Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness by Lisa Appignanesi, book review

Three sensational court cases that take us from Brighton in 1870 to New York in 1906

The literary recreation of 19th-century show trials by writers such as Kate Summerscale and Kate Colquhoun has mined a rich seam of scandal and double standards behind the murders and divorce battles of Victorian Britain.

Lisa Appignanesi takes this exploration international in Trials of Passion, where she focuses on three sensational court cases in Brighton in 1870, Paris 1880 and the New York of 1906. The best of the crimes under examination are terrific. Christiana Edmunds is accused by her doctor, a man she loves and who may have been her lover, of trying to poison his wife. Edmunds becomes a veritable chemist to poison Brighton's supply of chocolate creams and have the finger of blame for the wife's sickness pointed away from herself and towards the shop that sells them. A boy dies as collateral damage. The circumstantial evidence against Edmunds seems compelling; the only question is whether she was bad or mad.

Similar questions marks hang over the cases that follow. French singer Marie Bière shoots her high-class lover after he treats her abominably and rejects their child. Millionaire Harry Thaw, a man with a penchant for whipping both young men and women, shoots dead the prominent architect Stanford White for having drugged and raped the teenage chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit – some time before Thaw beats and marries her himself.

Glorious detail is marshalled from the copious reporting of these sensational stories in the international media and a vivid picture emerges of the societal expectations and constraints for women whose innocence or guilt is often inextricably – if falsely – connected to their sexual morals.

But the problem arises in the explanation of what prompts the actions of Edmunds, Bière and Thaw. The author promises to investigate "where the 'madness' of love erupts into crime and whether medical-legal definitions of insanity can then prevail". But the definitions are often lacking and the author not always forensic. She sounds almost approving when she declares that the actions of Edmunds would have been treated as a crime of passion in France though surely few rational observers would condone murder for love. All the cases involve some claims of inherited insanity, yet there is a peculiar failure to explore which strands of madness do have a family risk factor – even if that evidence was unavailable to the Old Bailey more than a century ago.

And the declaration that "passionate love is, after all, ever a form of mental derangement from the norm" is so dramatic as to sound merely romantic without data from studies (which exist) to support it. Even then, is it a proper legal defence?

In her introduction, Appignanesi says Trials of Passion is a complement to her last two books so perhaps some of these questions are answered in her history of the "mind-doctoring profession" or her "anatomy of the unruly emotion that love is". But here, only in the case of Thaw (in the book's final quarter) is there a modern explanation of his probable mental state when World Health Organisation's classifications are cited to suggest he has a "paranoid personality disorder". Elsewhere, the lines between mad and bad seem blurred.

The author observes of the would-be Ronald Reagan assassin, John Hinckley, that his traits were those shared by many a rich teenager. But, evidently, not all rich teenagers try to kill. Appignanesi is a warm and clever writer – and a chair of the Freud Museum in London. But her fascination with the "mind-doctoring" sometimes proves more disruptive to a potentially gripping narrative than illuminating. She also writes novels. The Borgia of Brighton would make a fabulous subject.

Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?