Guest Post: Lauren Tubbs

The following was completed as part of a primary source project for EN634: Victorian Literature

“The Road to Hell is Paved with Clandestine Correspondence”: An Analysis of Accused Poisoner Madeline Smith


            As if a sensation novel had come time life, the poisoning case of Madeline Smith shocked and amazed the Victorian people of 19th century Britain. Not one citizen would have suspected that this accomplished young lady of 16 would have had the capability to commit such the horrendous crime of murdering her lover with poison. According to John Morison, esquire, advocate for Miss Smith, and also compiler of the complete trial report for this case, this accusation “must have been like an electric shock to the good people of Glasgow, when they heard that the daughter of one their most respected townsmen, a girl young and gentle, fresh from school, and not only accomplished, but, according to the prevalent system, religious educated, was apprehended on a charge of murdering her lover!” (128-9).

This case piqued the interest of many Victorian writers due to its sensational content. According to Kym Brindle, “The stories of infamous nineteenth-century cases like the Road Hill Murder, the Stockwell Tragedy, or that of Canadian murderess, Grace Marks, as well as a host of famous female poisoners including Edith Carew, Adelaide Bartlett, Florence Maybrick, and Madeleine Smith have all been adapted by novelists for contemporary audiences” (279-80). Andrew Maunder adds to the discussion by stating:

In 1863, Henry Mansel noted how as part of their gimmickry these novels offered “close representations of events passing around us” and he cited as another example the way in which Mathilda Houston’s novel, Such Things Are (1862), seemed to be based on “the Road murder and the Glasgow poisoning.” This was a reference to the cases of Madeleine Smith, daughter of a Glasgow architect, accused of murdering her lover with arsenic, and Constance Kent, fifteen-year old daughter of a custom’s official living at Road in Kent, suspected of stabbing her three-year old brother to death before hiding his body in the family privy. (6)

Maunder goes on to say “The Saturday Review believed that the Madeline Smith case was a terrifying revelation of ‘what may be going on in the inmost core of all that is apparently pure and respectable’. It was precisely these kinds of fears which sensation novelists cleverly exploited and in doing so gave a new and shocking perspective on domestic life” (7). For Victorian readers, this case becomes the greatest of the society’s fear come to life: that even members of the upper classes have the capability to commit lower class atrocities.

From all of the evidence collected by Morison regarding the trial and from the comments regarding the case’s sensational appeal, there is one theme that sets the premise for this analysis. This theme is one of clandestine correspondence. The idea of clandestine correspondence appears to be very attractive to numerous Victorian writers, for it conveys a sense of mystery set within epistolary format and causes readers to press onward into the novel. Therefore, this analysis argues that the actual clandestine correspondence exhibited in the case regarding Madeleine Smith influences Victorian literature by providing a literary structure for various Victorian writers who were creating novels at the time.

Morison states in his compilation:

Look at the very outset of the sad story. It all arose from a clandestine correspondence. Who were privy to it? There were two parties at first implicated, Madeline and L’Angelier, and soon after a third, Miss Perry, all three according to the custom of the country, religious. They were all Presbyterians, that is, the form of their religion was the prevailing religion of Scotland, the form most antagonistic to Catholicism, viz., Calvinism, which affects peculiar rigidity of morality…[Miss Perry states about Emile and Madeline,] “In the early part of the summer of 1855 he [Emile] told me he was engaged to Miss Smith, and I was from that time forward aware of his attachment and correspondence. In August of 1855 I was introduced to Miss Smith…I was aware that the correspondence was clandestine. I knew that the intimacy was disapproved of by the family and that the engagement was broken off at one time. I never knew that her father or mother had abated their dislike of the intimacy. I knew that they met clandestinely. (131-2)

Set up by Morison, Miss Perry’s emphasis upon Madeline and Emile’s clandestine correspondence is the reason for Miss Smith’s undoing.

Morison adds to this claim by providing three critiques that could have possibly helped Miss Smith from falling so deep into sin and same. The first critique from Morison is that if there had been stricter parenting, Miss Smith would have avoided the scandal. Morison states, “from what an abyss of shame and sin would she[Madeleine] not have been saved by the simple course of filial obedience” (132-3). Morison then includes a quote from The Spectator, another Victorian journal, whose author claims Miss Smith’s actions are results of ignorance: “ignorance probably kept up by some of those social customs which in the most ‘regular’ of families, maintain distance between parent and child, convert the parental relation into one of practically very slight acquaintance, and teach the inexperienced to find companions amid the servants down stairs or the casual acquaintance of the street” (130). In other words, if parents of the middle class were more prevalent in their children’s lives, the children would be less likely to find friendship with people far below their social status; and therefore, be less likely to be influenced by the lower classes’ licentiousness. This event sparks fear in Victorians because it exposes to the errors of society’s social conventions, showing that a lack of communication between parents and children can lead to scandalous results.

The next critique Morison supplies is that if Madeleine had been a Catholic, then her guilt and shame would have been easily expunged from her position, making the scandal not so nearly as disastrous. Morison states:

In no form of Protestantism is this more marked than in that of Calvinism…after Madeleine Smith had once become guilty, she never could, however, sincerely penitent and reformed, have been readmitted to communion in the Scottish Calvinistic Church. She would be allowed “no place for repentance” even though she “sought is carefully” with tears and agony. Under this cold, harsh, cruel, unmerciful system, the wretched girl must have felt that her first sin was her irrevocable ruin; that is was of no use to repent; and that there was no chance of restoration. (152)

From this claim, Morison shows the entrapment of Miss Smith through her strict religious beliefs. He, therefore, uses this statement to argue for the cause of Miss Smith’s actions, saying that her feeling of entrapment lead her to a state of despair with only one outcome: eternal punishment.

