The Notting Hill Mystery as source for Trilby

Several literary and biographical sources are credited as inspiration for George Du Maurier’s phenomenally successful novel Trilby.[1]  According to Du Maurier biographer Leonée Ormond, the most notable biographical influences on the novel were Du Maurier’s experiences in the Latin Quarter and his friendship with the amateur mesmerist Felix Moschele; while two French works, Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame Aux Camélias and Henri Murger’s Scenes de La Vie de Bohème provided literary inspiration.[2] Yet critics have neglected to give full credit to another likely source for Trilby: Charles Felix’s novel The Notting Hill Mystery.[3]  In the early 1860s, Du Maurier was working as an illustrator for several periodicals, including Once a Week.  In 1862, the editor of this magazine commissioned him to provide the illustrations for the eight-part publication of The Notting Hill Mystery.  Several scholars have noted that these illustrations ‘are some of his best drawings,’ and it certainly seems that The Notting Hill Mystery impacted not only Du Maurier’s artistic career, but his literary one as well.[4]

The most striking similarity between the two works is their reliance on mesmerism for the sensational aspects of their plots.  When Trilby admits to the Laird that Svengali has been mysteriously curing her neuralgia, he exclaims: ‘He mesmerized you; that’s what it is—mesmerism!  I’ve often heard of it, but never seen it before.  They get you in their power, and just make you do any blessed thing they please—lie, murder, steal—anything! and kill yourself into the bargain when they’ve done with you!’ (48). While the Laird’s statement foreshadows Trilby’s fate, this quote also encompasses the general plot of The Notting Hill Mystery.  Described ‘as the first English detective novel,’ The Notting Hill Mystery features a hypnotic villain, the Baron R**, who forces his assistant/wife Rosalie to poison her sister and then commit suicide.[5]  Along with distinction of having written the first British detective novel, Charles Felix may also be the first author to employ the ‘hypnotic criminal’ in an English novel.[6]  The Notting Hill Mystery introduces a villainous type that would be highly influential on a spate of novels featuring hypnotic criminals (including Trilby) published in the late 1880s and 1890s. Indeed, there are many similarities between the Baron and Svengali, including their Germanic background, their use of aliases, their piercing eyes, and their mesmeric manipulation of young women in order to forward their professional aspirations.  Both Svengali and the Baron are ambitious and greedy, and both are foreign threats to innocent Englishwomen.

Although the Baron R** seems to be a direct predecessor to Svengali, it is really with the two female victims, The Notting Hill Mystery’s Rosalie and the titular Trilby, that the connections between the two novels become the most apparent.  The most obvious similarity between Rosalie and Trilby is their victimization:  Trilby, of course, is hypnotically directed by Svengali to sing while the Baron R** uses the entranced Rosalie to commit crime.  An additional similarity between the two characters is their tenuous English roots and bohemian upbringings. Rosalie is the lost daughter of an aristocratic English family who has been stolen and raised by gypsies, while Trilby is the orphan of a barmaid and a gently-born English clergyman who must fend for herself in Paris’s Latin Quarter.  The two novels also share an emphasis on performance, and like the singing sensation Trilby, Rosalie performs (albeit not under the influence of hypnotic forces) as an actress for a music-hall and in a circus as a tight-rope walker.  Rosalie also has ‘a beautiful figure’ like the artist’s model Trilby (493).  But the strangest parallel between the two women is the repeated emphasis on their extraordinary feet.  While Trilby has the most ‘astonishingly beautiful feet, such as one only sees in pictures and statues—a true inspiration of shape and colour’, which she often models for artists, Rosalie’s feet are distinguished by their ugliness: ‘The only fault a connoisseur would probably find with her person would be the extreme breadth of her feet, though this might perhaps be accounted for by her former occupation . . .’ (13; 489).  Although one heroine has gorgeous, and the other deformed, feet, both are still repeatedly identified by their unusual appendages.  Taken together, these similarities suggest that Du Maurier drew some inspiration from the novel he had illustrated over thirty years before writing Trilby.

[1] George Du Maurier, Trilby, (New York, Penguin, 1994).

[2] Leonée Ormond, George Du Maurier,  (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), 445.

[3] Charles Felix [Charles Warren Adams], The Notting Hill Mystery, ed. Maurice Richardson, Novels of Mystery, (London, Pilot Press, 1945).  Mario

[4] Eric Samuel De Maré, Victorian Woodblock Illustrators, ( London, G. Fraser, 1980), 142.

[5] Julian Symons, Bloody Murder, from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History, (New York, Viking Penguin P, 1972), 52.

[6] I borrow the term ‘hypnotic criminal’ from Mary Elizabeth Leighton.  See Mary Elizabeth Leighton, ‘Under the Influence: Crime and Hypnotic Fictions of the Fin de Siècle,’ Victorian Literary Mesmerism, ed. Martin Willis and Catherine Wynne, (New York, Rodopi, 2006), 203-222.

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Guest Post: Ellis Jordan

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

The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain by Edward Bulwer-Lytton


Plot Summary:

“The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain” begins with an unnamed narrator recounting a recent conversation with a friend who told him about a haunted house in London. The friend says that he and his wife stayed in the house only three nights because they were overwhelmed by an “undefinable terror which seized both of [them] whenever [they] passed by the door of a certain unfurnished room, in which [they] neither saw nor heard anything” (11). Upon leaving the house, the friend was told by the housekeeper that no tenant has ever stayed in the house as long as three days. Apparently, the house is haunted. This mystery piques the interest of the narrator, and he asks for the address of the house.

