The country manor is a set piece of Victorian English literature. On the surface, all is peaceful and orderly. But passion stirs beneath the calm. Sometimes deadly passion.
On the night of June 29, 1860, a three year old boy went missing. His nursemaid awoke to find an empty bed. The child was not with his parents. Indeed, he was nowhere to found, at least not alive. Hours after he was declared missing, the lifeless body of Saville Kent was found amid the waste in the family outhouse, his throat cut, stabbed in the chest and, perhaps, choked. It was an event which transfixed England.
The 12-room home, known as Road Hill House at the time, now known as Lambert House, was locked down for the night. There were no signs of an intruder. The inescapable and unthinkable conclusion was that one of the occupants murdered Saville and dispossed of his body before dawn. But who? And why?
Thus was framed the classic whodunit. Put a dozen people in a house. Father, mother, step-mother, children from two marriages, servants, and then simmer to boiling. The Road Hill murder went unsolved for five years. The Kent family was villified. Scotland Yard, just struggling to find its feet, was called in. Bumbling wellwishers offered clues, tips and even held an inquiry to find the killer. In the end the case was solved by a confession that still has some wondering whether the identity of the killer is really known.
The Bronte sisters read about this case; its eerie almost haunted quality is resonates in their fiction. Dicken's Bleak House reflects the events. And for almost one hundred and fifty years since, there has been a steady stream of commentary and speculation about the case and its meaning. Early detective fiction, controversial at the time, drew upon the tangled relationships in the home for inspiration. And they focused on the Jonathan Whicher, the detective assigned to the case, to develop a new and suspect type of literary hero.
Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, (Walker & Company, New York: 2008) is a wholly capable and enjoyable look at the crime and its consequences. Ms. Summerscale is the former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph. She writes with a novelist's ease and a scholar's sense of proportion. The endnotes are as fascinating as the text. This is not merely a book about a "true crime." Rather, it is a sophisticated and engaging study of the social history of crime.
One startling effect of the work is a reminder of just how much we take government intrusion for granted today. Ms. Summerscale reminds us that it was once a national scandal in Britain to have undercover police officers surveilling citizens. And England took serious in a way we have long since forsaken the notion that a man's home is his castle.
A newspaper editorial published by the Morning Post 10 days after the Road Hill murder reflects the national mood. By contrast, our attitude toward the Fourth Amendment look attentuated. The exceptions to the warrant requirement have all but held open even the most private spaces to government inquiry.
"Every Englishman is accustomed to pride himself with more than usual complacency upon what is called the sanctity of the English home. No solider, no policeman, no spy of the Government dare enter it ... Unlike the tenant of a foreign domicile, the occupier of an English house, whether it be mansion or cottage, possesses an indisputable title against every kind of aggression upon his threshold. He defies everybody below the Home Secretary; and even he can only violate the traditional security of a man's house under extreme circumstances, ... It is with this thoroughly innate feeling of security that every Englishman feels a strong sense of the inviolability of his own house. It is this that converts the moorside cottage into a castle. The moral sanctions of an English home are, in the nineteenth century, what the moat, and the keep, and the drawbridge were in the fourteenth. In the strength of these we lie down to sleep at night, and leave our homes in the day, feeling that a whole neighbourhood would be raised, nay, the whole country, were any attempt made to violate what so many traditions, and such long custom, have rendered sacred."
You will not be sorry to have read this book.