Published by Penguin Ireland
Publication date – 23 February 2017
Source – review copy
A mysterious death in respectable society: a brilliant historical true crime story
In 1849, a woman called Ellen Langley died in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. She was the wife of a prosperous local doctor. So why was she buried in a pauper’s coffin? Why had she been confined to the grim attic of the house she shared with her husband, and then exiled to a rented dwelling-room in an impoverished part of the famine-ravaged town? And why was her husband charged with murder?
Following every twist and turn of the inquest into Ellen Langley’s death and the trial of her husband, The Doctor’s Wife is Dead tells the story of an unhappy marriage, of a man’s confidence that he could get away with abusing his wife, and of the brave efforts of a number of ordinary citizens to hold him to account. Andrew Tierney has produced a tour de force of narrative nonfiction that shines a light on the double standards of Victorian law and morality and illuminates the weave of money, sex, ambition and respectability that defined the possibilities and limitations of married life. It is a gripping portrait of a marriage, a society and a shocking legal drama.
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1849 and Mrs Langley, the doctor’s wife, is dead. But why had she been made to live in the attic of her home and why had she previously been sent to live in a poor part of town? The Doctor’s Wife is Dead follows the trial of Dr Langley and the reactions of family and friends to the treatment of Mrs Langley.
At first I wasn’t totally engaged with the book. There are many people to feature in the lives of Dr and Mrs Langley, and it was difficult to differentiate between family members, legal advisors and inquest jury members. In fact I started to read the book then put it to one side for a while. But I picked it up again and found that this time I wrapped up in the melancholy tale of a wife seemingly cast out by her younger husband.
There is a lot to find interesting in the book. The social morals and ideals of the 19th Century are more immediate when told by way of an actual family. The book manages to veer away from the salacious and whilst the author endeavours to remain impartial, the reader inevitably draws their own conclusions.
The story is just as much a treatise on domestic violence as it is an examination of the place in society women held in the 19th Century. Whilst there are many differences between then and now the tale of Dr and Mrs Langley is still as relevant today, sadly.
Dr Langley appears from the testimony of witnesses and from his own letters, to be a controlling, narcissistic man, who married his older wife for her money. He is conniving and deliberate in his treatment towards her. Whilst domestic abuse was prevalent in the 19th Century, laws were only just coming into being to protect women, and the burden of proof and social stigma attached to any such allegations was still high. Even by today’s standards the Langley case is shocking and sad, for contemporaries it would have been scandalous, the details of it even reaching Westminster.
This is an interesting look at a case that is both of it’s time and of the moment.