DEATH AT THE PRIORY: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England

James Ruddick, Author . Atlantic Monthly $24 (209p) ISBN 978-0-87113-832-3

Journalist Ruddick (Lord Lucan: What Really Happened) presents a colorful, entertaining account of an unsolved Victorian murder, rife with uneasy class and gender issues. The sensational 1876 domestic poisoning, which fascinated Agatha Christie and others, features archetypal mystery elements, including a gloomy south London mansion, inscrutable servants, rejected lovers, a despicable victim and a protagonist embodying her era's tortured sexual politics. The young Florence Ricardo attained fortune and social position after her alcoholic, abusive husband's death, but the discovery of her affair with the much older, prominent physician James Gully jeopardized her standing. Thus she enthusiastically agreed to marry attorney Charles Bravo. Unfortunately, Bravo emerged as a mean-spirited misogynist, controlling Florence's finances and treating her as his sexual possession, even following a traumatic miscarriage. In his final days Bravo dismissed Florence's servants willy-nilly, providing numerous suspects in his murder: one night, his water pitcher was spiked with a lethal dose of tartar emetic, a derivative of antimony. Initial suspicion centered on Mrs. Cox, Florence's taciturn housekeeper, who seemingly misled doctors and investigators, and Florence herself was humiliatingly grilled during the inquest. Despite widespread speculation, officials concluded that there was insufficient evidence against any of the suspects. Ruddick shrewdly surveys these events, illuminating his story with trenchant insights into key figures' lives and the social codes that encouraged Bravo's chauvinism and made Florence an outcast for her attempted self-determination. He catalogues previous theories about the culprit (Christie favored the jilted Dr. Gully), then offers a plausible hypothesis. This well-executed portrait of Victorian mores and malice will please the mystery and true-crime crowd and very possibly a wider audience. Eight pages b&w photos not seen by PW. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 10/22/2001
Release date: 01/01/2002
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-0-8021-3974-0
Hardcover - 336 pages - 978-0-7089-4714-2
Paperback - 192 pages - 978-1-903809-44-0
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