you can start to feel like the nineteenth century was peopled solely by husband-poisoners and prostitute-stabbers, and the mutton-chopped detectives who pursued them. In Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” all the stars of nineteenth-century Gothic horror (Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, van Helsing, and so on) are living in London and chasing the undead, in a sort of parody of this effect. Where are all the normal people—the people who weren’t explorers of the Dark Continent or mad scientists or famed Egyptologists? If you meet one, it’s a safe bet she’s about to be disemboweled.

Three recent books on Victorian crime and daily life stare across the uncanny valley between us and those strange folk tromping the British Isles 150 years ago in their crinoline and whalebone. To varying degrees of success, they both indulge our own detective-fever, and seek to desensationalize the people who originally experienced it—sometimes a tricky juggling act.

In The Art of English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, Lucy Worsley—a curator for the Historic Royal Palaces—attempts to give the entire sweep of English murder, both the crimes and the fiction inspired by the crimes. The book is based on the BBC documentary “A Very British Murder,” and there’s not much new in it for aficionados: Sherlock Holmes’s influence on forensic science and vice versa, for example, feels like a very well-worn subject at this point. But Worsley’s curatorial instincts shine through in the inclusion of many very creepy objets de death, like the shriveled tar-black scalp of “Red Barn” murderer William Corder, with a bit of ear and some frizzled red hair still hanging on. And the thread of her story is truly fascinating, drawing back the curtain on the real people suffering from Victorian “detective-fever.” As nineteenth-century society became increasingly policed and the murder rate fell, the general public actually became far more interested in murder, a surge in print culture propelling both true-crime yellow journalism and the “penny dreadfuls” and “penny bloods” that offered the fantasy version.

Murder also changed its social bracket during this period. Although it was still mostly committed by people living in poverty, the most famous trials and novels during the second half of the nineteenth century focused on middle- and upper-class victims and killers. “We start to hear less about stabbing, bludgeoning and the cutting of throats,” Worsley writes, “and much more about madness, bigamy and poison,” all of which struck deep in the Victorian middle-class psyche, or so the journalistic response to the major murder cases at the time would suggest.

One of these cases was the so-called “Balham Mystery” of 1876. Florence Bravo was a wealthy divorcee living in Balham who married her second husband, Charles Bravo in 1875. Charles was no better a husband than her alcoholic first: he attempted to steal her money and then became abusive. When someone dissolved a bit of antimony into the cup of water he always kept by his bedside and he died in horrible convulsive agony, suspicion fell on Florence. Nonetheless, Florence, a well-mannered, beautiful, and apparently very distraught suspect, was never brought to trial.

Worsley points out the immense appeal, in a society where married women had only just gained the right to own property in 1870, of reading about a woman who might have killed to protect her estate—and at least, a woman moving through the world with Florence’s boldness and sexual assertiveness—and who then got off scot-free. “Murderesses had something to teach,” she writes.

The lessons taught by the maybe-yes, maybe-no murderess in Kate Colquhoun’s new book, Did She Kill Him?: A Torrid True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and Murder in Victorian England were perhaps a little less happy. As the subtitle suggests, this book is more sensationalizing than Worsley’s broad-stroked history. Colquhoun comes down almost instantly (this is no spoiler) on the “no” side of the question posed by her title. But there are often some awkward disjunctures between the “torrid” suspense story demanded by the true-crime genre on the one hand, and on the other, what Colquhoun describes as most likely a real-life tale of an innocent if unsubtle woman dragged through the deeply flawed Victorian systems of marriage, justice, and public opinion.

Florence Maybrick was born in Alabama, the daughter of an “adventurous, full-lipped” New York socialite who outlived two husbands and was abandoned by the third, a Prussian Baron who at least left her with a European title. When the Baroness and her 19-year-old daughter found themselves aboard a Liverpool-bound ocean steamer with the 41-year-old James Maybrick, an English bon vivant and cotton broker, each side probably exaggerated its own financial security. The marriage, which occurred 16 months later in 1881, soon floundered, as the couple’s debts quickly mounted. Now living in Liverpool, Florence learned of James’s long-term infidelity with another woman. She was also troubled by his hypochondria and his self-medication with a number of concoctions, including “Price’s glycerine bottles, bismuth, mixtures of brandy and physic, boxes of crystals, gargles, borax, and soda mint tablets … a syringe as well as a bottle of belladonna and packets of potash and phosphori pills.” Many of these preparations—readily available at any chemist’s—were addictive or otherwise very dangerous. Colquhoun is very good on the chemical hazards of the Victorian household, a place where it seems, if your wife or doctor didn’t poison you, just inhaling might: “arsenic was practically impossible to evade by the mid-nineteenth century, present in clothes and candles, wallpapers and lampshades, in confectionery and millinery, fake flowers, concert tickets, toys, beer, cot and boot linings, perambulators and pants as well as being legitimately available for killing rats, moths, and flies.” And James was downing even more poison than the average Victorian, ordering antimony and strychnine from a London physician—all in the service of his own health, as these poisons were regularly prescribed in cure-alls.

