The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Stage Production
Just a few months after Notes from a Small Island, it was back to one of my local theatres, The Watermill, for the stage adaptation of another book club selection, this time the Victorian true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize (now called the Baillie Gifford Prize) for non-fiction in 2008.
I must have read the book in 2009, the year after it first came out, and while I had the best intentions of rereading it in time for our book club meeting earlier this month, I didn’t even manage to skim it. I remembered one fact alone, the method of murder, which is not surprising as it was particularly gruesome: A young boy had his throat slit and was stuffed down the privy. But that was all that had remained with me. My husband filled me in on the basics and the discussion, held at our house, reminded me of the rest. We then made it a book club outing to the theatre.
The crime took place in late June 1860 at the Wiltshire home of the Kent family: the patriarch, a factory inspector; his four children from his first marriage; his second wife, formerly the older set’s governess; and their three young children. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate, was one of London’s first modern detectives and inspired Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Constance Kent, 16, later confessed to the murder of her three-year-old half-brother, Saville, motivated by anger at her stepmother for replacing her mentally ill mother, but uncertainty remained as to whether she had acted alone.
The play was very well done, maintaining tension even though there was a decision to introduce Constance as the killer immediately: the action opens on her and Mr Whicher in her cell at Fulham Prison in the 1880s. This is an invented scene in which he has come to visit, begging her to tell him the whole truth in exchange for him writing a letter to try to secure her early release. (She appealed four times but ended up serving a full 20-year sentence.)
Cold, stark lighting and a minimal set of two benches against a backdrop of steel doors and a mullioned window evoke the prison setting, with only the subtle change to warmer lighting indicating flashbacks as Constance and Whicher remember or act out events from 20 or more years before. These two remain on stage for the entirety of the first act. Four other actors cycle in and out, playing Kent family members and various other small roles. For instance, the bearded middle-aged actor who plays Mr Kent also appears as a coroner giving a precis of Saville’s autopsy – he mentions Collins and Dickens, but the evolution of the Victorian detective is, by necessity, a much smaller element of the play than it was in the book.
It’s a tiny theatre, but projections on a screen (such as a sinuous family tree) and a balcony, used for wordless presence or loud pronouncements, made it seem bigger than it was. Saville himself is only depicted as a mute figure on that upper level, in the truly spooky scene that closes the first act. I remember when the Watermill put out a discreet call for child actors, warning parents about the sort of content to expect. Three children play the role (plus one other bit part) in rotation. Pulsing violin music enhanced the feeling of dread, and each act was no more than 45 minutes, so the atmosphere remained taut.
A missing nightdress – presumably blood-stained – as well as her own father’s hunch, were among the main evidence against Constance, so Whicher did not secure a conviction at the time and was publicly ridiculed for his failure to crack the case. That and his own loss of a child are suggested to be behind his obsession with tying up loose ends. While Constance expresses regret for her actions and calmly takes him through the accepted timeline of the murder, she refuses to give him anything extra.
The second act delves into what happened next for Constance: living among nuns in France and then in Brighton, where she decided to confess, and then relocating to Australia, where she worked in a halfway house for lepers and troubled youth, as if to make up for the harm she caused earlier in her life (and she lived to age 100!). This involved the most significant change of set and actors, with the former Mr. and Mrs. Kent now filling in as the older Constance and William, the brother closest to her in age.
The play fixates on the siblings’ relationship, returning several times to their whim to run away to Bristol and be “cabin boys” together. I wondered if there was even meant to be a sexual undercurrent to their connection. William Savill-Kent went on to be a successful marine biologist specialising in corals and Australian fisheries. One theory is that they were accomplices in the murder but Constance took the fall so that her brother could live a full life.
Intriguingly, the team behind the production decided to espouse this hypothesis explicitly. In the chilling final scene, then, a crib is wheeled out to the centre of the stage and Constance floats on in a white nightdress to lower the side closest to the audience. Just before the lights go down, William, too, appears in a white nightdress and stands over the far side of the crib.
Although I referred to the book as “compulsive” in the one mention I find of it in my computer files, from 2011, I only gave it 3 stars – my most common rating in those years, an indication that a book was alright but I moved right along to the next in the stack and it didn’t stick with me. My book club had mixed feelings, too, generally feeling that there was too much extraneous detail, which perhaps kept a narrative that could have read as fluidly as a novel from being truly gripping. The play, though, was thrilling.
Book (c. 2009):
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Classic of the Month: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.
The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.
Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.
There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:
Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.
[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.
He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.
Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.
- Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
- In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s