Finishing up my July of historical fiction was The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola. Like last week’s book this is a historical crime set in the nineteenth century, but it is crime of a very different kind. There is no cosy lady detective here. This is the seedy side of 1830s London, complete with fallen women, a gruesome murder and more than one secret being hidden from our poor naïve investigator.
It is 1837 and the city streets teem with life, atmosphere and the stench of London. Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, has been sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.
The Unseeing is based on a true crime. Sarah Gale was in real life convicted of aiding and abetting her lover James Greenacre, but this is very much a fictional story. The gruesome details of the ‘Edgware Road Murder’ would fit very comfortably within the sheets of any penny-blood. A woman’s torso was found at that location, followed by a head a week later in Stepney. Finally, after another month, the legs were discovered in Camberwell. This was pieced together into the corpse of the unfortunate Hannah Brown, fiancé to James Greenacre. As it turns out, this delightful gentleman discarded his previous common-law wife, Sarah, kicking her and her young son out of his house just a few days before Christmas to marry a woman he thought could bring him wealth. He admits to dismembering the body but denies the murder. Sarah denies knowledge of any of it but they are both found guilty, ending up in Newgate Prison and both sentenced to death.
Enter Edmund Fleetwood, a lawyer, who is appointed by the Home Secretary to investigate Sarah’s petition for mercy. It is his job to interview the convicted woman and determine if there is any truth in her claims of ignorance. He is sure that she is innocent, yet equally as certain that she is holding some part of the truth back from him. He cannot understand why she literally risk her own neck to keep a secret, not when she is clearly so desperate to be freed.
The story alternates between Sarah and Edmund, and as we learn more about their childhood and the parents who let them down. Edmund’s relationship with his father seemed a bit clichéd at first but as it developed the payoff was rewarding. The novel focused very much on how these two had spent a lifetime being controlled and manipulated, this then affecting how they behaved in adulthood. I thought this worked well – there was not too much back story to slow the pace and it added to both character’s motivations in the present.
The men in this novel do not come out well at all, callous, cruel and uncaring for the most part. I quite liked Edmund despite his flaws; he tried hard at least. I felt a little let down by James Greenacre. I pictured him as an Alec d’Urberville dastardly gentleman but I wanted a little more from him. I would have liked him to play with Edmund, tease him or punish him even. He didn’t even seem overly upset about being hung. After how he had treated Sarah I though he could have been more monstrous.
This is a brilliant debut novel, well-paced and well researched without being too crammed with facts. I loved the prison scenes, imagining how scared Sarah would have been, and the way that facts were woven in so that they made sense. An example of this is the death of the king, making way for Queen Victoria. Edmund wonders if it is worth taking his appeal to her as she may be more sympathetic to Sarah’s cause. This is perfect for anyone looking for a gripping page-turner.
Looking for other recommendations in historical fiction? Try one of these: