The subject of historian Kate Colquhoun's book reads like the plot of a Penny Dreadful, the cheap, sensationalist publications that were enormously popular in Victorian Britain.
In 1889, Florence Maybrick, a young American woman, was accused of murdering her husband, James, a Liverpool cotton merchant. The trial was scandalous and gripping. The very notion this young woman might have poisoned her older husband sent shivers through Victorian society, where respectable women were expected to be demurely subservient to husbands, no matter how badly they were treated.
With James's death being known from the outset, it is to Colquhoun's credit that she builds an almost unbearable tension into the events leading up to his demise. Florence and James had met on a ship bound for Liverpool, then one of the great ports of the world. James visited America regularly to buy the raw materials for his cotton business, and he was soon quite taken by the teenage Southern Belle he met on the voyage home.
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James thought he was marrying into New World money, while Florence's mother thought she had acquired a rich husband for her daughter; both sides were to be sorely disappointed.
They married and settled into a grand house in a Liverpool suburb and quickly produced two children. Money worries were never far away for the Maybricks, not helped by Florence's extravagant shopping trips and secret gambling habit. James was no saint either, keeping a long-term mistress throughout the marriage, but it was his self-medicating drug habit that caused furious rows between the couple. James was an admitted hypochondriac and never stopped trying out new, frequently dangerous pills and potions; his offices at work and at home were strewn with bottles of various medications that he often took to excess.
Many Victorian homes contained over-the-counter medicines that claimed to cure a plethora of symptoms, including anaemia, lumbago, syphilis, diabetes and snakebite. These potions often included noxious compounds, the great favourite being Fowler's Solution, which contained potassium arsenite with a drop of lavender. There were others that also contained arsenic in various quantities. Arsenic, in small doses, was considered by many doctors to be beneficial to general health, but James appears to have been imbibing potentially harmful amounts.
When James fell ill, it seemed at first that it was as a result of overdosing on his medications, but he continued to deteriorate and doctors were called in. He was prescribed more medicines and drinks made of concentrated beef juice, a Victorian panacea, but failed to recover. When his two brothers arrived, the overbearing Michael, who had never approved of Florence, began to suspect James was being slowly killed by his wife. After James's death Florence was charged with poisoning him with arsenic and put on trial for murder, even though his body did not contain a fatal dose of arsenic at the post mortem examination.
This book is much more than a real-life murder mystery. Colquhoun has researched her subject thoroughly and presents a forensic account of the facts as known. Her picture of Victorian society is less than flattering in its attitudes to women in particular. Like many wives, Florence was expected to accept her husband's infidelity with good grace, but the reverse situation was simply impossible to imagine.
Women had so few rights that Florence could be kept from her dying husband by his brothers. She was not helped by her household's female staff, particularly her children's spiteful nanny, and women of her own class would not spring to her defence in case they too became tainted by the scandal. In a time before there was widespread support for women's suffrage and legal rights for married women, Florence was at the mercy of the men around her.
Colquhoun spins a tale rich in detail and atmosphere, and her meticulous research never overshadows her obvious talent for storytelling. None of the principals emerge as likeable characters, not even Florence, but it is Victorian hypocrisy and double standards that Colquhoun firmly places in the dock and finds guilty as charged.