Writing v Researching: two lives of Constance Kent

On the morning of 30 June 1860, a servant discovered the body of a little boy in the outside privy at Road Hill House in Wiltshire (now in Somerset), his throat cut.

Francis Savill Kent was 3 years old.  He was the son of Samuel Savill Kent, a factory inspector, and his second wife, Mary Drewe Pratt.  Mary had been governess to Samuel’s older children, and the couple had begun an adulterous relationship during the first Mrs Kent’s lifetime.  When she died, they married, and Francis was their second child.

The mysterious murder set Victorian society aflutter.  Some murders attract more attention than others, and the murder of little Francis hit all the right buttons: the death of an innocent child; a deeply dysfunctional middle class family; an increasingly literate general public with a thirst for gossipy scandal; and a new detective unit at Scotland Yard, that was called in by the local magistrates after the Wiltshire police got nowhere with the investigation.

The detective sent from London, Jonathan Whicher, had his suspicions, as did the magistrates, but they were unable to crack the wall of silence within Road Hill House, apparently instigated by Samuel Savill Kent.

English: contemporary portrait of child-murder...

Contemporary portrait of child-murderess Constance Kent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, 5 years later, Francis’s half-sister Constance confessed, claiming that at the age of 16, she and she alone had killed her little brother. Most murderers in 1860s England were hanged, and Constance must have expected that fate, but she had experienced a religious conversion, and this seems to have been the motivation behind her confession. Instead, her sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment, served variously in Salisbury, Millbank, Parkhurst, Woking and Fulham prisons.

On her release in 1885, Constance migrated to Australia, and proceeded to reinvent herself.  Her full name was Constance Emily Kent, and she now called herself Emily (or Emilie) Kaye.  Born 6 February 1844, she kept the same birthday, but took 5 years off her age when applying for jobs, though by the time she died, on 10 April 1944, she had reclaimed her old birth date (and been hailed as a centenarian in the local newspapers).

Many, many books have been written about the Road House Murder since 1860.  This is about just 2.

Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale published The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House (London, Bloomsbury) in 2008.  It has been very successful.  It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008, and was made into a telemovie in 2011.  Another ‘Mr Whicher’ film– this time entirely fictional – was made this year.

Noeline Kyle: A Greater Guilt

A year after Summerscale’s book came out, Noeline Kyle published A Greater Guilt: Constance Emilie Kent and the Road Murder (Brisbane, Boolarong, 2009). Kyle had already encountered ‘Emilie Kaye’ while researching an honours thesis on industrial and reformatory schools in New South Wales, without at that time knowing who ‘Emilie’ was.  In her book she summarizes the standard accounts of Francis’s murder and Constance’s confession, but she concentrates on what happened next.  She has gone through Constance Kent’s 20-year prison record, and her subsequent life in New South Wales, where she trained as a nurse and worked in hospitals, industrial schools and for a while running a sanitarium in the Blue Mountains.  Kyle also looks at Constance’s brother William Saville Kent and her half-sisters, Mary Amelia, Eveline and Florence, all of whom emigrated to Australia as well, and at the interactions – or not – amongst these ill-assorted siblings.

Two books, one story. Through sheer accident, I read both of them relatively close together, and they offer a fascinating contrast, it seems to me, that has a broader relevance to academic historians.

Kate Summerscale is by far the better writer, and her book is much better edited. Bloomsbury has money to invest in its writers – it published Harry Potter, after all! – and it has put effort into publicity and presentation. Although Summerscale doesn’t really add much to the Road House corpus, for most readers her book will be their introduction to the topic.  Her book is ‘true crime’ writing, building a narrative with strong characterization – so strong, that Mr Whicher can be brought out again to solve an entirely fictional crime in a second televisual case.

Noeline Kyle is a far better researcher. She is a successful public historian who has written several of the standard works on family history in Australia. She has used her research skills to track Constance’s life after prison, gone through the archives and visited locations here and in England, and talked to earlier researchers and descendants of the family.

Kyle doesn’t have Summerscale’s narrative flair though.  Her writing can be clunky, and there are lots of typos.  It’s very clear that Boolarong Press in Brisbane couldn’t supply the sort of professional editorial help that Bloomsbury provided for Summerscale.

Both books are worth reading, for their different perspectives.  Ultimately, the professional writer has produced a more finished product than the professional historian.  That’s a shame, for in A Greater Guilt, Kyle had a lot to add to our knowledge of Constance Kent.  But nobody is going to make it into a telemovie any time soon.  The Road House Murder may still fascinate the general public – just Google it to see for yourself – but most people will learn about it through Kate Summerscale’s ‘good read’ and telemovie, rather than through Noeline Kyle’s book, however doggedly researched.

It’s also a pity that a respectable old lady’s 55 worthy years in nursing in Australia will never attract as much attention as one mysterious night of bloody murder and mayhem (apparently) by a 16-year-old girl.

PS. While most of the mistakes in Kyle’s book are simply typos, there is one serious mistake.  Constance’s brother William had a distinguished career in Australia as a marine biologist.  Kyle says that while working at the British Museum, he was supported ‘by wealthy and influential fellows of the scientific community, including the notable and well-respected Aldous Huxley’ (156), but his patron was not Aldous, but his grandfather, Thomas Huxley.

T.H.Huxley was assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake, which did a hydrographic survey in Australian waters between 1847-50.  He met his future wife in Sydney. Huxley spent his time on board researching marine animals.  He was particularly interested in marine invertebrates, and he may well have influenced William Saville Kent’s decision to emigrate to Australia in 1884, a year before Constance left prison. In which case, Huxley may be ultimately responsible for Constance’s decision to migrate to Australia too.

2 responses to “Writing v Researching: two lives of Constance Kent

  1. I haven’t read the books you mentioned in this review I agree that some historians need to improve their writing. It is so sad to read books filled with fabulous research but a chore to read. Historians are communicators as well as researchers. It is a difficult combination and made more difficult when an historian has to write for an academic audience. The synopsis of Kyle’s book on the publisher’s website describes it as scholarly/popular. However, I don’t understand why academic historical writing should be less enticing to read than writing for the general public.

    The best combination of good writing and thorough research I have read this year is Kitty’s War by Janet Butler and published by University of Queensland Press. I couldn’t put the book down and at the same time learned a lot about using diaries as a historical source.

    I would like to see historians taught how to communicate to a variety of audiences through a variety of media during their undergraduate years as it seems too many are lacking in this area.

    • Hi Perkinsy – agree, the two aspects, research and writing, don’t have to be oppositional, and it’s sad that they so often are. I wish we were taught more about how to write – university courses tend to concentrate on ‘creative writing’, which is largely irrelevant, but there are ways of structuring good nonfiction, building up character and narrative – Dava Sobel in Longitude is a classic example – and I’d love to see more history writing like this.

      I read your review of Kitty’s War. It sounds terrific, and I must read it.

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