Review: ‘The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith’ Douglas MacGowan

It was a case that rocked Victorian society. Emile L’Angelier was a working-class immigrant from the Channel Islands who began a clandestine affair with prominent Glasgow socialite Madeleine Smith. Six weeks after Emile threatened to show Madeleine’s father their passionate letters, on 23 March 1857, he was found dead from arsenic poisoning. The evidence against Madeleine seemed overwhelming as she went to trial for murdering her lover.

Douglas MacGowan’s vivid account reads by turns like a thriller, a love story and a courtroom drama. He quotes extensively from contemporary sources, notably the pathology reports, the trial testimony and the infamous correspondence between Madeleine and Emile, whose explicit content so shocked Victorian sensibilities. Ultimately it is up to the reader to judge Madeleine’s guilt or innocence.

Being something of a true crime aficionado, my interest is always piqued when I stumble upon a case set in my home city of Glasgow. I first became aware of Madeleine Smith when I was visiting Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens with my grandparents back in November 2021. Inside the 19th century greenhouse dubbed the Kibble Palace (or, as I so eloquently call it, ‘the big glass house’ because I can never remember its actual name), there are numerous posters detailing notable events throughout the Botanic Gardens’ 200+ year history. One of these posters briefly summarises the scandal that rocked 1850s Glasgow, in which a young socialite named Madeleine Smith was taken to court, accused of poisoning her lover, Emile L’Angelier. At one point in their tumultuous relationship, Emile lodged at the Curator’s House (now a tea room), which is situated within the Botanic Gardens.

The Curator’s House/tea room. I once had a delightful sandwich here. 10/10, would recommend.
Emile L’Angelier and Madeleine Smith.

After spending Christmas with his family, my partner and I went for a wander around his hometown a couple of days later. I’m like a moth to the flame when it comes to bookshops, so naturally I soon found myself in Waterstones. While I was perusing, I laid eyes on Douglas MacGowan’s book, The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith. Picking it up, I scanned the blurb and instantly recognised it as the case I’d seen mentioned on one of the posters in the Kibble Palace. Using some of the money that I’d been gifted on Christmas Day, I bought the book and started it within minutes of arriving back at my partner’s parents’ house.

The first section of the book is mostly Madeleine’s letters to Emile and though often repetitive in nature, they offer readers a front row seat to the rise and fall of their relationship. In her letters, Madeleine comes across as whiny and spoilt, but despite this, I felt fiercely protective of her. As the events chronicled in MacGowan’s book occurred nearly 170 years ago, this protectiveness had no outlet. I couldn’t tell Madeleine that she was being abused and manipulated. I couldn’t tell her that she was enough, that she didn’t have to warp herself into Emile’s vision of the perfect Victorian woman. As a result, my feelings of protectiveness morphed into feelings of immense rage and frustration. As I told my partner while walking around the Botanic Gardens just the other day, Emile L’Angelier was “the definition of coercive control”. Over the course of their toxic relationship, by Madeleine’s own admission, Emile stopped her from socialising. Emile would be overcome by jealously if he heard that Madeleine had gone to the theatre or even just walked through the city. With each passing letter, it also becomes more and more apparent that Emile was blaming any supposed feelings of depression on Madeleine, something which caused her to alter her behaviour as a means of making him happy. In one letter, she lists ‘resolutions’, all of which are clearly for his benefit. Some of these include things such as “I shall not go to the Glasgow Ball without your consent”, “I shall go in Sauchiehall Street as little as I can” and “I shall study anything you please to name.” These resolutions came not long after Emile had threatened to leave the country, thereby abandoning Madeleine. Apparently, not long after she wrote this list of resolutions, Emile abandoned this so-called ‘plan’. When their relationship became sexual, Emile used this as a means of manipulating Madeleine further, something which suggests that sex was never about love and passion on Emile’s part, but control. In a draft of a letter to Madeleine, he tells her that their first sexual encounter was “a sin that only marriage can efface” and asks Madeleine that if a mutual friend were to know of it, “what should you [not him, just Madeleine] be in her eyes?” Evidently, he was trying to shame Madeleine into marrying him. In this same letter, he also threatens to leave Glasgow again, saying that if he hears of her “running about” (eg. going to balls etc) as she apparently had done the previous winter, he would leave the city (pg. 47). It’s clear that for the duration of their relationship, Emile threatened and shamed Madeleine as a means of controlling her.

Despite the coercive control being plain to see, author Douglas MacGowan doesn’t seem to have much empathy for Madeleine. In one letter, written at a time when she was desperately trying to end her relationship with Emile, Madeleine references “coolness and indifference – nothing else” as being her reason for wanting to cut ties with him (pg. 96). MacGowan describes this letter as being “full of fraud” (pg. 97), which struck me as being, well, a bit much. Yes, she was engaged to someone else by this point, but this was a young woman who had spent near enough two years being manipulated and emotionally abused. Emile had refused to hand over the letters that she’d written him, letters in which she’d openly discussed their sexual relationship, and she knew that if he were to find out about her engagement, he would most likely hand the letters over to her father or fiancé, thereby ruining her. It’s not difficult to imagine how frightened and anxious she must have felt. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Emile coerced her into having sex with him purely so he’d have a weapon to use against her should her feelings for him diminish. MacGowan’s lack of empathy was puzzling to me and was one of the reasons why this book wasn’t a five star read for me. He’d clearly made up his mind about Madeleine before he’d even finished writing the first page of this book.

Obviously, I’m not saying that Emile, despite his abusive behaviour, deserved to die a horrifically painful death by poisoning, but given everything that he’d subjected Madeline to, if she did play a hand in his demise, I can somewhat empathise. This is a man who stopped her from seeing her friends, from socialising…hell, from even walking through the city with members of her own family. He weaponised sex and used it as a means of manipulating her. He threatened to bring her entire world crashing down around her because she wanted to end their relationship. If she did poison him, it wasn’t right, but it’s not difficult to understand why she did it. She was whiny and spoilt, but she was also a frightened and naïve young woman who had been taken advantage of by a man more than ten years her senior, which was a significant age gap in terms of maturity and life experience back then.

In summary, The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith makes for a compelling read and I highly recommend it for those interested in the Victorian era and true crime.

Abuse isn’t always physical. If you or someone you know is living with emotional abuse and coercive control, there is help available.

UK

US

For information about domestic abuse charities and helplines in other countries, click here.

Want to read The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith? Head on over to Hive, World of Books or Bookshop to order your copy, or buy it through your local bookstore.

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