The Magazine

The Butler Didn't Do It

A Victorian Murder, Solved.

Feb 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 21 • By SUSAN BALEE
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Had Florence not craved acceptance by her social peers, she might have lived out her days quietly at the Priory, a widow staring down scandal until time and her good behavior could succeed in recouping her respectability, just as they ultimately do for Mrs. Catherick in Collins's "The Woman in White." But Florence didn't have that kind of patience; she couldn't bear life without a man, without the propriety marriage conferred on a woman. So she entered the orbit of Charles Bravo, a rising young barrister, with the help of Mrs. Cox, who had once worked for the Bravos and could therefore make introductions. Bravo was talented and handsome, and Florence was so taken with the respectability he represented that she was willing to overlook the troubling aspects of her suitor, not least among them the fact that he was well known for his "greed and penury." This should have been clear to her when she confessed her affair with Gully so he would hear it from her before he heard it from someone else. As Ruddick rightly notes, "No man of Charles Bravo's background would consider marrying a woman who had just confessed to aborting a pregnancy during an adulterous affair with a sixty-seven-year-old man unless he was chiefly interested in her money." When Florence invoked her right to keep her fortune (the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 prevented husbands from assuming their wives' assets), Bravo nearly called the wedding off. Only when Florence agreed to make a will benefiting him in the event of her death and leasing him the Priory in her lifetime did Bravo consent to take her hand. The marriage was ill-omened from the start, and it quickly mushroomed into something insupportable. Bravo insisted on control of the household finances, firing servants to save money and urging Florence to give up her horses and garden. When she remonstrated, Bravo took out his anger in the bedroom.

When each of her two pregnancies with him ended in a serious miscarriage that undermined her health, he made it clear that he would keep trying until they produced a son. All of this, and more, came out in the coroner's inquest, but the case against any one suspect could not be proved, in part because Florence Bravo and Mrs. Cox supported each other--and in part because the servants banded together against the local police inspector. Indeed, the wealth of the Bravo household kept Chief Inspector Clarke at arm's length. A policeman's entrance into the home to investigate a murder was seen as an invasion of the family's rights, which is why, probably, there are so many inept and ill-at-ease detectives in nineteenth-century fiction. Perhaps the best known is Sergeant Cuff, the hapless policeman assigned to the case in Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone," a novel based on the 1860 Road Murder, when upper-class Constance Kent was cleared of charges that she had murdered her younger stepbrother and then, five years later, confessed to the crime. In the Kent case, the real-life Inspector Whicher suspected her but was overridden. In "The Moonstone," Cuff is fired for his presumption. IT'S NO WONDER that Clarke could not solve the Bravo case when all the principals were so resolutely shut against him--nor is it surprising that an amateur detective from a higher class, James Ruddick, could do so over one hundred years later when the descendants of these same people gave him access to their private documents. Ruddick's "Death at the Priory" is a marvelous read, revealing a world where respectability sometimes covered a variety of disreputable secrets. Though never officially charged with her husband's death, Florence Bravo drank herself to death in 1878. Unlike Madeleine Smith, she could not leave the scandal of her past behind her. And as for her husband's murderer--ah, well, for that, you'll have to read the book. A writer in Philadelphia, Susan Balee is the author of articles on Wilkie Collins, M.E. Braddon, Oscar Wilde, and Victorian culture.