One April evening in 1779, Martha Ray, the pretty mistress of a famous aristocrat, was shot dead at point-blank range by a young clergyman who then attempted to take his own life. Instead he was arrested, tried and hanged. In this fascinating new book, John Brewer, a leading historian of eighteenth-century England, asks what this peculiar little story was all about. Then as now, crimes of passion were not uncommon, and the story had the hallmarks of a great scandal–yet fiction and fact mingled confusingly in all the accounts, and the case was hardly deemed appropriate material for real history. (from Goodreads)
I had zero expectations with this book, since I mostly bought it because I liked the picture in the cover and because it was super cheap. I barely read the dust jacket synopsis, so I wasn’t even sure if it was either a fiction or non-fiction book. Impulsive purchase at its finest. So it was a very pleasant surprise to realise that I was actually liking it very much and that it was right up my alley.
Parting from the murder of Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, by James Hackman, Brewer introduces us to these protagonists, their place in London’s Georgian society and how the murder and their role in the event were interpreted by their contemporaries and during the subsequent centuries.
I liked the way the author sets every account made of these events in their cultural context, expliciting why certain interpretations and treatments of them and their protagonists were favored at certain times, how and why some manufactured letters became little less than “historical documents”, influencing later accounts of this story and how the concept that history has of itself varies through time and affects other literary and pseudo-historical genres.
It also made me reflect in the way our culture and moral values as a society permeate our own interpretations of events in our own time and how we see and judge past times, and how we should approach said times to try to get a closer comprehension to the way those events were perceived contemporarily.
I found this article by the author that more or less sums up the events of the murder and hints some of the things that he expands in the book, in case I got you interested in the book and/or subject.