The common persuasion that accidents of fortune, good or ill, never come singly, is very often remarkably confirmed by the number of sudden and simultaneous circumstances that, without visible connexion between one another, contribute to the detection of crime—especially, and most notedly, with respect to cases of murder—each, perhaps, separated from the rest, undecisive; but the whole, when taken together, forming a body of evidence not to be resisted. These are the fruits of time, which, having borne and matured in her bosom, she puts forth in the perfect season; and it is a harvest that so rarely fails, that the doers of evil, however cunningly their crime has been contrived—though they may believe it buried a thousand fathoms deep from human eyes, may rest assured, that the seeds of their destiny are sown, that the tree is springing, and the blossoms falling, and that they are only respited until Time is ripe…
I have already examined Catharine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley, and cited it as an important work in the development of crime and detective fiction. It now turns out that her follow-up work, 1843’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights, is even more so. Like the earlier novel, this is a long, digressive work of fiction, with frequent authorial interjections, multiple subplots, a constantly shifting scene and a dizzying cast of characters; but strip all these distractions away, and what we are left with is a thoroughly engaging and surprisingly modern murder mystery.
I say “surprisingly” advisedly: it is truly remarkable how much of what we take for granted today in this genre puts in an appearance in this novel. For instance, we have:
- a murder victim so hateful, we don’t have to feel sorry he’s dead
- numerous suspects with good and sufficient motive
- the person to whom most of the evidence points being self-evidently innocent
- an official investigation conducted through the stepwise interrogation of witnesses
- various interested parties playing amateur detective
- clues and red herrings scattered through the plot
- a second murder to cover up the first
- a race against time to prevent a miscarriage of justice
On the other hand, what’s missing from Men And Women is a central detective figure—a literary construct that would not appear for another twenty years or so. Though written in 1843, this novel is set during the Napoleonic era—before the establishment of the English police force. When murder is committed, there is an official investigation conducted by a panel of local magistrates; it is one of the novel’s pleasant surprises that these men remain level-headed and clear-eyed as they conduct their inquiry, proceeding in a logical, intelligent manner, and being swayed neither by emotion nor class prejudice. However, their job is not to discover the truth, but only to make out a prima facie case against a suspect.
Meanwhile, as in Adventures Of Susan Hopley, various other people begin to investigate the case for reasons of their own. In the earlier novel, it was the victim’s business partner and his lawyer who teamed up to uncover the truth; here, pitted against a faction determined that his client will be found guilty of the murder, the young barrister representing one of the main suspects conducts a personal investigation, initially in the hope of finding enough evidence against someone else to create reasonable doubt, but at last because he stumbles onto the truth—although whether he can prove it is another matter…
Men And Women opens by introducing us to the Rivers family, the head of which is an inveterate gambler—and one, moreover, who insists upon no curtailing of expenditure, in order to “keep up appearances”. The crash comes, with Marmaduke Rivers imprisoned for debt in the King’s Bench prison, and his wife and three daughters forced to give up their comfortable, socially prominent life and begin a hand-to-mouth existence in squalid lodgings. This experience offers the cold comfort of teaching them who their real friends are: most of their old acquaintances drop away from them immediately. On the other hand, Henry Russell – who is in love with Caroline, the second daughter – does them very practical service by visiting Mr Rivers in prison and compounding with his creditors, while the ladies gain a new friend in Elias Longfellow, an artist and fellow-lodger, a terminally shy and awkward young man, but one whose heart is as big as he is tall. (He understandably hates his name; the ladies tactfully call him “Mr Elias”.)
After this opening, the narrative shifts abruptly and somewhat confusingly to the environs of York, where is situated the country estate of Sir John Eastlake. Sir John, we learn, is in many ways an admirable man—he is regarded as one by the members of his own class, anyway—although there is no shortage of people who would contend that his positive qualities are cancelled by his cynical contempt for the female sex, and in particular his habit of treating his tenants’ daughter as his private crop for harvesting.
