misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Kate Summerscale's Suspicions of Mr Whicher: the gothic not so very apart from the real after all

Dear friends and readers,

Another blog partly intended for my students -- that's why I used the Harvard outline. But I invite all readers to join.

Road Hill House in a twentieth-century photo'

I. The book takes us on an investigation, slowly allowing us to experience the different phases of the investigation of a crime, until the person accused and determined guilty is imprisoned, and then tells us yet more by following the story of the lives of the participants afterward.

A. Welch knows from the get go that Constance did it, together with William, that Mr Kent was probably having an affair with Sarah Gough (the maid of Mrs Kent (Mary Pratt that was) who slept on the floor or room just outside and first reported the boy missing, only later, she withheld her knowledge he was missing until later, and that he and the maid were probably covering up for the son and daughter

William Kent, later in life

Constance Kent, also young adulthood

B. The motive is allowed gently to emerge: it's intense rivalry within a family situation, one that would not be that different today since in the US through the use of divorce we now practice serial monogamy: there is no eldest son takes all structure (primogeniture), but lots of evidence from divorce courts about how hard it is to readjust. 

    1. .The second time through very quickly it emerges that Constance and William are under suspicion from the neighbors and people in the house.  Summerscale scatters details continually (thrown away as it were) which shows people coming to the police or rioting or acting up against these two.  It comes out they are sleeping in inferior quarters, that Constance has inferior clothes.

    2. New children of second Mrs Kent enormously favored:  Mary Amelia kent and Saville Kent - the boy who was murdered. A third young child by the second wife, Eveline Kent.

    3. Now you have to think a little and realize that William is the father's oldest son by the first mother (Mary Windus Kent) and is being sidelined by the little boy who is child of the second wife.  This kind of deadly rivalry is common in earlier history and records, and I've come across lots of cases, two I know in detail where two such rivals end in a murderous scene where one murders the other (sometimes they are nephew and older or younger son). At the close of the book you discover how independent minded and unconventional William was and his original career as a scientist: Constance's confession is riddled with assertions she did it alone: she confessed in order to clear William to get scholarshis.

C.  It's a Governess story. The second wife of Mr Kent (Mary Pratt) was the governess in the first household. The first wife, Mary Windus Kent, after a couple of pregnancies and living with this man, Mr Kent, went into an intense depression, and nonetheless he carried on impregnating her. Four infants therefore died -- apparently of total neglect. Later we learn it's more likely it was syphilis, how common this disease was and dangerous (it was) before modern antibiotics can help.

    1. He hires a governess and the children start to survive.  Finally the poor first wife dies, and he remarries quickly. Who? The governess. And she proceeds to be endlessly pregnant (for those who have the text, see pp. 70-73).  Summerscale tells this but does not bring out morally what this is all about. The girl who confessed to the murder of the boy is a first wife's daughter living upstairs in servants's quarters.  There is evidence the Mr Kent is having a casual affair with another servant. Shades of Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw, no? (as seen in the 2009 film). This servant Sarah Gough, did not seek the boy when missing and it was she who called the boy a snitch.

Samuel Kent, the patriarch, father

Mary Pratt Kent, once the governess, now the second Mrs Kent

    2. They're quite a pair, these children. We can see the older children of Mary Windus Kent are being sidelined too, treated like half-servants:  Mary Ann Kent; Elizabeth Kent.

    3. Constance said in her long confession that she had hated her biological mother (we'll call her) when alive and favored the governess, but when the biological mother died she began to hate the new stepmother.  Probably this hatred is an (alas) not uncommon adversarial relationship between daughter and  biological mother; it was perhaps twisted by guilt, remorse, a desire for atonement that went wildly astray.

II. It's a sociological study of a milieu, a world graduallyh unfolded from lots of evidence

A. In spite of being written in this slow present tense style with a mystery hidden and the veils stripped as we go over the evidence and public reaction with now this person and now that and here  with this group and then with that.

B.  It's a book which self-reflexively suggests what we find so fascinating in these mystery detective stories.  Summerscale is able to recreate the Victorian world expertly and fully and includes (very rare in Victorian books) all the levels of people from their own points of view (so it reads like a vivid historical Victorian novel) and she often relates Dickens and other detectives (the inimitable Chief Inspector Bucket for example) to Mr Whicher.  It's a middle brow book as she is careful not to go directly and fully into the taboo areas, and will have broad appeal.  I'll lay a bet it may be a favorite with some of my students -- those not given to move into levels of fantasy.

