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Discussion on Night Waves, BBC Radio 4 (2012)


Matthew Sweet: We are going to explore a famous Victorian murder case and it’s literary transformation. So what happened here in the 1870s?

Rachel Cooke: Well in 1877 a young woman was brought here by four of her relatives; the family that she had married into. There were two brothers one of whom was her husband Louis and there were two sisters one of whom was Louis’ lover. Harriet Staunton, this young woman, had been living in a country house with them completely isolated. She was a rich young woman but there was something special about her; she was disabled and Louis had married her for her money. The family had starved her to death and just as she was on the point of dying they brought her to Penge, ostensibly to see a doctor.

MS: But what were they really doing?

RC: I think they wanted rid of the body. For years, two years, she was in this house and they gradually locked her away, they boarded up the windows, she became covered in lice. She would scratch at herself; she was filthy and really in a disgusting state. I think it got to the point that they just couldn’t keep her in the house any longer for all sorts of disgusting reasons.

MS: So she was the victim of the kind of plot that we associate with the Victorian sensation novel, with Wilkie Collins, a writer like that. And she arrives at this station in 1877 in a pretty terrible sate.

RC: A terrible state, her fingernails were black with dirt. She was only half dressed because she was by this point so poorly that someone had to put her clothes on for her.

MS: And she would pretty much have been carried from where we are standing now out through the station doors.

RC: Yes, and all this while they were trying to make out hat she was fine, so they would put her bonnet on and her gloves and they would tell people that she was just sleeping.

MS: Let’s retrace her steps.

RC: Which house is it: This one?

MS: Number 34.

RC: It is actually really chilling to be here. It is so incredibly ordinary and that is what makes it chilling because it would have been incredibly ordinary then. But if you can imagine, these four young people, carrying this bundle which is a poor young girl who is just a collection of bones and dirt and somehow getting her up the stairs to the front door.

MS: So what happened in this house that we are standing in front of? This was a place where you could rent rooms; there was a landlady who would lease rooms to visitors.

RC: That’s right. To be very brief, a doctor was called, but it was clear that she was hours from death and that’s what happened. She died in one of these rooms, I presume the upstairs room, I don’t know. Soon after the Stauntons, all four of them, were charged with murder. There was an inquest and then there was a trial, a very controversial trial, and at the end of that trial the judge put his black cloth on his head and he passed the death sentence.

MS: Another astonishing thing about this, all the distances are so small in this case. The pub where the inquest took place is just there at the end of the road.

RC: Yes, that’s right and it was packed out, I gather, for the inquest. I don’t think you can emphasise how much this captured the public imagination.

MS: Why did that happen?

RC: The newspapers were full of it and you can find in the archives astonishing drawings of the defendants at the dock. I think it captured the imagination, I’m guessing, because first of all there was money involved and people are very interested in other people’s greed but secondly there is something incredibly incestuous about the relationships between the two brothers and the two sisters. They were all in thrall to each other in various different ways. They just convinced themselves that what they were doing, it wasn’t exactly that they thought it was right, but that they thought well “what else can we be expected to do? We have got this sort of monster in our house”.  Attitudes to mental disability were very different then and I think there was an element of revulsion and they wanted her out of sight.

MS: Is one of the reasons why the popular imagination latches onto this case so powerfully because it seems in a way to replicate some of the conventions of the drama of the period? It is sort of a locked room mystery isn’t it? I mean Wilkie Collins coined this phrase “the secret theatre of home”; there is something of that about this case.

RC: Yes there is and also you mentioned earlier the novels of sensation, Mrs. Henry Wood, Mary Braddon people like that, the fashion at the time, particularly among women readers, it is a bit like today in some respects, was for these monstrously swollen novels in which extraordinary and quite disgusting things would happen, preposterous things sometimes.

MS: The reason you and I are talking about this case and standing on this street today is because you have written an after-word to a new edition of a literary treatment of the case by Elizabeth Jenkins, a writer who has only just died but the novel is from the thirties. What was her interest in it?

