Television Review: A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – The New Taste for Blood (1/3)

A Very British MurderBBC4 Website: A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley’s Website

Huzzah! Dr Worsley has a new documentary on the British fascination with gory murders and the culture in which the fascination flourished. She gives us three real murder cases from the first half of the 19th century. The first are the 1811 Ratcliff Highway Murders in Wapping, London, with seven victims. Then in 1827, the Red Barn Murder in Polstead, Suffolk, where Maria Marten was foully done to death by her lover. Finally, in 1849, the splendidly named Bermondsey Horror, in which Maria Manning murdered her wealthy lover, double-crossed her complicit husband, and ran off with the stolen loot.

Other television presenters orate while striding across iconic landscapes, or strike thoughtful academic attitudes against the sky. You know they’re posing and it looks silly. Not Lucy Worsley. She dives into the material and gets involved in the nitty-gritty. And how. She visits the crime scenes, handles the artefacts (the skin off the back of a murderer’s head), investigates exactly how the murderers were executed, and makes you feel like a privileged fly on the wall of a morgue.

In this episode she also took the part of Maria Marten in a recreation of a contemporary melodrama, operated and voiced her killer in the marionette theatre version, sang a folk song about the dreadful crime, and acted out the trial of Maria Manning as the lawyers, judge, and of course, Maria Manning herself. Yes, all of them.

If that was all, it would be brilliant entertainment, but there’s much more. She explores the social context of the murders and the shock they created. In 1810 there were only 15 murder convictions, and no real police force. Public anger at the ineffectiveness of the authorities led to reform, so that by 1849 there were uniformed police and a handful of detectives. The police used the new-fangled telegraph to send descriptions of the Mannings to Edinburgh and Jersey, which led to their arrest.

But main story is the development of murder as a gripping morality tale for the edification and entertainment of an increasingly literate population. Thomas De Quincey was the first respectable observer (opium, indeed all drugs, were legal then) to notice the phenomenom and its effects. Villagers in Grasmere, where he lived at Dove Cottage, went to extraordinary lengths to safeguard their homes after hearing about the slaughter of the Marr family in Wapping. Despite the fact that it’s 300 miles away. De Quincey wrote a satire on the public’s fascination, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, in 1827.

Apart from De Quincey, ballads and broadsides, puppet shows and melodramas, carried the news to avid ears, creating huge public interest in the trials and executions of the murderers. John Williams, suspect in the Ratcliff Highway murders, hanged himself in jail. Thwarted of a spectacle, the authorities carried his body by cart to the Marr’s house, where someone wrenched his head around so it was looking at the scene of his putative crime.

The executions of William Corder (Maria Marten’s killer) and the Mannings were both public, as was usual for the time. But they really pushed out the boat for the Mannings, carrying out the execution on the roof of the jail, so everyone could see. Charles Dickens booked a room with a view and held a party, while still lecturing the hoi polloi for their gloating enthusiasm.

The delicious frisson that earned the Mannings their 5 star execution may well have been due to Maria’s demonstration that a woman could be every bit as ruthless and devious as a man.

This episode was the groundwork, so to speak. The next one looks at how crime, science, and detection affected the culture of homicide in the Victorian Age. This is classic Worsley, and I am in Seventh Heaven.

Best Search Engine Term of the Day

Goes to… lucy worsley’s arse.

Hopefully this inquiry led to a review last year of the lovely Dr Worsley’s documentary on the roles played by women in the 17th century: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls. In 3 parts, with links to the following 2 episodes.

Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 3: At Work and Play)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 1 – At Court
My Review: Act 2 – At Home

Act 3 (At Work and Play) looks at female servants, prostitutes, explorers, soldiers, spies, actresses, scientists, and writers in the 17th century. Lucy Worsley talks about the general lot of middle class women, servants, and prostitutes while showcasing examples of extraordinary women in the professions. The question under consideration is whether the advances made by women were the result of better social conditions afforded by the Restoration.

The 17th century saw a huge increase in trade in new and exotic goods – tobacco, sugar, silk, spices, calico, pepper, tea, coffee, porcelain – and this rising tide of prosperity benefitted the wives of merchants, who became an important economic demographic. Many of these goods were marketed with middle and upper class women in mind. For those who couldn’t afford the best, cheaper alternatives became available. For the first time, shopping became an occupation and shops courted female customers. More prosperity created a demand for more female servants, who saw this employment less as a lifetime job and more as a necessary step in establishing their own households.

But it was still a precarious life for these often single women – they outnumbered men by a ratio of 4:3 – and the price of disgrace or unemployment could mean working as a prostitute at Covent Garden. There were dozens of brothels in the area and thousands of prostitutes. Even respectable women were not immune from what we would call sexual harrassment today. It was easier for men because the fashion decreed a low cut dress, and underwear had not yet been invented. Samuel Pepys – remember him from the previous two acts? – liked an illicit grope. He even tried it on in church and was fended off with a hat pin.

