A keen, dense examination of crimes of passion in the decades before World War I.
Novelist Appignanesi (Sacred Ends, 2013, etc.), who chairs the Freud Museum, explores three narratives of violence, arguing that the subsequent scandalous trials reveal changing perspectives on women in terms of psychology, spirituality, and class. She notes how the era’s perceptions of feminine virtue made transformative legal dramas inevitable: “If a woman was being tried for murder and there was no insanity plea,” she writes, “then she could only be either innocent or a monster of depravity.” The first obscure tales from Victorian-era England and Paris foreshadow the modern phenomena of tampering and stalking. In Brighton, Christiana Edmunds was charged with a boy’s murder following a public panic over poisoned chocolates, which she’d distributed in a plot to win back a married lover, and was ultimately committed rather than executed: “This moral insanity was understood as a disease…and it predisposed the patient to commit criminal acts.” A few years later, singer Marie Bière shot her caddish ex-boyfriend in public following the death of the daughter he’d rejected. Although he survived to testify against her, her attorneys’ narrative of hysteria provoked by cruelty resulted in acquittal. Appignanesi views this in terms of French Republican virtue: “It now seem[ed] more permissible for women to act, and to act violently if need be, to protect or avenge their honor.” The author focuses on the seamier aspects of the better-recalled Stanford White–Evelyn Nesbit scandal, emblematic of Gilded Age New York, noting that the teenage Nesbit had married White's eventual murderer, brutish millionaire Harry Thaw, after he'd raped and assaulted her: “Evelyn continued to be pulled apart by the two men, each fearing that the other might trump him in her favours and in revelations about illicit acts.” Appignanesi patiently constructs a mosaic of law, psychology, and class strictures, producing more of a sweeping academic meditation than a true-crime narrative.
Will satisfy readers attuned to the juncture of history, psychology, and feminism.