Mr Whicher

    1. All levels of a middle class world: from professionals to shopkeepers to owners, to magistrates to police. 

    2. How they lived: this is a murder with an abundance of fabric. Victorians didn't have  our modern communication technology but they had plenty of cloth and hard industrial things -- bridges, carriages (not internal combustion engine) but by this time the train. Whicher goes about on trains.

C. In the center are a long intervening set of chapters introducing us to Mr Which (p. 43), who she returns to now and again to show how he's doing and how he's being regarded (p. 161)

    1.   Section about the historically real detective Whicher. Summerscale contextualizes him by setting him first in his working class background, then against the other famous fictional detectives of the era, which gives her a chance to give us a little history of the detective novel before Sherlock Holmes (adumbraed), and she neds up nearly contending that Dickens's  Inspector Bucket is partly based on Whicher -- whom Dickens interviewed.

    2.  What interests me is how much more money Whicher made as a policeman and then officer than an agricultural worker.  As a laborer he made 1 pound a week; within a few months of being on the force he was making 73 pounds. Living well, but of course in a strictly controlled way -- how much self-control he was expected to adhere to in private as well as public life -- until he retired and was out of the public eye.

    3. We follow him on his investigations and see how clever he was and came quickly to the conclusion, an inside job and so who could it have been?  and why? not far to seek.

    4. We do see the hints of an intense love story, a first wife or sweetheart, a dead child

    5.  See the difference of what the society was willing to put out -- to protect itself and the established order. Whicher's problem is in this case was he was investigating the gentry and had not yet realized that they wanted their secrets kept.  Samuel Kent was after all an inspector of factories, there to keep the workers in order (or does anyone imagine when on a phone you are calling a company and they tell you they are taping you for "quality control" they are not doing it so that if you try and sue they can hold whatever you said against you, medical groups too).

    6.  People were right to respect it. Now I've read Sherlock Holmes and gotten into the history of the police force, the detective figure, and why he is so idolized (and in life feared) I see how thorough and insightful Summerscale is here.  She does not omit Vidocq and the importance of fictional memoirs of cops and detectives. I like her jokes using Collins and Dickens. There were early parodies:  Cheknov in The Shooting Party -- he cleverly intuited some of the obsessive tropes (super clever detective, himself bohemian and half-wild in mind) did one.

D. On my blog someone wrote this: 

    1.  A mesmerizing true account of a famous Victorian murder case. Backed up by meticulous masses of contemporary reports, this could have fallen into the trap of being dryly forensic, but it is both elegantly framed and a breathlessly page-turning locked room murder story. The writer uses research to shed light on Victorian life and thought, and has fascinating material on the origin of detectives, fictional and real-life, and how they impacted each other. The London and country background is vividly depicted with wonderful descriptions of Victorian forensic science, the passionate rising craze for crime stories and detective fiction, the development of crime and court language, and a clear-eyed, vital look at the legal system of the period.

    2.  The case itself is eerily reminiscent of the Jon Benet Ramsay case of our era, with suspicion falling on one family member or servant after another, and wild conjecture blowing this way and that. The enigmatic early detective is a shadowy but intriguing feature, and the outwardly solidly respectable gentleman’s family into which a terrible crime has penetrated, captures the imagination today as it did a century and a half ago.  Most murders occur within families, most male violence directed at wife/girlfriend. Child abuse happens in the home.

    3. Reviewer: The sense that all may not be as it seems, is conveyed with delicious creepiness, and the full revelation of Constance’s guilt is parceled out with enormous suspense and skill. Even at the end, some mysteries remain, but it’s a masterly and definitive portrait of a classic Victorian crime.

    4. I can see why Figes, however furtively, panned it. It does encourage unexamined scandal-mongering, and lurid reactions. Very like newspaper accounts today are not responsible I suppose for the way people might read them.

Trowbridge, mid-Kent: it looked like this until 1930s or so

III. A moral novel trying to get out

A. I feel we are made to feel for Constance who gave up her life for the others (though she was certainly a brutal murderess at that moment she did the deed -- only at the end does Summerscale call our attention to the child and how he might have felt as he was murdered -- but not William who is kept at a distance from us, nor really Mr Kent

    1.  In the last chapterse where Constance confesses: at the point where her confession if read with intelligence shows what she is concerned to do is say she did the killing alone, so as to protect her brother William.  Summerscale doesn't mention Woolf's A Room of One's Own where she begins with "Arthur's Education Fund" and how the Victorian daughter was taught to give up all for her brother. That is what Constance did for she spent most of the rest of her long life in prison while Arthur went on to have a distinguished career as a scientific academic.

