03 October 2007

Book Review: Sentimental Murder by John Brewer

Sentimental Murder On 7 April 1779, a recently-ordained clergyman shot and killed Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, and turned a second gun on himself. Unfortunately for him, he missed, and received no more than a flesh wound before being taken into custody. There James Hackman was overcome with remorse for what he had done. He claimed that he was in love with Ray, and determined to kill himself rather than live without her, but in a moment of madness sparked by seeing her with another man - a passerby who was helping her into her carriage - had decided to kill her too. Now he wanted to die, and within two weeks the legal system granted his wish. But that was not then end. The story lingered in the public imagination, as it fitted in nicely with the current fashion of sentimentalism. It persisted into the nineteenth century, to take its place in the Victorian fascination with crime and morality; and the twentieth, when the victim was transformed into the heroine.

This is an unusual book in that it is not so much the history of a crime as the history of the history: a chronicle of the accounts and versions of the events of that night. It began almost immediately, as the two sides - the friends and supporters of both Sandwich and Hackman - tried to sway public opinion to their side using the far-from-impartial press. Later authors produced everything from fictional correspondence passed of as fact, to morality tales about what could befall fallen women (guess which century that was from). Wordsworth even slipped her into one of his poems. (Mental note to self: read Wordsworth.) While this different perspective was quite interesting from the historical point of view, particularly the sections describing eighteenth-century society and its productions of rakes and demi-reps like Sandwich and Ray, it was also a bit unsatisfactory. The mystery reader in me wanted to know just what had happened before the crime: were Hackman and Ray having an affair, as has been frequently supposed? Were her friends the Gallis responsible - inadvertently or otherwise - for tipping Hackman over the edge? Since those are questions that there isn’t enough evidence to answer, I’ll just have to settle for the speculations of the intervening two and a quarter centuries.

Rating: B-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776