Agog

Rosemary Hill

  • Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the 18th Century by John Brewer
    HarperCollins, 340 pp, £20.00, March 2004, ISBN 0 00 257134 X

The mutable nature of our relationship with the past is the underlying theme of Sentimental Murder, John Brewer’s compelling and surprising pursuit, across two and a half centuries, of the events of a single evening in 1779. What happened in Covent Garden on 7 April was simple enough and largely undisputed at the time or later. Soon after 11.30 p.m., Martha Ray, the Earl of Sandwich’s long-standing mistress, mother of nine of his children, was shot dead outside Covent Garden Theatre. Her killer was known to her. He was a young clergyman, James Hackman, who immediately attempted to kill himself but failed and was soon afterwards tried and executed for the murder.

It was a sensational case. Ray and Sandwich, who was first lord of the Admiralty, were already well-known public figures. He was a notorious libertine, long separated from his mentally unstable wife. She presided over his household in London and in the country as a more or less acknowledged common law wife. Hackman, who left an elegantly written suicide note and comported himself with dignity throughout, rapidly became a celebrity, too. The night of the murder he had in his pocket a letter that Ray had returned to him unread, proposing marriage. The dynamics of this romantic triangle of love and betrayal, the tantalising question of what had or had not passed between Ray and Hackman, whether he was a jilted lover or the victim of a hopeless unrequited passion, occupied many imaginations. The central facts have remained elusive: the extent to which Ray had reciprocated Hackman’s feelings, if at all, has never been established.

Boswell, Johnson and Hester Thrale all talked about the affair. Boswell could understand the impulse to kill a mistress, but could not think what Hackman saw in a woman ‘neither young nor handsome’. Johnson could fully understand the power of a woman of more mature years. Mrs Thrale was baffled.

At this point in its history the story of Martha Ray was still current, the property of the press and private conversation. Boswell, as a journalist, became professionally involved. He wrote up Hackman’s trial for the St James’s Chronicle and followed that with another more colourful piece about Hackman’s brother-in-law, the attorney Frederick Booth, and his reaction to the verdict and sentence. Boswell reported Booth’s happily quotable remark, that he would rather have Hackman ‘found guilty with truth and honour than escape by a mean evasion’, as ‘a sentiment truly noble, bursting from a heart rent with anguish!’

Sandwich and his political friends and enemies planted stories in the papers to cast the facts in the most appealing light for their own purposes. Old gossip was dug up. Dozens of people wrote to the press. The story ran and ran. In his careful explanation of 18th-century journalism, Brewer assumes that this sort of farrago is quite unknown today. In fact, it is strikingly familiar. With its dubious mixture of information, entertainment and prurient gossip, the English press astonishes foreign visitors now just as much as it did then. The ‘puff’, the piece of promotional copy masquerading as editorial comment, is not unknown; nor are the ‘paragraph writers’ who hang about in bars, keeping their ears open and selling what they overhear to newspapers.

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