It is rarely remembered that George Orwell’s celebrated 1946 essay Decline of the English Murder was itself a book review, its subject a now forgotten “shilling shocker” that told, in breathless sentences printed on thin war-issue paper, the story of the so-called Cleft Chin Murder.
In days when all murders seemed to acquire a title, the cleft chin was that of an unfortunate taxi-driver, shot dead at the culmination of a nihilistic rampage by a GI gone Awol and his Welsh “moll” in a London cowering under the onslaught of V1 rockets. Orwell meditated sardonically on the way the war had coarsened English values, one of its casualties being that great contribution that England had made to world civilisation: the middle-class murder.
Sean O’Connor’s excellent first book, Handsome Brute, was an account of the life and trial of the sex-killer Neville Heath, hanged in 1946 for two murders that, in their grim depravity, firmly corroborated Orwell’s thesis.
In his second, The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury, O’Connor considers the last great prewar murder, committed in 1935, before the rot set in. It contained all Orwell’s necessary ingredients: a suburban mise-en-scène (a villa in Bournemouth no less!), a claustrophobic and loveless marriage (think Walter Sickert’s painting Ennui); and unfulfilled sexual longing amid the neatly arrayed antimacassars.
A 1930s-England-Era Cougar
The story of the love affair of the 42-year-old Alma Rattenbury and her 18-year-old chauffeur George Stoner, the fatal consequence of which was the bludgeoning to death of Alma’s hypochondriac and whisky-soaked husband as he dozed in his favourite armchair, has been often told. That is unsurprising, for what was dubbed the “Murder at the Villa Madeira” is a case study in human frailty, jealousy and desire. It transcends the backdrop of mid-1930s England and has as its cast human archetypes traceable back to Greek tragedy: the impotent husband; the frustrated younger wife; the rampant youth introduced to — and overcome by — the intoxicant of sex.
O’Connor’s study stands apart from earlier accounts for the meticulousness of his research and the psychological perspicacity of his narration. A murder can make the lives of each of the protagonists seem like mere preludes to the critical event. O’Connor rejects this crude teleology. The author has sunk deep mine shafts below the final crisis and much of the book is taken up with an account of the lives of Alma and her husband, Francis, each teeming with incident and human interest. (Francis was an eminent Canadian architect, many of whose buildings in British Columbia still stand; Alma a concert pianist and songwriter — one of her songs, full of appropriately romantic yearning, and to which she provides the accompaniment, can be heard on YouTube).
The war had coarsened English values, Orwell said, one of its casualties being that great contribution England made to world civilisation: the middle-class murder.
O’Connor finds the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary; absent the murder that defined both of them and the Rattenburys would today be forgotten; yet they are saved from oblivion by a momentary act of violence disconnected from the path of their lives up to the events of March 1935.
O’Connor also rightly sees in his story the opportunity to explore the social and moral life of the times. He digresses enthusiastically on the Boots lending library; contemporary female reading habits; and the price differential between single use and reusable french letters. He understands very well that books about historical crimes should evoke the patina and preoccupations of the period that spawned them. But as the narrative edges closer to the fatal evening, the spring is wound tighter and tighter; the seemingly random events of domestic life gain a retrospective significance moulded by the crisis that is to come.
On Par with the Old Bailey Greats
All great English murders had to find their denouement in the Old Bailey and the trial of Alma and her lover did not disappoint. The fur-clad ladies in the public gallery shivered at the display of Stoner’s supposedly animal masculinity in the dock. The famous drama critic James Agate saw in Alma the incarnation of an English Emma Bovary. And it offered the army of journalists five days of delirious courtroom drama, all packaged up to be read on lazy Sunday afternoons by Orwell’s archetypal prewar reader, a cup of “mahogany-brown tea” on the table, his pipe “drawing sweetly”, the sofa cushions “soft underneath”, a copy of the News of the World open.
The prosecution case was that Alma had incited Stoner to do away with her inconvenient husband, and that, in thrall to a modern day Clytemnestra, he had dutifully complied with a handy mallet. The court heard how they had spent an illicit few days in London the week before the killing, during which the young chauffeur had been showered with gifts and smart clothes. It seems that, having played the part of the gentleman in their Kensington hotel, a return to servant status in Bournemouth was more than Stoner could bear. Convinced that the old man was demanding a resumption of conjugal rights, or that he was seeking to prostitute his wife to a putative client, Stoner saw red. As he stepped into bed with Alma later that night he announced, with some understatement, that he had “hurt Ratz”.
Alma’s case contained all the necessary ingredients: a suburban mise-en-scène, a claustrophobic and loveless marriage, unfulfilled sexual longing.
It is fascinating to read how Alma’s priority from that moment was to protect the man who had killed her husband. When the police arrived she made a false confession of her own culpability. It was only her son’s pleas as she awaited trial that persuaded her to change her story; and her electric performance in the witness box convinced everyone in court that, while she might have been guilty of crimes against the mores of the period (the public gallery was mesmerised by her nonchalant acceptance that she and Stoner would make adulterous love while her six-year-old son slept in the same room), she was in fact innocent of her husband’s murder.
A high point was her description of stepping on her husband’s false teeth, knocked to the floor by the force of the blows to the back of his head, and her desperate attempts to fix them back into the mouth of the dying man. The ecstatic Agate could not decide whether this was “pure Flaubert” or “pure Zola”.
O’Connor’s firm grip on his material loosens slightly during the trial scenes. English High Court judges are never known as simply “Justice Humphreys” (the title Mr, and now Mrs, is always used) and the role of junior counsel is significantly greater than that of “assistants”. But these are minor quibbles. Over the course of his book O’Connor creates a satisfying novelistic arc. The outcome of the trial was Alma’s acquittal and Stoner’s conviction and, unlike in so many other notorious cases of the period, it seems that the law got it right. Yet, as O’Connor shows, the verdicts were far from marking a conclusion to the saga.
Alma may have been acquitted of murder, but she had been damned in the court of public opinion. In those sanctimonious days there was no hope of starting anew. The book ends on a note of finely conveyed tragedy. After all, once the mallets have been cleaned off and the post mortems performed, that must be the primary justification for books on middle-class murder.
Thomas Grant is the author of Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories: From Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Howard Marks and Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials That Defined Modern Britain.