RC: Well, she had a fascination with the criminal mind. She wrote a couple of books about murder cases where she brought her imagination to bear on them. What happened with this story was somebody lent her a volume in the notable trials series, which was an incredibly popular series about accounts of trials. They are actually quite boring if you look at them now, it’s strange that they were so popular. She read about the Stauntons and she was transfixed by it, she was horrified by it and she decided to write a novel about it. She changes almost nothing but she imagines the things that we don’t know and she makes a very convincing case for what I have just been talking about which is this strange complicity between the main protagonists.

MS: So this is like a 1930s British anticipation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood?

RC: It completely is. This is a book about horror but horror that is going on in the corner of the page. So, for instance, Harriet has a baby. You are just reading along, you are very gripped by the story and then all of a sudden you think Oh My God! This poor young girl who knows nothing of sex; what has he done to her? What has he done to her? Does she understand that she is pregnant? Does she understand that he is the father of the child? I mean it is truly a horrifying book but it is horrifying in a very tamped down quiet way. I really do think it is a masterpiece.

MS: Well if it is not too morbid perhaps we should go and consider it a bit further in this pub in which the inquest took place?  So, Rachel, we are now sitting in what was once the Park Tavern possibly in the room where the inquest took place. It certainly took place in this building and there was a riot on the street outside because of the suspects who were all interrogated here. What is it that Jenkins was doing with this case because this is the 1930s looking back upon the 1870s? What’s being seen?

RC: Her tutor at University was Pernel Strachey who was Lytton’s sister and what we know about the Bloomsburys was that they became obsessed with how terrible the Victorians had been and they were pushing against that repression. I think that Elizabeth Jenkins, in a way she is part of that, she must have been. She was very young when she wrote this book but I think she is also a bit more subtle. I think she can see it from both sides. I think she is horrified by some of the conventions of Victorian life and slightly mesmerized by them.

MS: Rachel Cook was describing Elizabeth Jenkins looking back on the Victorian past from the 1930s. Kate Summerscale how typical is that attitude of horror and fascination do you think, when these two time zones become aligned?

Kate Summerscale: I think that we still have it. I think there is something about Victorian England that does seem like there’s a mystery about ourselves that we can solve there; that something set in, some rot or hypocrisy. It is endlessly returned to and fascinating, though in different ways. Reading this novel I was struck, for instance, by how comfortable she was with all the minutiae of the period and it struck me that her mother must have been alive at the time that this went on so there is something about our increasing distance and how much stranger it becomes. The domestic detail is adopted very easily and it is fascinating, a lot about what they ate for instance and how they cooked and of course because starvation is at the heart of this novel, and money, all that is intensely relevant.

MS: There is a lot about the domestic interior as well isn’t there, wallpaper, the details of furniture recreated. This is one of the sights upon which this horrified fascination takes place isn’t. She cannot tear her eyes away from this domestic detail.

Kate Williams: Yes, this is the most thrilling thing because of course at this point the Victorian home is so sacrosanct, the idea of the lady in the house, it’s the place where the perfection lies. Outside is the bustling world, inside is the glory and the ideal domesticity of the home, the angel in the house. This whole story completely undermines that, there is that horror in privacy, in domesticity, Elizabeth is shown throughout the novel as very retiring, a very good wife. She tries very hard to keep Patrick in very comfortable circumstances and look after the children and at the same time all of them are dragged into creating this domestic horror story which is truly so horrific because no-one saw it, the idea that when they uncover the body the dirt is so thick it’s like bark and she is covered in lice and she is mistreated like a poor miserable animal. It’s disgraceful.

MS: Lynda Nead, Rachel mentioned the Bloomsbury view of the Victorians. Jenkins was very much in the orbit of Virginia Woolf, she went out to tea with her quite a lot until she was dropped like a stone by her at some point. How responsible is Woolf for fixing our idea of the Victorian woman?

Lynda Nead:  I was just thinking of that wonderful chapter in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando when she comes to the Victorian era and she notices a cloud in the sky over London that gets heavier and darker as she moves into the Victorian age…

MS: It’s like England has become a big damp cabbage isn’t it?

