Did She Kill Him? by Kate ColquhounAnyone who saw the recent BBC documentary Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home knows that arsenic was everywhere in the late nineteenth century. It was used as a beauty product, as a medicine, and also to achieve a vibrant green colour in wallpaper. This ubiquity made it devilishly difficult to prove cases of deliberate poisoning and many murderers probably got away scot-free. When a case did make it to court, the nation was transfixed. Kate Colquhoun’s engrossing book recounts the 1889 trial of Florence Maybrick, a young American woman accused of poisoning her respectable English husband, James. This cause célèbre dominated the press and divided opinion and Did She Kill Him? evokes the febrile atmosphere of the court room.

The Maybricks met on ship in 1880, their romance blooming in the middle of the Atlantic. James was a 41-year-old cotton broker and Florence a 17-year-old ingénue, accompanied by her mother. Marrying the following year, they lived in Virginia before finally settling down in their suburban villa in Liverpool. Ostensibly a respectable middle-class marriage, outward appearances masked James’ infidelity and violence. While he spent much of his time in London with his long-term mistress, Florence amused herself by running up large debts and reading questionable novels. As the trial was to reveal, this was a deeply unhappy marriage.

James Maybrick wasn’t just a love rat, he was also a self-medicating hypochondriac who believed small quantities of arsenic to have an invigorating effect. When in 1889 he became ill, James’s response was to dose himself up with even more toxic potions; in the week leading up to his death, he was given no fewer than 20 harmful “medicines” by his doctors. The fatal dose was believed to lurk in a bottle of meat juice, this revolting beverage becoming central to the trial. Florence claimed that James had asked her to add arsenic to his dose, believing it would act as a restorative. While this was initially deemed plausible, the revelation that Florence had been entertaining herself with a flashy young man by the name of James Brierley made her actions appear deeply suspicious. Her habit of soaking arsenic-impregnated fly-papers for cosmetic use strengthened the claims of those who suspected her of mariticide. A bewildered Florence was soon arrested and taken into custody.

As Colquhoun explains, a jury comprising plumbers, grocers, and farmers was “charged with determining one of the most complicated toxicological cases of the day,” trying to establish whether a man addicted to arsenic could have been poisoned by that very substance. In the absence of any hard scientific evidence, Florence’s infidelity soon obscured the facts of the case. Judge James Stephen, uncle of Virginia Woolf, thought Florence had done her husband a “dreadful injury” by having an affair, believing this sufficient grounds for convicting her. Given the death penalty was still in place for murder, this was a staggeringly harsh attitude. The trial became “a national morality fable, the inevitable result of too much spirit or too little independence, depending on your point of view”. For some, Florence was a foolish and impressionable young woman who had attempted to care for her cold-hearted husband; for others, she was a callous adulterer who sought to free herself from a loveless marriage. Queen Victoria, never one to sit on the fence, thought Florence’s infidelity proof of her guilt and demanded that she be judged accordingly. Ultimately, the verdict proved inconclusive, and the debate raged for decades afterwards.

Colquhoun is rigorously impartial throughout her story, refusing to divulge her own verdict on Florence’s guilt, and presenting this labyrinthine case with clarity and verve. She doesn’t spare any gory details, although it’s hard to say whether the account of James’s autopsy or the forensic analysis of a profoundly dysfunctional marriage is more uncomfortable to read. There are no conclusive answers here, but through her effervescent narrative Colquhoun exposes bizarre medical practices, the public appetite for sensation, and the precarious position of the Victorian wife. Like Queen Victoria, I’m not one to sit on the fence: I thought Florence innocent of murder. She struck me as a naive and not very bright woman who was trying to relieve the ennui of her circumscribed existence through a fairly inept attempt at adultery. Even her own mother described her as a “woman of little penetration”. With hardly any money of her own, it was in her interests to maintain this sham of a marriage. You might not agree with my verdict, but you can’t fail to be stirred by a dramatic and moving story told by a gifted historian. This is quite possibly one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in recent times, although we’ll never know for sure. The Maybrick coat of arms bore the motto “Time reveals all” – but not in this case.

Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic by Kate Colquhoun is available in hardback and Kindle editions.



Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda HawksleyIf someone had thought to ask Queen Victoria what sort of daughter she didn’t want, she might have described Princess Louise: a smoker, a cyclist, and a strong-minded feminist who consorted with the likes of Josephine Butler and George Eliot. It is this tense mother-daughter relationship that dominates Lucinda Hawksley’s lively and enjoyable biography of an intriguing royal whose attitude to sex was distinctly unvictorian.

Writing in her journal on the occasion of Louise’s 1st birthday, Queen Victoria commented “May God bless the dear little child, who is so fat, strong and well again. She was born in the most eventful times, & ought to be something peculiar in consequence.” Louise entered the world in 1848, a year when Europe was in the grip of revolution and London was overrun with irate Chartists. Victoria, with good reason, feared for her life and the safe delivery of a baby girl came as a huge relief. As the sixth child of Victoria and Albert, Louise had a lot of competition for attention, even before three further siblings arrived. She felt stifled by a court life that offered few outlets for her considerable artistic talents.

Queen Victoria’s parenting skills have been impugned on many occasions and Hawksley is keen to join the chorus of disapproval. This is disappointing. While Hawksley cites Yvonne Ward’s recent book Censoring Queen Victoria, which explains how the queen’s journals and letters were heavily edited, she blames all of Louise’s early misfortunes on Victoria, based on ‘evidence’ from these very documents. Albert is entirely let off the hook, notwithstanding many accounts of his harsh discipline and unforgiving nature. To my mind, Victoria was a despot married to a fusspot, and they were equally complicit in the upbringing of their oldest children. In the second half of the biography, covering the years after Victoria’s death in 1901, the real Louise emerges – her faults and errors shown as part of her complex and engaging personality, rather than as a reaction to her unreasonable mother. She is urbane, vituperative, and glamorous, maintaining a strict diet and exercise regime to avoid turning into a Hanoverian Weeble.

Like many nineteenth-century mothers, Victoria’s approach to dealing with her rebellious daughter was to find her a husband.  The trouble was that Europe was fast running out of eligible princes and, in any case, the British people had little appetite for foreigners. The queen had to settle for Louise marrying a commoner, albeit a Marquess whose father was the 8th Duke of Argyll. At first sight, the Marquess of Lorne seems an ideal match for Louise: he was handsome, intelligent, and shared her belief in women’s rights. However, he was described by one contemporary as “not overfond of soap and water” and his lack of dress sense proved a perpetual source of humiliation for his wife. More importantly, he was homosexual. Whereas previous biographers have been tediously equivocal over Lorne’s sexuality, Hawksley uses common sense and deftly refutes the specious ‘proof’ that loved the ladies. When the couple lived at Kensington Palace, rumours circulated that Louise had the French windows bricked up to prevent Lorne sneaking out for late-night assignations with guardsmen.

The central ‘mystery’ indicated by the book’s title is Hawksley’s contention that the 18-year-old Louise gave birth to an illegitimate son, Henry, who was later adopted by Queen Victoria’s obstetrician, Sir Charles Locock. The father, she claims, was Walter Stirling, tutor to Prince Leopold, Louise’s haemophiliac brother. While the story is plausible, there is no evidence. The current Locock family, who believe themselves to be descended from the Princess, have been repeatedly denied a DNA test; Hawksley, meanwhile, has been refused access to the Royal Archives. Less contentious is Hawksley’s belief that Louise had an affair with the sculptor Edgar Boehm, who had been a great friend and mentor. When Boehm died of a stroke at his London studio, Louise was with him. Rumours abounded that he died ‘on the job’ (think Mr Pamuk in Downton Abbey) and had to be smuggled out, Cleopatra style, in a rolled-up carpet.

