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.
The story of Ray’s murder had, however, a momentum more powerful than sheer curiosity fomented by the press. What launched it on its long afterlife was its sense of narrative rightness: it was a true story that fulfilled all the requirements of the novel of sentiment. The new idea of ‘sensibility’, the peculiarly human capacity to feel and suffer, was of immense interest to an age in which an Enlightenment view of the mind and body was beginning to be touched by Romanticism. It found expression in the concept of the ‘nervous system’, something at the same time physical and mental, modern and refined, a sign of sophistication and a cause of terrible suffering. It preoccupied physicians and the columnists of the Lady’s Magazine in equal proportions.
Ray and Hackman, apparently bound together and torn apart by intense and, in Hackman’s case, ultimately ungovernable passion, were a fascinating instance. Both were seen, by many people, as victims: Ray of her loyalties, divided between her protector and her lover, while Hackman was at the mercy of his own idée fixe. These were lives, like Sylvia Plath’s and Princess Diana’s, of varying degrees of interest, which became compulsively fascinating because of their ends. In each case it was death that lent apparent form and meaning to what had gone before by giving the individuals concerned leading roles in a drama that was already playing in the public mind.
As historical figures, therefore, Ray and Hackman started their afterlife somewhere between fact and fiction. At the time, the popular appetite for more of both was only partially satisfied by a revival of Thomas Southerne’s play Oroonoko, adapted from Aphra Behn’s novel about love and slavery in Surinam, which had some echoes of the case. A year later came the publication of Love and Madness: A Story Too True. This was a collection of 65 letters, supposedly written by the unhappy couple, in which the full story, the motivations, the vacillations, for which everybody had been longing, was finally told. It stayed in print for forty years and was translated into French.
The compiler of the letters, and author of 64 of them, was Herbert Croft, a hybrid figure, part journalist, part scholar, a lawyer and ultimately a baronet. In the 1786 edition of Love and Madness he admitted that only the ‘outline’ of the story was true and that most of the documents apparently cited had been written by him. This confession made very little difference to the book’s popularity. Most of its readers, familiar, as Brewer points out, with Defoe and Richardson, would have understood at the time the kind of thing they were dealing with. The precise relation of truth to invention did not trouble them unduly, although it made Dr Johnson, to whom the book was dedicated, feel uneasy.
The age of sensibility was not particularly concerned with authenticity. Horace Walpole, who took a great interest in the Ray murder, was ‘agog’ but thought the facts more unlikely than fiction. ‘Can you believe such a tale?’ the author of The Castle of Otranto wrote to Lady Ossory. ‘How could poor Miss Wray have offended a divine? . . . To bear a hopeless passion for five years, and then murder one’s mistress – I don’t understand it.’
At his own house, Strawberry Hill, Walpole arranged things more artistically. He hung his ill-assorted selection of old armour in the dark stairwell so that it would pass more easily for an ancestral collection. He had battlements made of cardboard which had to be changed after heavy rain. Yet he did not consider himself to be practising any kind of deceit. His Gothic house was based on serious studies of medieval art and architecture, but when he ran out of facts, Walpole, like Croft, improvised. What the end result looked like and how it made him and his visitors feel mattered to him as much as what, in a literal sense, it was. To some extent this take it or leave it approach to facts can be attributed to the 18th-century sense of what counted as history. One of Walpole’s objections to the Ray-Hackman story was that it was too private and random an incident. ‘I do not love tragic events en pure perte. If they do happen I would have them historic. This is only kin to history, and tends to nothing.’
Gibbon, Thucydides and Hume stood then for what we consider now to be history: their subjects classical, military or political, and their approach scrupulously factual. Everything else – biography, art history, local history, archaeology – was in the hands of journalists, antiquaries and gentleman amateurs: men like Walpole, Boswell and Croft; there were a few women, too. There was also a ‘long-standing antiquarian tradition’, which Brewer brushes aside much too briskly as something merely ‘nurtured by the Church of England’; it was steadily growing throughout the later 18th century. Each advance for scholarship, however, opened up new scope for fiction and forgery, whether dubious Tudor furniture in Wardour Street, or the works of Ossian.
Exactly balanced on the cusp of history and invention was the figure of Thomas Chatterton, whose claims were still being debated a decade after his death. What was certain by 1780, six years after The Sorrows of Young Werther, was that a melancholy young suicide must be, like Ray and Hackman, a character in need of an author. He, too, found one in Herbert Croft, who inserted an account of Chatterton’s life into Love and Madness. It included letters and testimony from Chatterton’s family, and was by far the most authentic part of the book.
