Kate Colquhoun is the author of a number of books including, ‘Mr Briggs Hat’, ‘A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary life of Joseph Paxton’ and most recently Did She Kill Him? I caught up with Kate to talk about her latest book and discover what inspired her to tell the captivating story of the Victorian woman, Florence Maybrick, who in 1889 stood trial for the alleged arsenic poisoning of her much older husband.
On a recent visit to the resplendent Lismore Castle, Kate gave a talk on her remarkable biography of Joseph Paxton, the Victorian horticulturist and designer of Crystal Palace, a fitting setting then to talk with her about her latest Victorian story Did She Kill Him? My first question was about why the Victorian era intrigued and compelled her to write the stories of historical figures? Kate explained, “It’s partly that the 19th Century is so recognisable to us through its wealth of novels. Partly that we are similarly living through an age in revolution – not industrial but digital. Partly that they recorded their lives so completely in diaries, letters, newspapers – they were terribly self conscious. There are so many ways to punch a hole in time and peer at those particular periods of the past”.
Writing historical stories requires a great deal of skill and research. I ask Kate how she approaches this side of her writing? “I only take on stories that have a wealth of primary source material available to me; sometimes in private archives, sometimes in the National Archives. Then, it’s just about diligence and being prepared to turn the same stone over several times just to be sure that what’s under it is really there”.
The Maybrick case it seems had the makings of a modern day fatal attraction; I wonder what prompted Kate to write about Florence’s story: “Every book starts with a small shock: did that really happen? If the story doesn’t have that to start with it’s ‘just another story’. The hook has to go in, and to work its way deeper every time you approach the story. Also I wanted to write about a woman so my antennae were out for that. Finally, the story’s themes added up to more than the sum of their parts – so the lonely transatlantic marriage, adultery, arsenic, the women’s movement and the New Woman of the 1880s and 90s, the moral hypocrisy of the age, the burgeoning of Liverpool as an industrial city, Port of Empire – the Henry James-ian nature of it all. The story punches a hole in time and lets us, momentarily, hold hands with the past in an extraordinarily intimate way” she says.
It is easy to think that it is the 21st Century that has created the insatiable thirst for sensationalism in the media; however, the Maybrick case was something of a Victorian sensation that attracted considerable newspaper coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. Why does Kate think this trial captured the imagination of two nations? “Well, England loved and was educated in sensation and the ‘new journalism’ of the 1860s on fuelled moral outrage, fear and anxiety through its coverage of crime because it sold papers. More than that, progress was so speedy – much like our own age – that perceived certainties were crumbling, people were anxious. In such times, we focus particularly on crimes that seem to suggest that the price to be paid for all this new wealth etc is the possibility of one’s ordinary day descending into a kind of existentialist hell. Are we safe? Can our law enforcers root out evil? And, of course, if it’s happening to someone else, it can’t be happening to me. So sensational crime titillated but it also served to give the impression that similar tragedy was unlikely in one’s own life”.
Of course, accusations of extra-marital affairs will almost certainly help sensationalise any murder case and it appears that such allegations were certainly enough to blacken Florence’s reputation. I ask Kate if there was any thought given to the fact that James Maybrick too, was also involved in affairs. She smiles “Florence asked for the fact of James’s adultery to be played down to protect the reputation of her children. I don’t think she understood that she would be judged more harshly for her infidelity than her husband was; I think she believed that the scientific proof, or lack of it, would take precedence in court. In this she – and perhaps her lawyer too – were naive – a double standard held sway when it came to morality and the Victorian bourgeoisie was up to its neck in its persistent hypocrisies.”
Yet, despite new evidence in the 1890s there was no possibility of an appeal for Florence. Kate explained, “the Court of Criminal Appeal was not set up until the early 20th Century. Until then the only option was to beg for the Queen’s mercy through the Home Secretary. Florence’s sentence was commuted so that she was not executed, but she still served 15 years, effectively for attempted murder – a charge on which she was not tried”. I ask Kate if she thinks Florence ever had a chance of a fair trial? “Our notions of ‘Fair Trial’ are very different from those in the 19th Century. However, I think she DID stand a chance of it. Clearly the trial judge’s sanity was questionable – and although he was accused of befuddlement, it was several years until a breakdown confirmed his mental decline. Further, the trial occurred in an atmosphere of moral revivalism so that society, the authorities etc. were particularly sensitised to perceived immorality and intent on flushing it out for the greater good of society”. I wondered if Florence had any supporters, others who believed in her innocence? “Her mother,” said Kate.
As a reader, James Maybrick does not seem to be a warm individual which leads to me ask Kate what type of man she thinks he was? Or more importantly did Florence have an idea of his true nature before marrying him? “She certainly didn’t know he was an addict. It doesn’t matter whether he was cold or kind, addiction makes people unreliable, illogical, wayward, mendacious, untrustworthy and unloving. I imagine he was at least a cocktail of all these, with a good dollop of middle class Pride”.
I am keen to learn about Florence’s life after such traumatic events. After her release Florence wrote a book about her experiences, I ask Kate if she thinks life for Florence could ever be the same again? Kate smiles “I’m sure she tried. I’m sure she was changed forever, as the world around her was also changing. She was left behind and unfitted for independence”.
And what advice would Kate have for writers who have found an interesting historical figure with an untold story? “The best advice for any writer is to read, read, read. Novels, other histories, immerse yourself in the world you are writing about by reading the novels of the time, listening to the music, walking the cities with old maps, reading the newspapers (most of which are in handy digital form now). And find primary source material – letters, diaries, etc that are available to you. It’s almost impossible to work without that,” she says.
I’m being a little cheeky but I must ask, “Kate, did she kill him?”…. “Well that’s the point of the book…so you’ll have to make up your own minds! I have considered evidence that has never previously been discussed. In the end, just as validly, one might ask ‘Would YOU have killed him?”
I leave Kate, wondering would I have done the same as Florence?
Did She Kill Him? Is for sale in all good book shops and online here.
Kate Colquhoun was born in Ireland in 1964. Her first book A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton (4th Estate, 2003) was short-listed for the Duff Cooper Prize, nominated for the Samuel Johnson Award and was a Radio 4 Book of the Week. Other books include: Taste, The History of Britain Through its Cooking (Bloomsbury, 2007) and The Thrifty Cookbook, 476 Ways to Eat Well with Leftovers (Bloomsbury, 2009). In 2011, she published Thomas Briggs’ Hat (Little Brown). Her new book Did She Kill Him?(Little Brown) is out now. Follow Kate on Twitter @wearyhousewife
(c) Maria E.FitzGerald, 2014
A huge thanks to Kate Colquhoun for granting me this interview and many thanks to Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin for publishing this interview on writing.ie