A SENTIMENTAL MURDER: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

John Brewer, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $24 (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-26103-0

Historian Brewer (The Pleasures of the Imagination ) uses an 18th-century English murder as the starting point for an intriguing exploration of the very nature of writing history itself. In 1779, Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, who was the inventor of the sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty, was shot dead outside Covent Garden Theatre by James Hackman, a young clergyman, who then unsuccessfully tried to take his own life. While Hackman's guilt was never in dispute, the debate over his motivation continued far into the next century. Rather than attempt to "solve" this whydunit, Brewer examines the stories told about the killing, both in fiction and ostensible nonfiction. These narratives varied greatly depending on period, reflecting changing mores and attitudes. For example, the Victorians painted the earl as a decadent aristocrat to make the tale a morality play. In a fascinating parallel to today, Brewer notes how the murder dominated headlines, despite more pressing news such as the war with the American colonies, and shows how late 18th-century newspapers mirrored the Internet by "transmitting the disparate opinions of the public at large" rather than being an authoritative source of information. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (June 9)

FYI: The Pleasures of the Imagination (1997) won the Wolfson History Prize.

Reviewed on: 04/26/2004
Release date: 06/01/2004
Paperback - 340 pages - 978-0-374-52977-2
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