Magazine article The Spectator

When Passion Rhymes with Fashion

Magazine article The Spectator

When Passion Rhymes with Fashion

Article excerpt

When passion rhymes with fashion SENTIMENTAL MURDER: LOVE AND MADNESS IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY by John Brewer HarperCollins, £20, pp. 340, ISBN 000257134X

Late one night in April 1779 a fashionable woman was murdered on the steps of her carriage outside Covent Garden Theatre. Her murderer fired a pistol at point-blank range. He then fired another pistol shot at his own head, but botched the suicide and succeeded merely in wounding himself. He was arrested, convicted and hanged within two weeks. His name was James Hackman, an exofficer and newly ordained clergyman. The victim was Martha Ray. She was the long-term mistress of the Earl of Sandwich. Then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, Sandwich was fighting for his political life as the war of American Independence turned to defeat. He lived openly in the Admiralty with Martha Ray, by whom he had fathered nine children, five of whom were living.

There was no question about Hackman's guilt, but what were his motives? He had known Martha Ray for four years. In his pocket he carried a letter which announced his intention of committing suicide. Had Martha Ray had a secret affair and then jilted him, possibly for someone else? Or had Hackman killed in a fit of insanity? And how does the powerful Sandwich fit into the story?

Definitive answers to none of these questions are to be found in this book. John Brewer has deliberately set out not to write a historical whodunit. He is interested less in solving the crime than in the story of the crime. This book is an experiment in history-writing - a new type of history that doesn't really attempt to find the 'truth' of historical events, but follows the story as it morphs through time, rather like peeling skins of the proverbial onion. Every age has invented its own 18th century, and the story of Martha Ray and Hackman has been reinvented accordingly.

Contemporary commentators were keen to put a sentimental spin on the story. They were riveted by the love triangle of Hackman, Ray and Sandwich. Here was a crime of passion which resonated with the fashionable cult of sensibility. The hero was Hackman, a lover who was prepared to die for his love. To Dr Johnson, on the other hand, the fascinating point was how the twenty something Hackman could have fallen for an older woman (Ray was well into her forties): pity the unhappy lover. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.