‘Lucretia Borgia or only a boarding school miss’?

Author and literary critic Lesley McDowell.Lesley McDowell is an author and literary critic based in Glasgow. She has reviewed for several newspapers, including the Herald, Scotsman, Independent on Sunday and the Times Literary Supplement, and is the author of three books: novels The Picnic (2007) and Unfashioned creatures (2013) as well as a work of non-fiction, Between the Sheets: the Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers, which was shortlisted for non-fiction at the 2011 Scottish Book Awards. She is the recipient of two Creative Scotland writing awards, and has been writer-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library.

Lesley has just completed a novel about Madeleine Smith, and shares with us here the story of Madeleine’s case.


To some newspapers who covered her trial, she was ‘an abnormal spirit’, ‘unchaste, unwomanly and immoral in the extreme’. She was the indication of a larger social ill, of ‘unsuspected dramas’ going on under ‘the calm and decorous aspect of society’. Jane Carlyle called her ‘a little incarnate devil’ and George Lewes, the partner of George Eliot, thought her ‘utterly bad’.

The judge summing up her case found her actions little better than those of a ‘common prostitute’, and when her sexually explicit letters were read out in court, one publication asked ‘in doubt, is the writer a woman?’ Was she ‘a Lucretia Borgia or only a boarding school miss’?

Madeleine Smith’s trial for the murder of her lover, Emile L’Angelier, in 1857, combined those twin Victorian obsessions, sex and death, in a way that not only led to questions about womanhood in general, but about the whole fabric of society.

This was the period when John Ruskin and Coventry Patmore handed responsibility for the morals of a generation over solely to women, in their publications Sesame and Lilies and An Angel in the House. They gave women an unprecedented domestic power which translated, inevitably and paradoxically, into an unprecedented anxiety about what might be going on in the home under their care.

Madeleine Smith’s case, one might say, took that anxiety and ran with it: it’s easy to see how, at the time, some may truly have considered her as dangerous a woman as Lucretia Borgia, reputed poisoner and murderess.

At the time of her trial, daughter of a wealthy Glasgow architect Madeleine Smith was twenty-two years old. She had been having a clandestine affair with the thirty-four-year old Jersey-born clerk, Emile L’Angelier, for two years. They wrote many passionate letters to one another, including details about the moment they first had sex, which was in the gardens at the Smith summer residence at Row, near Helensburgh.

When Madeleine became engaged to another man, William Minnoch, and tried to break off her relationship with Angelier, however, her lover threatened to show these explicit letters to her father. Madeleine, after fruitlessly begging him to return her letters to her and not to expose her to her father (who, she said, would throw her out of the house), made three purchases of arsenic during February and March of 1857. Shortly after her third purchase on the 18th of March, L’Angelier died of arsenic poisoning.

An accusation of murder was bad enough (even for the middle-class daughter of an architect. As one newspaper pointed out, ‘Had Madeleine Smith been Peggy Smith of the Old Wynd or Goosedubs, without worth or influence at her back to defend her…’). But what really caused horror among commentators was the production of the letters Madeleine had written to L’Angelier throughout their long affair. Not only did they pay witness to a young woman having sex before marriage, as well as her feeling free enough to write about it, but they told also us how much she enjoyed it.

Three cardinal sins in one.

The only way that Victorian society could absorb this enormous threat to the mores of the time was to cast L’Angelier as a seducer, the corrupter of a young woman’s morals. In doing so, it also made him strangely safe: he became a stock ‘cad’ and a ‘bounder’, and more than a few newspapers indulged in xenophobia about his French parentage. The innocent daughters of wealthy British men had to be protected from such unscrupulous individuals!

When it was further revealed how L’Angelier would tap the railings outside Madeleine’s basement bedroom window in Glasgow’s Blythswood Square to be let in, it was clear that not every man’s home was his castle, impregnable and protective, at all.

What few dared to ask at the time, though, was how typical, or atypical, Madeleine’s behaviour was for a woman of her class and time.

It was too dangerous a question to ask.

For what if all the middle-class young women, the mothers of future generations of the Empire, let us not forget, were in fact promiscuous, sexually experienced sluts? What if these future paragons of the home were really no better than ‘common prostitutes’?

Madeleine’s real danger to Victorian society lay in just that issue. Was she an anomaly, or was she a reflection of what was happening, unseen and unsuspected, behind far too many closed doors?

Madeleine’s letters can seem surprisingly modern to us now, in many ways. She was gossipy about her sister, Bessie’s flirting, for instance (‘I shall do all I can to prevent my sister being fast…At one time we tried to make ourselves conspicuous and we liked to be talked of by gentlemen…Bessie still likes to be talked of’). Only a few months after they first met, she was gushing to L’Angelier like any excited teenage girl today (‘I love you with all my heart and soul.’) When she claimed that she had told her father about L’Angelier, and that he had forbidden their meeting again, she wrote in an almost comically overwrought, self-sacrificing style to him, ‘Get married. You will never get one who will love you as I have done. I must banish your image from my heart.’

