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Cambridge Arts Theatre: TV historian Lucy Worsley on the British fascination with murder

TV historian Lucy Worsley has a confession: in another life she would have loved to be a detective, preferably in a 1930s country house mystery.

She is returning to Cambridge Arts Theatre next month to discuss the British fascination with murder and how it has ended up becoming a form of middle class entertainment. From a Regency serial killer to Agatha Christie, she will uncover the story of how crime was turned into art.

Lucy’s talk will delve into the first murder cases that gripped the whole country, thanks to the printed press, the Victorian’s fear of poisoning and the rise of the scandalous lady detective.

Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley

And she will reveal how tastes in murder stories reflect the troubles a society is facing, including the effect of the current pandemic on books that top the bestseller charts.

Lucy says: “I’m obsessed with detectives. I can imagine another life where I was a detective, because I think historians and detectives do a lot of the same things. They piece together the evidence, then they build up a picture from little clues.

“There’s something about the historical process that strikes me as being similar to the detection process and I just love reading about it, as lots of people do. I had a night of insomnia the other night because I was listening on audiobook to one of Colin Dexter’s books and went down an Inspector Morse wormhole.

“I think my favourite character is Harriet Vane from Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories, although there’s something very snobbish about those stories, when you read them from the modern viewpoint. She certainly had a crush on aristocrats, did Dorothy L Sayers.

. (49011984)
. (49011984)

“I like Harriet for her independence and her sense of style and her feminism, really, but any kind of detection work where you’re looking at the evidence and putting the pieces together has some sort of appeal because I’m a historian who’s worked in many, many different periods. And, in each case, what I enjoy as much as learning about the period is the process of learning about it through the stories they read.”

The first real-life case to grip the whole nation thanks to the popularity of one-sheet newspapers called broadsheets was that of the gruesome Ratcliffe Highway murders in London.

The first attack took place on December 7, 1811, in the living quarters behind a linen draper’s shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway, Wapping. A husband, wife and their baby were all killed at night in their home, apparently by a stranger. It sent shockwaves around the country with people no longer feeling safe in their beds. Twelve days later it was followed by three more killings at a pub nearby on New Gravel Lane and it seemed a serial killer was on the loose.

Lucy says: “The Ratcliffe Highway case in London became super notorious and writer Thomas de Quincey said it turned Britain into a nation of murder fanciers. From that point, you can see the roots of people formalising the story in magazine articles, and in novels, and in this whole huge genre of crime fiction that still goes on today.

Lucy Worsley is returning to Cambridge Arts Theatre
Lucy Worsley is returning to Cambridge Arts Theatre

“The reports of murders in broadsheets were one of the ways in which people began to enjoy reading, as literacy spread through the 19th century. One of the things that enabled people and made people want to learn how to read was keeping up with the news of murderers in things like the broadsheets. These newspapers were a massively populist and influential genre of literature that it would be quite easy to be snobbish about and to overlook.

“And that’s the kind of historical topic that appeals to me particularly – something that may have slipped below the radar in days of yore. I like the type of history that would have been below people’s attention maybe 50 years ago.

“Some of these broadsheets survive because they were printed in such huge numbers. And a broadsheet would be passed between many, many people. It’s hard to estimate but it’s guessed that one original copy would have been read or read aloud to maybe 10 or 15 other people. And if the murderer hadn’t yet been hanged and hadn’t yet made his last words and confession on the gallows, then the journalists would just make it up. You find quite a lot of murderers making the same confession. So, the news was already shading into fiction, because people wanted to know about this stuff.”

Another case that enjoyed national exposure was that of the Red Barn murder in Polstead, Suffolk, in which a young woman, Maria Marten, was shot dead by her lover, William Corder. The two had arranged to meet at the Red Barn, a local landmark, before eloping to Ipswich. Marten was never seen alive again and Corder fled the scene.

Lucy says: “In the Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds you can see the famous scalp of the celebrated murderer, William Corder. I’ve actually held it in my hands, which filled me with all sorts of feelings; firstly, I felt a bit guilty that I was handling human remains. Secondly, I felt horror. It’s just a horrible thing holding a murderer’s scalp. But certainly, and I’m not proud of this, I did feel a little bit of this guilty glee that motivates our interest in reading about crime.”

Lucy Worsley Wimpole History Festival. (49012006)
Lucy Worsley Wimpole History Festival. (49012006)

Not only are these early accounts of crimes fascinating to read, but they offer an insight into the changing ways people were thinking about murders and the guilty pleasure many people enjoyed reading about them.

Lucy says: “The thing I enjoy about them, particularly older ones, is the picture they paint of society. And that is a great form of literature to look at to learn about what people were really reading, as opposed to what people thought that they ought to read.

“Guilty pleasures could be very revelatory, and one of the things about detective fiction is that it is so addictive and so popular.”

