Book Review: Death at the Priory by James Ruddick

Death at The Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England, by James Ruddick.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A well-written true crime mystery and an in-depth look into the role of women in the Victorian period. Compelling reading! 4 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

In 1875, the beautiful and vivacious widow Florence Ricardo married Charles Bravo, a dashing barrister. The marriage seemed a happy one, but one night, four months after the wedding, Bravo collapsed. For the next fifty-five hours, with some of London’s most distinguished physicians in attendance, Charles suffered a slow and agonizing death.  All the doctors agreed: Charles Bravo had been poisoned.

The dramatic investigation that followed was covered in sensational detail by the press. So great was public interest in the case that coverage of it eclipsed the prime minister’s negotiations with Egypt, the Prince of Wales’ Indian tour and the conflict in the Balkans. The finger of suspicion pointed at various times at suicide, at Mrs Cox the housekeeper, at George Griffiths, a stableman with a grudge, and at the remarkable figure of Florence Bravo herself.

Death at the Priory is a gripping historical reconstruction and startling portrait of a woman, a marriage and a society. The brilliant conclusion uses new evidence discovered by the author to demonstrate conclusively who really murdered Charles Bravo.

Favourite Quote

“An unhappy woman with easy access to weedkiller had to be watched carefully.”

(From Death at The Prioy, by James Ruddick, page 172)

Review

It’s not often that I review non-fiction on Sammi Loves Books, because I tend to dip in and out of it, but I read “Death at The Priory” from cover to cover, and was completely gripped by the case.

I enjoy reading about true crime, especially if in an historical context, and especially if said crime remained unsolved, and if it could be classed as a type of “locked room” mystery.  I was surprised I hadn’t heard of the death of Charles Bravo before, given my interest in Victorian history and true crime.  By all accounts, it was covered with relish in the media of the day, eclipsing events on the world stage, even.

Death at the Priory is extremely well-written.  The evidence is presented clearly, in an easy to understand, easy to digest manner, without becoming heavy or requiring the author to dress it up with dramatic prose.  Although some passages are quite graphic – yes, there is a reference to sex in the book’s subtitle – it does help in providing a context in which Charles Bravo’s death occurred.

Florence Bravo, wife of the dead man, was certainly an interesting woman to read about, with a colourful life, and a tragic ending. She had been unfortunate in as much as she’d had to endure two unhappy marriages to husbands who were abusive towards her. The prevailing opinion of the day was that this was a woman’s lot, and she had to suffer it with grace and silence.  Florence, unconventionally for the time, did not believe she had to accept this.  She believed she had a right to be happy and if that meant away from her husband, she would not be forced to remain with him…

Charles Bravo is not painted as a sympathetic character at all, and I found myself having little concern for him in his plight.  I thought the author’s conclusions in his attempt to solve the case were definitely plausible, but of course, after the passage of so much time, and with all those being involved long dead, we will never know the truth for certain.

A fascinating read, one which I recommend to those interested in true crime, or who are interested in the role of women in Victorian society.

Rating