A SENTIMENTAL MURDER

Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

By John Brewer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 340 pp. $24

One warm early spring evening in April 1779, Martha Ray went to the Covent Garden Theatre in London with her friend Caterina Galli. The latter was "a famous singer and music teacher"; the former was the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich (yes, that Sandwich), first lord of the Admiralty, "and had borne him nine children, of whom five were living." At the end of the evening's entertainment, as the two women prepared to leave the theater, they were accosted by James Hackman, a young minister:

"A figure in black dashed forward and pulled Ray by the sleeve; she turned to find herself face to face with Hackman. Before she could utter a word, he pulled . . . two pistols from his pockets, shot Ray with the one in his right hand, and shot himself with the other."

Ray, shot through the head, died instantly. Hackman's attempt at suicide was unsuccessful, but before the end of the month he had been found guilty of murder, taken from Newgate prison to Tyburn, and (according to a contemporary account) "launched into Eternity" by the hangman.

"These," John Brewer writes, "as far as I can tell, are the 'facts' of the murder by James Hackman of Martha Ray. . . . But what lay behind the murder? Why did he kill her? What was their relationship like? Was Hackman demented, or did he have understandable reasons to shoot her?"

Brewer raises those questions early in "A Sentimental Murder," but the purpose of the pages that follow is less to fill in the "facts" -- which, as becomes abundantly plain, simply aren't there to be filled in -- than to explore the ways in which the murder was used by various people for various purposes in late 18th-century England and by others in the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular he is interested in the 18th-century British press, which loved nothing more than sensation:

"These were tales of political corruption and moral depravity in high places, of male aristocratic debauchery, and of the growing power and influence of beautiful and intelligent women who used their charms for their own ends. This culture of scandal, propagated by the press, thrived on supposition, rumour, and speculation. It took 'the facts' and wove them into a variety of seamless narratives that opened up all sorts of possible interpretation. Such stories were designed to sell newspapers and magazines, attack the government, traduce and shame individuals, and settle personal scores."

The more it changes, you say, the more it remains the same? No, the 18th-century British press bore almost no resemblance to the press of today beyond the basic element of ink on paper. Newspapers -- which in London proliferated late in the century at an astonishing rate -- were partisan, biased and often merrily vicious: "The newspaper was not an authoritative organ, written by professionals to offer objective information to the public, but a place where public rumour, news, and intelligence could circulate as if it were printed conversation," all of which "created a climate of scandal and sensation."

This meant that newspapers then, even more than newspapers today, were ready targets for what we now call spin. In the initial stories, printed before Hackman's trial and execution, both he and Sandwich had reasons to portray Ray as an innocent victim rather than (as many believed, and as may have been the case) a promiscuous courtesan who had many lovers. Hackman wanted to blame Galli for inflaming his passions with rumors to that effect, while Sandwich did not want to be "ridiculed as an old roue cuckolded by a younger man."

As a result "the early newspaper reporting, strongly informed by the friends of Sandwich and Hackman, was remarkably free from acrimony and blame; it invited readers to sympathize with the victims, to understand their plight and, more generally, to interpret the sad events as a consequence of natural desires and feelings." It became "a sentimental story" that entirely conformed to "eighteenth-century sentimentalism, the understanding that people were first and foremost creatures of feeling, [which] considered sympathy as the key human quality."

That interpretation of the case became conventional wisdom for many years, even though, as Brewer elaborately explains, it conveniently ignored Sandwich's reputation (based in fact) as a libertine and Ray's status as a kept mistress. This conventional wisdom was solidified in 1780 with the publication of "Love and Madness: A Story Too True." It was "a story too true" because, as Brewer notes, it wasn't true, but this collection of 65 fictionalized letters between Hackman and Ray "rewrote the events of the previous April as a mutual but doomed romance, refigured a complex story with many voices as the tale of a single tortured sensibility driven to madness and . . . ensured a place in literary history for both Martha Ray and her killer."

That book, written by Herbert Croft, "a minor denizen of Grub Street who spent most of his life struggling to be a man of letters," occupied -- indeed, helped map out -- a territory we now know well: "a recognizable genre of works whose appeal lay in their effective crossing and re-crossing the boundaries between the genres of history and fiction." Croft "propounded a view of literary genius as an ability to convince readers of the truth in fiction," a view that has been widely held ever since and is, indeed, part of the bedrock upon which fiction as an art form rests.

The sentimental view of the case persisted until the Victorians took a look at it and pronounced the late 18th century, as William Makepeace Thackeray put it, a time of "awful debauchery and extravagance" and "dissoluteness." Victorian moralists, of whom there were many, seized the story as a way to contrast the degraded "moral state of English society at that period" with the state of moral grace into which the Victorians had elevated it. Never mind that simultaneously the case was used as fodder for a "growing body of literature [that] was eager to exploit every sensational crime" in cheap books known as penny-dreadfuls that were peddled to what we would now call the mass market.

Interpretations of the case changed again in the 20th century, Brewer argues, as, "seen through the sepia fog of the Victorian era, Georgian England appeared remote, glamorous, outwardly firm in its public principles yet inwardly marked by noble feelings and high passion: the perfect setting for a torrid romance, thrilling action or a dynastic saga." This is an interesting idea, but the literary examples Brewer cites are peripheral at best, and the chapter on the 20th century is the weak link in what is otherwise a well-wrought chain of argument.

Brewer closes by asking whether this story is, "in fact, the stuff of history," and by coming down on the side of those who insist that history isn't just politics, wars and government "but also society -- by which was meant all members of society."

Since for the moment the proponents of this "new" history clearly have won, this is unexceptionable. But "A Sentimental Murder" does provoke us to contemplate the complexities of historical truth, the subtle and often invisible workings of spin in history and in journalism, the interconnections of history and fiction, and one truth we too often overlook: "Writing history is a part of history."