Upon visiting the house, he is told that the housekeeper has died. He then seeks out the owner of the house, Mr. J–, to ask to rent the house for a night. Mr. J– says that he can stay in the house for free for as long as he likes; however, Mr. J– advises him not to stay in the house, for it has been haunted for several years. The narrator, however, wants to visit the house of horrors for himself. He asks his servant F– to go with him, a strong and brave man, who the narrator feels “would not desert [him]” (76). He also takes his dog and several weapons along for added safety.

As the narrator and F– explore the house, they encounter several strange phenomena. They see mysterious, childlike footprints. They witness a chair move across the room, apparently of its own will. A locked door opens, and when the pair enter the room, the door shuts and traps them inside. In the dead housekeeper’s room, the narrator finds letters dated thirty-five years back, which hint at a mysterious history. Later in the night, the dog ominously bristles in fear, and F– is struck by some sudden terror and runs away.

Left alone, the narrator sustains composure by reading and reminding himself of his beliefs about the supernatural. He is distracted by a dark shadowy figure, which brings forth several episodes of supernatural activity. The candles fade, and the man is left in darkness. He hears three knocks as the room vibrates, and bubbles of light spring from the ground. He sees a young man and woman appear. When the man approaches the woman, the dark figure envelopes them, then revealing a blood-stained woman and a man fallen upon his sword. These figures disappear, and an old woman emerges, reading the letters the narrator had found. Behind her appears a drowned man, and at her feet, lie a corpse and a small child. The shadow darkens them, and bubbles of light reappear as monstrous larvae fill the room. The narrator forces himself to remain calm, eventually crying out that he is not afraid. The room vibrates at the sound of three knocks, and the dark shadow goes away.

In the approaching daylight, the man realizes that his dog has died, with an inexplicably broken neck. His watch, previously taken from the night table, has been returned, but the time has stopped. At daylight, he returns home to find that F– has fled the country. He tells Mr. J– of his adventures, especially about the mysteriously intriguing letters. The two men begin a discussion about mesmerism and magic, ultimately deciding that Mr. J– should destroy the room in which the phenomena appeared.

Ten days later, Mr. J– writes that he has discovered some information about the mysterious housekeeper. Thirty-six years prior, she married a suspicious American against her family’s will. Her brother, a wealthy widower, was found dead in the Thames, and his son was sent to live with his aunt and the American. Six months later, the boy died of malnourishment and abuse. The woman inherited her brother’s fortune, and the American left England, dying at sea years later. The woman eventually lost her money and became a housekeeper in her original home, where she eventually died.

After spending a night in the house and feeling reassured of the dark dread of the housekeeper’s particular room, Mr. J– agrees to destroy the room. In the process, he and the narrator find a trap door leading to a secret room. They find a safe which contains bottles of colorless liquid, glass tubes, a rod of iron, and a miniature portrait set in gold, inscribed, “Marianna to thee. Be faithful in life and in death to _______.” The narrator recognizes the name of a criminal who fled London on charges of a double murder. Finally, they find a compass floating on a saucer set on top of tablet. When the narrator grabs the tablet, the compass spins frantically, causing him to drop the saucer on the floor. The liquid spills, and the walls begin to shake. The narrator opens the tablet to read the words, “On all that it can reach within these walls, sentient or inanimate, living or dead, as moves the needle, so work my will! Accursed be the house, and restless be the dwellers therein.” Mr. J– burned the tablet and destroyed the room. After living unhindered in the house for a month himself, he began renting the house to tenants, and no other complaints were ever made.


Bulwer-Lytton first published “The Haunted and the Haunters” in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859. The more famous version, however, is this abbreviated edition which was republished in Blackwood Magazine in 1861. Reportedly, Bulwer-Lytton abridged the story because it replicated parts of his next novel, A Strange Story (Wyse 34). The original story contains nearly five additional pages which introduce an entirely new character, a mysterious Mr. Richards. The original ending would have provided much more closure for readers, giving the audience an obvious villain, a mesmerist and magician to ultimately blame for the haunting of the house (Wyse 36).

However, as the story stands, in its more recent and popular version, readers are left to conclude the story for themselves. Was there another living person, absent in body, but present in mind, using mesmerism to “haunt” the dwellers and tenants of the house? Was there a nonliving person, still sending his or her restless soul or spirit to haunt and mesmerize the house’s occupants? What do the letters have to do with the ghosts? Is it all related to the criminal past of the housekeeper? Were the compass and the tablet inside the safe used as machines of mesmerism, “material fluid” through which scientific or supernatural magic could be performed? (Wyse 42).  The story’s shorter version, “with its annoyingly premature termination, [forfeits] the key to at least one fundamental enigma of the story” (Wyse 37). Without a clear resolution, readers are left to piece clues together as they will and to question what actually happened inside the haunted house.

The narrator himself produces a conundrum for readers because, despite his ghostly descriptions of the seemingly supernatural, he states that he refuses to believe in the existence of a true supernatural. He believes everything can be explained in some way by science, that every “supernatural” phenomena has some tie to a natural medium or observer who thus demystifies the alleged paranormal. This probably portrays what Bulwer-Lytton himself believed about the supernatural. During a time of scientific novelty and uncertainty, Bulwer-Lytton’s “belief in the material cause of the marvelous involved an attempt to distinguish it from the supernatural and legitimize investigation into it” (Knight 248).