When the story begins, Sir John has already left numerous tragedies in his wake – we hear of a fatherless girl called Bessy Lee, who has recently died (either in childbirth or by her own hand) – and we meet him in mid-pursuit of Jessie Matthieson, a pretty but fatally vain village girl, who preens herself on having “the squire” in her toils, and as a consequence slights and neglects Leonard Graham, the farmer’s son to whom she is “sort of” engaged—that is, everyone assumes they will marry someday. Nevertheless, Jessie has no intention of accepting the squire’s lures—or at least, she doesn’t until Sir John, growing bored, suddenly diverts his attention to Lucy Graham, Leonard’s lovely young sister.
Both because of her firm moral upbringing and because she engaged to a young soldier called William Bell – and because she is no fool – Lucy finds the squire’s pursuit of her completely distasteful, and she tries to avoid him whenever she can: no easy task, as she often summoned to “the Castle” to do needlework for his mother. It never crosses Sir John’s mind that Lucy genuinely wants nothing to do with him: he concludes that she is simply playing hard to get, and escalates his pursuit of her into outright harassment, lying in wait for her and manhandling her whenever he gets an opportunity, and scornfully laughing away her frantic pleas that he leave her alone.
Village gossip is not slow to conclude that Lucy Graham is an artful minx, who behind her prim and proper façade is no better than she should be; no better than Jessie Matthieson who, her self-love mortified by being passed over for Lucy, begins throwing herself in the squire’s way again and finally gives in to him…
This interlude is conducted so discreetly that no-one knows of it but Sir John’s confidential servant, Vincent Groves, whose duties include arranging his master’s liaisons—and cleaning up the mess in their aftermath, whether by threats or bribery. Inevitably, Sir John’s ardour cools as soon as it is satisfied, and Jessie is quickly discarded. In the wake of this interlude, she disappears from her home, almost driving Leonard Graham frantic. And when rumour speaks of a dark-haired girl living at Sir John’s hunting-lodge, “frantic” is putting it mildly. Determined to know the truth, Leonard sets out on foot for the lodge…
But Leonard is not the only person with a grudge against Sir John. Lucy’s engagement to William Bell meets with the approval of neither of her parents. He is an honest young man, and he and Lucy are very much in love; but the late Mr Bell lost all of his money, forcing William to enlist to support himself. Accepting that they cannot marry until William receives his promotion, the couple correspond regularly and stand their ground against the disapproval of the Grahams. Geordie, though not unsympathetic, feels that Lucy could “do better”; Hannah, meanwhile, is determined that she will. Though Leonard is her pet, and she has always coddled and indulged him, Hannah is jealously resentful of Lucy’s closeness to her father. She also wants Lucy to marry a neighbouring farmer of good fortune so that Geordie will not feel it incumbent upon himself to divide his property between his children. When Leonard’s relationship with Jessie implodes, Hannah becomes illogically determined to ruin Lucy’s relationship too—finally going to extreme of having their letters to one another stopped, with the connivance of her sister who is the local postmistress.
