Monday, December 20, 2010

Joseph Shearing's AIRING IN A CLOSED CARRIAGE and the Florence Maybrick Mystery

 Joseph Shearing was one of the many noms de plume adopted by Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long, (seen above) who is probably best remembered today for her work as Marjorie Bowen.  But as Joseph Shearing, she wrote a series of mystery/thrillers based on true murder cases that were well-regarded in their day and are ripe for rediscovery.

AIRING IN A CLOSED CARRIAGE (1943) is the story of young May Beale, the Virginia-born daughter of a cotton-growing dynasty, and of her marriage to wealthy John Tyler, a cotton broker of Manchester, in the 1880s.  May's marriage is a disaster; a well-bred and well-educated woman, she's out of place in working-class Manchester and in the house of her culturally-challenged parvenu husband.  John doses himself freely with patent medicines and is an arsenic-eater; he also keeps a mistress on the side and has fathered numerous children on her, as well as a number of other conquests.  May is pursued by a local roue, and is also the lust-object of John's vicious brother Richard, who seeks to destroy John's home and claim May for himself.

Of course, it all goes haywire; John becomes deathly ill, and eventually dies.  Was it his patent medicines or did May poison him with the arsenic?  Richard, jealous when she's suspected of an affair with the local stud, does his best to frame her for murder, and plays up the fact that May had begun to seek a divorce.  May stands trial and is convicted to hang, but her sentence is commuted to twenty years' imprisonment because it can't be proven if the arsenic she supposedly administered truly did the deed, or if it was the arsenic already in his system.  In the epilogue, she passes away, old and lonely and forgotten, rejected by her children, reflecting that her life was like an "airing in a closed carriage" (an instruction to the sequestered jury in her case), of always being boxed in and imprisoned, never truly her own person.

It kinda sounds like a soap opera, and it is a bit leisurely in its pacing, but I liked it a lot.  The first section, "Schoolgirl's Posy," introduces May and her suitors, and plays up their vulgarity and her naive delicacy.  Chapter two, "Lady's Posy," introduces May as Mrs. Tyler, struggling in her increasingly unhappy marriage, with children who are kept from her and servants who spy on her as much as they serve her.  "Invalid's Posy," the third chapter, is the longest, and may seem slow-moving until you realize that the chess pieces are being moved and things are being arranged, as the Tyler marriage deteriorates and implodes, May looks into a divorce, and John is suddenly taken ill.  "Prisoner's Posy" covers the arrest and trial, and "What Was Left in the Chocolate Box" briefly looks at her prison years.  And then the sad epilogue.

There's more than meets the eye, too.  Some might be a bit snobbish; Shearing has no sympathy for the nouveau riche Tylers, aping the style of the old-money families, slapping tacky art on the walls, serving badly cooked, heavy meals, and overpopulating the house with servants.  John Tyler has a library, not because he likes to read, but he just likes to be able to say to guests, "I'll see you in my library."  We're made sure to know it's a sadly neglected room.  May is a genuine old-money aristocrat, and realizes what a sham it all is, but also contributes to her own undoing by being feckless and passive and easily manipulated.

But...there's also some good feminist undercurrents, with May being denied simple self-determination and always at the mercy of the men around her.  And elements of class warfare, as servants turn on her viciously the moment she's suspected of murder, and interpret everything in the absolutely worst way possible, but also in John and Richard's treatment of May, viewing her as a tool or a decoration or a valuable asset, resenting her breeding and class but at the same time wanting it for themselves, but never truly seeing her or knowing her as a human being.

It's also left open to conjecture; did she murder her husband?  Shearing doesn't think so; it was either the poison already in John's system, or an honest attempt on her part to help him out by giving him a dose of arsenic.  A sympathetic lawyer speculates that it couldn't have been murder; she had too much to lose by his death, and everything to gain from a legal separation.

Another thing that makes it riveting is that it's based on a real case, that of Florence Maybrick, accused of poisoning her husband in 1889.

The novel follows the Maybrick case rather closely, changing names and the location (the real case was in Liverpool), and some circumstances.  In this case, the woman was most likely having an affair or two, but in both the novel and real life, the woman's reputed affair did much to prejudice the public and the judge against her...while the husband's philandering was not even an issue.

And Maybrick, like May, was probably innocent, but too much was stacked against her and she was railroaded into jail.  Modern readers might also feel outrage at the proceedings:  the judge was obviously violently prejudiced against her (and soon after the trial was committed to an asylum, where he died mad), evidence was poorly handled, new evidence arose that was ignored, and all sorts of things happened that should have led to an appeal and retrial, but it was never granted.  In both the novel and reality, the woman was accused of trying to make poison from arsenic-laden flypapers, but it was common for women to use that in skin treatments.

Florence Maybrick, born in Mobile, AL, spent 14 years in prison, and when she was released, returned to the US.  She wrote a book about her experiences, but it didn't sell, and an attempt at a lecture career also failed.  She eventually became a recluse, dying in a squalid cabin in Gaylordsville, CT, in 1941, at the age of 79.  Two years later, Shearing's book came out, and in 1947 it was filmed as THE MARK OF CAIN with Eric Portman and Sally Gray, and with a script co-written by stellar mystery author Christianna Brand.

I read this as an interlibrary loan book; it's out of print but there's copies to be had here and there; I've found some listed on the aether listed for $5 or so.  It's worth seeking out, and while it may seem slow-paced, it's got the slow buildup that modern readers don't appreciate. 

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