Sentimental Murder by John Brewer

Do we need a motive for this sudden act of frenzy?
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On the evening of 7 April 1779, Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, was shot by James Hackman, a young soldier who had recently turned clergyman, as she was leaving Covent Garden Theatre. Ray died instantly, but Hackman, who had turned the second of his two pistols on himself, only grazed his head, and rolled around on the ground crying, "o! kill me!... for God's sake kill me!" Three days later Hackman was hanged at Newgate after being tried by Sir William Blackstone.

The motives that lay behind Hackman's sudden act of frenzy were never satisfactorily explained. He had met Martha Ray four years before at Lord Sandwich's Huntingdonshire seat, and seems to have immediately fallen for her. He pressed his suit and made a proposal of marriage that she rejected, probably at the beginning of 1776. Thereafter he claimed to have had no contact with her up to the time of the murder, and it may have been only the report that she had another admirer that incited him to kill her. The historian John Brewer is in any case uninterested in attempting to fill in the holes in the story. Instead, he has written a history of all the accounts, narratives, stories - and they were legion, in the press, in popular fiction, and in fiction posing as history - that were built, in the course of the next two centuries, around Hackman's killing of Martha Ray.

Brewer may underrate his readers' fascination with the whys and wherefores of the case, but his book is richly conceived and stylishly accomplished. After analysing the ways in which Hackman was transfigured into a romantic victim, besotted by an older woman and unable to cope with his own exquisite sensibility, Brewer provides us with the essential background to his protagonists. Sandwich - who slipped a slice of salt beef between two pieces of bread and gave his name to the snack - was First Lord of the Admiralty and a notorious libertine. He was, though, happy with Martha Ray, who had lived with him for 11 years, and had borne him nine children, five of whom survived.

Brewer traces the path of his story into the late 18th century when Erasmus Darwin saw the case as a strong example of erotomania, and where just the utterance of the name Martha Ray in Wordsworth's poem The Thorn, is a symbol of ambiguity and narrative confusion. The Victorians took a high moral tone, and used the story of Ray's murder to contrast the barbarism of the past with 19th- century standards of private moral probity for all ranks of society. In the 20th century, Hackman and Ray were delivered into the hands of Georgette Heyer and her ilk.

In a polemical twist in his last chapter, Brewer sets out his stall for a new kind of historical writing. This will be both a historical and a literary act and, rather than simply providing a master narrative constructed out of other narratives, it will consider the transmission of the past, and the ways in which writing history is itself a part of history. If future experiments are as potent and rewarding as this one, then we will have much to look forward to.