The result is catastrophic. A reluctant soldier at best, though a thoroughly dutiful one, William lives upon Lucy’s letters; when they stop coming he becomes almost distracted. Then a garbled version of Lucy’s involvement with the squire reaches his ears, losing nothing in the telling. When William receives no reply to his latest letter in which he begs Lucy to explain the situation – so that he can scotch the rumours; he does not doubt her – the situation becomes more than he can bear. When his regiment is ordered abroad, William deserts—even though he knows what desertion in time of war will mean. Nothing, not even an ignominious death, seems as unbearable to William as not knowing what has happened to Lucy. By secret paths, he makes his way home…
William declares his intentions to Lucy in one final letter, begging her to meet him at a secret rendezvous. Due to the postmistress’s illness, this one comes into her hands. Lucy is horrified by William’s desperate action, and at the vague threat of worse contained in his letter, and rushes away to the meeting-point, a lonely area by the edge of the woods. As she waits there in mounting panic, she is horrified to see Sir John emerging from the woods, where he has been shooting pheasants. Seeing Lucy in such an isolated locale, he immediately assumes that she has decided to give in at last…
…and as Lucy, crying out in fear and loathing, struggles vainly in Sir John’s grasp, even going on her knees to beg him to let her go, a shot rings out…
In the wake of Sir John’s death, his estate and fortune pass to a cousin, Marmaduke Rivers (ohhhh, we say at this belated revelation). The rapid journey from fortune to squalor and back to fortune is almost too much for the Rivers ladies, who keep themselves to themselves while they recover the tone of their minds and nerves, only admitting to their company their staunch friends Henry Russell and Mr Elias. This everyone understands: it is the state of Marmaduke Rivers’ nerves that attracts their puzzled attention… And Rivers is not the only one who seems unnaturally affected by the events: ever since the day of his master’s death, Vincent Groves has been in a state of near-collapse. Is this indicative of his attachment to Sir John, and shock at the circumstances of his death – or something else?
The local magistrates interrogate the witnesses, including the unfortunate Lucy, who can only assert her absolute belief in the innocence of William – who emerged from the woods not long after the shooting, but left the scene at her urging when they heard someone else approaching. That someone was Groves, who was also in the woods, but who was separated from Sir John when he was sent to take a brace of game to a cottager. A hat belonging to Leonard Graham is also found at the scene, along with a pistol – which is, however, still loaded…
Such is central mystery plot upon which Men And Women is built; but there is a great deal more going on in this novel. As was the case with Adventures Of Susan Hopley, Catharine Crowe uses her story as a vehicle for social criticism; and once again, we find her sympathies almost entirely with the working-classes. She is stringently critical of Sir John Eastlake and his selfish, destructive philandering, and disgusted with the way he uses Vincent Groves (who, however, goes along with it unquestioningly).
But there is an excuse of a kind for Sir John, in the shape of the perverse and selfish mothering that has helped to make him the way he is. We learn, in time, that when he was a young man Sir John was honestly in love, but his mother succeeded in preventing his marriage—and, subsequently, encouraged his philandering ways, all by way of likewise preventing the grandchild that would irrevocably alter the dynamic of life at Eastlake, and take the reins of power and fortune out of her hands: her domestically easy-going son being happy to let her rule the roost. It never crosses Lady Eastlake’s mind that her son will pre-decease her, still less that she will live to see the man she regards as his mortal enemy step into his shoes. When these events come to pass, and as the result of her son’s murder, Lady Eastlake has no doubt whatsoever about the identity of the killer:
“Murdered!” said Lady Eastlake, slowly, her mind apparently incapable of entertaining the idea.
“Ay,” said Nelly, in a concentrated tone that spoke volumes of vengeance, that only waited to know where to wreak itself, “murdered! Who did it?”
“Marmaduke Rivers!” replied Lady Eastlake.
“I said so, in my heart,” answered Nelly.
“He has murdered him for the estate,” said Lady Eastlake.
“That’s it,” said Nelly. “I knew it the moment the doctor said it was a ball that killed him.”
“Nobody else could have had any motive for taking away his life,” said the mother.
“To be sure not,” answered Nelly. “Wasn’t he an angel to everybody?”
“Oh, he was!” cried Lady Eastlake, clasping her hands, and bursting at length into a passion of tears—“he was the joy of my heart and the delight of my eyes!” and throwing herself on the bed, she passionately embraced the body of her dear son, kissing, with eager kisses the cold breast and marble features…
Lady Eastlake wastes no time in carrying her accusations to the magistrates, who enrage her by pointing out that there is no evidence to support her assertions. Conversely, there is evidence against at least two other people. Lady Eastlake may not be able to conceive that anything other than a mercenary motive could be behind the murder of her “angel” son, but the magistrates know very well that for years Sir John has been leaving misery and humiliation in his wake amongst his tenants, any number of whom could be said to have a motive.
