'A Tale Of Two Murders' Asks Whether Justice Was Done In A Famous, Century-Old Trial In the 1920s, Edith Thompson was executed along with her lover, who was found guilty of murdering her husband. Laura Thompson looks at how social conventions may have lead to an unjust outcome.
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Review

Book Reviews

'A Tale Of Two Murders' Asks Whether Justice Was Done In A Famous, Century-Old Trial

Many of us read to escape our own realities, to learn about the realities of others. Some of us write for the same reason.

But then there are the memoirists, who write to discover themselves, and the true crime authors, who write, at times, to uncover injustices. A Tale of Two Murders: Guilt, Innocence, and the Execution of Edith Thompson by Laura Thompson (no relation to Edith) is, remarkably, a blend of all these: escapism, a search for justice, and an attempt at realizing, as fully as possible, the essence of a real person — and that very person's search for herself through words.

Briefly, Laura Thompson's book is an investigation of a famous English legal case of almost a century ago. Edith Thompson and her lover Freddy Bywaters were jointly convicted of murdering Edith's husband, Percy Thompson. Though it was admitted that Edith didn't hold the blade that killed her husband, the prosecution convinced the jury, judge, executioner, and the public that Edith as good as held it, for she was the amoral cougar who bent Bywaters to her will and incited him to kill. The pair stood trial together, and though represented separately, were seen sitting in proximity day-after-day in court, allowing the jury and the public to spend the hours of tedious questioning imagining the affair.

In the second half of the book, Thompson expertly lays out the various methods by which the prosecution won the case. Mostly, this consisted of rhetorical moves that obfuscated the facts, incited unfounded speculation, and morally judged the married and older Edith, who fell in love and had sex with Freddy, eight years her junior. The fact that Edith Thompson was a wife is essential to her story, because if she hadn't been, things would have been very different for her. In fact, Edith's whole trajectory is tied like a sinking stone to the conventions of her day rather than to her personal choices — conventions that, this being the early 1910s in England during the Great War, dictated that she was to get married and live a morally sound and simple domestic life. But, as Thompson writes, Edith was childless, and this was already suspicious — and still is:

"Even today, a childless woman is a slightly marginalized figure. The very word 'mother' carries its soft and overwhelming emotional heft... It drags its religious undertow and casts its serene Raphaelite blush upon all mothers, any mother, except the one who harms her child and is defined as an aberration. But the childless woman, the Ruth with her briefcase and her alarming separate identity, is also against nature."

Part of what is wonderful about this book is the clear disdain with which the author tends to write of such social conventions, those that existed then and that still live with us now. But more than that, and what makes the book most exciting and worth the slog through some repetitive sections and a sometimes confusingly ordered narrative, is Thompson's admiration of Edith as a writer in her own right:

[Edith Thompson] wrote her story. This was the defining act of her life. She wrote it in thousands of words' worth of correspondence... the letters were for [Freddy] Bywaters and about something more. Her talking, as she put it, was a conduit for self-expression, in which she discovered and uncovered herself with moment-by-moment candour, and created an alternative life more real than reality.

Edith's voice, her passion for Freddy Bywaters and, perhaps more importantly, her passion for their affair, its semi-secret and tortured long-distance nature, is clear in her writing. Almost 50 of her letters survive, and these were clearly carefully gone over by author Thompson, who shares with her readers rather more than those shared in the trial. And, indeed, it was Edith's letters that did her in at the time — their salacious (for their day) nature, their references to Edith's own body and menstrual cycle, and their intimate nature were all bad enough. But it was the unknowability of certain passages, interpreted by the prosecution as incitement to violence, that ultimately killed Edith, for the actual proof of her guilt was, in legal terms, nonexistent.

"Don't ever take your love away from me darlint," wrote Edith to her lover — the word "darlint," which appears often in her letters, was shorthand for darlingest — "I never want to lose it and live."

In the end, Edith never lost Freddy's love, as he tried up until the end to proclaim her innocence — but as he was put to death, so was she. Thompson clearly believes that this was unjust, and her title says well: two murders, after all, can only refer to the murder of Percy Thompson by Freddy Bywaters, and to the murder of Edith Thompson by the state.

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, book critic, essayist, and editor for hire.