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Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England Hardcover – January 9, 2002
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The fatal poisoning of Charles Bravo in 1876 remains a great, unsolved mystery. As James Ruddick shows in this engrossing account, there was no shortage of suspects. Among them were Bravo's wife, Florence, who married the young barrister in part to erase the taint of a recent sexual scandal; Jane Cox, a servant caught spinning a web of lies about what happened the night Bravo died; and James Gully, an esteemed doctor who was also once Florence's lover. "In time, the case passed into the pantheon of English crime, a riddle that drew the interest in speculation of every passing generation," writes Ruddick. It's not hard to see why. Death at the Priory is full of compelling personalities and titillating revelations about what happened behind the closed doors of Victorian England. Ruddick promises something more than a rehash of the established facts: "I discovered the new evidence which has enabled me to expose Charles Bravo's murderer." The author ultimately does not point his finger in a surprising direction, though he has added substantial details to what's known about the case. Fans of true-crime literature will enjoy this book, especially if they're attracted to its historical setting. --John Miller
From Publishers Weekly
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.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
It was not wonderful. Our heroine wanted to be more like women in our century but she was born in the wrong time. Still she had a mind of her own and did not make her decisions according to what men, or what high bred women would do. I don't know if you will like her, but she surely knew her own mind.
The author wrote us a very interesting and readable book.
Over the more than 120 years since Bravo's murder, the case has attracted considerable attention, with armchair detectives, among them Agatha Christie, attempting to puzzle out a solution to the unsolved crime. James Ruddick follows in this tradition, although he differs from his predecessors in using as evidence not only the records of the Coroner's inquest from which they derived information, but also original police records and the testimony of surviving relatives of the principals. Ruddick claims to have uncovered in his research evidence which has enabled him finally to expose the murderer. The evidence Ruddick offers is perhaps not as definitive as he suggests--while it does appear to exculpate one of the suspects, it does not prove the guilt of the person he fingers for the crime--but the author's reconstruction of the murder is indeed a persuasive one.
Death at the Priory is an example of popular history at its finest. It is fast-paced and suspenseful. The prose is highly readable. (My favorite sentence: "An unhappy woman with easy access to weedkiller had to be watched carefully.") And the story Ruddick tells--of the murder and its investigation, and of Florence's abusive first marriage and scandalous affair with James Gully--is inherently fascinating. There were occasions, however, when I wanted more information. What, for example, *was* that notorious Victorian malady "brain fever" that Florence was thought to be suffering from at one point? And what was so "famous" (as Ruddick refers to it) about the Bridge of Sighs that separated the men's quarters from the women's at Dr. Gully's clinic? (And is this bridge indeed famous, or has Ruddick transferred the epithet from the better known Bridge of Sighs in Venice?) I also had some questions, not necessarily damning, about Ruddick's reconstruction of the crime. (Why, for example, given his reconstruction, did Jane Cox go to such lengths to try to revive Charles Bravo after his collapse?) These might have been resolved at once had Ruddick been across the room from me while I was reading, but, strangely, he was not.
These minor issues aside, Ruddick's contribution to the literature on the Bravo cases makes excellent, nearly un-put-downable reading.
Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece
I did enjoy the wierd conclusions to the lives of the suspects and associates in the incident. All in all a very entertaining read.