During her questioning by the magistrates, Lucy Graham describes the circumstances of the murder—and the ugly scene between herself and Sir John that preceded it. It is her father, however, forced to provide testimony against both his son and his daughter’s fiancée, who gets the last word:
“There was a lass he was fond of, called Jessie Matthieson,” said Geordie; “she’s been awa’ these three weeks past, and nobody could tell what was ‘come of her—some said the squire had got her at Hillside, and Leonard went to Calderwood to try and get news of her. He’s gone, now, the squire,” added Geordie; “the Lord has taken him; but he was an awful man to be at the head of a parish. He sowed sorrow under many a thatch—and, may be, he’s reaped the harvest of it himself, at last.”
Everybody was affected by the old man’s words, the truth of which were too well known…
But in spite of their sympathy for Sir John’s victims, the magistrates see that a case may be made against either William Bell or Leonard Graham – or both of them together – and set in motion a search for the two missing men. Leonard turns himself in and is able to clear his name—though he admits that he had intended to kill the squire himself: the pistol left at the scene was his, dropped with his hat in the shock of someone forestalling him. The official investigation then becomes entirely focused upon William Bell; while Lady Eastlake, infuriated that no-one will listen to her, hires her own inquiry agents to find evidence of what she knows must have happened…
At this point in Men And Women, its plots begin to diverge. We spend much time on the run with William, who has any number of hair’s-breadth escapes from capture, several times because of the unexpected kindness of strangers. He even gets more help than he is comfortable with from a girl called Peggy Bland, the daughter of a soldier in his regiment, who is in love with him—much to his masculine dismay. The relationship between William and Peggy is one of the more interesting of this novel’s many digressions, and unfortunately reveals our William of something of a prig—a young man who buys wholeheartedly and humourlessly into the social conventions that dictate what young women should and should not do in their interaction with young men.
The resulting conversation between William and Peggy is the novel’s comic highlight (though its implications are not the least bit funny), with William trotting out platitude after platitude, and Peggy not having a bar of it. This passage runs several pages, so I can’t quote all of it, but here are a couple of excerpts:
“Men are very hard upon us,” said Peggy, “for doing just what they do themselves.”
“What’s that?” asked William.
“Why, I mean they if we love them when they don’t ask us, they despise us, and think there’s nothing too bad for us, and everybody’s against us—yet men fall in love with just anybody they like, whether one wants them or not, and nobody blames them.”
“That’s very true, Peggy, and perhaps it’s not quite fair; but women should wait to be courted.”
“Ah! it’s very easy talking,” said Peggy.
“…the advice I am giving you as a friend is the same—never let any man know you love him until he has asked you.”
“But suppose he never asks me?” said Peggy.
“…I suppose we like the pleasure of the chase; besides, you know nobody prizes what they get too easily.”
“Well, that seems very odd, too,” said Peggy, “because I should think if one is fond of a man because one can’t help it, it must be much truer love than if we only do it because he courts us, when, perhaps, we should never have thought of him if he had left us alone.”
“Still, Peggy, as you cannot make men different from what they are, you must take my advice, and never shew your love till it’s asked for—and then, perhaps, if you hide it very cleverly, and look very pretty—and you are very pretty, Peggy, and are very merry—you may sometimes win the heart you wish for—that is, if it’s free. They say some women are clever enough to make any man fond of them.”
“But the worst of it is, people are not clever when they are in love, nor merry either,” said Peggy.
“No, Peggy,” said William sadly, “indeed we’re not. We’re very foolish.”
“People that have all their wits about them, and can stop to think what’s best to be done, can’t be much in love, I’m sure,” said Peggy.
It is due to Peggy that William keeps his freedom as long as he does—she rescues him when he is attacked in the street and stabbed, and successfully hides him for many weeks, working to support him—all of which he requites by telling her again and again that he does not love and cannot love her (Peggy is more than once driven to shrieking, in effect, “I KNOW, I KNOW, I’M NOT ASKING YOU TO!!”).
