Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeleine Smith

Annie Tindley enjoys an examination of one of the most infamous trials for murder in the 19th century

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Reviewed by: Annie Tindle
Author: Eleanor Gordon & Gwyneth Nair
Publisher: Manchester University Press
Price (RRP): £16.99

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This book by Eleanor Gordon (professor of gender and social history, University of Glasgow) and Gwyneth Nair (honorary senior research fellow, University of the West of Scotland), is a lively, well-paced read and a reassuringly heavyweight piece of academic scholarship, which will appeal to both a general and academic readership. Gordon and Nair have put their expertise and previous collaborative experience together to give the reader a detailed examination of one of the most infamous trials for murder in the 19th century.

In July 1857, Madeleine Smith, a young middle-class girl from Glasgow, was tried for the murder of her lover, Emile L’Angelier. Although she escaped with the unique Scottish verdict of ‘Not Proven’, the Madeleine Smith case opened a can of worms among the respectable middle classes of Glasgow, a city which had been busy cementing its status as second city of the empire. 

The great strength of this book is the way in which Gordon and Nair use the admittedly unusual story of Madeleine Smith to discuss and highlight a number of fascinating general themes. These include the social and economic activities of the thriving Glasgow middle classes; their education and work – of both males and females – the media and its treatment of the case; the ‘whodunit’ mystery surrounding the death by poisoning of L’Angelier; the ways in which the case has been written about since 1857, and what this can tell the historian about changing attitudes to gender, sexuality and the writing of history itself through the late 19th and 20th centuries. 

The resulting book is a fine piece of academic scholarship as well as a gripping read: it is highly recommended. 

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Dr Annie Tindley is lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University