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A SENTIMENTAL MURDER by John Brewer Kirkus Star


Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

by John Brewer

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-26103-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A sensational 18th-century murder sets the author musing about things that annoy and challenge historians: What are facts? What is history? What are the differences between a novelist and a historian?

Brewer (History/Cal. Tech.; The Pleasures of the Imagination, 1997, etc.) begins with a fairly factual account of the crime. On April 7, 1779, James Hackman, a recently ordained priest in the Anglican church, waited outside the Covent Garden theater for Martha Ray, longtime mistress to the fourth Earl of Sandwich. When she emerged, Hackman shot Ray in the head at point-blank range, then wounded himself with another pistol. He was promptly arrested, tried, and hanged before the month was out. Brewer devotes only about 30 pages to this narrative, confessing that we can never really know Hackman’s motives or the precise nature of Ray’s involvement with him. He devotes the remainder of this provocative work to an examination of how the Ray murder has been treated in the ensuing 225 years. Examining the five daily newspapers published in London at the time, the historian shows that the case initially took shape as what he calls a “sentimental story.” He then discusses contemporary pamphlets, such as The Case and Memoirs of James Hackman, which portrayed the killer as a spurned and thus pitiable lover. Brewer pauses to give us some background: Sandwich’s lubricious career, Ray’s sketchy biography, and the disturbing details of prostitutes’ and courtesans’ professional lives. He spends time with the 1780 publication Love and Madness, which comprised 65 bogus letters between Ray and her killer, before proceeding down the centuries to examine the psychological, political, and moral lenses through which subsequent generations viewed the story. Some surprising names appear, among them Erasmus Darwin and Williams Wordsworth, Godwin, and Thackeray. Brewer ends with a dazzling chapter on historiography that would work equally well as a stand-alone essay.

Scholarly, stimulating, significant. (8 pp. b&w illustrations)