About five or six years ago, I had an idea for a book, which came from my enjoyment of skipping about the census returns of my family. At the time, the only free census online was the 1881 census (as transcribed by the Church of Latter-Day Saints) – indeed, as far as I know, it still is the only free one. I realised you could look up a number of famous people, and also look up a number of not so famous people (my favourite entry is still Robert Browning’s entry under Occupation, which reads ‘Poet: no occupation’). It occurred to me that a selection of not-quite-so-well-known people, or well-known people at not so well-known stages of their lives, might make an interesting jumping-off point for some creative vignettes, to be followed by a short, populist biographical summary. An agent was interested, but I had nine or ten jobs at the time, and I realised that I’d never finish it. I also won a huge sum in a poetry competition at this stage, which is how I come to have a web-site, a web-site on to which I placed all my information, including this project (it’s called ‘Lost Lives’ and it’s still being updated. One of the great things about webbing it was that I started to receive email from researchers into the various lives of the people I had researched, sometimes correcting me).
One of the people I picked was Madeleine Smith, whose trial for murder in 1857 was the sensation of Scotland, and indeed Britain and further afield. I read about twelve biographies, and I realised that they all focused on her trial and whether or not she was guilty of poisoning her lover Emile L’Angelier with arsenic. (The case was found to be ‘not proven’, and attracted attention because Madeleine wrote over 200 letters to her lover, letters which revealed that young middle-class women were, shock horror, capable of progressing from the romantic to the sexual.) But what happened to her later? The various writers had quite hazy ideas, and contradicted each other. So I had a look at the 1881 census, and proceeded from there. In it, she appears as Lena Wardle.
On the way to getting her later life straight, I encountered Gwyneth Nair in the internet ether, who, with Eleanor Gordon, was writing about Lena (as I’ll call her from now on), using the letters to reveal many details of what the life of a young woman in Scotland would be like at that stage. That is to say, they were social historians. Gwyneth’s interest fired me up, and I pursued some leads, as I would have done if she had been a member of my family. This led me to talk, amongst others, to the executors of Lena’s daughter’s will (who had books inscribed ‘Lena Wardle’). It also led me on another strange journey, since it was commonly said that she had died in 1928, in New York, having changed her stated age to some thirty years younger than she really was. One writer, Jimmy Campbell, claimed to have made contact with her descendants. Another, Doug MacGowan, thought it was unlikely that she could have managed such an enormous feat of deception. Jimmy Campbell is a passionate advocate of Lena’s innocence; he would have worked with me if I signed up to this. But I think the truth is unprovable.
However, using census returns and other available details, I traced Lena’s great-great-grandson. He was on the East Coast of the USA, and, in answer to a carefully vague query, he said ‘Wasn’t she called Maggie Smith and committed a murder in Scotland or something?’ That very vagueness was the proof that Lena had indeed died in New York. He knew of it as half-understood family history.
Now Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair’s book Murder And Morality In Victorian Britain: the story of Madeleine Smith is out (Manchester University Press, £16.99 for the paperback). I can hardly be impartial, since I get a generous mention in the credits, but that’s only to do with the last chapter. This is the first complete and thorough account of Lena’s life, as against an investigation of the case, and it is so comprehensive and readable that there is really no need for anyone to write another book about her (although that won’t stop them!). Witty, fluent, engrossing – words you rarely get a chance to apply to academic writers – this is a full-scale treat. What Gordon and Nair spot is that her letters are written at a pivotal stage in the way we shop, the way we act in our daily lives, the way the middle classes establish themselves. It may have started life as academic research, but it is as fascinating and authoritative as Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions Of Mr. Whicher, and I can’t really offer higher praise. I hope very much that a reviewer like Kathryn Hughes gets to give it the plaudits it deserves (Hughes is Mrs. Beeton’s biographer, and another brilliantly accessible academic. Actually, Mrs. Beeton is a relative of mine by marriage, but that’s another story…)