Lady Macbeth of the Western district

Earlier this week I was on a plane, and given that flying is a fundamentally boring experience I whiled away the time watching a movie.

The art house movie on offer was the wonderful, spare elegaic Lady Macbeth, beautifully photographed and incredibly dark.

I won’t rehearse the plot, but one device that the director had used was to have all the servants and socially inferior characters as persons of AfroCarribean or mixed heritage, and the property owners as most definitely white north of England characters.

The film was filmed on a property strangely reminiscent of how we found Hume’s cottage in Yass  when we visited on a winter’s day some years ago.

And that got me to thinking that you could have made an equally powerful version set in one of the squatocracy properties in the Western District, and where the socially inferior characters could be aboriginal, or part aboriginal, which would certainly have given it some edge.

And from there it was a short step to wondering what could be done with the stories of Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton who wrote equally harsh stories of life among the farmers and miners of colonial Australia ….



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Madeleine ! You didn’t, did you?

One of the aspects of the Madeleine Smith case that so titillated the mid Victorian audience was that not only did she have sex with her lover, but that she wrote gushingly about the experience.

Probably neither the first, or the last young woman to do so, but middle class young women in Victorian times were not supposed to have sex until they were married, and even once married were not supposed to write about it. In a world without reliable contraception it was safer to keep your virginity intact, although human nature being human nature Madeleine Smith probably wasn’t the only person to have sex before marriage.

There’s a couple of interesting aspects of the case. In the letters, Madeleine refers to Emile as her husband. I’ve always wondered, and there is probably no way to prove this, whether Madeleine, perhaps under the influence of romantic novels, believed herself to be handfasted, and in a form of trial marriage that made everything legitimate.

And when one looks at the home lives of some near contemporary and eminent Victorians such as the authors Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon, one wonders just how much fluidity behind closed doors there actually was in social relationships, despite official prurience about such matters.

The other thing I’ve wondered about is Madeleine’s purchase of arsenic. The idea of consuming small quantities of arsenic to improve the complexion was fairly common in 1857, having been publicised two years earlier on the back of medical work on the voluntary consumption of arsenic  in Styria, now part of Austria, and indeed Madeleine claimed that she had bought the arsenic for her complexion, even though the quantity was far in excess of that required.

However, in the 1850’s arsenic was sometimes used as an abortifacient, although sometimes with fatal consequences. One has to wonder if Madeleine thought herself pregnant, or just wanted to make sure she wasn’t prior to her engagement to Walter Minnoch …

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These damn kiwis – they got me !

A few days ago I read an article as to reasons why New Zealand really hadn’t produced any significant writers before the twentieth century.

I was reading the article as I’ve taken to reading nineteenth century novels as part of trying to understand the Madeleine Smith trial in context – Wilkie Collins was certainly influenced by the trial, as evidenced by the character of Lydia Gwilt in Armadale, and as the past is another country where they did things differently, and also trying to understand the colonial view.

While the Madeleine Smith trial was news in Australia and New Zealand it seems to have been less of a sensation in the United States.

New Zealand I can see – until gold was disovered in the 1860’s the non Maori population was both small – around 50,000, and recently arrived from the UK with organised settlement only starting some twenty years before.

And of course this could explain the lack of literary output – too small a talent pool and a population of hardworking farmers do not a literary scene make, despite the obvious parallels with the vernacular kailyaird writers of North East Scotland.

The authors of the article were clearly thinking literary here, Fergus Hume, even though he ran away from Dunedin to Melbourne wasn’t mentioned despite his importance to the development of the English crime novel

Anyway in the article the authors mention a fictional author, Willie Hollins, who wrote a mystery novel called ‘Greenstone’ about an ethnographer who purloined a sacred Maori carved chunk of greenstone.

I got the reference to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, but just for a moment thought that there might actually have been a Kiwi reworking of the Moonstone …

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Madeleine Smith in New Zealand

Well, I though I would do the obvious and repeat my investigation of the distribution of the trial reports in New Zealand.

Well that turned out not to be sensible – the non-Maori population in 1857 was only around 50,000, most of whom were homesteaders, and consequently there were relatively few newspapers publishing then in New Zealand (14 in fact), which makes any attempt to follow the flow of information impossible.

What we can say is that the New Zealand papers that reported on the conclusion of the trial were a month and a bit behind the Melbourne and Sydney papers, perhaps reflecting the time the mail took to get from Australia on to New Zealand, with the news reaching the north island via Auckland …

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Melbourne gets the news first

As part of my looking into how the news of the Madeleine Smith trial got to Australia I thought I’d break the reports of the trial down by date and place of publication.


And it’s quite striking – the first reports of the outcome of the trial  were published in Melbourne on 04 September 1857, but the news didn’t get to Sydney until 08 September, and to Hobart (or indeed Newcastle) until September 12th,  neatly reflecting the fact that there was effectively no railway network in Australia in 1857, and most travel between population centres in the eastern states, which were of course separate colonies, was by coastal steamship ….

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Madeleine Smith in South Africa (or maybe not)

Having established that it’s likely that the news of the Madeleine Smith trial reached Australia via the India/Sri Lanka route, I thought I’d look to see if there were any searchable digitised newspaper resources available for South African papers.

I decided not to bother searching for English language newspapers in India itself as 1857 was the year of the Indian Rebellion (or Mutiny for the less politically correct) and newspaper publication might well be disrupted or records missing.

However I do know from reading histories of the 1857 events that there was no overland telegraph link from India to Europe, and as there was no Suez canal, the mail would have come the long way round via the Cape of Good Hope, where the British had a well established colony.

So, I thought we might get an anchor date by looking for online archives.


The National Library of South Africa has archives on microfilm only – fair enough, they have other priorities, and while the British Library has some online resources from the correct period, which can be searched remotely, you need a readers’ card to access them, and getting a readers’ card requires registration in person, which kind of breaks the remote access model.

I will be in London later this year, so I guess I could shoehorn a visit to St Pancras into the trip but it does seem a lot of extra work for a very simple search query…

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Madeleine Smith in America

I’ve previously written about how the Madeleine Smith trial was reported in Australia, so I thought I’d have a fairly superficial look at how it was reported in America.

Remember that in 1857 there was no transatlantic telegraph cable – the cable was not complete until August 1858, although construction had begun in 1857.

Most New York papers have reports of the outcome of the trial in the first few days of August, which is about right – three weeks for a mail steamer to carry the news from Liverpool to New York. Reports of the initial arraignment are a few days earlier, late July which again fits with the 3 week schedule, given that the trial started on June 30.

To research this, I’ve been using the Library of Congress Chronicling America website. While it lacks external tools such as querypic it’s reasonably comprehensive in its coverage, and searching over a fairly tight timeframe suggests that the trial was reasonably widely reported in the east coast newspapers and sensational enough to get a column or two to itself in the overseas news, but not quite the impact that it did in Australia or New Zealand.

Interestingly, there’s also a report in the Polynesian from Hawaii dated 26 September 1857 which had been copied from one of the San Francisco papers (and annoyingly not one that’s digitised, so I can’t check the date and origin of the report), but confirming that the news reports in both Australia and New Zealand had come via the steamer route via India and Sri Lanka and not via America …

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