Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Did She Kill Him? by Kate Colquhuon reviewed by Julia Jones

I love the subtitle to this book: Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery & Arsenic. Did She Kill Him? is an account of the 1889 trial of Florence Maybrick who was accused of poisoning her older husband, Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick, with arsenic. Colquhuon's diligent research and effective presentation makes arsenic a major player in this story -- almost a household member or the third person in an unhappy marriage.

"Toxic to most plants and to all animals with a central nervous system 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 [...] so pervasive was it that in 1860 the Lancet invited its readers to imagine a man living in  cloud of arsenical dust, sitting in his library on a summer day, his walls coated with arsenic, a suspicious green dust on his books and arsenical particles floating in the air, filling his air passages, inflaming his eyes, disturbing his digestion and preparing him for dismal and racking pains."*

Arsenic was a source of sensational stories which were all too often true. True crime aficionados and anyone intrigued by forensics will enjoy Colquhuon's explanations of the different scientific tests being developed for arsenical poisoning and the revelations of inadequacy in the doctors and the expert witnesses testifying at Florence Maybrick's trial.  Florence's husband James was a self-medicator and an arsenic addict. When the family GP responded to Florence Maybrick's anxiety and queried the number of pills and potions littering her husband's dressing room, James Maybrick simply changed doctors.

Arsenic made him dyspeptic, irritable and hard to live with. Worse than that; one reason for Maybrick's arsenic habit (and probably for his sensitivity on the subject) was that it was a drug believed to enhance potency. Maybrick was never a faithful husband. There were actual third -- and fourth -- persons in this marriage. James 'kept' a mistress permanently: Florence 'played away' once. It's a shocking indictment of late Victorian double standards that, in Judge Stephens's summing up at the end of the complex murder trial, Florence's few nights with a young lover in a London hotel became almost the justification for her conviction. Nothing was made of James's long-term affair and even Florence herself appears to have colluded with her lawyers in suppressing the identity of the Other Woman.

Colquhuon writes well about the mutual disenchantments and "curdling discontent" within this marriage. Part one of Did She Kill Him? is written with the vividness of a bio-pic. She does not hesitate to describe the smell of the sea or the drumming of the rain, the smouldering of ash in the household grate or Florence's movements as she examines her own complexion in the mirror. "Although I have stuck rigorously to contemporary sources, the reconstruction of history inevitably remains to some extent a work of imagination." As a reader I hesitated a moment then relaxed and enjoyed the sensuousness of this descriptive writing.

It vanishes, rightly, from the analysis of the trial. Here Colquhuon is clear and painstaking. The doctors are on trial as much as the accused. The court of public opinion is fully involved and jurors are confused and fallible.  The scene is set for a miscarriage of justice which Colquhuon suggests has much wider ramifications than the fate of a single individual. She works hard to situate Florence Maybrick in her social and cultural context -- an American girl caught in the stifling atmosphere of the affluent provincial middle class, an exemplar of changing attitudes towards female sexuality, a young wife in a household where she has no meaningful occupation. James and Florence, their children and domestic staff, lived at "one of Liverpool's best suburban addresses". It's an added pleasure that the name of their substantial, squarely built semi was Battlecrease House.

*italics are used in this book to refer the reader to sources in the endnotes. My copy was a printed proof. I imagine they could be especially effective in indicating links in the electronic version. I notice an Amazon reviewer grumbling about the quantity of endmatter. Personally I felt that this was a full account and I would expect it to be well-referenced -- which it is.