steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

"It is not cold which makes me shiver. It is fear."

Thinking about Bluebeard stories yesterday reminded me of a case in my family that may or may not fit the description. When my great-grandfather, Thomas Robinson Butler (he of the schooldays) was an old man and making genealogical notes - probably around 1920 - he naturally included his mother's younger sister Rosa. Rosa died in 1849, a little before Thomas Robinson's third birthday. He was too young to remember her, but he's written a rather chilling line under her name:

Peter La Fargue [husband of Rosa] was not a nice man, for my father told me that his wife “trembled” when she saw him coming towards the house, she looking through the window.

Coming from Thomas (a curate by trade), "not a nice man" is fairly strong language, but the trembling is far more eloquent. It struck Thomas's father enough for him to mention it to his son, probably decades later (it's not the kind of thing you confide to a two-year-old); it struck Thomas enough to include it on the family tree many decades after that; and it struck me enough to write this post. Rosa shudders down the centuries.

Immediately I remember the once-strong-willed Madame Fosco, obediently rolling cigarettes for her charming, murderous husband. Certainly, La Fargue is a deliciously villainous name - Peter Augustus Russell de Linnoy La Fargue in full. (He was from Leicestershire.) He and Rosa married in 1844, when she was twenty-two and he just twenty. Then came the time of trembling, and within five years she was dead.

Now, people often did die young in those days, and 27 in particular is a likely age for a woman to die in childbirth (they had no children). But then there's that trembling... And somehow it's more sinister, not less, that he appears from the census to have been a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. If, as seems likely, he was learning his craft during the years of his marriage to Rosa, he was doing so in an age before anaesthetic, when a day at the office meant inflicting excruciating pain on strapped-down patients, cutting through living flesh, sawing living bone. Not all surgeons in the 1840s were sadists any more than all scoutmasters in the 1970s were paedophiles, but if you were that way inclined I can think of no profession that would give you more scope to exercise your proclivity without fear of the law. And when you walked home from the hospital, your hands raw from scrubbing away the blood, and you spied the look of fear - not love - in your wife's face as she saw you coming up the street... how would that make you feel? A medical man would know better than most how to apply pain without detection. And, if a death were required, a medical man would know better than most how to arrange it.

This is nonsense, I realise. One woman trembling at a window, and a youngish death - perhaps in childbirth - is not evidence of anything. Peter La Fargue may have been a fine and dedicated surgeon, a loving husband; his wife may have been coming down with a fever the day my great-great-grandfather saw her tremble; this whole post may be a calumny. Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, say the signs in the house of Mr Fox - and it's good advice to armchair detectives: “It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so." But if the police weren't taking domestic violence seriously even a couple of decades ago, how much more true was that in an age when there barely were any police, when a married woman had no legal existence separate from her husband, when chastisement with a switch was "within the husband's matrimonial privilege", and when even her sympathetic brother-in-law, seeing her tremble with fear, could do no more than store the fact away for future reference. In such an age, the rougher justice of "Mr Fox" may seem more appealing:

At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.
Tags: family history
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