Despite the twin legal threats confronting him, William would undoubtedly have turned himself in at the outset were it not for the fact that, as he fled the scene of Sir John’s murder, he almost stumbled across Leonard Graham, who was in a state of collapse. Knowing his own innocence, William assumes that Leonard is guilty—and he stays on the run not least because he doesn’t want to have to give evidence against his future brother-in-law. (The spineless Leonard, conversely, when the law catches up with him, sells William out without a second thought.) However, eventually there is a one thousand pound bounty upon William’s head – belatedly offered by Marmaduke Rivers, after an unnerving confrontation with Lady Eastlake – and this is a bait that not everyone can forego.
In fact, a young man called Jacob Lines makes it his business to get his hands on the money – which, we should note, is offered simply for William’s apprehension, since no-one doubts that he will be convicted – using as his tools the flattered and infatuated Jessie Matthieson, who has inadvertently learned of William’s whereabouts, and Hannah Graham, whose campaign against William has become every bit as obsessive as Lady Eastlake’s against Marmaduke Rivers.
One of the main themes that runs throughout Men And Women is the damage done by careless and spiteful talk, which is shown to have a cumulative and corrosive effect:
Not that they had believed the rumour; on the contrary, they had treated it with contempt; still, certain it is, that no calumny, however apparently absurd and unfounded it may be, was ever uttered, that did not make an impression, more or less deep, on the minds of those who hear it. Amongst the candid, the generous, and the good natured, the impression will be slight—probably so slight, that they are themselves unconscious that any impression has been made at all—till, perhaps, some confirmatory rumour, or some other calumny aimed at the same quarter, revives the memory of the first; and they find themselves suddenly half way on the road to believe the whole. This it is that makes small calumnies great evils. They act like small doses of poison, where each is insignificant in itself, but the gross amount is fatal…
Gossip is very nearly literally fatal to William Bell. Hannah does everything she can to blacken his name, even to get him convicted—perversely enough, she desperately needs him to be found guilty of Sir John’s murder in order to justify her own prejudice against him, and her conduct in the matter of the letters. In spite of her daughter’s misery, every blow against William is a triumph for Hannah, who is able to excuse herself by asserting that, “I always knew he was a wrong’un!” And it is gossip that sets in motion the chain of events that will end with William on trial for his life:
“Ha, ha!” laughed Jessie again, scornfully; “people are all very well until they’re found out—it’s very convenient to have such a fine character.”
“Till they’re found out!” said Mrs Lawson, who was a foolish woman and a confirmed gossip. “Why, you don’t mean to say, Jessie, that Lucy’s doing anything wrong, do you?”
“Oh, I say nothing,” replied Jessie. “Besides, how could such an angel as Lucy do anything wrong? Everything she does must be right, you know. Some people may steal a horse out of the stable, whilst another mustn’t look over the hedge.”
“But what do you mean, Jessie?” said Mrs Lawson, drawing her chair closer. “Do tell me! You know you may trust me with anything. I shall never mention it again.”
“She means nothing at all,” said Mrs Matthieson. “She’s just chattering like the magpie there, without knowing what she says.”
“Don’t I, mother? I fancy I could astonish you, and Mrs Lawson too, if I were to tell you half what I know.”
“Well, then, do tell us,” said Mrs Lawson What’s the use of making such a secret of what, I dare say, half the village knows.”
“Oh, for that matter, there’s no great pains taken to make a secret of it,” said Jessie. “I’m sure when Sir John wants Lucy, he sends Mr Groves openly enough to the farm, to fetch her.”
“But she doesn’t go!” said Mrs Lawson.
“Doesn’t she? But she does though!” said Jessie; “as fast as her legs can carry her.”
“What? To the Castle?”
“Yes, to the Castle, or anywhere else he likes.”
“No!” exclaimed Mrs Lawson.
“I don’t believe a word of it, Jessie,” said Mrs Matthieson. “Don’t believe her, Mrs Lawson; she’s only laughing at you. Lucy would no more do such a thing than I would.”
