Synopsis

Young Madeleine Smith, daughter of successful architect James Smith, falls in love with Pierre Emile L’ Angelier, a poor working man. Social conventions of the time make this an impossible match, yet Madeleine is in love and plans to marry Emile. After nearly two years of clandestine meetings and correspondence, the relationship sours due to Emile’s jealousy and possessiveness. Madeleine becomes engaged to William Minnoch and tries to end her relationship with Emile. Emile, retaining compromising letters written by Madeleine, attempts to blackmail her into staying with him. Emile dies of arsenic poisoning and Madeleine is arrested and tried for his murder.

Theme of the Book

Blackmail, Sex and Lies is a tragic tale on two different levels. The first is the chasm between social classes in Victorian society. No matter their personal characteristics, the love affair between Madeleine and Emile is doomed from the start simply because of their social positions. There is no mixing of social classes in Victorian society and even those who came from humble beginnings, like Madeleine’s father, do not hesitate to scorn those ‘below’ them in society. Related to this is the sad position of women in Victorian times. Madeleine, like her mother, sisters, and all women, is expected to obey her father and then her husband. Madeleine’s rebellion comes to naught as the social strictures keeping her in her place are stronger than even she thinks.

What I Liked About the Story

First, Blackmail, Sex and Lies is a true story. There have been at least six books written about the death of Emile and the trial of Madeleine. While this reviewer has not read the other books on the subject, this one does a very good job of delineating the characters of both Madeleine and Emile and paints an accurate, though depressing, picture of Victorian society in Scotland.

Madeleine is easy prey for Emile. She is naïve, sheltered, and innocent. She is dominated by her father and her need for independence and rebellion is evident in her love for Emile. Madeleine looks down on her mother, a woman who, in Madeleine’s opinion, has subsumed her own opinions and ideas to those of her husband. It is because of her feeling that she must be independent that she begins her affair with Emile. And it is not until Emile shows himself to be as dominating as her father that she decides to end it.

While Madeleine’s character is sympathetic, Emile’s is much more complex. When the reader first meets him, he seems to be the classic narcissist. He is extremely proud of his physical attractiveness and knows that he deserves a better place in society. He is able to present his past using half truths – his army experience is a good example: while Emile was, indeed, in the French army, he was hardly a hero.

It is possible to feel sympathy for Emile at the beginning of the book. He is an attractive, able young man denied success simply because of his status at birth. However, as the story continues, Emile becomes what we would call today an emotional abuser. He tries to make Madeleine into the woman he dreams of by constant criticism and jealousy.

Emile is a fascinating character who stands in stark contrast to Madeleine’s innocence.

The progress of Madeleine’s and Emile’s affair is clearly outlined in their correspondence. The trial is also well documented and the illustrations add to the reality of the story.

What I Didn’t Like About the Story

I feel a bit of conflict about the letters used in Blackmail, Sex and Lies from Madeleine to Emile. While they are important in showing the changes in the relationship, there are simply too many repetitive examples. I found myself skipping whole paragraphs of later letters to continue with the narrative. The letters, in the original case against Madeleine, were undated yet are dated in the examples given in the book. I am left wondering if the letters in the book are actual letters from Madeleine to Emile or if they were invented by the author.

Final say

Blackmail, Sex and Lies is a fascinating story. For fans of true crime or of historical novels, it is a good addition to any library.

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