While he could not deny certain mysterious happenings, he could try to demystify them by investigating the science behind such events and creating literature that questioned the existence of a real preternatural. Bulwer-Lytton probably believed that “what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we have hitherto been ignorant. The story’s thesis is probably the closet Bulwer ever came to publicly declaring his belief in magic, the term he applied to phenomena beyond scientific explanation” (Campbell 118). Some scholars suggest that Bulwer-Lytton’s “revision of the… ghost story was part of an attempt to strengthen the status of the marvelous. By changing it from an indefinable mystery to a problem waiting to be solved, he hoped to relocate the marvelous at the centre of contemporary thought” (Knight 253).

The author’s ideas are possibly best revealed through the unnamed narrator, who struggles (but mostly succeeds) in keeping his composure when surrounded by horrifying and seemingly unexplainable “supernatural” events. The narrator leaves the readers to deal with the existence of the supernatural in their own way, based on his descriptions, his thoughts, and their own beliefs. The unbelief of the narrator and this “narratological stance inhibits the construction of plot in relation to the house and its haunting, and yet the production and circulation of detached, potential plot fragments challenge the reader to combine tentatively and conjecturally the unbound story components” (Wyse 42). Do we believe as the narrator claims he does, that there is no real “supernatural,” or do we believe the terrible descriptions of the apparitions, which seemingly point to the ghostly existence of supernatural phenomena? How does the reader pull the plot fragments together to create a cohesive and satisfying conclusion to such a frustratingly abrupt ending? Without a clear solution in the story’s ending, readers are left with unanswered questions about the how and the why of the house’s haunting.

Despite all the frustrating loose ends, some revealing deductions can be drawn after Mr. J– reveals some information on the history of the housekeeper. Readers can infer and understand the significance of the apparitions of the young man and woman as well as the drowned man, the older woman, the corpse, and the child. However, the “sordid story seems to hold little interest for [the narrator],” and the apparitions seem “largely meaningless and unmotivated” as it relates directly to the life of the narrator or the interest of the reader (Wyse 43). The narrator thus switches his focus to the machinery of the magic or mesmerism – the brain. When the brain is thus affected by elements of the “supernatural,” Bulwer-Lytton suggests that “the brain might as well be dead, and the shorter version of the story ends with some ambiguity or confusion about whether there is, or even can be, a living human being behind the holographic events” (Wyse 47). This is where the story’s extended title (“The Haunted and the Haunter: Or the House and the Brain”) gets its full name and significance. The title begs the question: Is it the house or the brain that is truly haunted?

The entire story could be read as allegory for the mysterious natural and/or supernatural happenings within the brain. Read in this way, Bulwer-Lytton’s story encourages readers to think about questions that frequented the minds of the readers of the Victorian era: Can human brains be succumbed to mesmerism? Can a brain be subjected and controlled by an outside mesmerist just as the house in the story is subjected to third-party haunters? If so, how can people protect their brains from this evil? Once the brain is surrendered to mesmeric power, can it be recovered? Is mesmerism real, or is it just an imagined pseudoscience? These questions remain unanswered as the ending of the story remains unclear. However, Victorian minds would rest somewhat easier, knowing that ultimately the machinery of magic and mesmerism could be destroyed, just as it was with the tablet and the compass in the story.

*Original image from Amherst College archives

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Guest Post: Brett Fish

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

Loveday Brooke: The First Important Female Detective

Very little is written about Catherine Pirkis, though what scholarship exists certainly revolves around her last published work: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke: Lady Detective. Pirkis’ first novel Disappeared From Her Home: A Novel (published in 1877) is a tightly plotted murder mystery which no doubt shaped the course of her writing. From what little we know of her biography, she enjoyed a decent life with her husband who would form a coalition with her in later life to fight for animal rights. She wrote without needing to support herself. Nonetheless, it is no surprise that she decides to try her hand at the ever popular detective story. She would go on to write nine more stories before creating the first ‘important’ female detective: Loveday Brooke.

Pirkis published The Experiences of Loveday Brooke in full in “The Ludgate Monthly” (1894), an English magazine containing short fiction and interesting articles. Though other female detectives pre-date Brooke, none were as well written and few were as engaging. The experienced reader of Sherlock Holmes will spot similar narrative structures, yet without the substance of Pirkis’ writing, which frequently reveals the unique troubles facing a relatively broke female detective. Holmes never worked a case for money after all, and neither did he answer to anyone. Brooke is tied down to Ebenezer Dyer’s detective agency, often faced with the responsibility of boosting the agencies credentials as well as cash.

Brooke first appears in the short story titled “The Black Bag Left On A Door Step” (creative, right?) and is described as such-

She was not tall, she was not short; she was not dark, she was not fair; she was neither handsome nor ugly. Her features were altogether nondescript; her one noticeable trait was a habit she had, when absorbed in thought, of dropping her eyelids over her eyes till only a line of eyeball showed, and she appeared to be looking out at the world through a slit, instead of through a window.[1]

Accompanying each story was a series of illustrations by Bernard Higham, such as the one below:

Readers of Sherlock Holmes will not be surprised by the plot structure of these stories, as they follow roughly the same pattern: A case is presented to Brooke, followed by an investigation in which Brooke picks up on clues the other characters (and the readers) fail to spot. In the end Brooke reveals exactly what happened and how she deduced the truth. Essentially she is a taste of what Sherlock could have been if he had been written as a female. Brooke is thirty years old when she enters Ebenezer Dryer’s detection agency. She fights through the ranks and earns her position. Established and trusted is how we find Loveday Brooke in Pirkis’ second to last story about the detective, The Ghost of Fountain Lane.

