Bloomsbury £14.99

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or, the Murder at Road Hill House, By Kate Summerscale

A fresh new take on an infamous Victorian crime

On the morning of 29 July 1860, Samuel and Mary Kent, an apparently prosperous couple in rural Wiltshire, awoke to find their three-year-old son, Saville, missing from his cot in the nursery. His body, it soon emerged, had been slashed at the neck to the vertebra and stuffed into the outside privy, where, wrapped in a bloody blanket, it lay upon the splashboard between the seat and the foul pit below. According to Jonathan Whicher, the Scotland Yard detective who was called in to restart the flawed investigation by the local police, the guilty party was Constance, the plain, sullen, teenage half-sister of little Saville Kent. And he was right.

When she confessed to the crime, five years later, Constance Kent became one of the best-known names in England. Rubberneckers at Madame Tussauds gloated over her waxwork; others made do with the millions of words her case conjured into newspapers and periodicals. Wilkie Collins pilfered details from the case in the construction of The Moonstone, the founding text of English detective fiction. The broadside balladeers of Seven Dials made their contribution too: "His little throat I cut from ear to ear,/ Wrapped him in a blanket and away did steer/ To the water-closet, which soon I found,/ In the dirty soil then I pushed him down." We can, I suppose, judge a society by the way it treats its juvenile killers.

Kate Summerscale is by no means the first writer to wake the dead of Road Hill House but her account is different from most written in the past 30 years or so. Its focus is as much on the vigilant Whicher as on the young woman he accused. It has a strong sense of the participants in the case as human beings. Most importantly, it does not use the case as a blunt instrument with which to attack the Victorians.

The latter has been standard practice among cultural historians since Mary S Hartman's 1977 book Victorian Murderesses, which advanced the painfully dodgy argument that women who killed in the 19th century were crusaders against patriarchy. The notion proved popular, making it possible for subsequent studies to upbraid Victorian writers for not spelling this out more clearly; for failing to articulate the obvious fact that female killers in the 19th century were, in the words of Professor Virginia Morris, "strik[ing] the first blows in a very long war for gender equality". Under this schema, Constant Kent's murder of her brother was a justifiable attack upon the moral hypocrisy of her father – a factory inspector suspected of an affair with his children's governess – as much as it was a crime of sibling jealousy and resentment.

Rather like Inspector Whicher, Summerscale sweeps aside the self-interested theorising of her predecessors at Road Hill House, and applies herself to the case with reason and sensitivity. Her picture of the culture that produced this story is, consequently, richer and far more plausible. The most telling detail of the narrative comes after the death sentence has been pronounced on Constance Kent. The public, though they acknowledged the verdict, refused to accept the penalty. Newspaper editorials demanded mercy; doctors and magistrates lobbied the Home Secretary to stay the sentence. He did. Constance Kent was saved from the gallows and lived to be 100.

Google Jamie Bulger's murderers and you find headlines such as this one from the Mirror: "Devil Dad: Bulger Killer to be a Father." The 19th century press offers nothing so aggressive or judgemental. Neither does The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and with that restraint, it restores to everyone involved in this case – the victim, the murderer, the bystanders, the investigators – the right to be treated as individual human subjects, not as pieces of evidence in a fatuous academic argument.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test