Florence, disillusioned with her increasingly drugged-up and distant husband, took a lover, the caddish Alfred Brierly, and met with solicitors in London to assess her chances of a divorce. The marriage appeared to be on the brink.

Then, abruptly, James fell deeply ill—vomiting, numb extremities, coated tongue. The preparations urged by his doctors make you amazed that anyone survived the nineteenth century at all: bottled “meat juice” features heavily, as well as prussic acid. Florence nursed her husband through his sickness, but servants noticed that she was switching bottles around in the sickroom and that his food was flavored differently when she served it. Then a nursemaid intercepted a letter from her to Brierly. After James died, Florence was formally charged with his murder.

Her trial is shocking for the utter fraudulence of the Victorian legal system. At the time, defendants in capital cases were considered “incompetent” witnesses and not permitted to speak in their own defense. Much evidence that Florence could have provided emerged too late to help her. The judge assigned to her case, who not long after went insane, seemed to have decided her guilt from the first day based solely on her infidelity, and was quite clear about that to the jury. The high Victorian standard of sexual purity had, in the past, worked both ways for female defendants. Sometimes it protected those, like Madeleine Smith, who managed to appear demure and ladylike despite their deviant past. Other times it came down especially hard on those who seemed not to repent, like Marie Manning. Florence Maybrick was not gifted at dissimulation—not even when it came to saving herself.

Kate Summerscale’s recent exploration of the 1860 Road Hill House killing, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, managed to balance the demands of suspense and historic content extremely well, introducing a new theory of the case while also working in a broad and thoughtful cultural context. Colquhoun has a harder time with this balance, perhaps in part because of Florence’s opacity as a protagonist, and relies too heavily on overwrought and sometimes anachronistic reconstruction: “Was it simply that … Florence unconsciously flexed for individual satisfaction separate from being a wife, mother and daughter?” Well—maybe! But Colquhoun’s sometimes florid prose only makes it even more difficult to imagine what on earth Florence was actually thinking.

However, it is possible to understand a great deal about Victorian women and their conscious or unconscious flexing from reading Ruth Goodman’s amazing How to be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. Goodman’s book deals with the other people living in the nineteenth century: not the detectives and murderers and corpse-reanimators, but everyone else. She does this by living and working on a period farm, in period dress, enough so that her two-year-old daughter gets jealous and wants a corset of her own. The result is a warm and sympathetic book that imagines the Victorians as intrepid survivors—not the buttoned-up, sexually repressed school-marms of myth.

 How to be a Victorian passes through an average nineteenth-century day, from feet hitting the unheated wood floor to bread-and-beer breakfast to applying crushed cochineal beetle lipstick to tips for using a chamber pot (“Get a lid for your pot, and use it”), to tripe and onion dinner, perhaps making use of a sheep’s-gut condom in that unheated bedroom, and then to sleep again. In between, along with delightful asides on the value of morning calisthenics, the ability of the hair to go for long stretches without being washed, and the misery of the “cold-sheet-wrap” bathing technique, Goodman details the back-breaking labor and near-starvation conditions that middle and lower-class Victorians endured throughout their lives. This began in infancy, when most mothers were too malnourished to produce breastmilk. Instead, infants subsisted on starchy and indigestible concoctions of cow’s milk, bread, sago, and arrowroot. By the time poor children were twelve (i.e., had often been earning wages for several years already), they were sometimes several inches shorter than wealthy children.

“The average height of a man convicted of a crime in London between 1869 and 1872 was five foot five and a half inches,” Goodman writes, three and a half inches shorter than the average man living in London today, and two inches shorter than medieval Londoners. There’s no detective-fever in Goodman’s book, none of the gory details of famous murders. It turns out, though, that the most poignant Victorian crimes were also the least sensational ones.