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Review of 'The Fall of the House of Walworth,' by Geoffrey O'Brien

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The book is billed as a true-crime story, but what drives the narrative is the events -- mundane and otherwise -- of Walworth family life. Ellen had many children, some of whom were stillborn, some of whom died in childhood. The men in the family who were supposed to earn money didn't always spring forth to do so. Appearances had to be kept up, and two enormous Victorian-era households had to be supported. While Mansfield was going crazy, he didn't contribute to his children's support, and young Frank wasn't in a position to help the family either. It fell to Ellen to convert one of their houses into an academy for young boys and girls. She seems to have run the whole show herself: teaching classes, grading papers, managing finances, all the while joining club after club, committee after committee, in an attempt to make something of herself, creating a public persona of repute and even modest splendor, someone to compare in eminence with the chancellor himself. Indeed, she did accomplish something quite amazing, which O'Brien keeps as a surprise -- something that really did assure that her family name would be remembered for a contribution far more important and interesting than just another squalid New York society murder.

The subject of this book is not so simple as good fighting evil; it's more like respectability duking it out with discord. "The Fall of the House of Walworth" is about the conflict between the part of us that wants to compose hymns and the part that wants to commit murder. That's typical American ground, and what makes this volume as instructive as it is entertaining.

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