Trigger warning for psychological abuse.
In 1873, Mary Ann Cotton was executed for the murders of her husbands and several of her children by arsenic. The sheer number of Cotton’s victims and her seeming callousness toward all of the deaths in her life horrified Victorian Britons. She was all over the broadsheets. She is all over Marjorie DeLuca’s novel, The Savage Instinct, too, although it is narrated by the much less murderous Clara Blackstone. As Clara tells her story—and hears Cotton tell hers—we see how the label of madness gets slapped on any woman whose behavior takes her outside of the narrow confines of acceptable Victorian womanhood.
When we meet Clara Blackstone, she is in a very fragile state. She has just been released from a stint in an ostensibly genteel asylum for women (which was preceded by a turn in the much less civilized Bedlam). At first, all we know is that Clara has suffered at the hands of the doctors’ barbaric treatments and that her latest doctor does not believe she has any mental illness. It’s only after her release that we learn how Clara ended up in those asylums in the first place. Her husband, Henry, used the excuse of Clara’s “outburst” after the stillbirth of their child to lock her up. Now that she’s out, it seems like Clara will always bear the stigma of her time in the asylums; everything she does is labeled as a possible sign that her “madness” is returning.
At the urging of her husband’s new friends and to escape the suffocation of staying stuck in her room at home, Clara begins to visit the prison in Durham. Clara and other women of her class can talk to the prisoners under the guise of ministering to the women—although Clara uses it to sate her newfound fascination with Mary Ann Cotton. Clara’s return home happens under the cover (so to speak) of Cotton’s arrest and pre-trial imprisonment. Everyone is too busy gossiping and speculating about Cotton to be gossiping and speculating about Clara. Clara has her own ideas about Cotton, so she takes advantage of the prison visits to talk to a woman who appears to have the bravery to murder the men in her life who would use her. That bravery is incredibly attractive to Clara.
The Savage Instinct is not a relaxing read. I don’t think I unclenched after the first few pages. I knew a little bit about Cotton’s eventual fate from my interest in true crime, but I had no idea what would happen with Clara. Every time Clara seemed to get a leg up on her husband’s schemes, there’s a twist that turns everything around again. Would she be able to thwart her husband’s evil plans? Would she be able to get away? What price would she have to pay to break free? Underneath all of this wonderful dramatic tension is the frequently horrifying theme of pre-code of ethics psychology and a medical-legal system that was far too willing to certify inconvenient people insane to get them out of the way.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.