For prostitutes, or simply poor, single women, seen as immoral by the Puritans, life took a turn for the worse when William III became King. Puritans had long blamed the Great Plague and Great Fire on lax morality – they now they had a King to their liking. They formed a Society for the Reformation of Manners, allowing Talibanesque morality police to roam the streets and arrest women based on tip-offs from informers. These poor women were locked up in Bridewell Prison, stripped to the waist, and forced to beat hemp while visitors watched.

The theatre flourished, though, much to the Puritans’ disgust. Charles II re-opened the playhouses and Covent Garden became the prime location for new theatres. Not only that, they were re-invented with new technology that could raise and lower curtains plus other bells and whistles, like trapdoors with lifts. Worsley had a lovely time playing with the Restoration toys in the perfectly preserved Theatre Royal in Richmond, N. Yorks. There was a new seating arrangement, reflecting the social classes. The pit held rowdy young men who wanted to be close to the actresses, the boxes held respectable men and women, and the gallery was the cheap and cheerful section.

And yes, there were now actresses playing female roles, the most famous of whom was Charles’ mistress, Nell Gwyn. John Dryden created the role of Florimel in The Maiden Queen specially for her. Worsley points out that it was a tough gig for actresses. They had to be as robust and quick-witted as stand up comics, able to put down hecklers and give as good as they got. There were also breeches roles for women, where they could mock male pomposity and misogyny.

Women were active in other areas usually thought of as male domains. Celia Fiennes, single and wealthy, travelled alone around England from Penzance to Newcastle, documenting the emerging mercantile economy. If the name sounds familiar, the explorer, Ranulph Fiennes, is a descendant.

Christian Davies joined the army to track down her publican husband and liked the life so much she stayed there for nine years. She had to dress as a man, of course, and use a “urinary instrument” so she could piss standing up, but nobody rumbled the deception until she received a groin wound and the game was up. Rather than being disgraced, the public took her to their hearts, and Daniel Defoe wrote a best selling biography called, The Life and Adventures of Mrs Christian Davies. In later life she became a Chelsea pensioner and was buried with full military honours.

Women also served as spies. Aphra Behn, who became famous as a playwright, started life as a spy in Antwerp for Charles II. Behn wrote plays – more of her plays were performed during the Restoration than any other writer – poems, and fiction. She was unashamed about wanting a successful career: “I value fame as much as if I had been a hero.”

We’ve heard of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in Act 2, as Yoko of the “John and Yoko of the Restoration age.” She wrote scientific works – Observations upon Experimental Philosophy is one – and was invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Margaret had a falling out with Robert Hooke, one of its leading lights, over the value of observations gained by microscopic observation. She also wrote a satirical science fiction utopia, The Blazing World.

These were extraordinary women. I think there’s no doubt the more permissive values of the Restoration had a significant effect in raising the social status of women, even if there was a pervasive underlying misogynistic ethos. The pity is that these advances were eroded away, culminating in the stultifying repression of the Victorian age.

Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 2: At Home)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 1 – At Court
My Review: Act 3 – At Work and Play

Act 2 (At Home) shifts the focus to housewives.  There were three female categories – maidens, wives, and widows – but since every girl was brought up in the expectation of marriage, perhaps that could be recast as pre-wives, wives, and post-wives. Lucy Worsley opens with a Punch & Judy Show, first recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662 in Covent Garden, with the aim of looking at Judy’s life in the 17th century.

In the process of uncovering historical attitudes to housewives, Worsley also illuminates some of the debates raging today. Take marriage. Instead of being the immutable tradition touted by those who fear “redefinition,” the institution has historically been rather fluid. James I established a church ritual in 1604, complete with the reading of banns, and an exchange of vows and rings. The Puritans, under Cromwell, took weddings out of the church – too celebratory, perhaps, people having too much fun? – and replaced them with a sort of civil marriage. All you needed was a Justice of the Peace, vows but no rings, and a joining of hands. As a nod to injuries sustained during the Civil War, the last requirement was waived for those who didn’t have hands. Charles II restored the status quo, but weddings could only be performed by ordained Anglican clergy.

There was another, barely legal, way to get married – a Fleet Wedding. Fleet Street specialized in “marriage houses,” which were actually pubs, and the ceremonies were performed by disgraced priests from the Fleet Prison. But you got a certificate, and it could always be backdated to disguise pre-existing pregnancies.

As you might suppose, women had hardly any rights within marriage, and their families were expected to provide sometimes substantial dowries to the prospective husband. Daniel Defoe called marriage a “Smithfield bargain,” illustrated by Worsley walking round the present day livestock market. Divorce was almost impossible, so some men sold their wives, despite the practice being illegal. And for independently-minded women whose husbands disapproved, there was the Scold’s bridle, modeled briefly and with much distaste by Worsley.

But for all the importance placed on marriage, the Civil War killed so many men that by the 1690s in some towns, half the women were unmarried. Spinsters, as in unmarried women rather than spinners of wool, became a distinct demographic, while the comic figure of the old maid started to appear in popular entertainment.

