Hazel McHaffie

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

An overlooked classic

My brain is throbbing with the intensity of creating characters and connecting plot lines for my current novel, so it’s doubly important to build in relaxation to maintain sanity and have the space to engage with real life. A lady called Mary Elizabeth Braddon has helped me wind down this week. Heard of her? Nor me till now – to my great shame. And that in spite of numerous TV, radio and stage adaptations of her work apparently!

Because Ms Braddon (1835-1915) published over ninety books and became a household name in the Victorian era, hugely admired and respected by other famous authors like Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray.

And this particular book, Lady Audley’s Secret, written when she was just 27 and a struggling actress, was the one that made her famous. It was serialised in the early 1860s at the same time as Dickens’ Great Expectations. Braddon quickly became the ‘Queen of the Sensational novel’, and to this day this book remains a classic Victorian spine-tingler. And there it was, amongst my own collection of not-yet-read classics! A hidden gem, but so good that I instantly want to buy all her other writings!

The back cover blurb says:
Miss Lucy Grantham is a newcomer to the parish of Audley. She may be an impoverished governess, but she is also kind and ineffably beautiful. When Sir Michael Audley sets eyes upon her he finds himself in the grip of ‘the terrible fever called love’. Their courtship raises eyebrows, but Sir Audley has set his heart on the sweet-natured girl, and before long they are married.

So, a light-hearted Georgette Heyer romance, huh?

No such thing. This is something much deeper and darker – shades of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, maybe? It’s a cleverly constructed mystery set in a grand country house and involving strange disappearances and duplicity on a grand scale. It’s Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert, who begins to suspect his new aunt is not all she seems to be, and his investigations lead him into a past full of inconsistencies, and very troubling secrets indeed, bigamy, blackmail, arson and murder among them.

Furthermore, below the surface, the tale is also an attack on the suppression of women in the Victorian era and the double standards set for the different classes as well as the different genders, with all their grave injustices and anomalies – hence perfectly timed. Lady Audley’s Secret called into question not only the role of women and the legal, economic and societal dominance of men, but also the insulting (to us) assumption at the time that women were inherently mentally unstable because of their hormonal fluctuations and therefore uniquely liable to insanity; a belief cleverly captured in the ruthless and manipulative Lady Audley’s own defence of insanity when exposed for the criminal she is: ‘the hidden taint I had sucked in with my mother’s milk.’

But the appeal of Lady Audley’s Secret has far outlasted the Victorian craze for melodramas, and goes beyond feminist politics. Why? Well, Professor Robert Giddings believes ‘the continuing fascination might be in the character of Lady Audley herself. Such a crafty, villainous woman is not portrayed in the traditions of the villainess, but as an irresistibly attractive, innocent-seeming Pre-Raphaelite beauty.‘  Her charm, her feathery mass of golden ringlets, her delicate features and her strange deep blue eyes, predispose us to like her; but the portrait Robert and his friend George Talboys see of her reveals the ‘beautiful fiend’ within.

The language is a little OTT and repetitious at times, the speeches run into several pages in places (including one by a dying man!), and I do dislike the frequent references in direct speech to what the characters thought, but for all that it’s a riveting read. I galloped through the almost 500 pages effortlessly and will definitely seek out more of this amazing writer’s work. And it’s all there – the richly interesting characters; the careful backstories; the perfectly calibrated shocks; the interwoven connections – all the things I’ve been working at with my own writing. Seemingly effortlessly woven together. What a find!

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Eyes closed but wide awake

Life chez nous is becoming very scrambled this spring.  Three weddings and a couple of conferences all involving long car journeys (of the several-hundred-miles-in-one-hop variety) … looming literary appointments … elderly folk needing tlc … family commitments … amongst the usual hmdrum responsibilities. Which is a long-winded way of saying, not much time to sit writing novels.

As far as the current story (about a family whose lives are devastated by a car crash) goes, I know I need to lift the mood somewhat. And I’ve identified the way forward: another secondary narrative thread. But it requires a lot of concentration to hang on to which of my characters is doing what, where and in what time frame; to place enough cues strategically without losing pace or flow. So, with everything else going on, it’s left to the deep recesses of the night-time brain to develop this new storyline.

Which reminds me of the narrator in the fictional Diary of an Ex-Detective (1959): ‘When I am deeply perplexed it is my practice to go to bed, and lie there till I have solved my doubts and perplexities. With my eyes closed, but wide awake, and nothing to disturb me, I can work out my problems.’ quoted in the The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I’m doing a fair bit of problem-solving with my eyes closed these days, not just during the long watches of the night, but also on those aforementioned long journeys – not, I hasten to add, when I’m in the driving seat.

But for those of you who haven’t made the acquaintance of late great Mr Whicher, here’s a summary. One summer night in 1860 the well-to-do Kent family went to sleep in an elegant Georgian house in Wiltshire. Mr and the second Mrs Samuel Kent, their children, their domestic staff. Next morning their world is blown apart by the discovery of the gruesome murder of one of the children. What’s more it seems that the perpetrator of the crime must be someone within the household.

The celebrated detective Jack Whicher from Scotland Yard is brought in to investigate but his conclusions fly in the face of the verdicts of the local police and others. He believes the daughter of Samuel Kent’s first marriage is to blame, but almost everyone else comes into the frame at some stage. And so powerful are the voices raised in opposition that Mr Whicher’s mighty reputation crumbles and he fades into obscurity. The true story only evolves gradually over many years.

The Suspicions of Mr WhicherThe book is a reconstruction of a real case but begins like a novel. Whatever its later shortcomings, hats off to Kate Summerscale for her meticulously detailed research. She weaves in the work of authors of the time, historical landmarks, other notorious cases, alongside her account of who said what, who did what, and when. Rather too many deviations, in my view, detracting from the pace of the main storyline. Probably why she needs to repeat points so often to remind the reader of the salient facts of this case. But in the process she brings into stark relief the harsh and capricious nature of the legal system of the day, with all its limitations. There’s no DNA evidence, no CCTV documentation, no sophisticated pathology result, to substantiate the circumstantial suspicions. The death penalty is meted out after short brutal trials. Public hangings are still a spectator sport.

And the class structure still divides. Whicher himself is seen by some as a greedy and inept working class fellow, meddling in middle class affairs. But by others as a fearless pursuer of the truth irrespective of class distinctions. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

His investigation certainly shines a light into a closed-up house, into the secretive world beneath the veneer of well-to-do respectability, into the divided loyalties above and below stairs, into the complex emotions of step-relations. Police procedure involves measuring breasts, examining night attire for bodily fluids, asking indelicate questions of nice young ladies – all in a context of Victorian prudery and secrecy. Sensational stuff for its age. It attracts huge media attention. And the echoes and repercussions go on for decades.

I enjoyed the clever piecing together of the fragments of a story from many sources. And the unravelling of a family’s life during that era. A clever idea adroitly executed. I wasn’t so keen on the time it took to tell the story and the repetitive elements. But it made me appreciate the fact that at least any false trails I might lay won’t lead to the gallows.

Hmmm, clutching at straws comes to mind!

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