Harriet Martineau and the Suspicions of Mr Whicher

In case you haven’t heard of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale (2008, Bloomsbury), it is towards the top of the list of paperback sales currently mainly due to its recommendation by the Richard and Judy Book Club. It offers an account of a famous Victorian murder case – and the newly professionalised detective who solved it. The crime took place on a summer’s night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire. All was quiet. Behind shuttered windows the extended Kent family lay sound asleep. At some point after midnight a dog barked. The family awoke next morning to a horrific discovery – an unimaginably gruesome murder of a young child. The household and neighbourhood reverberated with shock, not least because the guilty party was surely close by. Following the failure of the local police to make any headway, a fortnight later Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, the most celebrated detective of his day, was sent to Road Hill House. He faced the unenviable task of solving a case in which every member of the grieving family was suspect. The murder provoked national interest, even hysteria. The thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes ‘ scheming servants, sexual desire, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing ‘ arose fear and a dark kind of excitement. When Whicher reached his shocking conclusion, there was uproar and confusion.  This book is based on a crime that was to inspire a generation of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, in particular because it provided the prototype of the classic murder mystery with its attendant body, detective, and country house steeped in secrets.

Connection with Harriet Martineau

 The book draws on documents, newspaper articles and writing of the time to provide the social context for the crime and particularly, the emergence of a new form of policeman ‘ the detective. As always, social class was a factor and the author quotes Harriet Martineau’s observation that this profession might produce a productive career route for the ambitious young working-class man who could ‘pass along the street somewhat more proudly, and under more notice’ in his policeman’s uniform ‘than the artisan in his apron and paper cap, or the labourer in his fustian, or bearing the porter’s knot’.

Martineau argued that the defining characteristics of the perfect policeman are restraint, anonymity and absence of emotion. ‘A hot temper would never do’, she wrote, ‘nor any vanity which would lay a man open to the arts of flirtation; not too innocent good-nature; nor a hesitating temper or manner; nor any weakness for drink; nor any degree of stupidity’ (Martineau, ‘The Policeman: his Health’ Once a Week, 2, June 1860).

Reflections

I came to know about this book because my son chose to read it during a long rail journey at Easter this year. He texted me as soon as he came across the name of Harriet Martineau, knowing my interest in her, but also to ask whether I knew anything of her connection to the book.  My immediate response was two-fold; first, to question why I hadn’t heard about this book before and, second, to wonder whether its popular character might mean that more people would be attracted to the Martineau Society. And it is this respect that I mention it here.

Among the Society’s often lengthy discussions about how to attract more (and younger) members, we have rarely discussed whether presenting or writing about the Martineaus for a more general audience might be a strategy.  Instead of (or in addition to) producing scholarly papers for academic journals which show the ‘greatness’ of Harriet’s (and James’) contribution to nineteenth-century culture and society, it might be more productive to use their work to more popular effect; for example, as Summerscale does in her book, to illustrate the emergence of a fully professional police force, or to make fun of self-important celebrities of the day, as Harriet does in her Autobiography, or the importance of developing good parenting skills in fathers using James as an example, as Harriet does in Household Education. What do other people think and have they any suggestions for the popular treatment of the Martineaus?

Martineau Society Conference, Birmingham, May 2009

 

 

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