The Ghost of Fountain Lane – Synopsis

Loveday Brooke is on vacation, or at least as much of a vacation as she can be expected to have. Any attempt to escape her hard work results in nothing more than an over-glorified case reading on her personal couch. She is interrupted by a Mr. Clampe who, to her surprise, found her house (despite her instructions that no one have the address). Clampe informs Brooke of an interesting case: A relatively well to do man by the name of Reverend Charles Turner has lost a check. Before leaving to see a dead relative, Rev. Turner left four checks with his wife on the writing desk. Mrs. Turner goes out to water plants, comes in ten minutes later, and stows away three checks (not caring to count them before going outside, she figured three was the number of checks left to her in the first place). The Check is later cashed for 600 pounds at the local bank, who naturally are unable to identify the person who drew out the money.

Brooke shows disregard for the case, offering Clampe instead a look into a more interesting case found in the local newspaper: A young girl at Fountain Lane has seen a ghost of the great Napoleon. Her family also admits to seeing the ghost. Clampe disregards Brook’s idea of an interesting case, citing the situation as ‘just another ghost tale’. The logical Brooke corrects him by pointing out that these people are religious, Wesleyan to be exact, and that they were not likely to claim to see Napoleon of all people, but rather angels or the messiah. Clamp eventually peaks Brooke’s attention to his case by pointing out that the number 144,000 was written on the stolen check. Brooke agrees to the case, agreeing to stay at a neighbor’s inn across the street from the Turner’s.

Brooke learns from the owner of the Inn (a Mrs. Brown) that Mr. Turner is hot tempered and frequently is at odds with his wife. Brooke learns that Mrs. Turner paid off loans totaling nearly 500 pounds in her husband’s absence, right after the disappearance of the check. It is during this time that Brooke Spots a peculiar woman walking up the lane named Maria Lisle, who proves to be a former maid of Mr. Turner, and a devoutly religious woman. Brooke and Mrs. Brown walk to an orchard where Maria is spotted again, leaving in great haste. Mrs. Brown goes to follow Maria while Brooke investigates the small summer house from whence Maria just left. Brooke finds a stash of religious books, all of which are about Armageddon, and Maria’s diary. Satisfied, Brooke leaves to meet Clampe, suggesting that she has solved everything.

Clampe accompanies Brooke to a religious service (the same one attended by Brooke at the onset of the story) where a middle aged man (a gifted orator) preaches a sermon about Armageddon and the return of the great Napoleon. Brooke explains that this sermon has been preached before, and it won’t be long before he escapes with the money conned off of the people in the town. Brooke leaves Clampe to arrest the preacher, promising to explain everything later. As it happened, Maria was a devout follower of the new preacher, who steals the check from Mr. Turner under the cult’s influence (thinking it would benefit her place in eternity). Mrs. Turner is vindicated as Mr. Turner is overheard telling her off for spending the entire 500 pounds given to her before his trip. The preacher had been scaring the locals with a Napoleonic message and apparition, taking their money by manipulation in the process. The number 144,000 of course represents the elect who will be saved according to the book of Revelation. Brooke further expresses her belief that the people spread the idea of the ghost like ‘scarlet fever’ due to the mind manipulation from the cult.


Loveday Brooke differs from Sherlock Holmes in that she has worked hard for her place in life. Sherlock is naturally gifted with a quick mind and an incredible genius to a point that it almost seems cartoonic. Brooke solves each case by logically assessing the facts without succumbing to prejudice or preconceived notions. Usually a male counterpart will attempt to sway the reader in the direction of a red herring. Conspicuously missing from this story is Ebenezer Dryer, the mainstay owner of the detections agency who butts heads with Brooke in a friendly way before and after a case.

The plot is rather contrived, and somewhat disappointing. The reader is given an obvious red herring in Mrs. Turner, but is immediately let off the hook by introducing the mysterious ‘cloaked woman’ immediately identified as Maria. However, the goal of the story does not seem to be in crafting an excellent mystery, but rather to criticize a certain brand of Christian Eschatology. The cult present in the short story is known as “Millenarianism”, a belief about the Second Coming of Christ concerning the 1000 years of peace mentioned by John in Revelation. Napoleon himself believed he was accomplishing Millenarian goals[2]. Pirkis reveals the illogic belief through the eyes of Brooke (the epitome of enlightenment thought), labeling Maria as ‘weak minded’ and portraying a preying preacher. Read in light of this critique, “The Ghost of Fountain Lane” works as a successful display of rationality against the backdrop of extreme Christian eschatology. Pirkis can be credited as retaining relevance with this particular story, as cult-like branches of eschatology exist prominently today under the name of “rapture” theology (spawning the ever popular Left Behind books).


[2] Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture Volume IV

edited by John Christian Laursen, R.H. Popkin.

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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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Guest Post: Destiny Richards

This paper was completed as a primary source project for EN634: Victorian Literature

Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire

The novel The Blood of the Vampire was published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Draclua, and yet is has received barely a glimmer of the recognition of Stoker’s classic. Marryat’s novel follows Harriet Brandt who leaves her home, a nunnery, in Jamaica and travels to Europe. She is accompanied by a friend who is ill their entire trip and who Harriet writes off as just being frail. She attempts to introduce herself into society but almost everyone she comes into contact with seems to fall weak and, if they keep prolonged contact they die, as in the case of Mrs. Pullen’s baby who Harriet is very fond of and spends much of her time holding.

