William Roughead vs. Francis Wyndham

This probably isn’t a fair fight, but each side sure did put up a strong battle.

For this final bout in the first round of my mini-tournament of short stories William Roughead’s account of the famed 1765 trail of Katherine Nairn who was accused of murdering her husband with the help of her lover who was also her husbands brother.  This made her guilty of both murder and incest under 18th century Scottish law.

Roughead brings his professional, journalistic style to his report just has he has done with the other stories in Classic Crimes.  His detached tone observes without comment for the most part.  His thorough coverage of the case educates in unexpected ways.  In this instance I came away knowing a great deal about 18th century jurisprudence and social norms.  For example this paragraph on how juries were used in 1765:

At seven o’clock in the morning of Monday, 12th August, a jury was empanelled, and the examination of witnesses began.  It was the practice of those times that after a jury was once charged with a panel the Court could not be adjourned until the jury was inclosed, i.e. till they withdrew to consider their verdict. The hardships thus entailed upon all concerned where the case was of any length are evident.  In the present trial the proceedings up to that stage lasted for forty-three consecutive hours, the jury not being inclosed until two o’clock in the morning of Wednesday, 14th August.

After 42 hours of continuous testimony, the jury broke up into small groups, gathered with friends and court officers including the lawyers and the judges at the bar for drinks and dinner.  They then deliberated and came back with guilty verdicts for both Kathrine Nairn and her lover who were each sentenced to death.

Nairn’s lover went to his death proclaiming his innocence, which most readers will believe in as do most historians who have studied the case, while Katherine announced she was with child.  Since Nairn could not be executed by hanging until after she had recovered from delivery, she remained in prison for many months until her daughter was born.  Nairn then escaped probably disguised as her nurse who wore a large cloth around her head claiming a toothache on the day of Nairn’s escape.  classic crimes

Nairn was never found.  Some say she went to France where she remained until the revolution forced her to return to England.  Others say she went to America where she married and became the matron of a large brood of children and grandchildren.  In any case, no modern reader could read Roughead’s account without seeing how remarkably far justice systems have come in the last 250 years.

Francis Wyndham is a late entry into this round of my tournament of short stories.  I dug my copy of The Complete Fiction published by New York Review of Books as part of The TBR Triple Dog Dare.  I read the first two, “Mrs. Henderson” and “Obsessions” not knowing what to expect at all.

Both are about British schoolboys in the early part of the 20th century between the wars.  In both the narrators develop a crush on a friend’s mother.  Was this a thing, this falling slightly in love with your roommate’s mother back in the day?  This is not the first time I’ve encountered this trope in British fiction. Did Freud or one of his followers write a paper on it.  It seems kind of natural that the Oedipal “love” would move from one’s own mother to a friend’s at some point, especially when the boys are sent away to school where the find someone with a slightly more glamorous mother.

I liked both stories very much.  They are the kind of character driven story where things happen in spite off nothing happening.  I even understand why the boys fall a bit in love the way they do.  Take this bit where the narrator of “Obsession” meets his friend’s mother:

At the end of the meal, while her mother was pouring out our coffee, Madge Fuller turned to me with an urgent expression on her face.  ‘I do hope you haven’t succumbed to this ghastly custom I find now all over the place of going back into the drawing-room after luncheon and drinking your coffee there! I really cannot stand it; it seems to me to be such a mad idea! It quite takes away the whole point of having coffee at all if one has to move all the way from one room to another before one can get at it.  I can’t understand why everybody doesn’t see what I mean about this – but apparently they don’t.  The most surprising people seem to be catching the habit.  It’s just the sort of thing that drives me absolutely crackers?  she finished wildly, then paused, panting slightly, before adding on a brisker note: ‘Now why don’t you two boys go off together somewhere for a good talk? Jocelyn is starved for conversation with people of his own generation, aren’t you darling? But you mustn’t bore our guest, whatever you do: I sometimes think that being a bore is the unforgivable sin, do you know what I mean? Anything but that!

Imagine a much younger Maggie Smith delivering this speech, drawing her young audience in by confiding what she really thinks to them, by being just a bit transgressive in a slightly adult way.  Let’s break with what society wants; it’s so boring.  Sure, Mrs. Fuller, tell me more.

Francis Wyndham’s two stories are light pieces of entertainment, at least on the surface.  They charm while they undermine.  You can see in the above quote both why Mrs. Fuller is appealing and why her admirers will eventually leave her.  There’s enough in her character to interest and to entertain for a while, but after the novelty has worn off, what remains isn’t enough to sustain.

Still, good conversation is rare enough in life; your first taste of it can intoxicate.

So this round goes to Francis Wyndham.  I’m looking forward to reading more of his stories.

 

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