The Most Remarkable Woman in England opens on an afternoon in July 1928 as a pale woman emerges from the Gloucester Shire Hall after being acquitted of the arsenic murder of her husband. Her name was Beatrice Pace, and she was met not only by a boisterous crowd of thousands of well-wishers but also flocks of reporters bent on bringing her trial (‘one of the most amazing within living memory’ as the News of the World enthused) to the next morning’s front-pages. She sold her ‘tragic’ story to the Sunday Express for a substantial sum (marking an early example of today’s popular ‘misery memoirs’), and the way her case had been handled by the police and the coroner was heatedly debated in press and Parliament.
Now, more than eight decades later, Beatrice Pace has been all but forgotten, but in 1928 she was literally a household name. This hidden chapter in the annals of British crime, media and gender history is now finally getting the comprehensive and serious treatment it deserves.
The dramatic outcome is only the beginning of the story. Drawing on extensive and original research, this book will—for the first time—recount this intriguing woman’s experiences from various perspectives (those of the police, the press, the public and Pace herself) and place it within the fascinating context of culture, law and politics in the 1920s. It spans settings from the Paces’ lonely cottage in the Forest of Dean to the debating chamber of the House of Commons and sources ranging from meticulous detectives’ reports to heartfelt admirers’ letters composed at kitchen tables throughout Britain, thereby bringing to life the extraordinary lives of ordinary people between the wars.
Far from a mere period piece, however, the book speaks to issues of contemporary interest. The public, as ever, still seeks out heroes and villains in stories of crime and murder, investing an often intensely emotional partisanship in people they have never met. This is particularly true where ‘what really happened’ remains unclear. The public response to Beatrice Pace was extraordinary: thousands of complete strangers sent her letters and telegrams (more than 200 of which will be examined here for the first time, providing a rare insight into popular reactions to press stories) and her children were showered with gifts. Tourists converged on her lonely cottage and took away mementos. Women hung cut-out pictures of her in their homes, treating her as a member of their families. Men even wrote from throughout Britain—and even from abroad—to propose marriage.
The product of six years of research and writing, the book began with a chance encounter with a box of case-related material in a provincial archive. I was quickly convinced that the case was an opportunity to explore important issues in cultural history while also telling a dramatic and highly personal tale full of extraordinary figures and events. This conviction has only increased as I have examined press, police and parliamentary records to reconstruct the story of a woman who was described by the Sunday Express as ‘the most remarkable woman in England’.
The Most Remarkable Woman in England will be published by Manchester University Press in the UK on 31 August 2012 and in North America on 2 October 2012.
Table of Contents:
1 The ‘Fetter Hill mystery’: the strange death of Harry Pace
2 ‘Where there are so many cruel tongues’: investigations and accusations
3 ‘I cannot tell you, sir – I cannot tell you’: mysteries and circumstances
4 ‘Easing the burden of the tragic widow’: the making of ‘Mrs Pace’
5 ‘Every wife in the country has opportunity’: the ‘tragic widow’ on trial
6 ‘The matter is dead’: a new life and some old shadows
7 ‘18 years of hell’: gender, marriage and violence
8 ‘Unimaginable agonies and degradations and cruelties’: justice, politics and poverty
9 ‘Those who have had trouble can sympathise with you’: Mrs Pace and her public