The Poisoner (a review)

bates_poisonerWriter Charles Dickens thought William Palmer “the greatest villain”; Queen Victoria followed the case (evidenced by her journals). Unlike “Jack the Ripper” or Dr. Crippen, Palmer’s name has faded. Author Stephen Bates rectified that with this true-crime biography.

Was Palmer (“the Rugeley Poisoner”) unjustly accused of the poisoning-murder of his friend, John Cook? Was he guilty of as many poisonings as he was suspected of? (A dozen or so.)

Seen in an advance reading copy, one early image spoke a thousand words, as the face of a presumed-killer stares out from page in the one photograph purporting to be Palmer. Bates takes a moment, at the end of the book to say a few words about this photograph and its provenance.

Bates begins (as many biographers do) at the end: the day of Palmer’s execution. In fleshing out Cook’s death and Palmer’s trial, the journalistic background of author Stephen Bates is evident. The researched material of the case, from genuine newspaper articles and reports of autopsy mishandlings, is allowed to stand center-stage. And therein lies the book’s slight lack of emotional drama – for, unlike the sensationalism of the 19th century journalist, Bates is dispassionate and all-informing (good traits for a 21st century journalist) rather than gripping and the smallest bit one-sided (better for a biographer or historian).

Having never heard of Palmer nor his crimes, the suspense of the story felt somewhat diluted by tackling the Palmer Poisonings as a newspaper post-mortem. Yet, ultimately, the book does pose the eternal question: Was the executed man actually GUILTY of the one crime he was charged with?

An absorbing section came during discussion of the deaths of Palmer’s immediate family, when contemplation that Palmer may have gotten rid of his wife and children made this reader care about the dilemma, danger, and death of Mrs Palmer. The textbook details surrounding Cook’s death detached, rather than enhanced, any emotive viewpoint. The murder Palmer stood accused of – in a case so-circumstantial that except for a series of happenings the body might never have been placed at Palmer’s doorstep – failed to draw the same depth of effect as the mysterious death of Mrs. Palmer. Heavy reliance on verbatim newspaper reports, rather than the writer’s deductions (for instance, in his informative consideration of the so-called Jane Letters), distanced and disengaged this reader just enough that a wish for a different take on the whole was inevitable. Knowing the outcome from the onset (a cursory look on the internet would have supplied the same information; the denouement never was is question), made it imperative for Bates to persuade through skillful narrative writing rather than aloof journalism.

If a “side” had been chosen – either from the point of view of the victim(s); the killer; the court or insurance company; even the author’s own “investigation” – the result could have been a riveting story, thrillingly told. It’s hard to fault a journalist for his background, with its inherent precept of “unbiased” news reporting. The assessment that needed to take place occurs late in the book; it is a valuable summation to this long-ago case.

Recommended to readers wishing to get a flavor of the seedier side of Victorian life. You won’t reach into the mind of a killer, nor balance on the edge of life and death with the victims, but Stephan Bates has provided a readable account of a once-notorious case, in all its grim, bungled, biased, and sensationalized reality.

3 inkwells (out of 5)


Life in the English Country House

Publisher / date: Yale University Press, 1978
pages: 344
genre: architectural and cultural study

The subtitle of the book, “A Social and Architectural History” precisely outlines the intent of author Mark Girouard. I also have his Life in a French Country House and Town and Country. Girouard is an author worth seeking out.

This particular book gives the history of the country house in England from mediaeval times through the early World War II period. I, of course, have been reading his chapter most relevant to the Smith&Gosling research: “The Arrival of Informality, 1770-1830.” Girouard’s vivid writing and succinct commentary on the rise of the garden-related house, with its French Windows and its relationship to the landscape really puts into perspective the purpose behind such a gentry estate as Roehampton Grove (Grove House now a Grade II listed building, part of Roehampton University). I had seen the plans for William Gosling’s Conservatory, but Girouard made a case for the layout and character of the house that I had never contemplated before. And, in writing about the character of the gentry, the improvement of the roads and ability of travel, as well as the idea of country house parties, my thoughts on the world portrayed by Austen’s novels and Emma and Mary’s diaries and letters just fit everything together, perfectly.

Girouard’s books are always well illustrated, nicely placed so there’s not a lot of flipping back and forth between text and accompanying illustration. Many color plates. He is cognizant not only of the gentry, but also the servants who made such estates tick. Reading a short paragraph about the advent of bell pulls made sense of all that comes later, with the elaborate system of which room was calling for attention (and therefore which servant might be summoned). To read that as the gentry “sank groundwards” – in order to commune with nature – the servants sank further below ground, before splitting off into a “servants’ wing” now made perfect sense of how to classify country houses that I have toured.

Highly recommended, for country house lovers and armchair travellers, as well as social and architectural historians.

*NEW* peek inside this book on YouTube!

Mrs Hurst Dancing

Publisher / date: Victor Gollancz / 1981
Pages: foreword; introduction; 70 full-color plates; postscript {about 160 pgs}
genre: Art

After introducing Sophie du Pont, how can I not introduce readers to the delightful Mrs Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823; watercolors by Diana Sperling; text by Gordon Mingay.

Reading about Diana Sperling’s family and life will leave you wanting to know more; her works of art will leave you wanting to fetch your pencils and watercolors. The text covers enough to explain and expand on the drawings. You learn about Diana’s family, her life at Dynes Hall (Essex), the trouble with donkeys, horses, and spiders!

I first learned of this book on a trip to Riversdale. The period of Rosalie Calvert’s letters overlap with these drawings.

Diana’s watercolors were one set among three discussed in my talk entitled “Georgiana Darcy and the ‘Naive Art’ of Young Ladies”. As one Amazon reviewer of this book mentions, “contemporary artists are a remarkable source of … information.”

Diana’s circle of family and friends led lives similar to the Smiths&Goslings, Dynes Hall being a neighboring estate to Suttons (though I’ve yet to find the families visited each other); lovers of Jane Austen’s novels will adore this visual glimpse of  day-to-day life in a period covered by her novels.

My “Leap Day” 2012 Present. Enjoy!