Tag Archives: Victorian Era

Louisa Locke – Maids of Misfortune (2009)

MaidsofMisfortuneWhen I bought this, I had originally thought it was a non-fiction book about the lives of domestic maids living in Victorian San Francisco. Instead I found myself reading a, quite sloppy, murder mystery set in Victorian San Francisco. I am all for historical fiction and murder mysteries, but this was just bad historical fiction.

Personally, I consider subtlety to be a marker of good historical fiction. The reader should know where they are in time and space, but should not need constant reminders. Locke however feels the need to constantly remind her readers that they are in San Francisco in the late 1880s by cramming every single stereotype associated with the Victorian period into her work. I will give you some examples:

Annie (the main character) is a clairvoyant and constantly remarks about how her customers as obsessed with the unknown. (The steryotype that everyone in the Victorian era was obsessed with the spiritual realm)

Annie goes to a dance and wear a dress showing her ankles and is therefore mistaken as a prostitute

Annie makes a male character, Nate, blush when she says the words “legs”

Everyone in San Francisco hates the Chinese expect for Nate and Annie because naturally, as the heroes of the story they cannot be racist or sexist.

The plot of this story was not bad. It is a murder mystery and has enough suspense that I wanted to know what happened. It turned into a bit of a romance however (and a messy one at that), and wading through the info-dump of Victorian clichés was a bit more than I could handle. This book is part of a whole series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest anytime soon.

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Charlotte Gray – The Massey Murder (2013)

massey-murderI was expecting this book to be simply about the murder of Albert, “Bert,” Massey at the hands of his maid, Carrie Davis, who shot him in cold blood after he made a sexual pass at her. The book however unravels to tell a story of Toronto in 1915, a rapidly changing city at the height of the First World War.

Gray moves carefully through each chapter providing details of the case and trying them to larger trends in Toronto. The first half of her book deals largely with Victorian sensibilities regarding women, something that I have always found interesting. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a rise of reform movements, most notably for suffragettes, women campaigning for the vote. Upper and Middle Class white women also campaigned for a number of different causes, including prison reform. Gray deals popular practices in criminology at the time including craniology, as well as the idea that while men committed crimes, women committed sins and could therefore be rehabilitated.

The most shocking thing about this case is while even though Carrie Davis admitted to killing Bert Massey, the jury voted her not guilty. Gray details the brilliance of her lawyer, Hartley Dewart, and how he tied Carrie’s case to the War overseas. Carrie as a virgin girl was protecting herself from the advances of her employer, much like British soldiers overseas were defending themselves against the advances of the Germans. He essentially made Carrie an allegory for British values and it worked.

Gray talks a lot about the popular opinions surrounding the trial and the ways that the different newspapers in Toronto treated the case. I wish she spent a bit more time tracing the fall out, but she does mention that the case against Carrie Davis did not set a precedent. This book was still great, it’s always interesting to read about places that you are familiar with and reading about Toronto in 1915 as well as seeing pictures was enjoyable.