I recently read a fabulous article by Nell Darby about the dangers of glorifying history's criminals (check it out here) and it really got me thinking about my book on Christiana Edmunds. By writing about her, am I glorifying her crimes? Am I trivialising the horrible things she did? It's an important and often over-looked question, I think.
When I was first approached to write this book, it was clear that the publishers were looking for something sensational. They wanted a book that would capture the public's imagination, so I duly set about scouring the newspapers of the 19th century in search of shocking, though less well-known, crimes. I think I succeeded in my aim but, in writing a book that is deliberately sensational, I can't help but wonder if I am guilty of feeding the public's obsession with the "celebrity" criminal. But, even if I am, is that such a bad thing?
Before I answer that, let's get something clear from the beginning, though I hope it goes without saying. It has never been my intention to glorify Christiana's poisoning spree or downplay its effects on her victims. And I'm sure that many other writers and historians out there don't harbour this intention, either. So I wonder if this issue is symptomatic of a wider historical problem? That is, of our connection to people from the past. It's easy to look at people like Christiana, like Dr Beard, like Sidney Barker as names on a page and forget that they were real people with real problems, real relationships and with real lives. Perhaps we view them in such simplistic terms because we can't relate to them; we can't connect on that human level which is so necessary in creating a sense of meaning and attachment. In this understanding, it is easy for people to pick and select the figures they read or write about because, intentionally or unintentionally, they are not connected to these criminals or victims and their personal histories.
If this is the case, then I would suggest that knowledge really is power. Instead of glorifying criminals, we should think about new books and new projects as bringing to life these stories of the past. But I'm not saying that any old story or any old viewpoint will do. It needs to be done in a way and that is what I have tried so hard to do in my book on Christiana. It was so easy for me to get sucked in by the newspaper reports of the Chocolate Cream Killer, of the cold-hearted spinster and the slighted lover. And for a while, I guess, I fell for it all. But once I started to think critically about Christiana, everything changed. I realised that her crimes represent just one year of her life. Again, not wanting to trivialise what she did, I was keen to know more about the woman, not the murderess. Of course, this poses a whole new set of problems. As Nell rightly points out, the vast majority of crimes are rather "grubby affairs" which take place against the fairly hum-drum backdrop of everyday life. And researching the everyday in the 19th century isn't exactly easy. But I was determined to put Christiana into some sort of meaningful context, to try and understand who she really was and portray this to the reader, without being overly sympathetic towards her or downplaying the plight of her victims. I guess it's a question of balance and I sincerely hope that I've got the balance right.