Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Out of the Silence – Wendy James

Historical Fiction  5*'s
Historical Fiction

I love history, particularly social history that explores the lives of women, and this book fits really well into this area of interest. Wendy James has taken the real life story of a young girl named Maggie Heffernan who lived in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century and added a fictional background to the crime she was tried for. To complement Maggie’s story we also have Elizabeth Hamilton’s story, a slightly older woman, an unwilling spinster, who works as a governess and later at a school run by Vida Goldstein. For those of you who know as little about Australian history as I do, in 1903, Vida Goldstein was the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election in a national parliament, woman having been given the vote much earlier in Australia than either the UK or the US. As Elizabeth’s story unfolds she gives an insight into the suffragette movement in Australia at this time as seen through a bystanders view rather than with the full force of Vida’s passion for the cause.

Maggie’s story is told in the first person and follows her movement from eldest daughter helping her rather cold mother out at home in the fabulously named Dederang, to being shipped off to the nearby town of Yackandandah to help out relations before moving away on her own accord gaining a permanent position as a servant. All through her narrative I knew that her love affair with Jack Hardy was doomed and yet I still hoped that the ending would be different so affected was I by the voice Wendy James gave her.

Being caught out in this dress is shame enough, but just as he comes by I am squeezed right down the front of the cart, poking about as if hunting for something or other, so he comes upon me unawares an when he asks, ‘Is everything all right miss? Can I help you with anything?’ I am not expecting it and hit my shin hard on the bench.
When I have recovered enough to speak, I ask him what he thinks he is doing, what sort of fool is he to come creeping up on a person in such a way?
‘My apologies, miss,’ he says, ‘but I wouldn’t say I was creeping – this is a public path, y’know, an thee was nowhere else for me to walk. I just thought you might have been in some difficulty, being all doubled over like that…’
‘It was nothing,’ I tell him. ‘I had… dropped my glove, is all, an was hunting for it.’ This is so plainly a tale – it is as warm a day as we ever get an there’s not a single glove in evidence – that I add in a tone that Ma would be proud of, ‘Which a person’s got a perfect right to do without being frightened out of her wits by a complete stranger.’

Elizabeth’s story is told through her journal entries and letters to her brother who is in New York, far away from their birthplace in Edinburgh, this is much drier in tone and consequently it took longer for me to get as emotionally involved in her story, which although much less dramatic than Maggie’s, illustrates how for many women the only way they would feel fulfilled was to marry but Elizabeth’s fiancé had died in a tragic accident shortly before she moved to Melbourne. Elizabeth’s story also gives us the insight into Vida’s life, a woman who has decided that improving the lives of woman and children was her goal and this couldn’t be combined with marriage. In fact all three women were fighting against not only circumstance but the freedom to have any real choices about their lives.

9 May

First typing class today. Girls very enthusiastic. Only one parent objecting to it calling it an unnecessary evil. The same parent, incidentally, who opposed his daughter’s algebra lessons. The girls father is a member of the lower house, formerly a grocer who mae his fortune during the gold rush. She tells us he can’t see the point (and nor can she for that matter). Why train her to do things she’ll never need? not as if she’ll ever have to earn her living he says. Which is fortunate, really… 

These lives collide when Maggie is arrested and Vida organised a campaign both during and after the trial which successfully proved to her country that she was able to run such a sustained media blitz, helped by the fact that she didn’t fit the stereotypical view of a suffragette. With Elizabeth on hand to help Vida out with the campaign and accompanying her on visits to Maggie these three women, with very different backgrounds meet.

Wendy James doesn’t judge any of the three women featured in this book, although the facts are overlaid with fiction and maybe Maggie’s story is given the most positive spin possible, it was still eminently believable and I didn’t get the feeling that sometimes happens in these types of books, that the author wanted me to come to a certain conclusion, rather she had confidence that her story was enough and the reader could make their own mind up about the choices made by each of the women.

I can’t wait to read more books by Wendy James, this is easily my favourite read of the year so far, admittedly aided by my keen interest in the subject matter but definitely enhanced by the sheer quality of the writing.

More Historical Crime

The Murder Tree – Alan Veale
Not Guilty – Christine Gardner
Death at the Priory – James Ruddick
Quiet Dell – Jayne Anne Phillips

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of The Brides In The Bath – Jane Robins

Non-Fiction Historical Crime 5*'s
Non-Fiction Historical Crime

This book is about Bernard Spilsbury a forensic pathologist whose scientific mind was compared to that of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes through his appearances at murder trials as an expert witness in Edwardian Britain.

Dr Spilsbury  The Guardian
Dr Spilsbury
The Guardian

As a backdrop to the man himself, Jane Robins retraces the story of three suspected murders known at the time as The Brides In The Bath because in each case the woman in question had been found dead in the bath shortly after being married. In the case of the first two women the deaths were put down to fitting or fainting whilst bathing, but when the father of one of these women read a newspaper article about a very similar death he campaigned to Inspector Neil to investigate. In turn Neil turned to Spilsbury, but there was one problem, murder by drowning is unusual, the only records were the pitiful bundles where mothers had murdered their offspring. That wasn’t to stop Spilsbury though, he worked night and day testing his ideas, either in the mortuary or in the lab in his house and soon bodies were exhumed and theories espoused. In one chilling experiment to work out how the women could have been killed without a struggle female swimmers dressed in bathing costumes were recruited for experimentation.

