Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers.
A murder case and an old bird: Inspiration for The Promise Keeper
As an author, finding inspiration is a big deal! Ideas don’t always spring to mind randomly. There are many things, such as a snippet of an overheard conversation, a local news story, or an old family tale which can provide a starting point for a story. For my historical novels, I love reading accounts of real life crimes, and The Promise Keeper was inspired by one such account.
I found it whilst reading, Bedside Book of Murder: fifty chilling stories – all true, which my mum bought me for Christmas one year (she knows me well!). It was called The Horror of the Stauntons, and truly, it was horrific. You will find some similarities with Mary and Tom in my novel and the real life people: Harriet, the rich spinster who could have violent temper tantrums; Louis Staunton, the young, good-looking clerk searching for his fortune. I have cherry-picked bits of information from this account and created my own story about jealousy, madness, and heartbreak. I have to say, I found Louis Staunton and the people who colluded with him utterly unforgivable in what they did to Harriet, and so most of my own tale is completely different to what really happened.
The Staunton Case
Harriet was considered somewhat 'simple' (how they used to describe people with learning difficulties at the time). She had inherited several thousands of pounds from a great-aunt, making her a rich woman. Louis Staunton was an auctioneer's clerk and almost ten years Harriet's junior and was introduced to her through a friend of the family. In no time at all, they were engaged to be married. Her mother (her father had died when she was 12) objected to the marriage, and tried to have Harriet declared a lunatic. As you can imagine, this did not go down too well with Harriet, and Harriet subsequently banned her mother from visiting, thus isolating herself and condemning herself to Louis' dreadful plans.
In 1875, Louis and Harriet married. It is unclear whether Harriet was aware that her husband was having an affair (and had been doing so long before he met Harriet) with 15 year old Alice Rhodes, yet, in 1876 Harriet gave birth to a son. Not long after this, Harriet and her child were sent to Kent to live with Louis' brother and step-sister (who also happened to be Alice's sister – it was a family affair). There, she and the baby were confined to one small room and kept in there through threats of violence. One can only imagine the horror Harriet must have endured, as each day she became thinner and dirtier, whilst her husband lived with his mistress in another house.
By early 1877, the baby was so ill that he was taken by Harriet's captors to Guy's Hospital where, later that day, he died. Less than a week later, Harriet was sent to a lodging house in Penge (the Stauntons did not want to deal with her body in their house, so it seemed) and the next day she was dead.
Accounts vary as to who questioned the real reason for Harriet's death, which had been originally labelled as 'cerebral disease' or 'apoplexy', but an inquest was subsequently held. Her body was found to be severly malnourished and infested with lice, and the cause of death was then recorded as 'starvation and neglect'. Harriet weighed only five stone four pounds.
At the Old Bailey, all of the Stauntons and Alice Rhodes were tried for Harriet's murder. Their defecnce argued Harriet's malnourishment was due to alcoholism. Medical testimony was also presented which stated that the victim had died from meningitis and tuberculosis. Nevertheless, as ladies looked on with their opera glasses and sipped champagne, the four defendants were found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Alas, this was not to be their end. Following the verdict a letter was published in The Lancet, signed by seven hundred physicians protesting about the way that expert medical evidence had been ignored. They claimed the judge had exhibited bias against the accused. A campaign against the verdict began, the case was reviewed, and ultimately, none of them died for their crime. Alice Rhodes was pardoned and released immediately, while the sentences of the other three were commuted to life imprisonment. Louis Staunton was released in 1897, still protesting his innocence, and emigrated to Australia.
The Wise Old Owl
The Convenient Women Collection is also inspired by nursery rhymes. For The Promise Keeper, the nursery rhyme is The Wise Old Owl. This is a very loose inspiration, but there is a connection.
An owl is patient. It waits and listens for its prey. This nursery rhyme is all about listening, but listening to what? I play with the idea of eavesdropping, of being nosey, of being suspicious, of tensions building because no one says what they really mean. What happens when the truth is never spoken? Who is waiting and biding their time?
For many years, the owl was viewed as a sinister creature as it hunts at night. They were thought to be witches' familiars too. You will see the connection between witches and night-time terrors when you read the novel.
The first few ideas for a novel are always exciting. There are so many possibilities!
If you know of a true crime case from the Victorian era, please let me know. I am always on the lookout for inspiration and would love to hear from you!
And if you want to read The Promise Keeper, click here.
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