Harriet is not aware of the horrible effects she has on those that are closest to her. In fact it takes until the end of the novel for her to be self aware of what she is and that her “vampire blood” is something she acquired from her mother who was the ancestor of a woman who was bitten by a vampire bat. Her mother was also known as a priestess of a foreign religion and had “black blood”. Her father was a scientist who went mad vivisecting animals. The slaves at his home rose up against him and killed him because they found his mad behavior so terrifying. This information about Harriet’s parents comes from Dr. Phillips who becomes involved after the death of Harriet’s friend and the Pullen baby. He knew Harriet’s parents and is the first to confirm that she is a psychological vampire, whose magnetic personality not only attracts those around her, specifically men, but she also drains their energy to the point that if they stay near her for long enough they die. Hammack elaborates more on the role of the doctor stating, “According to a doctor who serves as the mouthpiece for Marryat’s vampire theories, Harriet has supposedly inherited her bat like qualities from her mother, an evil mulatto whose own mother had been bitten by a vampire bat. Yet she is a psychic vampire whose ‘thirst for blood’ is more metaphorical than literal. Harriet has acquired a draining personality, rather than a giving one, which leads her to unknowingly deplete the health and strength of her intimates. She exhibits a predisposition for sadistic pleasure as well as a vengefulness elicited when she is disappointed in love. Although she does not actually drink blood, Harriet does render her companions anemic” (887).

After the death of the baby Harriet goes to stay with a Baron and Baroness and their son Bobby at their estate. During this time she and Bobby grow very close and she leads him on thinking that she loves him and they might even become engaged. She loves receiving attention from all men. Harriet eventually becomes enamored with a writer named Anthony Pennell. She convinces herself that she does not possess vampire blood and she marries him believing that her love for him is stronger than any curse of her blood she might possess. The two go on an extended honeymoon across Europe and after six weeks of being near Harriet he dies. Some nuns who have befriended her care her for but eventually she commits suicide because she feels the blood of her parents curses her and she cannot live a life with any sort of meaning.

This novel has many similarities with Dracula. The threat of the foreigner invading society and gaining a place is prevalent in both novels. Both novels also play upon idea that some humans, because of their blood or abilities, can have power over others. So why is The Blood of the Vampire not as popular as Dracula? According to Brenda Mann Hammock,

Despite its title, its literary quality, and its protagonist’s similarities to both Joseph Sheridan Lefanu’s female vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Marryat’s novel has received scant attention in the criticism of vampire literature. Although published the same year as Stoker’s text, The Blood of the Vampire may have suffered because of its authors even more pronounced reliance on the rhetoric of Victorian sociomedical theories. Unlike Bronte’s, Marryat’s portrait of a female vampire reads like a medical case study” (886).

In the article, Editor’s Preface: Hybrid Forms and Cultural Anxiety, there is an at length discussion that builds upon what Hammack states in her article, about what the character of Harriet says about the Victorians and their society as a whole versus earlier times in society. The article states,

The racial hybridity that Brenda Mann Hammack considers in “Florence Marryat’s Female Vampire and the Scientizing of Hybridity” is hardly benign. Situation Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire against the backdrop of earlier vampire literature, she links the novel to Late-Victorian pseudo-scientific theories about “maternal impression”. Here, the therapeutic effects of the exotic cross-products that Stevenson had welcomed are replaced by psychic perils as dangerous as Dracula’s. the monstress whose bat like propensities Marryat dramatizes is not merely a product of crossbreeding, by also the offspring of a pregnant mother terrorized by wild beasts. (751)

This novel was not very widely read during the time shortly after it was published. There are a few articles that discuss the novels that were going around in the reading circles and circulating libraries and The Blood of the Vampire was mentioned. One of the reasons for this might be because Harriet was such a new woman. She does not act like the other upper class women that are mentioned in the novel. She does not carry herself with a sense of propriety or put on airs just to fit in with those around her. Even though she has money her background and mixed heritage make it difficult for her to fit in. In comparison to other novels of the time the most relatable to Harriet in heritage is Bertha from Jane Eyre and she is definitely not the protagonist of the novel nor admirable in any way. Sara Willburn elaborates in depth about Harriet’s character saying,

While Harriet has been described as having had a sheltered upbringing in a convent, her characterization as an “unsophisticated” is somewhat surprising given her wealthy colonial background and her independent voyage with a school chum from Jamaica to one of the most popular English resorts. Here it is interesting that the danger of Harriet, unlike her later in the novel, is classified as a lesbian threat, and furthermore, that a lesbian danger is described as unsophisticated, practically accidental. All the same, it is still a serious threat: thus potentially categorizing a mixed raced union as threatening in the same way as a same sex marriage in terms of white nations building. Furthermore, it also hypothesizes that a wealthy colonial might be able to rule the passion of an English woman. (442)

In conclusion, even though this novel was not very well known among the Victorians, it is very distinctive and explains a lot about their culture. The Blood of the Vampire elaborates greatly on the idea of the new woman and what that meant for women in society. The vampire in this novel is extraordinarily unique because of the fact that she does not physically drink blood, but instead takes away the life energy of those around her. Harriet is self aware of what she is and in the end becomes a hero because she realizes she is a monster and eliminates herself before she can hurt others that she loves. This novel deserves more recognition.