LN: Yes and everyone walks around in couples as if they are glued together and the crinoline becomes the symbol of this in Woolf’s eyes, this kind of oppressive repressive society. I think that whole filter that sort of lays over the Victorians, that Bloomsbury filter of clouds and repression is incredibly influential actually and it was fascinating to read Jenkins’ novel as something, as you say, it isn’t quite solidly as full of rejection and loathing as the most kind of vitriolic anti-Victorianism of the Bloomsbury group but it belongs to that moment very firmly I think.

MS: Kate Williams, do we still see the Victorians through the lens of Bloomsbury?

KW: Yes and I think what is fascinating to me about this book is how it is so much of a 1930s version of the Victorians as well. Kate was saying about how important food is, it is a novel about starvation, about hunger and of course the first scene is when the mother is sitting there with her lovely plum cake and the lovely muffins and then poor Harriet she misses her crumpet, she misses her chocolate. This 1934 was of course at a time when England was at its hungriest. There were the Hunger Marches in 1932: thousands of people as a consequence of the Great Depression were starving and so hunger and the fact that this baby just starves in its room alone and the woman dies of starvation is so pertinent to the 1930s imagination. I think that’s another reason why it was so incredibly popular at the time.

MS: Lynda Nead

LN: Yes, I was just thinking, I was very struck by Kate saying how close were the 1930s to the Victorians. You would have had Grandmothers in long dresses and Queen Alice; you would have had Victorian figures still present and Victorian housing. The strange thing is, I think now today in 2012, it still feels very familiar because we have had so much Victorian reconstruction and representation so actually I feel like I know the Victorians really well. I think I would know exactly what to put on if I had to be a Victorian lady for a day.

MS: It’s a certain kind of knowledge though isn’t it Kate Summerscale? We have tended to see the Victorian woman in particular as a kind of victim, as a kind of prisoner of circumstance, when I suppose we can certainly say that there was in the 19th Century also a class of woman deeply engaged in political life, the Victorian novel was a largely female enterprise. It doesn’t seem to quite match up that does it?

KS: No so there is a continual tension and that is again a reason I think why we are drawn to it because we are not really out of that moment of a combination of insipient liberation and yet being trapped by the forms and shapes and representations of the past. I think that was the case then as those forms were taking place so there is always a counter-story to be found in any Victorian novel you read. All of those very powerful images of repression, constraint, women sort of trapped in their domestic lives are always being pulled against and that’s what keeps it alive for us and keeps it something we go back to.

MS: But we seem compelled to think of the 19th century as an era in which women were peculiarly disadvantaged by the law rather than, Kate Williams, one in which they gained a growing number of rights.

KW: Yes I mean that is the fascinating point and particularly in this book, in Harriet. She is the archetypal Victorian woman victim even though she is not the normal woman, as they wouldn’t have seen her at the time because she is, as they call her, a natural. She’s mentally disabled but at the same time she is locked in the room, she can’t speak, she can’t say anything, and at the end the decisions are all made for her by men. We see at the end of the novel it is a panoply of different men who make the decision, it’s doctors it’s lawyers, it’s judges. She seems to be the ideal passive woman, which I think was also a fascination in 1934 when we have the increase in evil. The only way that we can see that is in the passivity, this is what is coming to us and in the Victorians themselves, so obsessed with the actual criminal mind, with what created evil. Here in Harriet we see evil is created by just sitting back and it is this fascinating kind of incremental evil that just keeps happening and they go “oh well we might as well just do this actually let’s just board up her window and actually let’s just not let her come down for dinner” and it grows and grows and grows.

LN: But at the same time as she is the archetypal passive victim the other women in the book are the archetypal passive aggressors who by conforming to, in a very narrow way, to the ideals of their time to keep a good home to be good mothers to look after family, immediate family, to support the men to keep everything normal and respectable, commit a horrific crime.

KW: Yes, I mean that is the chilling bit isn’t it, that Alfred needs new clothes so we aren’t going to give anything to Harriet and the fascinating play between innocence and knowingness about Alice at the end, is she guilty, isn’t she. Did she just do it because she loved a man?

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