    2. It needs to be read more than once.  It's best when you can remember the various characters, and the layout of the place.  It's not so much who did it but what this means. By the end of the book we are (I submit) supposed to be persuaded that the two children, Constance, a near teenager and her younger brother, William, murdered their stepbrother. The way it was done was brutal because 1) they were children, excitable and not old enough to empathize; 2) they got frightened and hurried; and 3) they were intensely filled with confused anger and hatred.

    3.  These last emotions I suggested were brought out when half-way through the book Summerscale shows us this is a governess story: the second Mrs Kent was governess to the children of the first, mistress of the husband while the first was still alive and endlessly being impregnated. Why several neonates of the first Mrs Kent died is not clear, but the reasons are all about family internecine horrors: the father may have had syphilis, the mother was badly depressed; the liaisons going on made for lack of care.

    4.  It matters that Constance took the rap to protect William and how she spent most of her life paying for it in cruel punishments in her prison. Forget any comforts or rehabilitation and that she was not permitted any parole but released only in old age and then evidence showed she went to live near and with William with everything being done that could be to erase her presence.

    5.  William’s life was that of a bold explorer; yet details linger in mind of him too:  "Master William hs frequently cried over it" (the murder, he wept and wept)

B.  Their confusion matters: Constance was taught to hate her mother and we are given enough evidence to show when she realized what was the real hurts her mother endured she turned on the stepmother. You don’t have to add that William and Constance slept in the servants’ quarters and all that implies.  Then there is evidence the rest of the household knew and did what they could to cover this up. The locking in of the police by Mr Kent the first day to try to find all evidence and destroy it.

C. Now Mr Whicher suspected all this, including the murderer was not just Constance but William for when Constance confessed, he came “out” and said she could not have done it alone.

    1.  He paid for telling his suspicions and keeping at it (pp. 169-77). His career was badly hurt when he brought out it was an internecine family quarrel. I found the two photographs of this originally working class, hard working self-educated man so touching — he is the type you find in some of Trollope’s novels who is insufficiently appreciated.

    2.  Dickens does not come out well here, for his instincts refused to let him see and accuse the servant made of erotic entanglement and envious intrasexual murder.

    3.  The way the book is laid out is understated and you slowly see evidence you don’t understand until later — this reminds me of Emma. Indeed this is a book with shadows stories of the kind AP wants to see in Austen but are not there that way. For example, Mr Whicher's: he was married when young or had a sweetheart; not clear.  They had a child who quickly died as a baby (pp. 56-57). He didn't marry openly until late in life a woman who kept the lodging house where he lived, his landlady (p. 262).

D.  I don’t see the experience offered here as important for its aesthetics, but for its lessons about human nature of which I’ve only covered a few as lots of the details about daily life are instructive too and connection to popular genres as well as modern newspaper stories, "human interest' stories as they are called on TV.

Constance Kent at age 20

III.  Central Source:  Joseph Whitaker Stapleton's The Great Crime of 1861.

A.  Summerscale did a great deal of research on site, in records and so on but there is a central source she follows where you can find a lot she went further to find out about. The level she took it which I just outline is not in Stapleton who begins up front with his assertions that Constance did it for William or did they did it together -- and Dickens's suspicions it was Mr Kent and Sarah Goughe: so either an evil daughter or adultery

B. Slightly suprising it's been reprinted in a facsimile. For google with its reach that's not hard: probably because those reading Summerscale with care noticed how dependent she was on Stapleton, described as a surgeon in the book, a doctor called in early on -- who also tended both Mrs Kents and the children.

    1. Doctors get to know a lot. I read one-third of this.

    2.  Two things to remark upfront: how frank Stapleton is about the pathologies of family life at the same time as the tone he takes is half-hysterical.  A small baby has died and he goes on about it as if an earthquake had killed thousands.  He is determined to break through tabooes to tell the truths of social, psychological, family life at the same time as it's traumatic for him to speak these things.

    3.  My husband made a little joke about the lack of self-consciouness seen in the title:  it's called "the great" but delimits itself to 1861. We would not be so impressed if Stapleton had called it "the great crime of July 1861."  That implies there was another one coming up the next and in the former month; also that this is just the great crime for this year.  Of course the author did not see his language gives away his overinflated emphasis in the midst of tense literalism.

B.  Such a book gives us enormous insight into the (relatively) discreet novels of the era as well as the burgeoning of mystery and gothic genres.  I can see why Summerscale was attracted to it.