Works Cited

Marryat, Florence. The Blood of the Vampire. Kansas City: Valancourt Books,   2009. Print.

Hammack, Brenda Mann. “Florence Marryat’s Female Vampire and the Scientizing of Hybridity.” Studies in English Literature 48.3 (2008): 885-96. Jstor. Web. Mar. 16-2016.

Knoepflmacher, V.C. “Editor’s Preface: Hybrid Forms and Cultural Anxiety.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 48.4 (2008) 745-54. Jstor. Web. Mar. 20-2016.

Willburn, Sarah. “The Savage Magnet: Racialization of the Occult Body in Late Victorian Fiction.” Women’s Writing 15.3 (2008): 436-53. Academic Search Complete. Web. Mar. 16-2016.

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James Payn: Halves

Plot summary: No one reads James Payn apparently, even though he was a prolific writer and had numerous works on the Victorian best-seller lists.  Moreover, he contributed to many of the period’s most influential literary periodicals and even edited the Chamber’s Journal for several years. NPG x12699; James Payn by W. & D. Downey, published by  Cassell & Company, Ltd

So, why don’t scholars read Payn?  Well, beyond his fascinating plot-lines the literary quality of his work leaves something to be desired.  He focuses on the sensationalism of his plot and his style is minimalistic compared to the rich descriptive qualities of Dickens’ or Collins’ work.  Otherwise, his works seem so topical to the concerns of the period that I am surprised more Victorianists don’t read and write on his works.

The title of the novel, Halves, is in reference to an agreement made by two brothers, Mark and Alec Raeburn.  The brothers agree to split their fortunes in half, one helping the other.  Mark stays in England to practice law, but Alec leaves to find his fortune in the New World.  The story opens with the narrator, Harry Sheddon, becoming apprenticed to Mark in the hopes that he can woo Mark’s niece and ward, Gertrude Floyd.  While Harry stays at the Raeburn home, the lost Uncle Alec returns to England.  The greedy Mrs. Mark Raeburn is quick to begin probing into Uncle Alec’s financial status, hoping that his fortune will save her family from its financial woes.  Uncle Alec, it seems, is poor himself and Mrs. Raeburn begins treating him harshly.  Uncle Alec is heartbroken at treatment of his brother and sister-in-law and starts wasting away.  He takes to his room and becomes isolated from everyone except his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.

Meanwhile, Harry’s suit has been successful and he becomes engaged to Miss Floyd.  Miss Floyd, however, becomes mysteriously ill.  She recovers when away from the Raeburn home but sickens again when she returns.  She is tested for poison, but her doctor cannot pin point the cause of her illness.  One day, Harry inadvertently sees Mrs. Raeburn fiddling with the horse-hair couch and reports this strange activity to the doctor.  The doctor has Harry surreptitiously search Mrs. Raeburn’s room, in which he finds a strange device which can be used to finely chop foodstuffs.  The doctor realizes that Mrs. Raeburn has been putting finely chopped horse-hair into Miss Floyd’s food, effectively “poisoning” her (horse-hair can perforate the bowels and cause severe gastrointestinal distress).  Mrs. Raeburn has been poisoning Miss Floyd in order to keep her money (dowry) within the family.  It also turns out that Uncle Alec has been long dead, and the family pretended he was alive to keep receiving his annuity.

In the end, Mrs. Raeburn commits suicide and her husband and son leave England.  Harry inherits Uncle Alec’s fortune (the old man had kept his money a secret so he could judge the true character of his brother and sister-in-law).  Harry marries Miss Floyd.

Themes/Keywords: Suicide, poison, bankruptcy, greed


I am primarily fascinated with the specifics of attempted murder and the use of horse-hair as poison, which is (as far as I know) unique to Victorian writing.  I originally came to the novel after reading a reference to its strange method of poisoning in C.J.S. Thompson’s Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries:

Perhaps the most curious method of poisoning ever used in fiction, is that introduced by the late Mr. James Payn in his novel, “Halves.”  The poisoner uses finely chopped horse-hair as a medium for getting rid of her niece.  In this way she brings on a disease which puzzles the doctor, until one day he comes across the would-be murderess pulling the horse-hair out of the drawing-room sofa, which causes him to suspect her at once.  This ingenious lady introduced the chopped horse-hair into the pepper-pot used by her victim. (248)

Neither Thompson, or the novel explains how horse-hair is “poisonous,” and I first assumed that it might be treated with arsenic or another poison.  Arsenic was used in the production of a lot of furniture and household goods.  But, as it turns out, horse-hair, when finely chopped and ingested, can perforate the bowels causing severe gastrointestinal problems.  As Mrs. Raeburn figures out, Victorian medicine had no way of testing for this “poison” and without the eye-witness account of her taking the horse-hair from the couch she might not have been caught.  Thus, this particular form of poisoning suggests the limitations of Victorian science to detect foul-play. On a symbolic level, Mrs. Raeburn using a couch to supply her with a murder weapon and hiding this poison in the meals she served her niece signals the dangers lurking within a seemingly-normal middle-class household.  The home both harbors and enables her murderous scheme and it is only through the actions of outsiders–Harry the apprentice and the doctor–that can stop her.

