Thursday, August 5, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: Murdering Stepmothers: The Execution of Martha Rendell, by Anna Haebich

UWA Publishing, Australia
217 pp.

The blurb for this book reads as follows:
... Professor Anna Haebich brings to life the people of Perth and the entangled mesh of self-righteous bigotry, slander and unbridled revenge they invoke to propel the trial of Martha Rendell - the last woman in the state to be hanged. Based on a true story and meticulously researched, this compelling novel is driven by passion, imagination and an eerie conjuring up of the past.

This is just the sort of blurb that gets my nosy self's heart pumping. I first noticed this book in a copy of the New York Review of Books, and immediately I had to know who was Martha Rendell, why was she hanged, and  all of the gruesome details, never having heard of this person before. So I bought the book, thinking it was a new historical novel based on a real crime.  After reading it, it's a tough call as to whether it's actually a novel or no. But I'll get back to this later.

In 1909, a 14 year-old boy named George Morris ran away from his father William and his "stepmother" Martha Rendell (in reality the two were not actually married), back to the home of his mother. He had claimed that three of his siblings had died in their home in East Perth, and that he was worried he was next. Within the span of 18 months, all of the children had become ill, and after recovering, were being cared for by Rendell. One by one they began to develop strange symptoms, in particular a "peculiar membranous condition of the mouth and throat..." which the physician had never seen before. And then one by one, they died, except for George, who said that  Rendell had pretended to pour out his brother's Arthur medicine, but then replaced it with "spirits of salts." This caused Arthur to scream in pain, and become deadly ill. As the children began to die, George left, seeking shelter with his mother.  There was just enough doubt to cause authorities to dig up the children's bodies and charge both Rendell and Morris with murder.

Haebich tries to reconstruct the case from four different points of view: a newspaper photographer who followed the trial, a detective whose hero and model was Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a physician, and a reverend, who ministered to Rendell within the prison walls. She provides a wealth of information about the period, including  past poisoners, the power of the press, and the science of medicine and pathology of the time. In each person's narrative, the reader is left with some doubt as to whether or not Rendell was really guilty. If she was guilty, then perhaps there was some physical, psychological, social or emotional reasoning behind her crimes.

After the four different points of view are completed, the final say is given over to the author in a chapter entitled "the researcher." Here she notes that while trying to put together Rendell's story, she
realised early in the piece that a conventional historical narrative could not possibly convey the nuances of this complex and controversial case. Due to the many gaps in the records there were also many questions that could only answered via imaginative reconstructions of people and events.
She then goes on to provide an analysis of what may have actually happened, and discusses her experiences with descendants of the Morrises.

Although the approach she's taken plays out well, I don't think she needed to go that route. Within the different reconstructions, she provides a wealth of factual information related to the case that could have stood on its own put together in a singular historical retelling. There's very little dialogue in the narratives, the voices are not as distinct as those of different characters should be in a novel, and you never really get the feeling that you're actually reading a novel in its true sense. Now, having said that, Murdering Stepmothers is still a book that will keep you reading and involved. The case itself is interesting -- and you as the reader are left to put together all of the different sociological, psychological and physical threads to decide for yourself as to Rendell's guilt or innocence. Haebich's analysis of the available facts is very well done -- and the book is not just another over-sensationalized true crime account that crowds bookseller shelves. Overall -- it's a good book, with few distractions and a well-grounded sense of time and place.

1 comment:

  1. Wow this sounds like something I would really like to read. Really! Thanks for this review.


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