We’ll probably never know the truth about this incident or whether Louise really did have a baby out of wedlock. The Royal Archives and the keepers of Lorne’s papers are all determined that the truth should be suppressed. Even the National Gallery’s files on Boehm have been closed. Hawksley’s evidence for her more scandalous claims is thin, but speculation is inevitable when the facts are guarded by unyielding custodians. Other biographers have been allowed to view the Princess Louise files, but have been obliged to submit their manuscripts for inspection before publication. Consequently, Jehanne Wake’s otherwise excellent Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Unconventional Daughter portrays an unconvincing paragon of virtue, and Elizabeth Longford’s Darling Loosy: Letters to Princess Louise is frustratingly cryptic. As Hawksley writes, “Over the decades, there has been some very careful sanitising of Princess Louise’s reputation and a whitewashing of her life, her achievements and her personality.” Why this has happened is unclear, although the sexual double standard is a likely explanation. While older brother Bertie, later Edward VII, was a playboy who inevitably sowed his wild oats, the thought of a princess doing the same was unconscionable. But now, almost 150 years later, we can tolerate the truth. In conclusion, Hawksley asks, ”Why should the life of a woman born in the first half of the nineteenth century be considered unsafe to be explored in the twenty first century?” Why indeed.

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley is available in hardback and Kindle editions.


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

The Convert by Elizabeth Robins (1907)

March 2, 2014

Last year saw the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the brave and determined suffragette who attempted to stop the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby. Many have decried the foolishness of such acts, believing that female suffrage would somehow have happened spontaneously, if only these silly women had been patient; others, […]

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Her Father’s Name by Florence Marryat

January 5, 2014

Now that I’ve finished writing my thesis on Florence Marryat (just a few tweaks and proofreading to go), I can take a more objective view of her fiction. Having read all 68 of her novels, it’s fair to say that they are not of equal merit; in fact, some are downright dreadful. With 7 children […]

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End of Year Book Meme 2013

January 1, 2014

It’s time for the end of year meme, in which I recount the year’s literary adventures, and wish you all a very happy 2014. How many books read in 2013? 106, mainly thanks to having (very uncharacteristically) taken a holiday in September. I also had to re-read quite a few books for my thesis, as […]

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Will Warburton (1905) by George Gissing

December 31, 2013

I’ve always been slightly chary of Will Warbuton, having been warned that it features a happy ending. Anyone familiar with Gissing’s novels will know that he is relentlessly bleak, and anything else would be plain wrong. Much to my relief, misery still abounds in this story, and Gissing’s characteristic obsession with money, sex, and class is […]

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Life According to Literature 2013

December 27, 2013

It’s time for the annual meme, providing an excellent excuse to ignore my thesis revisions for half an hour. The rules: Using only books you have read this year (2013), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. Describe yourself: The ‘Improper’ Feminine (Lynn Pykett) How do you feel: You Are Not So […]

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Forthcoming performance of The Lighthouse by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens

October 23, 2013

Last month I wrote that this was turning out to be Wilkie Collins season, and there’s yet another reason to be cheerful. The University of Birmingham is staging an excerpt from The Lighthouse, a play on which he collaborated with Charles Dickens. Here are the details: In 1855 Wilkie Collins presented his first original drama […]

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Wilkie Collins Bonanza

September 22, 2013

This autumn is turning out to be Wilkie Collins season, with a new biography of the great sensationalist, and lots more going on. One of the first critical works I read was Jenny Bourne Taylor’s seminal In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. I desperately wanted my own copy, […]

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To be reviewed…

September 15, 2013

My post-holiday slump has lifted, thanks to some lovely review copies that have piqued my interest. William and Dorothy Wordsworth: ‘All in Each Other’ by Lucy Newlyn is a beautifully produced book examining Wordsworth’s 50-year creative collaboration with his sister. This is the first study to give Dorothy equal billing with her more famous brother, exploring […]

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