Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Mary Ann Cotton and the Power of Myth

Part of the fun of writing fiction is the research. Every one of my novels has required me to get not just the facts right, but also the feeling. The facts are often easy – laid out there in histories and argued about in learned articles.

Of course diaries and letters are great for that specific 'feeling' research. I am currently gathering materiel for a future novel which will partly be set in mid Nineteenth Century Paris – a fascinating world of different rules - that is growing into life in my writer’s head. Part of gathering materials to illuminate feelings and worldviews of a time is research novels written during those years. Across at on my other blog my post' Raffish Courtesans, Balzac and Elvis Presley' explores the notion of novels in the research. process

Last night I watched the excellent Whitechapel drama on television. I like the way this series blends history with the present day to extend the well worn police drama genre to something slightly different, The present episode involves poisoning. There is some talk of poisoning being a 'woman’s crime'. The tame eccentric researcher in the drama then introduces Mary Ann Cotton as the notorious nineteenth century serial killer who used poison as her means. And last week there was an awful article about her on the Mail Online
There is a reaon why my hackles have been rising at all this. Mary Ann Cotton lived a mile from here. And around here her status as our own particular Bad Girl lives on nationally and internationally at the level of Myth. There is even a nursery rhyme which begins Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten

A few years ago I decided that this legend could be the basis for a good novel and wrote my novel called A Woman Scorned is about Mary Ann Cotton. It was to be a work of fiction, but inspired and informed by a detailed study of the real people and events surrounding the trial and execution of Mary Ann Cotton in 1873. I studied newspapers – this trial became a national sensation reported in lurid terms assuming her guilt well before the actual trial, and contemporary documents such as court and police reports. Court reports and newspapers involved verbatim accounts where you can hear not just what people say but how they say it – great for a novelist. (Charles Dickens – alive and working in these same years - as a young man was a trained court shorthand writer which is where he must have honed his ear for intricacies of accent and indiosyncracies of speech….)

I actually started to research and write this novel assuming the basic rightness of the myth.
However my perspective in it changed as I read and thought about how Mary Ann’s first solicitors gave her very bad advice, assumed her guilt, neglected her proper defence and in effect robbed her of money; I eventually realised that modern rules on forensic medicine would have blown out the forensic evidence presented here as ‘proof’ of her guilt - one point Viscera were dug up out of the bare earth where they had been buried to be re-examined; and hiw a big gun in the form of barrister Sir Charles Russell made to long journey North to mount the prosecution of this bold, pretty woman, this outsider in a very tight old-fashioned village where deaths were common from the diseases of poverty including the scourge of typhoid. (Finally, a year after these events, after much discussion, a new drain was installed at the bottom of Johnson Terrace in West Auckland …)

Interestingly in1889, seventeen years after this case, Sir Charles Russell, Mary Ann’s prosecutor, defended the middle class Florence Maybrick against a charge of poisoning her husband with arsenic. Amongst other legal strategies he touched on some of the arguments employed by Mr Campbell Foster in the Mary Ann Cotton case. He seemed to be on the verge of securing an acquittal when Maybrick destroyed her own case by making a statement admitting a degree of culpability. Unlike Mary Ann, Maybrick was not hanged. She served fifteen years in prison and lived to an old age in the United States. Russell later became an MP, then Attorney General in Gladstone’s ministries of 1886 and 1892, ending up as Lord Chief Justice of England in 1894.

The case has had its historians. Arthur Appleton, in his book, Mary Ann Cotton concluded that Mary Ann probably killed 14 or 15 people. Tony Whitehead, whose well documented account Mary Ann Cotton, Dead but not Forgotten is presented in rigorous style but in the end – in my view, unable to deny the power of the myth - he almost drifts to the conclusion that Mary Ann was probably guilty in three cases.

So, I changed my mind. As I read and thought about Mary Ann it dawned on me that by modern standards of justice this case was at least unproven. The novel makes the case that Mary Ann was probably not guilty but rather was the victim of rising hysteria in the region and in the country, creating a powerful and enduring myth which put on the cloak of truth.

I said at the beginning here something about how fiction can give the writer some hold on the feeling around a case, can be a window on the truth of complex events. I have to say that one fiction which kept jumping into my mind during the research and the writing of A Woman Scorned l was Arthur Miller’s play Witches of Salem.

I suppose all this all that Mary Ann is indeed Gone But Not Forgotten...

1 comment:

    Victoria House from Oxford and Christine Cunningham from Peterborough who met on Facebook launch GoFundMe page to raise £4000 to keep letters written by Mary Ann Cotton from her prison cell in the public domain. Letters currently in hands of a dealer – ladies believe should be kept in the public domain at Durham County Record Office or similar archive in the North East. http://www.gofundme.com/76trpc
    Primary contact - Victoria House (Originator of the project to raise the money to buy the letters for the public)
    Secondary contact - Christine Cunningham – (Joined Victoria and set up the GoFundMe Page)
    Both Victoria and Christine can be contacted via the Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mary-Ann-Cotton-Letters-from-Jail-1873/506511082802147



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