Besides the poison-plot, there is some interesting passages about Uncle Alec’s exotic pets (parrot, dog, and snakes) and Mrs. Raeburn’s cruelty towards them.  Those working on pets in Victorian literature might want to read the novel.

The novel also contains a short segment about Uncle Alec’s adventures in the American south and mentions slavery and slave owners.

Works Cited:

Payn, James.  Halves.  In 3 vols.  London: Tinsley Bros., 1876.

Thompson, C.J.S.  Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries.  London: The Scientific Press, 1899.  Can be accessed on Googlebooks here

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Palmer’s Head: Victorian Postmortem Physiognomy

In revising one of my dissertation chapters into an article, I had to cut some research on poisoners and physiognomy.  One of the most interesting discoveries I made during research is the Victorian practice of postmortem physiognomic readings.  After the execution, physiognomists would sometimes be given access to the body in order to make casts of the heads. Below is brief account of the poisoner William Palmer’s case and the postmortem reading of his head:













Even before Cesare Lombroso developed his theory of criminal anthropology, which suggested that criminals could be identified from physical characteristics, devotees of the “science of physiognomy” promised that the practice could “reveal the guilt of the criminal” (Stanton 472).  By reading a person’s physical features, with a consideration of their dress and manners, the physiognomist could predict their subject’s character and even protect themselves from crime.  Now recognized as a pseudo-science, physiognomy was heavily reliant on stereotypes for its assessments.  For example, guidebooks warned that people with highly developed areas of secretiveness (a characteristic of the most cunning criminals) would have drawn mouths and a “close, sly look” to their faces (Wells 63).  These physiognomic assumptions, however, were challenged by several mid-century cases involving seemingly innocent-looking defendants.  One such case was that of William Palmer, who in 1856 was accused of poisoning his business associate John Parsons Cook.  As a surgeon and the second son of an upwardly mobile lumberman, Palmer by all accounts seemed to be an ordinary, middle-class professional—except for the string of suspicious deaths that followed him throughout his adult life.  Along with a financially-burdensome mother-in-law, both Palmer’s wife and brother, whose lives were each insured for £13,000, also died.  Yet it was not until early in 1856 and the strange death of Cook that Palmer was finally investigated for murder.  Cook had mysteriously died shortly after a winning-streak at the races.  When his money was discovered to be missing after his death, suspicions soon rested on the man who attended him in his last illness: Palmer.  When the details of Anne and Walter’s deaths were brought to light, Palmer was indicted for Cook’s murder. A multi-day trial resulted in Palmer’s conviction and subsequent execution.

The case created a sensation, with one commentator writing that “in the criminal history of this country there never was a case that has excited so much interest throughout the length and breadth of the land.”  The interest in the Palmer trial can certainly be attributed to growing mid-century fears about middle-class domestic crime, but Palmer’s appearance and social position as a professional family man also drew widespread attention.  Palmer did not fit Victorian stereotypes about murderers: instead of lower-class, ignorant, and brutish, he was middle-class, educated and socially polished.  Reports of Palmer at court emphasize the physiognomic disjunction between his alleged crimes and his appearance: “He is a man rather under than over the middle height, of fair florid complexion, and sanguine temperament, and with nothing in his round, ordinary face to indicate criminal inclinations or dark and deep designs.  A casual observer would set him down as a respectable, good humoured farmer; and a physiognomist would be more inclined to give him credit for social and convivial habits, than those elaborately planned crimes which the indictment lays to his charge” (“Trial of William Palmer”).  As this quotation suggests, there was nothing about Palmer’s appearance that signaled his murderous propensities and the case evoked anxieties about criminals who were “invisible” to ordinary methods of visual detection.  If even the physiognomist would be mistaken in his assessment of Palmer, what hope did the general public have in recognizing and avoiding these criminals?

To help assuage some of these fears, a post-mortem examination of Palmer’s physiognomy was conducted by Mr. Bridges, a noted phrenologist.[1]  Palmer’s body was cut down from the scaffold and Bridges had access to it before its burial.  After shaving the head and preparing it “in the usual mode operation” Bridges took a cast.  His scientific analysis, which was published in The Medical World: A Journal, revealed Palmer’s “extreme predominance of secretiveness; his utter want of conscientiousness; and his defect in the higher reflective powers” and noted that he was “the real type of the secret and subtle poisoner” (“Palmer’s Head” 34).   In other words, Bridges found the head to exactly correspond to Victorian stereotypes of the poisoner as secretive and heartless.  Despite his manner or his dress, Bridges work suggests that the poisoner was not invisible as some feared, but could be detected by the skilled practitioner.

Looking back at this article from a twenty-first century perspective, it is easy to see Bridge’s readings as a revisionist–Bridges can’t help but to find the features of the typical poisoner in face of a man executed for poisoning.   Postmortem physiognomic analyses of famous criminal’s heads it seems were commonly reported in periodicals and newspapers and provided a way to confirm the guilt of the executed.  They also provided a venue for showcasing the effectiveness of physiognomic and phrenological techniques, since the results inevitably conformed to the facts of the case.

A photograph of Palmer’s death mask can be seen here.

Works Cited:

“Palmer’s Head.” The Medical World.  1.2 (1857): 34-5.  You can find this article here.

Stanton, Mary Olmstead.  A system of practical and scientific physiognomy: Or, how to read faces.

“Trial of William Palmer.”  Daily News.  1856.

Wells, Samuel. How to Read Character.  New York: Fowler and Wells, 1894.