Worsley points out that with the development of more elaborate houses – i.e. more rooms for specific purposes – middle and upper class women became household managers, including the responsibility for keeping accounts. Hannah Woolley wrote a series of books for them on cookery and household management. She was so influential that a man stole her name to write The Gentlewoman’s Companion or, A Guide for the Female Sex. Needless to say, it promoted the idea of obedience to men. Changing times brought an improvement in status. This was especially so in the case of upper class women who managed large country houses.

She highlights some of these exceptional women – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, for example. A feminist and playwright, she so charmed her husband, William, that they became “the John and Yoko of the Restoration age.” Pepys, who we last encountered at court creaming his breeches at the sight of King’s mistress in her night clothes, was disgusted by the pair of them. Margaret was “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman,” and William “an ass” for being led by her.

Women were also involved in the preparation of medicinal herbs, but had to be careful to avoid the taint of witchcraft. While the official attitude towards it was becoming more skeptical, some were  hanged, and many ordinary people were still deeply superstitious. Worsley had her hands tied to her feet, but was spared the indignity of being chucked into a pond to demonstrate trial by swimming. Given that she was wearing a period dress, I was rather looking forward to the sweet and literal “liquefaction of her clothes” (Robert Herrick), but you can’t have everything. If they sank, they were innocent and actually pulled out in time. I’d always assumed these poor women were left to drown, just to make sure the test was carried out properly. If they floated, they weren’t necessarily guilty, but were tried for witchcraft. Another myth exploded.

Midwives were originally an important, relatively high-status group, with instruction manuals written for their profession. They were pillars of the community, responsible not only for the birth of babies, but also required to attend christenings. Doctors were male, and only attended a birth if there were complications. As new medical technology was developed, like forceps, they slowly began to replace midwives at even normal births – a medicalization of childbirth that has continued to the present.

So it was a mixed bag for women in the 17th century. But in one area they were better off than their successors, due to the mistaken idea that conception was only possible if the woman had an orgasm. Hence the attentiveness of husbands who wanted an heir, guided by a remarkable book – Aristotle’s Masterpiece – a comprehensive sex manual that included a detailed description of the clitoris so the chaps could find it. Worsley read the excerpt, then blushingly looked round at the film crew and burst out laughing. I’m glad they kept that bit in.

Next week it’s the heroines of the stage.

Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 1: At Court)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 2 – At Home
My Review: Act 3 – At Work and Play

This is Act 1 (At Court) of a three-parter narrated by the splendid Dr Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. I have a thing for Lucy Worsley – she is petite, posh, sexy, and a bit sly. There’s something indefinably exciting about that red coat and the way she always wears gloves. I could happily watch her reading from a telephone book.

Too much information? OK, moving right along. At Court looks at the royal mistresses who flourished during the reign of Charles II (1660 – 1685). Her central question is whether this represented female empowerment or another form of oppression. While exiled in France during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Charles imbibed the ethos of a courtly life in which women were powerful both politically as mistresses and intellectually as the patronesses of salons. A bit of a lad, Charles already had seven mistresses before he left France, and would acquire another six in England, as well as thirteen acknowledged illegitimate children. Who he apparently adored and would tuck up in bed at night. This in addition to his dynastic marriage to the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. The most famous of his mistresses was Nell Gwyn, a talented actress and the only commoner – the rest were all of aristocratic birth. Charles’ dying words were said to be, “Let not poor Nell starve.”

Many of them coexisted at the same time in the Palace of Whitehall, or in houses close by. In this conflation of the sexual, personal, and political, anyone seeking favours from the King had first to approach his mistresses. There existed a dual system of government. Those making a formal approach would negotiate a series of rooms, starting in a large chamber where the hoi polloi could assemble, then be winnowed down into smaller and smaller rooms, only the most powerful being granted access to the study where Charles did the actual work of government. But those who had the ear of his mistresses could take advantage of an architectural feature, the back stairs, that led from Charles’ study to their apartments.

It was a luxurious, sexually liberated world, one that attracted much prurience and censure, with satirical pamphlets and gossip being circulated in the London coffee houses. Charles, mindful of the fate of his father, was fairly tolerant and preferred spin to censorship. The gossip writers had a wonderful time. The great diarist, Samuel Pepys could sometimes barely contain himself. He records on one occasion seeing the Queen with Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, when Barbara was in her night clothes. Pepys came in his breeches, in public, through the power of his imagination.

In answer to Lucy Worsley’s original question, it does seem the mistresses were genuinely empowered. They had the political influence to ensure their own interests, no-one was thrown out of court when the King’s fancy moved on to another woman, and they all survived him. Barbara became keeper of Hampton Court Palace. And “poor Nell” did not starve – her pension from the Treasury continued until she died two years after Charles in 1687.

This is an excellent series, full of solid scholarship, odd insights and revelations, and enlivened by a thoroughly engaging narrator. Next week, Lucy Worsley looks at housewives.

For the thumbnail sketch of Charles II, here’s a song from Horrible Histories.