The Unseeing | Anna Mazzola | 2016, Pb 2017 | Tinder Press | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
On Christmas Day 1836 Hannah Brown was due to marry James Greenacre. Instead, the night before, she was murdered by a blow to the eye and a cut throat. Greenacre stands accused of her murder and the cruel dismemberment of Hannah’s body – body parts were found dispersed across London over the following days. His lover, Sarah Gale, is also in Newgate, accused of being his accomplice in dismembering poor Hannah and in covering up the murder. Both Greenacre and Sarah are sentenced to hang.
In desperation, for her own sake and that of her four-year old child George, Sarah petitions for clemency. The case is given, as a favour to his father, to young, failing lawyer Edmund Fleetwood. It doesn’t take many visits to the sordid, miserable Newgate prison before Edmund realises that Sarah is in fact her own worse enemy. He wants to save her, he believes she should be saved, but she refuses to tell him the truth of what happened that dreadful cold Christmas.
The Unseeing is the debut novel of Anna Mazzola and you’d never guess it – this engrossing novel is thoroughly researched and beautifully written, presenting a dramatic interpretation of a true and infamous murder case while also bringing to life the fate of numerous unfortunate women (and their even more unfortunate children) who fell victim to Victorian double standards, many laid down by the male establishment of government, law and the Church. Not only by powerful men, though. Men in the home often exerted their own power.
The picture of Newgate is a pitiful, brutish one. Hannah’s murder and dismemberment were so despicable that those accused of it were singled out for extra harsh treatment, from warders and from fellow inmates. Sarah hangs on, but only just. The fact that many of these women prisoners were prostitutes, mothers of illegitimate children, gave their judges carte blanche. In many ways, Edmund Fleetwood is part of the establishment that has brought Sarah, Hannah and others like them down. He is also a husband and father and this case causes him to examine his own behaviour and relationships. He is aware that this case may be his last chance and it consumes and changes him as he becomes increasingly obsessed by the tragic and perplexing Sarah.
The Unseeing is a very difficult novel to put down once picked up – I read it in two sittings and was so sorry to finish it. I loved the portrayal of Sarah and couldn’t wait to discover the truth while I was also fascinated by the grim shadow of Newgate and the novel’s large, important themes surrounding the place of women in late Georgian and early Victorian society. Victoria becomes Queen during the novel and there is a sense that this might mean a change in attitudes to women who have suffered from misfortune but hindsight tells us what a vain hope that was.
The finest historical mysteries are those that inform as well as entertain, that manage to get beneath the surface of the times and reveal it, fascinating and compelling at the same time. The Unseeing does just that, adding to my growing appreciation of Victorian crime fiction. But throughout the novel my deepest feelings were preserved for Sarah’s son, little George, and all the other innocent children.