Friday, June 27, 2008
Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is the true story of a murder that took place at Road Hill House in the English countryside. One night, at the end of June, 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent, son of a local factory inspector, was found dead in the privy of his family’s estate, his neck severed. A week later, Detective Jack Whicher, of Scotland Yard, arrived on the scene, and promptly determined that Saville’s half sister Constance, age 16, committed the horrible crime. What followed was a ghastly revealing of one family’s secrets in an era when the family and its home was considered to be sacrosanct.
Summerscale writes as though all this is fiction, and walks us right through the crime, from the time the Kents went to bed on that June evening up through a dramatic trial five years later and beyond. There were a number of brutal murders that took place around the time that London began to have its own specialized detective force, and these detectives were the inspiration for many fictional detectives, Inspector Bucket of Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff of The Moonstone, to name just two. Murders such as these were inspiration for much of the sensationalist fiction that was written in the 1850s and ‘60s; Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon were just two of the many authors who wrote this kind of “lowbrow” literature.
These murders were especially shocking to mid-Victorian values; as Summerscale points out many times in the course of her narrative, the home was sacred, and any invasion of that privacy was frowned upon far more than it would be today. What was remarkable about the Kents was the fact that their house did not resemble those of other Victorians, with the family living on the lower floors and the servants above. Rather, the servants slept near to the family, with the children of Samuel Kent’s first marriage living on the third floor. The fact that Mary Ann, Elizabeth, William, and Constance Kent were treated as inferiors played a large part in the murder investigation, as did a missing nightgown that might have been bloodstained.
The Road Hill House murder shares an eerie resemblance to Jane Eyre, which incidentally had been published the year before: both situations involved mad wives and governesses. Summerscale paints her hard-boiled detective Whicher as determined to get to the truth, no matter the cost to his reputation, and the Kent family one with many secrets to hide. Constance, the accused, is portrayed in a sympathetic light, as is Elizabeth Gough, the governess. In all, this was an absolutely superb book—it reads almost like The Woman In White which, incidentally, was running in installments at this time. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a must read for lovers of the Victorian period.
Related books: Lady Audley's Secret, Devil in the White City. Also recommended: Bleak House (Dickens's masterpiece, in my opinion) and The Woman in White and The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.
Also reviewed by: As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves, Literary License, Passages to the Past, Semicolon, A Work in Progress, Between the Covers, Caribou's Mom