Cover image for A sentimental murder : love and madness in the eighteenth century
A sentimental murder : love and madness in the eighteenth century
Brewer, John, 1947-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2004]

Physical Description:
x, 340 pages : illustrations 24 cn,
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV6535.G6 L525 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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One April evening in 1779, Martha Ray, the pretty mistress of a famous aristocrat, was shot dead at point-blank range by a young clergyman who then attempted to take his own life. Instead he was arrested, tried and hanged. In this fascinating new book, John Brewer, a leading historian of eighteenth-century England, asks what this peculiar little story was all about. Then as now, crimes of passion were not uncommon, and the story had the hallmarks of a great scandal--yet fiction and fact mingled confusingly in all the accounts, and the case was hardly deemed appropriate material for real history. Was the crime about James Hackman's unrequited love for the virtuous mother of the Earl of Sandwich's illicit children? Or was Ray, too, deranged by passion, as a popular novel suggested? In Victorian times the romance became a morality tale about decadent Georgian aristocrats and the depravity of wanton women who consorted with them; by the 1920s Ray was considered a chaste mistress destroyed by male dominance and privilege. Brewer, in tracing Ray's fate through these protean changes in journalism, memoir, and melodrama, offers an unforgettable account of the relationships among the three protagonists and their different places in English society--and assesses the shifting balance between storytelling and fact, past and present that inheres in all history.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Brewer (The Pleasures of the Imagination) uses an 18th-century English murder as the starting point for an intriguing exploration of the very nature of writing history itself. In 1779, Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, who was the inventor of the sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty, was shot dead outside Covent Garden Theatre by James Hackman, a young clergyman, who then unsuccessfully tried to take his own life. While Hackman's guilt was never in dispute, the debate over his motivation continued far into the next century. Rather than attempt to "solve" this whydunit, Brewer examines the stories told about the killing, both in fiction and ostensible nonfiction. These narratives varied greatly depending on period, reflecting changing mores and attitudes. For example, the Victorians painted the earl as a decadent aristocrat to make the tale a morality play. In a fascinating parallel to today, Brewer notes how the murder dominated headlines, despite more pressing news such as the war with the American colonies, and shows how late 18th-century newspapers mirrored the Internet by "transmitting the disparate opinions of the public at large" rather than being an authoritative source of information. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (June 9) FYI: The Pleasures of the Imagination (1997) won the Wolfson History Prize. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

On April 7, 1779, a clergyman named James Hackman accosted Martha Ray, the mistress of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, after a play and shot her, then unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself. He was tried and convicted of murder and hanged on April 19. But that's not what this book is about. Brewer (history, California Inst. of Technology; The Pleasures of the Imagination) is interested not in the murder itself but in how the events were interpreted throughout history. A book of Hackman's "letters"(actually forged) painted him as a victim of "love's madness," while the death of Ray brought the status of mistresses, or "demi-reps," into sharp relief. Later Victorian renditions used the murder as a means to denounce the decadence of Georgian society, while more recent historians and writers saw a romantic tragedy, with Ray as a woman torn between love and duty. The author assumes a bit of familiarity with the time period, and the political machinations can be hard to follow, but historians and lovers of the period will be fascinated. Recommended for academic collections.-Deirdre Bray, Middletown P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.