There are few stories as old as that of forbidden love and perhaps that is in part why the question of whether Madeline Hamilton Smith really did murder her lover Pierre Emile L’Anglier in Victorian Glasgow or not, has stayed in public consciousness for over one hundred and sixty years.
In Blackmail, Sex and Lies Kathryn McMaster has created a fictionalised tale using the actual letters between the lovers Madeline and Emile, as he was known, as the backbone of the book.
Madeline was part of the upper-middle classes, the daughter of an architect, albeit a man whose origins were far humbler whilst Emile worked as a packing clerk for Huggins a cotton merchants which was not an acceptable match in the year 1855 which is when the two first came into contact with each other. From Kathryn McMaster’s description Emile didn’t display his less than acceptable status, being well-dressed and a bit of a flatterer with his French accent and tales of daring dos in battles in France. The latter is subject to scepticism since Emile L’Anglier actually moved to Glasgow from Jersey in the Channel Islands where he was born on 30 April 1823.
Madeline was a mere 19 years old when she first met and was charmed by the older Emile and the pair initially had clandestine meetings until the wagging tongues of the gossips in Glasgow meant that word reached her mother. Her father banned the young Madeline from meeting or talking to Emile ever again and had she heeded his warnings the tale of course would have been much different.
As it was at the age of twenty-one, Madeline found herself on trial for his murder, the method, good old arsenic, the means a cup of cocoa and the opportunity a meeting to avail herself of very compromising letters which she hoped he would return to her to save her reputation, particularly as she was now engaged to the far more suitable William Harper Minnoch.
The fictionalisation of the story was incredibly convincing, even to this reader who has read a fair few accounts of the alleged Victorian poisoner. The letters are inserted throughout the text in italics, so although the author has pin-pointed a time where young Madeline realised that Emile actually wanted to marry her so desperately to elevate his social position, the letters with pet-names and seeming promises of devotion are read in the context of a young woman who begins to realise the error she has made.
The book also contains some pictures to illustrate the text so that we see the house where Madeline and Emile exchanged the dynamite love letters through the convenient placement of her bedroom window, the lodging house where Emile met his agonising death and the likeness Madeline had taken to send to her lover.
A crucial element to the fictionalisation of historical murders is to tell a good story and the author certainly managed that. This is the first book I’ve read where the length of time Madeline and Emile carried on their relationship was really bought home to me – one of them was certainly playing the long game. To my immense pleasure what happened post-trial isn’t overlooked either, with enough details given even at this point for further insight into Madeline’s character to be made. The author has created her characters, added a plausible plot based on historical fact and woven that together creating the events, some of which are mentioned in the letters and others that must be entirely of her imagination and yet, so believable.
Did Madeline Smith murder her lover? I don’t think we will ever know and although the author’s explanation is incredibly convincing, even she can’t absolutely rehabilitate this young woman who behaved shockingly given the mores of the time.
For those who buy the kindle version of Blackmail, Sex and Lies, there is an opportunity to receive the full transcripts of the letters sent in the main by Madeline, Emile’s return post not having survived. Those that had envelopes with postmarks (although there is some doubt about whether the letters were returned to the correct envelopes have the added details of when they were posted and delivered which is enlightening as to the efficiency of the Victorian postal service! This collection is a lovely postscript to the book.
This is the second book of the year in my Mount TBR Challenge 2018, and since I bought my copy of Blackmail, Sex and Lies in December 2017 is also worth another third of a book token!
Books I’ve read that reference Madeline Smith
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup
A Gallery of Poisoners by Adrian Vincent
The Poison Principle by Gail Bell
The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann
Victorian Murderesses by Mary S. Hartman