Review: The Unrespectable Woman by Roger Griffin
At the heart of this fictionalised account of a troubling true “crime” in Edwardian Cardiff is the stigmatizing of the mothers of illegitimate children, the unmarried maidservant or factory worker who would face the indignant wrath of society:
Society sniffs up its nose and the baby has to conveniently disappear as if it’s a bad smell. The mother is desperate, the shame overwhelming and so what does she do? She may valiantly struggle to raise it on her own but too often babies are victims of infanticide, concealment or given to so-called baby farmers who for payment ensure they wither on the vine.
Leslie James was one such “baby-farmer,” a woman who would take such a cash payment in exchange for an infant from a shamed or desperate mother. There was one she accepted before leaving it outside the local Salvation Army. But then there was the newly born infant she wrapped up tightly in a shawl who promptly died. That sad act is the fulcrum on which this novel about class and prejudice turns.
Roger Griffin’s novel paints a portrait of a woman whose life was increasingly tough. Her own children were taken away from her after the sudden death of her marine engineer husband after which she took took to drink. Life improved for a while when she moved in with a cobbler in Pontypool but that stability proved to be short-lived.
One of the few dependable, indeed sober friends Leslie has in the novel is Hettie Mackenzie, a professor of education at Cardiff’s university college and a suffragette, who visits the doomed woman in her prison cell as she awaits her execution for murder. She is one of the many people who petition the Home Secretary for clemency in the weeks leading up to Leslie’s hanging.
The reader of this book faces a good few moral quandaries and questions as the male-only jurors decides Leslie’s fate in a court full of men, from presiding judge downwards. Society is weighted against Leslie right from the off and what might have been considered a case of manslaughter, based on the evidence presented to the coroner’s court upticks to murder with a dread swiftness. It is however as if the reader has to decide whether or not to forgive Leslie for her actions, to agree with the court’s verdict.
But as the fateful hour draws ever nearer, and the novel widens its focus to include the prison wardresses and governor, H B Le Masurier the stubborn Home Secretary, pushed for time, who insists that the case for clemency be made in front of him in his 11, Downing St office in a minute. A single minute to plead for a woman’s life.
As you might imagine the closing chapters are very much concerned with time, indeed with urgent, brief, terrible time. The date of the execution, set for exactly three weeks after the death sentence is handed down. The fifteen seconds it takes for the death penalty to be delivered, on a day which happens to be Leslie’s 40th birthday. The hour that has to elapse between the hanging and the doctor’s confirmation of the death.
For many readers this will be tough reading, not least the details of the noose and the trapdoor; the payments made, in money and beer to the executioners, in this case the most famous one in Britain, Henry Pierrepoint, whose taste for drink prematurely ended his career.
A good deal of research has gone into The Unrespectable Woman, so there are lots of little period details such as the brylcreemed hair and the people drinking Mackeson and eating faggots and peas. The books weaves newspaper accounts into the novelistic narrative, shoring up the believability of the tragic story at its sad heart.
It’s a world of commercial travellers and a city booming but one where women have so many battles still to win. Those gains come too late for Leslie – who has a plethora of other names – as does the Criminal Appeals Act, which might have saved her life, not least because of the porous nature of the case against her, and the way in which opinions of her as ‘dishonest, indecent and untrustworthy’ seem weightier than the actual, demonstrable facts about the case.
But choosing to tell Leslie’s story as a fiction unshackles her in a sense, allowing her to walk with head unbowed the short, short distance to the end of her testingly troubled life.
The Unrespectable Woman by Roger Griffin is published by FeedARead.com Publishing and is available to buy here.
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