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 …