Thursday, April 19, 2007

Death at the Priory - James Ruddick

Title: Death at the Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England

Author: James Ruddick (author's official web site)

Copyright: 2001, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.; link to work at LibraryThing

Length: 209 pages, including endnotes, bibliography and index.

Genre: Non-fiction, history

Summary: The book provides an in-depth examination of the murder of Charles DeLauney Turner Bravo at his home in April 1876. Death was due to the ingestion of antimony, a caustic poison having a particularly ugly impact on the body's vital organs. The range of suspects includes the gentleman's wife, her former lover, her paid companion, an employee recently discharged from service and even the victim himself (as an intentional suicide). The question of who-dun-it has never been definitively answered, although various scholars and mystery writers have proposed solutions to the mystery. Ruddick claims to have come closest to the final answer. The book is a surprisingly enthralling read, less lurid than many true-crime accounts, offering lively story-telling with a certain whiff of distant historical scandal.

Also Relevant: I had written briefly last month about watching a BBC production, A Most Mysterious Murder, hosted by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar winning script writer of Gosford Park. The pilot for that series told the story of the Priory murder and, watching it, I recalled this book as an Amazon recommendation for me and sought out a copy. I sped through it, perhaps because I'd seen the episode on DVD, but Ruddick (a) comes to a conclusion that differs from the one offered up by Fellowes and (b) offers more specific details than the television episode. Watching Julian Fellowes' rendition, it was as sensational as the book's subtitle "Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England" promised. Ruddick's book, of course, is written in a slightly more conservative tone, but there is still close examination of each individual -- Florence, the abused wife, Mrs. Cox, the competent paid companion, Dr. Gully, the rejected former lover, etc.

Were the victim just a fictional character, one might cheer the expeditious manner in which he was got rid of. He was, after all, more than a little autocratic in his manner, a petty tyrant who exercised what he thought were the God-given rights of an adult male with regard to sex, money and order. Even Florence suspected he was mostly after her money. Ruddick is however careful to indicate that Bravo seemed to have had his charming aspects:

He traveled widely, read voraciously and had many diverse interests. He loved literature, particularly Shakespeare, and had a faultless knowledge of English poetry. He played chess with a passion, relishing the twists and turns of the game. He could talk confidently about politics, business, nature, and history.

Noting the knowledge of poetry, I thought to myself while reading that he must have known his Tennyson and that must have had some bearing on his ideas of world and domestic order. Florence was a naive young woman in her twenties when she married him, but as Ruddick's book makes clear, her ideas of domestic order clashed dramatically with those of Bravo. But he offered married respectability, something Dr. Gully was unable to do since Gully had a living wife (locked in an insane asylum). With details like that, you can start to understand the Victorian fascination with the two inquests that were unable to clear anyone's name of suspicion. It might indeed have been any of the various parties noted above; some motives are weaker than others but Charles Bravo gave ample reason that he might be added to that Gilbert and Sullivan list of those who "never would be missed".

Still there is some part of me that is a little abashed at having enjoyed so much this whole salacious affair. It bore more than a little relation to gossiping with Mary Anne, the upstairs maid in the story, who listened at doors and tattled below-stairs.