Earlier this year I bought The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson mostly on the back of this great review by Susan at A Life in Books. I do love a fictionalised retelling of a real life story and this, an exploration of infamous Lord Lucan affair, told from the point of view of the nanny really appealed to me. It nearly made it on to my 20 Books of Summer list but I knew that I wanted to concentrate on books from the 746, so was delighted to find that I had a copy of one of Dawson’s earlier books – Fred & Edie – which is another retelling of an infamous crime.
In December 1922 Edith Thompson, an intelligent, stylish, lower-middle class woman who was married, with a large house and a well paid job in a milliner`s shop, was charged, tried and sentenced to death for conspiring with her young lover Frederick Bywaters to murder her husband, Percy.
Percy was stabbed to death in the street while walking home from the theatre with Edith. The trial which followed was a sensation, playing out in front of massive crowds at the Old Bailey, and captured the public and press’s imagination thanks to the lurid and dramatic events leading up to the murder – an illicit love affair, a back-street abortion, and a strange domestic set-up – Freddie was Percy and Edith’s lodger and was also seeing Edith’s sister Avis.
Dawson’s narrative is told through fragments of letters, actual newspaper and doctor’s reports and a necessary amount of poetic license to create a striking portrait of a unique woman. The novel opens shortly after Edie’s arrest and is told – for the most part – in an epistolatory style, through the letters Edie writes to Freddie – her ‘darlint’. Initially, the reader is presented with a woman who fully believes that she will be exonerated. This may well have been the case had Freddie not kept all the letters that Edie had written him over the course of their relationship, which ultimately proved damning to the pair and were key in both receiving the death penalty.
What Dawson does well here is not so much ask us to sympathise with a woman whose passion overran her sense, but to attempt to understand her. Edie is blinded by her love for Freddie and genuinely feels that they will be able to have a life together. She is presented as an Emma Bovary type figure whose need to live life to the fullest ends up being her own downfall. Edie senses that the murder of her husband is not the only thing she is on trial for, but that her very intelligence and independence (she earned more money than her husband) are what seems so unacceptable to society.
I can’t shift the sense I have (I had it again today, listening to the metallic tones of the Solicitor-General reading out my letters, the emphasis he put on certain words, his raised eyebrow and tone at certain phrases) that my letters, the wording of my letters, the very way I express myself, is on trial. The books I have read, the kind of picture shows and theatres that I went to, all are on trial. But this is the only language I have! These are the conversations I’ve had, the education I’ve had, the words I’ve drunk in since babyhood, the expressions I was raised on – how can it be otherwise? Something about me is wrong, I know that, I sense that.
Fred and Edie insightfully explores the tensions between private narrative and public discourse and between fact and fiction. The novel is a thoughtful portrait of a woman caught not only by her own acts, but by the strictures and expectations of the era in which she lived and of her flawed attempt to drive her own destiny.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 264
Number Remaining: 482
20 Books of Summer: 2/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!