Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson

I really enjoyed this novel.

Based on real the real lives of Frederick Bywaters and Edith Thompson who were convicted of murdering Edith’s husband in 1922, Jill Dawson uses newspaper cuttings, historical records and extrapolated versions of Edith’s letters to present the history of Fred and Edie as Edith might have experienced it.

Aside from the historical documents, the novel is mostly written from Edith’s point of view, in the first person. Her account includes letters and diary-like entries about her affair with Fred and the death of her husband. The novel suggests she had no hand in plotting her husband’s death and that the letters read in court were carefully chosen to imply her guilt, withholding other letters that could provide alternative interpretations. I say suggests because Edie is mostly writing letters to Fred and in case the letters are read by others, or her other prison writings are, she doesn’t refer directly to specific events, leaving the accusation that she tried to poison her husband denied but only indirectly explained by her need for drugs to terminate her implied pregnancy.

Certainty of events is not something the novel offers. Instead Fred & Edie carefully unpicks the emotional climate of the time. Exploring Edie’s feelings enforces an exploration of society.

Edie’s understanding of what she signifies for the general populace of England grows as the novel progresses. She realises that her sharp tongue, her desire to work, to speak out, to be unbound by certain conventions of womanhood, indeed her desire full stop, makes her exceedingly threatening and more than anything that she might have done to her husband, these desires are what she is really being accused of in the courts. She writes:

‘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. I get the most powerful feeling of how those men in court consider me; silly, vain, those two words come back again and again. Vain to consider that our love might be a real love, on a par with other great loves. That just because you are from Norwood and work as a ship’s laundry man and I grew up in Stamford Hill and read a certain kind of novel, we are not capable of true emotions, of having feelings and experiences which matter. Yes, we committed adultery and yes we knew it was wrong, wrong, but not sordid like they say!’ (loc. 2861)

It’s very interesting to read this novel not long after His Bloody Project. Both novels try to grapple with historical court cases in which the judgement of society is key. Both novels put our civilisation, our judgement of what constitutes acceptable behaviour, on trial. His Bloody Project illuminates problems of class and poverty. Fred & Edie puts perceived notions of womanhood under the microscope. Both reply upon the importance of interpretation and highlight the slippery nature of words. As Edie writes: ‘I have discovered a new pleasure in examining words, looking in them for cracks, for little slips where meaning nestles.’ (Loc. 559).

I thoroughly enjoyed Fred & Edie and not just because of its contemplation on the condemnation of a sexual woman, but also because it is a thrilling read. It is a sexy novel. Edie’s descriptions of her desire for Fred are tantalising. Ultimately, of course, we can’t know what really happened, or even if their love was as strong as Edie believed. What Jill Dawson does is show that Edie’s desires, feelings, did matter; they mattered because they exposed the ease with which Britain could chose to ignore feelings and desires that didn’t serve its aims. Are we any better today?

Later this week I’ll be reviewing The Dark by John McGahern.