    1. He assumed ambition drove William to the crime:  more than the sexual and social pathogies of this family group, he chases the money: he gives much more than Summerscale: a son who was destroyed by his attempts to grow rich through military and commercial ventures in the "empire."

    2. Produces far more of a astonishing witches' brew -- we get letters as well as strikingly candid analysis.   Much of it may be wrong in a way:  Summerscale's judicious scepticism about evidence and how courts and newspapers work much truer.  But this is how people think and feel, many of them.

C. For those who like Victorian and big novels of sensations types: his is the underside, all that's implicit but what intelligent novelists may realize swirls about in the minds of readers so provoked.

D. Is novel art moral?

IV.  Book attacked surreptitiously by a respected academic male historian:

A. I don't think he was envious: my guess is he would despise this book as a woman’s book (without using these words), for woman’s intuitive book it certainly is.

B.  Ecriture-femme as self-reflexive literary and social study of a mystery genre itself and its fascination.

C. Women today write history as travel books where they unearth the daily life of places they are travelling and compare now and then and try to build up a world from domestic private lives. It's an inwardness of approach/

    1. Seen in her postscript as she can't let go.  Her comments reinforce my sense of this book as unusual history.

    2. Devoney Looser’s book on history was disappointing because she accepted male objective vast surveys as history, and so turned to the few histories of this type that existed by women before the 20th century (hardly any) and basically turned to historical fiction romancing that.

    3. She needed to give up pre-conceived notions of history. Women doing history is different from men doing it (as women doing science)

2009 Turn of the Screw (ITV)

V. Structure of book:

A. Outline

1.  Brief reason for reading it:  cause celebre, p xii:  Whicher exposed truths about family life; crosses classes, crosses media, crosses the earth.

2.  Prologue: a picture of Whicher on the train: symbol of "modern world" and how he is a creature of it, pp xxi-xxv

3.   Part one:  The Death

a. pp. 3-16: to see what we have got here:  what we know of what happened

b. pp. 17-28:  The horror and amazement: first immediate reaction as far as can be told from literal observation of everyone near by

c. pp. 27-39:  Shall not God Search this out?  coroner and grand jury trial: it must be ferreted out

2.  Part Two: The Dectective: it follows who he is, and what he sees and then extrapolates

a.  Man of mystery, pp 43-57: here she numbers the chapters by month and day too

b.  Every clue cut off, pp. 59-65: here's where the second time youj begin to see a family conspiracy of a few individuals hiding or destroying evidence and everyone else keeping silent: it's in this chapter the second reading turns up the family configuration and you begin to see what's what, pp 72-73

c.  Something in her dark cheek, pp 78-89:  Whicher intuits the chief murderer is Constance. Not quite right: also William, but William is held back

d.  All tight shut up, pp. 100-119 -- house and symbolism in it

e. I know you:  pp. 115-31: here William emerges, crying all the time, and we begin the incessant search for that nightdress - the kind of detail that Sherlock Holmes would seize on

f.  pp. 132-46: To look at a star at a glance:  further outsiders, investigates people a little further off but connected to house and people in it

g.  What games go on, pp 147-59:  strong feeling develops against Whicher supposedly

h. Detective fever, pp. 162-77: the kind of lurid things newspapers got up to: the way common people will show up in public, like on TV

i.  A general putting together of this and that together by the wrong end, p 180-91: wrong theories take hold; here we met Dickens's

j.  pp. 14-209:   Women! hold your tongues: more on obsessions about nightdress and what went on in the house from woman's standpoint; what Wiltshire magistrates went after, Stapleton's book

3. Part 3: The Unravelling: Constance's confession

a.  LIke a Crave, people lost interest and lingering effects and rumours, pp 210-25  Mr Kent has to move. It's clear the second time people had not forgotten and we glimpse the family suffering

b.  So Better she be mad, pp 227-45: Constance takes the rap

c.  My love turned, pp 248-59: her explanation for her motives, how she said she did it

d. Surely our detective liveth,pp 262-81.  her imprisonment and the long aftermath

e.  Fairylands of fact and Music of Scythe takes us to Australia and William and we see it at last, pp 284-302

4.  Afterward and Postscript

a.  pp 304-314:  what happened to Whicher later and from a self-reflexive point of view what the book shows

b. The notes are fascinating: they are often lines of quotation and little essays in themselves,
pp 338 the top: a post-modern view: how we see things

c. p  246:  no 278: more on Constance, very hostile

Tags: 19th century, gothic, women's art

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