Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeleine Smith

October 22, 2009

Murder is back in fashion. Historians such as Ginger Frost and M.J. Wiener have begun to exploit the fact that deaths in suspicious circumstances tend to leave more interesting records than deaths from natural causes. "The Madeleine Smith affair", explain Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair in their fascinating new book, "offers us a window into the day-to-day life of a young middle-class woman who, despite her involvement in an extraordinary event, was in most other ways unexceptional and typical".

It was a sensational case. Accused of poisoning her lover, Pierre Emile L'Angelier, with arsenic, Madeleine Smith was tried at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh in the summer of 1857.

The proceedings, which lasted more than a week, culminated in the reading aloud of 77 of the letters that she had written to L'Angelier over the course of the previous two years. They were so shocking, the judge felt, that he refused to allow parts of them to be read out because they were written in terms "perhaps ... never previously committed to paper as having passed between a man and a woman".

Nevertheless, the jury took barely half an hour to find the case against Smith to be - in that classic Scottish legal formulation - "not proven".

Gordon and Nair use Smith's childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, arrest and trial as a prism through which to explore the world in which she and her family lived.

They draw upon a wide range of contemporary material, but it is her 250 or so surviving letters to her lover (and L'Angelier's two to her) that provide the core of the study, with the authors explaining with skill and sensitivity the ways in which they have read this rich, yet elusive, source.

It is surprising perhaps that Gordon and Nair accept that Smith's letters shocked "Victorian society ... to the core", and believe that "the whole of Britain - and some European countries too - was scandalised by the trial and what it revealed of the relationship between Madeleine and L'Angelier".

It is surprising too that they conclude their study with a 20-page chapter covering the final 70 years of Smith's long life, since this means, of course, that they are unable to continue the sort of detailed analysis that they undertake so successfully in the rest of the book. In all other respects, Murder and Morality works exceptionally well. Gordon and Nair show, for example, that the Glasgow middle class was "astonishingly peripatetic", their material culture "a strange mixture of the sumptuous and the spartan".

They argue that "the period of courtship was one in which a woman, however briefly, reigned supreme".

They suggest, from their reading of Smith's letters, that, "it is perhaps the conflation of euphemism and repression which has given the Victorians their reputation for being a sexually repressed society". They challenge the view that young Victorian women "lived in a gilded cage, shielded from the public gaze and cosseted in the bosom of their family and friends".

They confront strongly - and successfully - "the continued usefulness of the separate spheres thesis as the key to understanding the gendered nature of the Victorian world".

They conclude that: "The diverse opinions of Madeleine's contemporaries and the variety of accounts and interpretations of the case suggest that Victorian society was far from being complacent and morally rigid."

Challenging, informative and accessible, Murder and Morality is a fine book. Indeed, it is much more than a publisher's wishful thinking for Manchester University Press to claim that it should prove of interest not just to academic historians but also to a more general readership.

Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeleine Smith

By Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair. Manchester University Press 240pp, £60.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780719077685 and 080692. Published 1 August 2009

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