She slipped under easily, but to me, who was closely watching, she seemed to make no movement. Suddenly I gripped her arm, it was limp. With a shout I tugged at her arm-pit and raised her head above the water It fell over to one side. She was unconscious. For nearly half an hour my detectives and I worked away at her with artificial respiration and restoratives. Things began to look serious, and then a quick change began to take place, and her pretty face began to take on the bloom of young healthy womanhood. It had given us all a turn, so practical demonstrations in baths were from that moment promptly discontinued.

Thank goodness for that!

Jane Robins does far more than simply recount the murders of the women in question though, with a chapter devoted to each of the murder victims, she also seeks to explain why they would have married a man so quickly and then proceeded to acquiesce so totally to their husband’s demands, such as visiting a doctor with symptoms of a headache, writing letters to their families which had clearly been dictated and agreeing to bathe in a boarding house without securing the door. The answer proposed is the need for marriage was at the forefront of every woman’s mind, there was a shortage of men even before the First World War and the need to keep that man, the place woman held in society and in part the way the man George Joseph Smith behaved, some suggested his approach was hypnotic.

George Joseph Smith  Watford Observer
George Joseph Smith
Watford Observer

Of course the subject of the book didn’t just spring to prominence as a forensic expert, Jane Robbins also uses the case of Dr Crippen who was tried for murder in 1910 to illustrate how Spilsbury became so prominent in the field.

Under cross-examination, Spilsbury supported Augustus Pepper, stating that the person who had removed the viscera ‘must have had considerable dexterity and considerable anatomical knowledge’…. Re-examined by the prosecution he said, loud and clear: ‘It is beyond doubt that this is a scar…. There is my opinion, no room for doubt that the mark was a scar’

It was this trial that really sealed the role of the medical expert in criminal trials of this nature and although with the advances in science over the last one hundred years may have thrown some doubt on Spilsbury’s assertion, in this case a man was hanged on his evidence.


Dr Crippen Wikipedia

This is a fascinating book following the investigations into two major trials in the early part of the twentieth century when forensic evidence was being used for the first time. This, as pointed out by Jane Robins, dovetailed neatly with the popularity of a new type of fictional detective, the esteemed and scientifically minded Sherlock Holmes. From this time on, murderers could no longer rely on luck to escape the law, science was allowing the victims a voice and men like Spilsbury were able to read the clues left behind. I suspect from reading this book that Bernard Spilsbury as well as being incredibly dedicated to his role got something of an ego boost from the unusual type of fame it afforded him.

I recommend this book to any lover of historical true crime, Jane Robins writes in an accessible way neatly separating the book into chapters complemented by a light historical lesson in the changes that this period was experiencing.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Home Fires – Elizabeth Day

Historical Fiction 4*'s
Historical Fiction

Home Fires is the story of two women, Elsa who was born during the First World War and Caroline who is her daughter-in-law. Both women had their lives defined by war. Elsa’s father returned to the daughter he didn’t know a damaged and brutal man. Caroline’s son Max decided to join the army.

The story is gentle but powerful, full of richness with the intensity of feelings, and what can happen when the layers of finesse are stripped back. All the relationships in this book are authentic; Elsa’s with her daughter-in-law, Elsa with her Grandson, Caroline’s suffocating love of her only child Max and her shifting love for her husband Andrew are familiar yet unique. Told in narrative by Caroline in the present day and Elsa in flashbacks to the 1920’s this is a sumptuous book full of detail as well as touching without being mawkish.

I read Scissors, Paper, Stone and thoroughly enjoyed it and Elizabeth Day has proved herself to be an author to watch for those of us who enjoy depth and a deft hand with difficult subjects

Posted in Books I have read

I Stopped Time – Jane Davis

Historical Fiction 5*'s
Historical Fiction

This book tells the tale of Lottie, a woman who wasn’t around through her son’s young life. James doesn’t know, or want to know, about his absent mother until she dies and he is left a photography collection. Through these photographs he discovers more about her.

I loved the way that Lottie’s life unfolded through pictures, a clever (and brave) device which worked fantastically well. It was a real change from the diary with the missing pages which is often used! The ending was perfect, not being a writer, I often think this must be the hardest part as many a promising book falls at this stage. The timing of the revelation of Lottie’s story, especially in relation to her son James was perfect.

Being interested in more recent history this book was right up my street and I especially liked the fact that it examined the reality of the women left behind during the First World War. This book deserves to be read by all who enjoy a really good story, well defined characters and detailed research to back it all up! I would especially recommend it to fans of Kate Morton and Rachel Hore.

I was given a pre-publication copy of this book by the author some time ago, and despite reading many books since then, this book is one I have remembered and reflected upon.