The one that starts in Dickens and ends in the bush

If you haven’t read anything by Kate Summerscale, you’re in for a surprise. I bet that you will be mesmerized by the amount of research that she packs into each of her sentences. And she manages to make her text highly readable and entertaining! If she says that the room was dark at 5pm the day the jury came back with the verdict, I challenge you to find a contrary proof: the room wasn’t dark at 4.59pm yet. But she will go on to explain that there was actually a pea-soup fog that day due to soot particles and what kind of lamp was in the Old Bailey. That’s trademark Summerscale, and it might at first feel a bit overwhelming, but if you’re anything like me it’s also fun to learn so much on a variety of nitty-gritty subjects.

But if you have read Kate Summerscale before (I read the Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace and enjoyed the former a lot more), this book still comes as a surprise. I got this one through Netgalley and thought that she was staying in the vein of her two previous books: describe a true crime in Victorian England and paint in minute details the context, mentality and society of this particular event.

This time, the crime is particularly horrible: in the summer of  1895, a 13-year-old boy, Robert Coombes is found guilty of stabbing his mother to death. The public was particularly shocked to learn that the boy, together with his 12-year-old brother Nattie, spent 10 days enjoying themselves and spending money while their mother’s body lay upstairs, decaying in the heat. The big brother expressed no regret for the act, nor did he show any feelings and explain the cause of his action. People were accusing him of being a monster of depravity, a sign that modern Western civilization was decaying, especially since lower class children received mandatory primary education. These children were using their reading skills to read penny dreadfuls, cheap magazines full of horror stories and unbelievable crimes. Excitable, nervous dispositions like Coombes’ were pushed into crime. The late Victorian mentality as explained by Summerscale is fascinating in its hysteria and panic fear of death and degeneration. Luckily, because of his young age, Coombes was not condemned to be hanged but was found insane and sent to an asylum.

But the surprise lies elsewhere: when the guilty verdict comes, the book is only halfway through. What was Summerscale going to fill the rest of the pages with? I wondered.

[If you intend to read it, it might be better to stop reading now. I won’t give spoilers exactly, but…]

Also, what were the odds, that within a month’s time, I’d read two different books about late Victorian British asylums and the rather benevolent policy that managed mentally-ill people there? I didn’t even seek them out, they both fell into my lap. It was mere serendipity. Coombes was not detained in the same asylum as the one that inspired The Ballroom to Anna Hope, but a rather similar one, Broadmoor, in Berkshire. There he remained for a number of years, going from a sociopathic boy to a depressed teenager and to finally a responsible adult.

This part of Summerscale’s book is to me the most interesting. How a boy who had committed something awful and was thrashed by the press and public opinion as doomed to an early death was able to reinvent himself and lead a full, honorable life. I won’t go into details, but Coombes was 32 when the first World War started, to which he took an active part, and he emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1949. I’ll leave you at that, so that you too can wonder at the strange ways of a long, eventful life.

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3 thoughts on “The one that starts in Dickens and ends in the bush

  1. Wow, I didn’t know Kate Summerscale had a new book out, and what a fascinating subject! I’ll keep my eyes out for it. I went ahead and read the “spoilery” section and it has me even more interested. One of these days, I’ll get around to Suspicion of Mr Whicher as well. I liked Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace a lot, but most people seem to like Mr Whicher more.

  2. Oh fascinating! I read the spoilery section too (of course!) because I was curious what would happen to a kid like that after he got his guilty verdict. Very, very interesting. It must be especially interesting to see how the Victorian world responded to something like this happening right as they’re making the shift to idealizing children. Does she talk about that, does it come up? I AM CURIOUS.

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