“It’s as true as I stand here, mother!” said Jessie.
Pure spite lies at the root of Jessie’s assertions. In her heart she knows that Lucy is not encouraging the squire at all, but at this point the vanity that is her leading characteristic is so lacerated by his neglect of herself and his evident preference for Lucy that she is beyond caring how much she hurts her rival—this on the back of a lifetime of having Lucy held up to her by her mother as a model. And as with all truly damaging gossip, there is just enough truth in what Jessie is saying to give the story legs: Lucy is summoned to the Castle frequently, and because of Sir John’s determined pursuit of her, they have been seen together, sometimes in some suspiciously isolated corners, due to Lucy’s unavailing attempts to avoid the squire while going to and from her work.
Mrs Lawson is married to the quarter-master of William’s regiment. She carries the story home from the village and repeats it to her husband, putting the worst interpretation upon each turn of it; and Serjeant Lawson – who disapproves of marriage for young soldiers (having met Mrs Lawson, we can understand why), and who thinks William should be thinking more of his duties and a lot less about Lucy, repeats it to the young man, hoping it will cause him to forget about the girl. Instead, the story coming on the back of Lucy’s apparent failure to write to him, the tale drives William to desperation…
But William and Lucy are not the only victims of spiteful talk. Despite her failure to persuade the magistrates of Marmaduke Rivers’ guilt, Lady Eastlake tells her story to anyone who will listen to her in her own social circle; while Sir John’s old nurse, Nelly, does the same at her level, as well as haunting Rivers like a veangeful spirit. No-one really believes it…but like water dripping on stone, it slowly has an effect, particularly in light of Rivers’ strange, nervous condition, which is evident to everyone who approaches him; and when it turns out that Rivers was in the vicinity at the time of the murder, the story paves the way for a belief in his guilt.
Here, however, Catharine Crowe pauses to illustrate once again the unjust distance between the privileged and the working-classes. The story about Rivers emerges in the middle of William’s trial, and as a result of the inquiries set on foot by Lady Eastlake (who has provided counsel for William—being, apart from poor Lucy, the only person quite certain of the young man’s innocence). Witnesses are summoned to testify to Marmaduke Rivers’ presence in the district at the time of the murder, to his highly agitated state, and to the fact that he was carrying pistols. Most of this emanates from the landlord of the public-house at which Rivers stayed, and a most reluctant witness he is—and he is not the only one. No-one hesitated to bear witness against William Bell or Leonard Graham, but when it turns out that the strange gentleman seen in the area at the time of the murder is “the new squire”, those people who did see him maintain a discreet silence…
The evidence produced against Marmaduke Rivers causes William’s trial to be suspended. Like William, Rivers asserts that he is a victim of circumstances: he explains his presence in the district, and the reason for the pistols, but cannot provide an alibi; his financial motive, though of a very different nature of that assigned to William, is recognised as every bit as powerful. There is, in fact, no more hard evidence against Rivers than there ever was against William, but the fact of Rivers having offered a reward for William’s apprehension works against him. From a widespread belief in William’s guilt, public opinion veers around to an even stronger belief in the guilt of Marmaduke Rivers.
Henry Russell, who offers to represent Rivers, recognises with dismay that the wholly circumstantial nature of the case against his client makes it almost impossible to refute; and concludes that he can only get Rivers acquitted by identifying the guilty party—or at least, by building an equally convincing case against someone else. To this end, Russell starts out by trying to find more evidence against William—who he believes is innocent—but his personal investigation soon takes a very different direction…
Towards its conclusion, Men And Women separates itself from the modern murder mystery by revealing to the reader who the guilty party is, and following that person through their increasingly desperate efforts to evade detection—and through their growing realisation that the only way they might be able to escape is by committing a second murder. It turns out that someone else was in the woods at the time of the shooting of Sir John Eastlake, and knows very well who the murderer is—but being one of the numerous locals with a bitter grudge against the dead man, the witness decides to keep his mouth shut.
It turns out to be a fatal mistake…