Many women today may recognise the rashness of young love. They may also recognise manipulation and emotional blackmail. Many of Madeleine’s letters are clear responses to L’Angelier’s injunctions about her behaviour. For instance, when she writes, ‘Once married, I shall be beside you, so if I do anything wrong, and you check me, I shall never, never do it again…’. She also tries to placate him: ‘I shall never cause you unhappiness again. Yes, I shall behave now more to your mind…’. And she puts herself down, to make him feel better: ‘You do not flatter me as others do – you tell me when I am wrong, I love you for this. It is a kindness to me’.

Much of this occurs after their moment in the gardens at Row in June 1856. This event is undoubtedly what shocked the judge the most at her trial, more than even the possibility she had poisoned a man. For she wrote frankly, after their meeting in the gardens, ‘I did not bleed in the least last night, but I had a good deal of pain during the night.’ She had already referred to bleeding in a previous letter, and she was clearly not at all ashamed of having had sex with him: ‘Beloved, if we did wrong,’ she said, ‘it was in the excitement of our love…’ But then she wondered if he would think less of her: ‘Tell me, pet,’ she asked, ‘were you angry at me for allowing you to do what you did? Was it very bad of me? We should, I suppose, have waited till we were married.’ In case that was pushing things too far, she quickly added, ‘I will always remember last night.’

Her letter was in stark contrast to L’Angelier’s reply. Although he was just as physically explicit as she was, he used it as an excuse to judge her, to cast aspersions on her purity: ‘I do not understand, my pet, your not bleeding. For every woman having her virginity must bleed. You must have done so some other time. Try to remember if you ever hurt yourself in washing, etc…’ He was ‘sad’, he claimed, at what they had done, and blamed her for that, too: ‘Why, Mimi, did you give way after your promises?’, making a veiled threat: ‘My pet, it is a pity. Think of the consequences if I were never to marry you…’

Although he did blame himself in part, L’Angelier also stressed that what they had done together now made them indisputably husband and wife, which was designed to control Madeline, whilst also thrilling her, in spite of the threat he had just made. He gave and took away, gave and took away, regularly in his letters. And in this one there was a very real sting in the tail for the sexually free Madeleine: the daughter of his friends, the Seaverights was, he said in the same letter where he excoriated her for ‘giving way’ to him, ‘a perfect lady…such an accomplished young person’. He longed, he said, to introduce her to Madeleine, so that she could see what a first-rate young woman was.

As the relationship continued, Madeleine alternated between trying to placate an increasingly irate L’Angelier, and goading him for his many criticisms of her conduct and demands that she see no-one, talk to no-one. When she finally broke it off – long gaps between their meetings seem to have contributed to her cooling towards him as much as anything. It is noticeable how re-energised she was about the affair just after she had seen him (‘My nightdress was on when you saw me. Would to God that you had been in the same attire’), but when days passed without a meeting, she lost interest – he made his threat to expose her letters to her father.nMadeleine didn’t keep L’Angelier’s letters – the few that exist are copies he made and kept for himself.

This threat – which Madeleine clearly believed he was capable of carrying out – produced the most extraordinary response in her. Desperate, terrified (‘Emile, do not drive me to death’) she sent the houseboy, William, to buy prussic acid (a substance associated often with suicides – Eleanor Marx would kill herself in years to come with prussic acid when her partner, Edward Aveling left her).

Then the arsenic purchases began.

When the judge summed up her case, he reflected on the letters written after Madeleine and L’Angelier had had sex. ‘In that letter is there the slightest appearance of grief, of repentance, or of remorse? None whatever. It is a letter of a girl rejoicing in what had passed, and alluding to it in one passage in particular in terms which I will not read, for perhaps they were never previously committed to paper as having passed between a man and a woman.’ He states that ‘there could be no doubt of the state of degraded and unholy feeling into which she had sunk…’

The judge’s shock at Madeline’s sexual behaviour would be replayed by novelists who took up their pens and scribbled the ‘sensation fiction’ of the 1860s and 1870s, when Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon would portray husband-killers, poisoners, adulteresses and bigamists. Armadale’s Lydia Gwilt (partly based on Madeleine Smith) and Lucy Graham of Lady Audley’s Secret were sexually free women, unashamed and wicked. They were an important counterpoint to the pure, innocent heroines that had prevailed for so long, but reviewers were appalled and Armadale sold badly when it was published in volume form in 1866.

It was too crucial to society at the time, that women like Madeleine Smith should be seen as anomalies. And that view has persisted, in the wake of a lack of diaries and letters from young Victorian women that might speak of possible sexual experiences.

In the way that today, we warn young women about naked ‘selfies’ on mobile phones that can end up on the internet, Madeleine’s public treatment over her letters would have warned any young woman conducting a clandestine affair not to put too much in writing. If young Victorian women were more sexually aware and sexually experienced than we imagine today that they were, then the evidence to prove it has probably long since been destroyed.

The values of an Empire had to be maintained; women who were a danger to that enterprise had to be isolated as ‘Lucretia Borgias’, she-devils in disguise.

Or they had to be destroyed.

The miracle of Madeleine Smith is, of course, that thanks to a verdict of ‘Not Proven’, this dangerous woman survived. Whether she was the only one of her time, isolated in her sexual attitudes and practice as we have long been led to believe, we cannot yet know.