On Thursday 5th February esteemed author, lecturer and academic Kate Colquhoun graced Liverpool John Moore’s University with her presence to talk to intrigued students and staff members alike about her historical retelling of a Merseyside story, Did She Kill Him? In brief, Kate explores the interesting case of Florence Maybrick, who in 1889 was arrested and put on trial for the alleged murder of her cotton merchant husband, James Maybrick. Method? (Arsenic) Poison. Motive? Adultery. Florence, a sweet (?), innocent (?) and virtuous (?) Alabama girl is represented in Kate’s novel as being the victim of a malicious judicial system which callously singled out a naïve and fragile widower. Further, Kate suggests that Florence was systematically and categorically alienated, isolated and finally subjugated by a hostile and altogether unwelcoming (British) milieu which failed to adopt her. Further, the entrepreneur’s untimely demise was shrouded in mystery from the offset, captivating the intrigue of the British media, as well as the imagination of a trans-Atlantic audience. With the stage set, the infamous “Aigburth Poisoning” case was poised to be perhaps the single greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of British criminal law.
But why were the Victorian’s fixated on this case?
The life of a bourgeois family was generally closed off from public viewing and largely protected by a bubble of secrecy; accept on occasions when the home was voluntarily opened up to guests for banquets, feasts and luncheons. These formal events were not necessarily a true representation of the family and quite often masked the reality: closing the door on family secrets; shutting out any potential embarrassment; and locking up that which could destroy the family name. So the way in which a family functioned (or was perhaps dysfunctional) in private was protected by a social façade, a diversion, that outwardly portrayed sense, sensibility and moral decorum. So, what the “Aigburth Poisoning” case did was embroil all of the Maybrick family in a tale deceit, which in turn popped the protective bubble that had previously hidden from view all of the dishonesty and scandal. Into the vanguard came disgrace, shame and humiliation; all of which was at the expense of middle class discretion!
So what does Kate do differently?
Kate’s work is not simply a retelling, or rather regurgitation, of mindless facts. Instead, she presents her findings by effortlessly combining historical fact with a narrative style of writing which engages the reader. At times the novel can seem more like a period drama, rather than the academic text that it is. However, this is its appeal because it maintains an allure that entices the audience to continue reading and become increasingly immersed in the tantalizing world she has created. Thematically speaking, this novel has it all: marriage; death; murder; love; adultery; and poisoning. Kate’s talk did well to contextualise these strands and show, for example, how Florence was a captive being held hostage by a variety of social constructs including the institutions of marriage, paternalism and class. Further Kate also spoke in detail about Victorian society, its sense of morality and etiquette (or perhaps lack of), which has since encouraged an alternative reading of the text; one which asks the reader to sympathize with Florence. Kate does not endeavour to profess Florence’s innocence or guilt, and in that respect she does well to remain objective. Her empirical approach, combined with her creative imagination, simply allows the story of the Maybricks to come to life; with question Did She Kill Him? being left to the reader to decide.
An end note…
For those interested Kate will be performing another talk, which is open to the general public, at Liverpool’s Waterstone’s on Wednesday 18th March at 6.30pm (tickets priced £2/3).