2000, 276 p.
I obviously bought this book at some stage but can’t remember why. Was it after a review that I had read; because of the steep reduction in price from $31.30 to $6.95, or on account of the striking cover? (am I so easily swayed?) For whatever reason, it has been on my shelf for some time.
The book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 2000. It is loosely based on the real-life murder case of Edith (Edie) Thompson and Freddy Bywaters, who were hanged in January 1923 for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. It is written as a series of letters from Edie in her jail to Fred in his, where they are both awaiting trial. Hoping at first to smuggle the letters out, Edie decides not to actually convey them to Fred, which frees her to be more frank. The letters are interspersed with authentic newspaper articles from the time, and a first-person present-tense narrative that gives the back story.
Edith Thompson was nine years older than her lover, Freddy. Edith was a modern, intelligent, independent young lady with shingled hair, who earned a good wage in a millinery shop. At first Freddy was going out with her sister Avis, but he was attracted to Edie and came to live for a while with the unhappily-married Edith and Percy. After an altercation between the two men, Freddy left.
Some time later Edith and her husband Percy were walking home from a night at the theatre, when a man jumped out and stabbed Percy to death. Fred was arrested, and on being (incorrectly) told that he had confessed, Edith admitted that she knew that Freddy was the assailant and the nature of their relationship.
Even though Edith had no connection with the actual murder, the discovery of a cache of letters that Edith had written to Freddy was tendered to the court in evidence, revealing their affair and Edith’s attempt to poison and kill Percy by putting ground up glass in his food. They were both found guilty of murder. Freddy Bywaters protested Edith’s innocence, which ironically led to a surge in public pressure against his hanging. Edith’s position with the public – despite Bywater’s declarations and the lack of her involvement in the murder- was more equivocal. For many people, including the judge and jury, she was seen as the master-mind and an adulteress – and guilty. You can’t help thinking that she was executed for being a passionate, feisty adulteress (not a capital crime) rather than as a murderer.
Dawson has been able to use the real-life letters that were tendered in the court as a model for Edie’s voice in this fictionalized account. Edie’s awakening sexuality, even with the boorish Percy in her heightened sense of attraction, is well described, and the fictional letters capture well the giddiness and rashness of early infatuation.
There’s a fantastic website put together by one of her biographers Rene Weiss that can be found at https://edithjessiethompson.co.uk/ that includes all the authentic letters, an entire copy of Weiss’ book, photographs, and current news. I enjoyed the book in its own right, but I must admit that my admiration for Dawson’s book increased further when I saw the source material from which she drew to write her own fictional account.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: my very own bookshelves!