Friday 7 April 2023

Forgotten Book - Sweet Adelaide

Sweet Adelaide, first published in 1980, was the second of Julian Symons' three Victorian mysteries. He'd deserted the contemporary scene to write The Blackheath Poisonings, which most people agree is the most successful of the trio. The plot of that book drew on elements of a famous real life crime. With Sweet Adelaide, Symons went much further. The eponymous Adelaide is Adelaide Bartlett, who was tried for the murder of her husband in 1886. Symons invents quite a lot of material, but most of the essentials are factual.

In an interesting afterword, he describes this as an 'experimental' novel, trying to cast light on a real life case by filling in the gaps - in this case, most particularly, the precise means by which Edwin Bartlett died. I realise with hindsight that when I wrote Dancing for the Hangman, I was doing something that is perhaps comparable, although in my novel, there was less invented material: I tried to be rigorous in sticking to the established facts, but also to use my imagination so as to try to see things from the point of view of Dr Crippen. For perfectly understandable reasons, Symons felt that he needed to bulk out his own story by introducing a range of elements of his own devising (for instance, an encounter with the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky). Some of these are definitely plausible, some less so.

When I first borrowed this book from a library, shortly after publication, I was very taken with it, partly because I wasn't familiar with the trial and I found his explanation of events interesting. As I've mentioned before, it's a story that casts light not only on the case itself, but on Victorian life. 

On reading the story again, I focused on trying to understand the techniques Symons employed in bringing the story to life. One of his key methods is to juggle timeframes. So we begin with the death of Edwin; then there is a long flashback about Adelaide's early life prior to her marriage. Another method is to juggle point of view. So we have some extracts from Adelaide's journal, but also scenes presented from the perspective of other people in the story, plus third person narrative, mostly but not entirely seen from Adelaide's point of view. 

I suspect that he used these methods to introduce variety and interest and also to help build suspense. After all, anyone who knows the case knows what happens at the trial (though Symons also adds an interesting coda, set in the US many years after the trial). My guess is that he was worried that the story might become a bit mundane if told in an entirely straightforward way. He does his best to solve that problem. 

It's clear that he did a huge amount of research into the case, and on my latest reading of the book, I found myself reflecting that perhaps he packed too much of it into the storyline, resulting in a slackening of tension. His prime concern was to explore Adelaide's psychology and I think this is done fairly well. However, there is quite a lot of medical/technical detail relating to Edwin's health and what precisely happened to him, and although that was crucial to the trial and its outcome, I felt that it slowed down the second half of the book. An interesting novel, certainly, but - for me - not a complete success on a second reading.    

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