Croft believed that Chatterton was both a forger and a genius: that his creation of a convincing lie counted as art. Croft perhaps saw in the marvellous boy a flattering reflection of his own endeavours. The inclusion of the whole apparently discrepant episode in Ray and Hackman’s story was not so much a digression, therefore, as a heroic simile, carefully placed to expand the imaginative experience of the principal text. It was a peculiar thing to do; but much odder and more telling, for Brewer’s purposes, was the way in which, over time, the true and the untrue parts of Love and Madness became reversed in readers’ minds.
Croft’s first audience was largely unmoved by his confession that he had written most of the book himself, but at least they believed him. Later writers have doubted his claims to forgery as much as Chatterton’s to honesty. Twice in the 19th century the book was reissued as a genuine correspondence, without the Chatterton material. In the last ten years, Brewer notes, two professional historians have made the same mistake. The second of them offers Croft’s account as pure documentary: ‘a window onto the world of 18th-century punishment’.
As Brewer follows his characters on through time, their story is cast against different backdrops, viewed through changing overlays of sentiment, science, romance and courtroom drama. The name of Martha Ray makes a brief, startling appearance in the Lyrical Ballads, where Wordsworth transforms it, in ‘The Thorn’, into an emblem of agonised love and madness. When the story resurfaced after the Napoleonic Wars, however, it found itself in a century ever more preoccupied with facts, principles and moral rectitude, and it met with a cooler reception. Ray, who immediately after her death could arouse sympathy and even admiration as ‘a respectable mother’, was now beyond the pale.
As the 19th century wore on and the posthumous letters and memoirs of the Georgians were published, they added a little to the facts of the case. More generally, they confirmed the suspicions of a rising generation of Victorians that the age they depicted was thoroughly corrupt. Martha Ray’s situation as the acknowledged, even flaunted mistress of a married man, and the mother of illegitimate children, made a sympathetic hearing impossible. The earl had abused his rank and his public office. Hackman, as a clergyman, spoke for the worst of the bad old days of the hunting parson and the two-bottle cleric, for everything that made the Oxford Movement necessary. What had once been a novel of sentiment became a cautionary tale.
Richardson had wanted Clarissa to be read as if it were true. Macaulay, whose History of England began to appear in 1848, declared his ambition to make history as compelling as a novel: not since Byron and Scott had a single book been such an instant public success. Macaulay was disgusted by Boswell’s life of Johnson. Biography, with controversial exceptions, entered the dark age of ‘lives of great men’. Hackman and Ray went with it, leaving Sandwich, as first lord of the Admiralty, an isolated, somewhat flattened figure, visible from one side only, as part of the history of American independence.
In the 1890s, when illicit passion and Georgian furniture were once again in vogue, Hackman and Ray reappeared, seeming to speak of an age of elegance and aristocratic individualism. They bobbed along between the wars on a tide of popular fiction in the manner of Georgette Heyer, which served up the 18th century in tricorn hats and beauty spots. A very few more facts emerged to illuminate the circumstances of Ray’s death. The central enigma – what motivated Hackman, what passed between the triangle, who knew what – remains unsolved and has regained some of its original poignancy. Mental illness and sexual double standards now seem to be the themes: the characters might be the obsessive stalker, the man who can’t commit, the woman who loves too much.
Brewer has made no attempt to solve this mystery or to investigate the circumstances further. Nor has he written the kind of hybrid work that is largely his subject, the ‘thriller-cum-tale of passion’, that the book jacket describes. Sentimental Murder is a scrupulous piece of historical research with only a few, carefully indicated, ventures into speculation. It does, however, have something in common with Croft’s Love and Madness, in that it contains a story within the story. Buried in this account of the afterlife of a single evening is the history of academic history as it began in the 19th century, when Ray and Hackman were out of sight and out of mind. Public life, public records and objectivity were its material. It excluded almost everything and created its own romance of facts: a belief in truth, not just as a professional ideal, but as the actual concomitant of methodology.
Since the 1960s, Brewer says, history has expanded, having begun to look at different kinds of people and consider more kinds of evidence. It has also become more subtle in its understanding of the complex relations of truth and fiction, the effect of selection and arrangement of material. The evidence of his own book is that all of this has been widely and quite subtly understood elsewhere for much longer. The facts matter, but so does the gravitational pull exercised by the meanings of the past on the minds of individuals.