Reviewed by Karen Langley
The Thompson-Bywaters murder case (also known as “The Ilford Murder”) is notorious, but I think most of my previous knowledge of it comes from two sources: F. Tennyson Jesse’s magisterial fictional reworking of the story in A Pin to see the Peepshow; and reading about his journalistic dealings with the case in different volumes of autobiography by Beverley Nichols. The treatment of Edith Thompson by both of these authors was always empathic and sympathetic, and I expected to be predisposed to agree with Laura Thompson’s views on the case in this fascinating new book. What I hadn’t expected was to be quite so angry on Edith’s behalf or so emotionally affected.
The story is well known: Edith, married to the dull-but-safe Percy Thompson, fell madly in love with man eight years her junior, Freddy Bywaters. Freddy was known to the family, indeed had been since he was young, and had been going to sea as a merchant seaman. He was also, at one time, a lodger of the Thompsons, and appeared to be as obsessed with Edith as she was with him. In the early 1920s, however, despite women gaining the vote and the dawning of the ‘roaring’ decade, morals had not much changed. Particularly for a woman of Edith’s class, the concept of leaving your husband and seeking a divorce, especially for a man eight years younger, was unheard of and would have led to instant scandal and ostracisation.
So the affair was carried on clandestinely, mostly by letter with the occasional encounter, and Edith poured all her intense feelings into those letters. A passionate, flighty woman, with her head stuffed full of romantic novels and a yearning for something different, she put her soul into her words; and reading between the lines here, this had much to do with her allure and her ability to inspire devotion in Freddy, despite the fact that he was travelling the world aboard ship, which presumably brought many temptations.
Things came to a head at the end of 1922. Percy was aware of the affair and had already had a set-to with Freddy; Edith and Freddy had both asked Percy to divorce but he refused; and the lovers, particularly Edith, were desperate for freedom. On 3rd October 1922, as Edith and Percy travelled home from a show, Freddy ambushed them and in the following fracas stabbed Percy to death. And after a tortuous media-saturated trial, both Edith and Freddy were hanged for murder in January 1923. Which generates the obvious question – why on earth was Edith hanged when it was Percy who did the deed? The answer, as given by this ambitious and brilliant book, is that Edith was tried for her morals; because, as author Laura Thompson makes very clear, the evidence against her was flimsy, to say the least.
Of course, the 1920s were a time when forensics were basic; but the evidence, such as it was, definitely pointed to Freddy being the one with the knife and the one doing the stabbing. Nevertheless, Edith was tried alongside him, and the prosecution attempted to prove that she had incited Freddy; and also that she had previously tried to poison him or put glass in his food –which was disproved by a later exhumation. So what was it that condemned Edith Thompson? Quite simply, it was her letters to Freddy Bywaters. Unfortunately, the latter had failed to destroy them, and those writings – discursive, passionate, oblique, personal, full of Edith’s personality – were used to destroy her.
Laura Thompson has had access to a remarkable range of material, including previously unavailable Home Office files which were held under the 100 year rule and were opened prematurely; and in meticulous detail she demonstrates just how the prejudice of the judge (male), various authority figures (male) and the media (male) twisted the evidence against Edith – although to be fair, she was not popular with women either. As Laura Thompson demonstrates, the publicity circus around the case was like a modern-day Twitter storm; and public opinion, so malleable and easily influenced, was against Edith from the start. Unfortunately, a Twitter storm is nothing compared to the judgements meted out to Edith, who went to the gallows as a result. In this country we are meant to be guilty until proven innocent, but Edith was guilty before the trial even began.
Where the book is particularly is strong is putting Edith’s life in context; in these days of mod cons, we need to be reminded how restricted women’s lives were, how hard and gruelling simple daily existence was for a working or middle class woman, and how the controlling mores and codes were made by men, and in their favour. Edith suffered from horrendous, debilitating menstrual periods, never acknowledged; and the fact that she suffered domestic violence from Percy (ending up black and blue on one occasion) was not put into evidence, and would have made no difference anyway. This was a world which could not and would not recognise women’s sexuality and sexual needs, and Edith was very much out of her time. Even the fact that she was a working married woman, bringing in half the family income, engendered suspicion.
Laura Thompson has an individual, somewhat idiosyncratic writing style which might well be a slight issue for some readers. However, there was only the odd occasion when I felt this got in the way of her story, and she’s never anything less than a fierce advocate for Edith, bringing considerable insight to the woman, her life and her fate. She never glosses over what was done to Percy but recognises that he (and all concerned, really) handled the affair badly. In the end Edith was unsure of what she actually wanted; she was caught up in the romance of the affair and if it had been allowed to run its course it could well have come to a natural end and nobody would have died.
But when Edith Thompson fell in love with Freddy Bywaters she was in a state of receptivity so heightened, so complex, that there was scarcely a man on earth who could have really engaged with it. He came closest to what she craved, and so she allowed sexual attraction to become love, as people do, except that in this case love evolved through the letters, which were not the same as Bywaters himself.
At times I did wonder about the author’s repetitions of parts of the letters; but then I realised that there was method in Laura Thompson doing this as she intended to hammer home the point that they were the work of a fantasist with a grasshopper mind and, although oddly affecting as almost works of literature, really should not have been given the credence they were as evidence in the case against her. It is, by necessity, Edith who emerges as the strongest character in the whole business; few of Bywaters’ letters have survived, but as Laura Thompson points out, the kind of things he was saying can be inferred from Edith’s replies and they support the supposition that if there was a wish to kill Percy or any kind of plot, Freddy was just as much a mover and shaker in that as was Edith.
Rex v. Edith Thompson is utterly compelling and involving; I read it feeling as if I was living Edith’s life alongside her. There is a terrible inevitability as the story moves inexorably towards its brutal end, and the author discusses the rumours and the aftermath in sensible terms. A number of claims have been made, but at the very least it seems as though the authorities hanged a drugged and insensible woman. It beggars belief that in a so-called civilised country we were hanging people as late as 1964. Somewhat poignantly, Laura Thompson had access to a 1973 BBC documentary on the case which spoke to survivors from the time, including Edith’s sister and Beverley Nichols; the latter, as I’ve commented elsewhere, seems to have been haunted by the case and I rather wish the documentary was available for us ordinary folk to hear.
So, what do I think about Edith Thompson now? I think she was a complex, capricious, foolish, passionate, dreamer of a woman, full of fantasies and desperate for a different life to the one she could have within her class and the time in which she lived. Was she guilty of murdering her husband? No – she may have had some moral culpability in that she appeared to have previously encouraged her lover to violence, but the evidence was flimsy, the trial biased and she was convicted on morals not fact. Did she deserve to hang? Absolutely not. Hanging is barbaric anyway, but to send this woman to her horrible death with so little proof was the second murder in the book’s subtitle and I can’t help but agree with those campaigners who say Edith should be posthumously pardoned. Laura Thompson has written a stunning, passionate and unforgettable book which will hopefully bring some balance to the story of Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters; and also act as a reminder that the position of women in modern society is still one that often depends on man-made laws, rules and regulations; and is still subject to media moralisation.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and would fight to the death against the reintroduction of hanging. (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Laura Thompson, Rex V.Edith Thompson (Head of Zeus, 2018). ISBN 9781784082444, 440pp, hardback.
BUY from the Book Depository (affiliate link).