A SENTIMENTAL MURDER: Love AND MADNESS IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY By John Brewer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.
A little before midnight on April 7, 1779, Martha Ray--the long-term mistress of Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich--left the theater at Covent Garden with a friend. She would not have seen the young clergyman James Hackman coming toward her through the crowd. As Ray stepped into her carriage, Hackman pulled her back, reached into his coat, and produced two pistols. With the gun in his right hand he shot her through the head; with the one in his left he shot himself'. Martha Ray died instantly. Hackman, however, lived long enough to be arrested, tried, and executed. Just twelve days after the shooting, the slender pastor, his head wound still fresh, was hanged before an unusually large audience at Newgate prison. His crime? Murder, of course--but also love. Hackman had nursed a passion for Ray since meeting her four years earlier, and the strain of his unrequited feelings, it seemed, had broken him.
As murder victims go, Martha Ray was more Nicole Brown Simpson than John E Kennedy; her killing was the stuff of scandal rather than national crisis. Nevertheless, the episode's intrinsic drama was heightened by Ray's position as the mistress of one of Britain's most powerful statesmen, which placed her at the border of public and private life. More than just a titillating tabloid shocker, the case was a poignant indication of just how close high culture was to low, society to state, and love to madness. For all these reasons, the murder of Martha Ray gripped popular attention at the time and inspired retellings for generations to come.
In A Sentimental Murder, John Brewer--a leading historian of eighteenth-century politics and culture--takes the sordid events of that April night as the starting point for a comprehensive, if somewhat meandering, tour through the substantial body of literature that grew up around the case. From contemporary newspaper articles and a book masquerading as James Hackman's "true" correspondence, to such varied re-castings as William Wordsworth's ballad "The Thorn" and a 1930 historical novel about the murder, Brewer explores how the figures of Hackman, Ray, and Sandwich have been understood at different times, and why. This is a history, Brewer says, not of "what happened" but of how it was perceived and represented--a history of a history, as it were.
Brewer's methods are as much...