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Book Review

Fabled Murder Case Gets a Retelling --and a New Ending

January 21, 2002|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DEATH AT THE PRIORY

Sex, Love, and Murder in

Victorian England

By James Ruddick

Atlantic Monthly Press

210 pages, $24

*

Although accounts of murders can be found as far back as the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis, the literary form of the murder mystery only began to flourish in the 19th century, the age of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle.

It may have had something to do with the establishment of regular police forces in cities such as London, and the emerging use of scientific methods to solve crimes. More important, perhaps, there's something very compelling about the contrast between the solid, orderly, eminently "respectable" edifice that the Victorians strove to project and the sudden intrusion of disorder, disgrace, sin and mayhem into such sedate lives.

The element of mystery lies in uncovering the secrets hidden below the surface.

The real-life mystery of the Charles Bravo case has fascinated generations of armchair sleuths. Everyone from Queen Victoria's physician, Sir William Gull (who ministered to the victim on his deathbed), to mystery writer Agatha Christie has had his or her own theory about whodunit and why.

Now adding his conjectures to the list is British journalist and television researcher James Ruddick in "Death at the Priory."

The scandalous story of Bravo's death by poison excited feverish interest at the time. Yet although it seemed clear that a murder had taken place, none of the likely suspects, indeed no one, was ever charged with the crime.

The 30-year-old dead man was a handsome, ambitious attorney with political aspirations. Only a few months before his death in April 1876, he had married Florence Ricardo, a wealthy, beautiful and young widow with a scandalous past.

From almost the start of their marriage, the couple did not get on: Bravo's domineering ways antagonized not only his wife but several of the servants, including Florence's trusted companion and housekeeper, Jane Cox, a genteel, resourceful, middle-age widow with three children to support.

And then there was the eminent doctor James Gully (not to be confused with the equally eminent doctor William Gull).

The kindly sexagenarian Gully had been Florence's lover before her marriage to Bravo, and he had entertained some hope of wedding Florence.

When Bravo collapsed onto his bed on the night in question, vomiting and writhing in pain, it was soon evident to the physicians called in that he had ingested poison. But was it suicide, an accidental overdose or murder?

As in a classic mystery novel, there were too many plausible suspects: an abused wife, her disappointed ex-lover and several disgruntled servants including the clever Mrs. Cox, who seemed exceedingly anxious to convince the doctors that Bravo had committed suicide.

But there was not enough hard evidence to prove that any of them had done it, and so, although a much-publicized inquest was held, no charges were filed.

Ruddick attacks his juicy subject with relish, taking us through the story step by step and providing richly colorful portraits of all the main characters, from Florence--spirited, headstrong, passionate and more than a little spoiled by her wealthy parents--to Bravo, possessed of intelligence, wit and a great zest for life, but also dictatorial, miserly and devious.

As Ruddick puts it, "He was the sort of man to whom your mind would instinctively turn when you were told that someone had been expelled from your club for cheating at cards."

When Bravo met Florence, she was the widow of an abusive if dashingly handsome guardsman who had driven her into the arms of the kindly Gully. Florence's love affair with Gully (a distinguished doctor whose patients had included Tennyson, Dickens and Gladstone) had brought scandal to them both, and the racy details of the story came out again at the inquest, creating an even bigger scandal.

Ruddick wants us to see Florence's story in the context of English Victorian culture. Florence, as he portrays her, was a victim of the times in which she lived when her craving for sexual fulfillment and her wish to do as she pleased with her own money were considered to be "unwomanly."

Stubborn enough to go after what she wanted, she was not unconventional enough to risk social ruin by joining herself to the sexually satisfying, proto-feminist but socially disgraced Gully. In marrying Bravo, she was trying to repair her reputation. In pursuing a woman who was "damaged goods," Bravo was most likely after her money. Their brief marriage was a war of wills between a domineering, politically conservative Victorian man and a hot-blooded woman determined to resist his domination.

Not surprisingly, Ruddick claims to have solved the mystery, helped in his task by new evidence he uncovered while interviewing descendants of the various principals, whom he managed to track down.

He makes a persuasive case that neatly ties up many a loose end.

Whether or not he has finally uncovered the truth, Ruddick has provided us with a highly plausible theory as well as a suspenseful and stimulating read.

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