When I was little I loved to read.
I would read the back of cereal packets, road signs (even when we went to France and I didn’t understand what they said) and hundreds and hundreds of books.
As I’ve got older, I still love to read, but I’ve got significantly fussier. Reading tends to be something I now only have time to do for half an hour before bed, and I really want to make sure that book is creating the right level of relaxing escapism to leave me feeling all nice and cosy before I head off to sleep.
This has meant that I have developed a disturbing tendency to only read new books by certain authors I know I like (Bill Bryson, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, for example), and to revisit books on my kindle over and over again. All the while watching the collection of books I *mean* to read getting bigger and bigger, as I’m just not sure they’ll be right.
Todays book WAS in that pile, but not anymore!
Poison Panic was written by my friend Helen Barrell. She was a purveyor of gorgeous vintage frocks at Pin Up Parade, but these days she’s a respected author. This particular book is under True Crime>Murder on Amazon, and she has a second book on the way.
While she was researching Poison Panic I really enjoyed reading her Facebook updates on the exciting (and sometimes upsetting) stories she’d discovered, so I was really thrilled when she sent me a review copy.
Then Mr Chick stole it for ages and I thought I’d lost it. Then I found it and it sat on that pile beside my bed for ages until I finally picked it up. To be completely honest with you I worried I wouldn’t like it. I’ve tried reading historical books before and they’ve always been a dry litany of facts that have failed to hold my interest. So, despite avidly following Helen’s Facebook updates, I think I was a little worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my hopes.
I was wrong.
It’s the first book in ages that has grabbed me to the point where I couldn’t stop reading. I read it over 3 or 4 days and I can genuinely say I really didn’t want to put it down. I’m feeling a real sense of loss now I’ve finished it, so I hope Helen cracks on with her next book!
Poison Panic follows the stories of a wave of moral panics in the 1840s about female poisoners in Essex. The book follows the stories of 3 women in particular; Sarah Chesham, Hannah Southgate and Mary May; who were all accused and sent to trial for allegedly poisoning family members.
The stories are pieced together from newspaper reports, church register entries and contemporary documents. Far from being a dry relaying of facts Helen’s book really brings the stories to life. Being over 150 years ago sometimes these stories feel a little distant, but Helen has a knack of really bringing the tales in to sharp focus. I felt involved in the stories, and a real sense of how terrible it must have been to feel so powerless in the face of such terrible accusations. It’s also fascinating to read how the newspapers related the stories and think about how similar panics are reported today.
If I had one problem with the book its that there are an awful lot of names, and separate stories with characters that intertwine. Being the 1840s our cast of characters doesn’t involve a lot in the way of memorable names, there aren’t any Chardonnays living in rural Wix in 1845. This means that sometimes all the Sarah’s, William’s, Thomas’s and Mary’s can start to feel a little confusing. I occasionally flicked back through the book to remind myself who someone was. Then I realised I wasn’t cramming for an exam, and actually the flow of the story was such that if I wasn’t sure of an exact relationship it didn’t really matter and I could still follow the fates of the Women in the stories.
Helen also has personal connections to many of the stories through relatives that were close friends or neighbours of some of the accused. This personal touch peppered throughout the book i rather nice. It adds a present day anchor to be able to follow those timelines through. It also made me realise that I don’t think I have a clue where any of my family were in the 1840s. Would you know if a long ago relative had been on trial for murder by poisoning?
If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for someone who’s a true crime fan, or if you just fancy a good book to curl up with and want to feel like you’re learning stuff (because this is actual HISTORY, it’s educational) then I really recommend this book. It’s not the sort of thing I would normally chose for myself, but I’m so glad it made it off of the “should read” pile.