March 14, 2014 6:21 pm

‘Did She Kill Him?’, by Kate Colquhoun

Did She Kill Him?, by Kate Colquhoun, Little, Brown RRP£18.99, 432 pages

 

In 1889, Florence Maybrick, a pretty young American, stood trial for poisoning her husband, James, a Liverpool merchant 23 years her senior. It was a murky case: the marriage had been bitterly unhappy, there had been adultery on both sides and James had been a hypochondriac with questionable self-medicating practices. Victorian Britain was riveted.

Kate Colquhoun renders the story in a vivid, novelistic style that occasionally goes too far (“Somewhere close, a floorboard creaked”). She avoids giving a final verdict and, instead, shows how the trial cut to the heart of Victorian life, exposing deeply conflicted values. Drawing on contemporary sources, she traces how attitudes towards Florence shifted as the case progressed.

Custodians of the old order – including Queen Victoria – saw her infidelity as “proof” that she was a murderer. But as the evidence that James had been deliberately spiked with arsenic grew shaky, many came to see her as the victim of a society that treated spirited, sexually independent women with suspicion. Gripping stuff.

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