A Sentimental Murder

I finished John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder quite a while ago, but still want to write one last post on it (a previous post is here). It’s a wonderful book, in short. It tells the story of James Hackman’s murder of Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, in 1779. But it does so much more than that — the first chapter tells what we know of the basic facts, and then subsequent chapters tell the story of how the story got told, how various versions developed, the “facts” changed, sympathies shifted.

There isn’t much we know of the facts, actually; Hackman had fallen in love with Martha Ray, but we don’t know for sure what her feelings were in return. On the night of the murder, he seemed more likely to commit suicide and leave Ray in safety, but something changed his mind, and he shot her just outside Covent Garden Theater. He tried to shoot himself, but failed.  He was tried for murder and hanged.

As the story gets shaped and retold through the end of the 18C and on into the 19C and 20C, the story focuses on different characters and different interpretations; at one point Hackman becomes a kind of sentimental hero — even though he is the murder — and at another, the focus is on Sandwich as an example of the corrupt aristocratic rake, and at another, on Martha, sometimes as an example of a fallen woman and sometimes as an exemplar of loyalty and devotion.

But the book does more than give varying interpretations of the story; it uses the story as a way to examine the culture surrounding it. Brewer includes a chapter on the 18C press, explaining how its openness and relatively amateur status meant that those in power could shape news stories as they saw fit (although those with competing versions of the story could do that too). He explains the late 18C culture of sensibility and how it fed into interpretations of the murder — this is a culture that valued emotional displays and loved to theorize about the political and social consequences of feeling. As he moves into the Victorian era, Brewer explains how writers took the murder as evidence of the decadence of late 18C life, compared, at least, to the moral uprightness of their own time.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the very end where Brewer backs up a bit to discuss theories of history and how his own story fits into them. He describes how, since the 1960s, the discipline of history has moved away from focusing solely on the public world of politics and economics and the big names — kings and presidents and prime ministers — and has moved toward telling the stories of everyday people. Writers of history also began to move away from using a detached and objective voice and wrote in a more subjective, personal, and engaged way. They began to look to new sources too — diaries and letters were sources of information, as well as the more traditional sources such as records of parliamentary debates.

Brewer explains how these changes in the discpline of history shaped his book:

The recent attempt to rethink the practice of historians, in other words, is a challenge not a threat. And it is in this spirit that I have written this book, partly as a certain kind of new history but also as an experiment, to see if it will work. I deliberately foreswore an approach that set out to recover the truth about events between 1775 and 1779, though I, as much as anyone, wonder about what lay behind the miasma of news, rumour, and information that circulated after Martha Ray’s death … I did not want to treat all subsequent accounts of the affair merely as sources of facts or evidence … I took what I considered a less invasive alternative. I tried to treat these accounts as stories or narratives with their own histories — not as databases of facts. The significance of each individual account — whether novel, anecdote, or essay — lay not in what it told us about James Hackman, Martha Ray, and the Earl of Sandwich, but in what it told us about the relationship between itself and the events of 1779, the connection between the past it was describing and its present.

If this book is an experiment in new forms of historical writing, I think it succeeds very well; he talks about history written from the bottom up, and this strikes me as a wonderful example — he gives us a picture of the late 18C century (and Victorian and 20C views of the late 18C) by focusing on one small story and following its development and implications. The story includes an aristocrat, but it’s a love story, not a political one — it’s a very personal story, and yet it tells us so much about the culture of the time. And the point is not so much what actually happened between Martha Ray and James Hackman — so much is unclear — but what the various versions of their story meant, what they reveal about the people telling the stories.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

3 responses to “A Sentimental Murder

  1. Cultural history, of which my favorite practitioner is Jacques Barzun.


  2. This sounds so wonderful! I really must get hold of it!


  3. This does sound good. I remember when Sandra/Book World was talking about it as well. I like the idea of reading about how the story has been reinterpreted through time–probably changing as the cultural and social mores changed as well.


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