Morison also provides a hypothetical example showcasing how Miss Smith’s actions would be handled in the Catholic Church to exemplify the juxtaposition of the two religions. Morison states:

Would it have been so had they been Priests and she a Catholic? Ah, no! She would have gone to them certainly at two epochs in her sad story. In April 1855, when she threw up the clandestine correspondence, and when she would easily have been preserved from ruin: and in February 1857, when her remorse had paved the way for repentance, and when it was not too late to be reclaimed…The good priest would have done what her pious Presbyterian acquaintance, although a woman, did not do; he would have warned her against any clandestine correspondence with a man unknown to her parents, or with any of his acquaintances. He would have pointed out that L’Angelier could only have introduced her to Miss Perry with a view to promote his purposes, and that the acquaintance would probably result as it did in a renewal of the clandestine correspondence…A whole year elapsed between the time at which she broke off the correspondence and the time when she was ruined; and, during that period, it is a moral probability almost amounting to certainty, that the influences of the confessional would have saved her from seduction. (152-3).

As Morison exemplifies, Madeleine Smith would not have suffered nearly as much as she did if she had been a Catholic instead of a Calvinist. Her guilt would not have weighed so heavy upon her conscience, and therefore possibly, not have pushed her into such a depression that should only two options for forgiveness: murder and suicide. Once again this event alarms Victorian society by exposing the faults within the seemingly “perfect” system. Both Catholics and Protestants can see the dangers within certain religious doctrines if they are not fully explained. Thus, Victorian readers begin to examine certain social dictates established in society in order to bring about positive change.

The final example Morison gives in the compilation is that if she had associated herself with people of her rank, then Miss Smith would have avoided such as scandal upon her character. But, unfortunately, it is from this clandestine correspondence with a foreign, lower class man that Miss Smith forever tainted herself, her family, and her community. Morison states, “But at all events one thing is patent, that about the time Miss Perry says that Miss Smith was brought to her residence, the clandestine correspondence between the lovers, which was so soon to ripen into a guilty intercourse, recommenced” (133). Morison goes on to say:

In May next year Madeleine was ruined, a thing of sin and shame, given over to the tempter, with darkened conscience and a mind depraved! Just a year after she had broken off her correspondence with her lover, from a sense of its impropriety: scarce half-a-year after she had been misled into renewing it. Alas! Great harm came to her secret correspondence with the “strictly moral and religious man,” who went to the same chapel with Miss Perry, and “went to church regularly.” (133-4)

Because Miss Smith was associating with lower class members of society, such as the house servants and acquaintances of Emile, Miss Smith was easily lead astray into a life of sin and shame. Morison also adds:

We by no means hint that Miss Perry was a person who would wilfully[sic] warp her evidence, but she might even unintentionally under such circumstances, and whether she would, or not be likely to do so, must depend upon her character, of which we know, and under the Scotch system, can know nothing, except that she was the confidante of the deceased in his clandestine correspondence, and yet considered him a ‘strictly moral and religious person!’” (139).

The same principle stands as with the other two examples. If Miss Smith had not been associating herself with people of lower class ranking than herself, she would not have been as tempted to correspond with Emile and to start this scandalous affair. Consequently, if Victorian women want to remain chaste and virtuous in the eyes of society, they must not associate with anyone other than the proved gentlemen inhabiting their social circles.

Thus, the case of Madeleine Smith became a warning to Victorian society that there are problems within the social system and that one of those problems is clandestine correspondence. Due to a lack of parenting, an overbearing religious doctrine, and a lack of social propriety, Miss Smith, along with other young ladies, were at risk of such a scandalous event as her accused murder. Along with this lack of discipline, there was an encouragement from lower classes to continue clandestine correspondence, which only intensified the matter. Along with alerting the society, Victorian writers were fascinated by the clandestine correspondence theme and therefore saw an opportunity for novel creation. It is almost bittersweet that due to Miss Madeleine Smith’s suffering many great Victorian novels were given birth. Hopefully, this analysis will give much needed respect to this vulnerable young woman.

Works Cited:

Brindle, Kym. “Dead Words and Fatal Secrets: Rediscovering the Sensational Document in Neo-Victorian Gothic”. Neo-Victorian Gothic: Horror, Violence and Degeneration in the Re-imagined Nineteenth Century (2012): 279-300. Print.

Maunder, Andrew. “Mapping The Victorian Sensation Novel: Some Recent And Future Trends”. Literature Compass 2.1 (2005): MLA International Bibliography. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

Morison, John. “A Complete Report of the Trial of Miss Madeleine Smith, For the Alleged Poisoning of Pierre Emile L’Angelier”. Dublin Review 43.85 (1857): 128-71. Print.

Works Referenced:

Hartman, Mary S. “Murder for Respectability: The Case of Madeleine Smith”. Victorian Studies 16. 4 (1973): 381-400. Print.

“Madeleine Smith, The Alleged Poisoner”. Reynold’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Art 19.477 (1857): 72. Print.

“The Glasgow Poisoning Case.” The Examiner. 11 July 1857. 442-4. Print.

“The Glasgow Poisoning Case”. The Leader. 4 July 1857. 632-3. Print.

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