Pleading hearts and sanity inspectors

By David Herman, April 25, 2014
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Trials of Passion, by Lisa Appignanesi, Virago, £20

Lisa Appignanesi has written or edited more than 20 books. Her novels and her non-fiction are both marked by a preoccupation with passion and the mind, notably the darker areas of both. Trials of Passion is the final part of a trilogy which began with Mad, Bad and Sad, an account of the relations between psychiatrists and women in modern times, and continued with All About Love, “an anatomy of the unruly emotion that love is”.

Trials of Passion takes three cases of murder or attempted murder in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In each case, the crime is bound up with a passionate love affair and the defence is insanity.

Through the book, Appignanesi maps the emerging relations between psychiatry and criminal justice as lawyers and “mad-doctors” try to make sense of romantic passion.

Appignanesi begins with the case of Christina Edmunds, a Victorian spinster who had become infatuated with Dr Charles Beard, a physician in Brighton. She attempted to poison his wife and, to make it seem that this was part of an orchestrated series of poisonings — presumably to throw suspicion on to somebody else — she allegedly killed a young child.

In Paris, later in the 1870s, Marie Bière shot and wounded her lover, Robert Gentien. Her defence was insanity. She had fallen in love with him, become pregnant, and was driven mad with grief when the child died.
Seeking revenge on Gentien, she shot him three times. Two leading French psychiatrists argued that, though she knew what she was doing, she was under the influence of such passions that, “there was no resisting the forces that dominated her and obliterated her moral sense.”

The third case took place in New York in 1906 and will be familiar to readers of E L Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime. A famous architect, Stanford White, seduced a teenage girl who later married a volatile millionaire, who then murdered the architect to defend his wife’s virtue. The defence lawyers argued insanity.
Appignanesi is a fine storyteller, bringing the characters and times to life. She moves effortlessly between the cases and the larger cultural context: shifting attitudes towards women, especially their mental health, and the battle between psychiatrists and lawyers over who has the right to say whether crimes of passion are mad or bad. She draws on the court records and new literature on degeneration and hysteria in the history of medicine and psychiatry.

This is a clear and fascinating introduction to the grey zone between criminal guilt and madness.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

    Last updated: 5:08pm, April 25 2014