[1] The “Mr. Bridges” of the article is certainly Francis Bridges, author of Popular Manual of Phrenology, from which the image is taken.

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Digital Project: Map of Charles Dickens’s Childhood Homes

You can see the more extensive version of this map by following this link

This map plots the childhood homes  and significant places of author Charles Dickens’s childhood from his birth through March 1837 when he moved into his first home with new wife Catherine Hogarth. The addresses and timeline are primarily drawn from the “Where the Dickens: A Chronology of the Various Residences of Charles Dickens, 1812-1870” by Philip V. Allingham. This chronology is posted here on The Victorian Web.

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Baroness Orczy: “The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway”

Plot Summary: This story is part of “The Old Man in the Corner” series created by Orczy, which feature an (you guessed it) old man telling sensational mystery tales in the A.B.C. Teashop.  This time he tells Polly (a journalist) about the death Mrs. Hazeldene, who was found dead on a car in the underground railway.  Although it is clear she died from an injection of poison (prussic acid), it is unclear how.  The old man clears up the mystery, when he explains to Polly that she was killed by a poisoned ring: “A ring–yes! a ring, which has a tiny hollow needle capable of holding a sufficient quantity of prussic acid to have killed two persons instead of one.  The man in the tweed suit shook hands with his fair companion–probably she hardly felt the prick, not sufficiently in any cause to make her utter a scream” (236).   The man in “the tweed suit” turns out to be Mrs. Hazeldene’s husband, who relies on the “ordinariness” of his personal appearance (and a lack of close observation by people in general) to murder his wife in the presence of witnesses.

Themes/Keywords: Poison, rings, uxoricide, prussic acid, detective fiction, short story

Comments: This is a rather ordinary detective story in many ways, with the exception of the use of the ring as a murder weapon.  Poison rings certainly held a fascination for the Victorians, and appear several times in nineteenth-century crime fiction, most notably in Edward Bulwer’s Lucretia.  There were also numerous mentions of poison rings in periodical articles, often linking them to the Borgias and Renaissance Italy.  A typical example can be found in an article on “Finger-Rings” in The Antiquary:

Rings have been used in certain cases for deadly purposes, as they frequently contained virulent poison, with which the wearer speedily removed himself from the troubles and dangers of this life.  Others contained a secret spring, which darted poison in grasping very affectionately the hand of an enemy. In Italy they were in frequent use, and were called ‘Death’s rings.’ (251)

This interest in the crimes of Renaissance Italy has much to do with the inclusion of poison rings in nineteenth-century crime fiction, but the obsession with symbolic jewelry is also at play here.  The Victorians often liked their jewelry to remind them of death (memento mori jewelry) or of deceased loved ones (mourning jewelry) and a ring that not only symbolizes–but also causes–death was probably just too tempting to pass up.  The sexual implications in this particular story are also interesting–as the wedding ring binding the couple gets replaced by a a ring symbolizing death and separation.  Also note the sexual implications of the barbed ring “penetrating” the wife and causing her death.  As is so often the case, poison is used to expose diseased marriages and domestic crimes.


“The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway.”  The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories.  Ed. Hugh Greene.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1970: 217-37.

Westropp, Hodder M.  “Finger-Rings.”  The Antiquary.  17(1888):  248-53.



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L.T. Meade’s “The Wrong Prescription”

Plot Summary: Dr. Halifax (the doctor-hero of the collected stories) goes to stay with friends in Hampshire for Christmas, where he meets Captain Oliver, Miss Francis Wilton (the fiancee of the aforementioned Oliver) and the ten-year old Rosamond.  After they witness a pharmacist refuse to fill a request sent in by Francis, Oliver admits to Halifax that Francis has gone through a radical personality change.  Concerned, Halifax resolves to question her about the mysterious prescription.  Upon entering her room, he finds her prostrate and from a brief examination figures out that she is a “morphia-maniac.”  He injects her with morphine, and after she recovers he accuses her of abusing the opiate.  She denies his claims, and wires for “Nurse Collins” who (Francis claims) is the only one who can cure her.  Shortly afterwards, both Nurse Collins and Francis abruptly depart from Hampshire.  After a desperate search for the women in London, Nurse Collins finally contacts Halifax and tells him she might have given Francis the wrong prescription–one which contained strychnine instead of morphine.  Halifax goes to Francis and discovers that she has indeed been taking the wrong medication; however, the strychnine has acted as a “tonic” and helps her get through her withdrawal from the morphine.  After a fortnight in withdrawal, she recovers both her health and her original personality.
Themes/Keywords:  Morphinomania;’ addiction; poison; quack medicine; nurses; morphine; opiates; personality changes
Comments:  Certainly “The Wrong Prescription”  offers material for some interesting readings to be done on the tension between nurses and doctors in the Victorian period and Meade’s sensationalizing of drug addiction among upper/middle-class women, but I am especially interested in the personality changes that Francis undergoes during her addiction.  It seems that late-century texts (especially after the publication of Jekyll and Hyde) demonstrate a growing interest in “mind-control” poisons or poisons that affect the personality, rather than just deadly poisons.  This is a topic I keep coming back to-so hopefully more “poisonous mind control” entries will be appearing shortly!
Bibliographic info:
Meade, L.T. “The Wrong Prescription.” Stories from the Diary of a Doctor.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1895: 145-175.
Reprinted by Arno Press in 1976.
“The Nurse Started”
Halifax confronting “Nurse Collins”
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