She suspects that the popularity of crime and detective fiction increased as the dangers of everyday life decreased, so that these thrills would fill the void that a new era of greater safety created.

Lucy says: “Suddenly, they have the gap in their lives for a new form of anxiety that has less to do with the crops failing, and more to do with what horror stalks the streets of our community.

“There is something a bit suspicious or suspect about enjoying the thought of bad things happening to other people, but looking at it historically, I totally understand why people have done this in the modern world.

“Because until the start of the 19th century, our people’s big worries in life were disease and famine and dying in a war. But in Britain once the industrial revolution happened, we were lucky enough not to have to worry so much about those things. And we could have the space to develop other more arcane worries, like who is living next door? What is underneath the floorboards of my new house? That sort of thing – paranoia and anxiety and all these things that go with modern life in
the city.

“These worries are a luxury. If you’re living in a society where life and death is all around you, you’re not going to enjoy detective fiction. It is something you can only do from a sort of place of safety and comfort.

“And that’s why if you look across the world, as different countries develop and go through industrial revolutions of their own, that’s when they tend to develop their own national school of detective fiction. It happened in Britain early because Britain industrialised early.”

The Victorians were especially partial to a murder story, but books were so expensive that only the middle and upper classes could afford them.

The less well-off would read magazine stories that cost sixpence and had a slightly different tone.

“I’m so interested by the way murder becomes middle class in the middle of the 19th century,” says Lucy. “You find that middle class people start to read this lower class literature, if you like, but they adapt it to their own interests, so poison becomes a big feature of it because middle class Victorians were terribly worried about being poisoned.

“They had all these amazing new drugs and cleaning products, and chemicals in their houses to keep them clean and safe, but they could be used to kill and mid-Victorians became obsessed with domesticity.

“Their home was their castle. That’s where they felt safest and most comfortable. How could danger enter the home? Well, through something like poison being administered by somebody you trusted, like a doctor, your housemaid, even a relative.

Lucy Worsley will be at the Words and Deeds Festival (49012003)
Lucy Worsley will be at the Words and Deeds Festival (49012003)

“They also have this new industry of life insurance. So, in the past, you might have a basis to bump off a rich person because they had a fortune. And now, even if you were middle class, perhaps they were worth bumping off if they had a life insurance policy that you could get your hands on. So it’s just a new form of paranoia that really sort of starts to swirl together.”

However, they were too snobbish to allow the main character to be a professional detective – it had to be an amateur who solved the crimes.

“Because the detective was a working man, he was a bit infra dig,” says Lucy. “He was really looked down upon – and you can see that hampering the investigations of real-life professional detectives, like at the famous Rose Hill House case in 1868. In that one, the detective, Mr Whicher, couldn’t ask the same questions of the family and the servants. It was inappropriate because they looked down on him, and you can see how that was a real problem in solving crime.

“And there’s the reason that Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century and Lord Peter Wimsey in the 20th century and Hercule Poirot are all non-professionals, because that makes them more socially acceptable to these very large and largely snobbish volumes of middle class readers.”

Agatha Christie, the queen of the golden age of crime fiction, became popular at the end of the First World War, when people needed a break from horror and were looking for something soothing.

“This is the point at which the stories become sort of disassociated from acts of violence,” says Lucy.

“The violence isn’t the point of them at all. It’s all about the search for the clues, and the solving of the crime.

“She put women front and centre. Her victims and her crooks are very often female, and her stories were quite feminine, in that there was less action and violence.

“She began to write during and after World War One, when everything was just set for a form of literature that was not to do with violence. It wasn’t to do with heroism. It was something more like knitting or weaving a tapestry – something that was very calming to read, and stories with lots of different characters and lots of female characters were soothing.

“Everybody had had enough of violence. I think that explains why Agatha Christie, but also the other female writers at the circle’s golden age, like Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers, were what people were looking for – something more peaceful, something detailed, more feminine, which seemed to hit the spot.”

And now we are in a pandemic and people have, for the first time in decades, a reason to fear for their lives on a daily basis.

Has that affected our choice of detective fiction? Is this why Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club about sleuths who live in a retirement home topped the charts?

Lucy agrees: “That perhaps supports my argument. There’s an academic called Alison Light who called it the ‘Literature of Convalescence’ – and by that she means books that help you get better, help you recover, take you away from the world around you and allow you to just sort of check out and chill out for a little while.”

The audience at Lucy’s talk will be given the opportunity to ask any questions at the end.

Lucy says: “I always really have to brace myself because anything could happen. I just don’t know what people are going to ask me, because there are no-holds barred.

“Anything is possible, so I shall slightly dread that, but I know I’ll enjoy it when the time comes.

“I’ve been to Cambridge Arts Theatre lots of times now and I’ve always had a lovely welcome.”

Lucy Worsley: A Very British Murder is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, August 8. Tickets from £25. Visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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