A young middle-class girl learned early that her entire childhood and adolescence was a preparation for marriage. Her education was geared toward that objective. Young “gentlewomen” were sent to boarding schools and taught needlework, dancing, French, music, reading, writing, and small accounts — all suitable accomplishments for a bride-to-be. Young ladies were told that the sole object of their lives was to attract a secure man. In her popular article ‘The Art of Beauty,’ Mrs H. Hawer advised young women that the ability to attract a man was a young woman’s essential attribute. Failure to attract meant failure to be a woman, “just as a magnet that has lost its magnetism might be called a good stone, a weight, a stopper or what not, but hardly a magnet.”
Sexually, young ladies remained innocent and ignorant until marriage. The well-bred girl’s perceptions were carefully regulated so as to expose her only to a few select thoughts and feelings. In this way; it was hoped that she would have no control over her actions or thoughts. Society would thus ensure that the course of her conduct flowed along the appropriate channels. Young ladies were therefore not held responsible for their own actions — a “kind of compensation for the relative ignorance in which they were kept.”
There is no doubt that the life of a young, intelligent middle-class girl, having completed her education and at home awaiting marriage, was extremely restrictive, dull, and frustrating. She was trapped in a state of limbo, expected to wait passively for her release into wedded bliss. Her behaviour was carefully monitored at this crucial time so as to ensure nothing spoiled her future chances for happiness. Her own true nature was not allowed to emerge. Mrs Ellis, addressing the “Daughters of England,” was not far from the truth when she wrote, “Perhaps you are so protected by parents, and so hemmed in by domestic regulations, that you feel it more difficult to do what is positively wrong than what is approved as right.” The goodness, meekness, and innocence of these young Victorian ladies were less a product of their own will than that of their parents and society as a whole. For a highly intelligent, passionate, and imaginative girl like Madeleine Hamilton Smith, these unnatural restrictions could hardly remain compelling for long.
The day that Madeleine Hamilton Smith met a poverty-stricken Frenchman by the name of Emile L’Angelier marked the beginning of a torrid love affair that was to end in murder. Although many writers have speculated on Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s motivations throughout, the hypothesis advanced by Mary S. Hartman in her book ‘Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes’ is the most comprehensive and convincing.
Mary S. Hartman explains Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s receptivity to the amorous attentions of a stranger as an attempt to find “immediate relief from anxieties by creating a husband.” It was a means of alleviating the restlessness and boredom of the years necessarily passed idly under her parents’ roof before marriage Mary S. Hartman describes how careful Madeleine Hamilton Smith was to keep her secret and preserve her reputation. She began a clandestine correspondence with Emile L’Angelier, with the help of her servants and his friends. She proved the success of her early boarding school training in deception by the expert way in which she engineered this illicit affair. By blackmailing a servant, she arranged meetings with her lover in her home after her parents had gone to sleep. The United Presbyterian Magazine commented on the “efficiency in simulation and dissimulation rarely equalled in one who had scarcely seen twenty summers.”
In her letters to Emile L’Angelier, Madeleine Hamilton Smith regularly found excuses that would prevent him from meeting her father, saying that at present, “all this must remain a profound secret.” Later, she wrote, “I shall never be able to introduce you to papa.” She then manufactured a showdown: “A last fond farewell. My Papa will not give his consent. I have given my word of honour that I shall have no more communications with you Be happy, forget me, and may she whom you call your wife be a comfort unto you Fare thee well.” In true melodramatic fashion, Madeleine Hamilton Smith employed a convenient fatalistic tone in her protestations of doomed love for Emile L’Angelier. She wrote to her confidante, “I had hoped someday to have been happy with him, but alas it was not intended. We were doomed to be disappointed.” By blaming the failure of her love affair on inexorable destiny and her father, she avoided responsibility for her shocking transgression of society’s norms. In true womanly Victorian style, she remained outwardly passive and helpless throughout.
Inevitably, Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s father decided it was time for her to marry. He chose a Mr Minnoch, and their engagement was decided. Far from protesting, Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s letters to Mr Minnoch show her complacent acceptance of his proposal. Yet, in an ungentlemanly fashion, Emile L’Angelier threatened to show her love letters to her father. It was at this point that Madeleine Hamilton Smith broke down and confessing her duplicity, threw herself at the mercy of her former lover.
Ironically, when she wrote Emile L’Angelier that he was driving her to death, she neglected to specify whose. While her situation seemed hopeless, and while she was filled with terror at the threat of exposure before Victorian society, she was nonetheless prepared to take whatever action she felt necessary in order to solve her problem with Emile L’Angelier. Not one to passively admit defeat, neither was she ready to face the consequences of her “immoral” behaviour. Nor was she willing to take her own life, as might have been expected of a woman in her position. Madeleine Hamilton Smith simply decided to do away with the problem by doing away with its source — she chose to poison Emile L’Angelier.
It is known that Madeleine Hamilton Smith had bought arsenic on more than one occasion, ostensibly to kill rats. Why a young, wealthy middle-class girl had to worry about rats was a question never asked. Even her girlfriend, who co-signed the poison register as a witness, found her preoccupation with vermin both odd and amusing. Unfortunately, Emile L’Angelier did not find it so. In an entry in his diary made on the day of Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s purchase, he complained of returning home after a tryst at her parents’ house feeling quite ill. He mentioned that Madeleine Hamilton Smith had given him a cup of hot chocolate. Nor was this an isolated incident: another entry, expressing a similar complaint, was made later on. Shortly after that, presumably (although this was never proven) after a secret rendezvous with Madeleine Hamilton Smith, Emile L’Angelier came home severely ill and died.
Whether or not Mary S. Hartman’s hypothesis regarding Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s motives and their part in Emile L’Angelier’s death is accurate, Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s trial shows that society, at that time, had its own ideas. These reflected nineteenth-century notions of typical feminine behaviour, in particular, the notion of the innocent and sexually ignorant bride-to-be. The trial focused mainly on the issue of Madeleine Hamilton Smith’s chastity because no one could believe that a respectable middle-class virgin could be a murderess.