‘Dark Angel’ – Why it’s ‘sometimes’ Understandable to Kill Your Husband

Dead and rotten though she may be, Mary Ann Cotton remains a fundamental figure in North East history. I live within the parish where she was christened, used to live in a flat which stood on the site of her former workplace and have had the privilege of entering the archives of Beamish Museum to see what is alleged to be the infamous teapot. Whilst I cannot ever condone poisoning one’s husband(s) and children, or poisoning anyone for that matter, I recently re-watched ‘Dark Angel’ on ITV (an excellent dramatisation and possibly the best true crime series ever created), which does always leave me feeling sorry for her and wondering whether, when all things are considered, she really had much of a choice.

It is apt that I watched this series (for the third time, seriously cannot get enough of it), on the same day where I had had a conversation with a work colleague about how infuriatingly useless men can be, and the frustration she was feeling at her partner failing to understand how difficult it is for her to juggle full time work, childcare, housework, cooking, laundry, paying bills and something of a social life whilst he works away. Of course, this is not the case for everyone – even in the North East which still has clearly marked working men’s clubs in which women are not welcome; contains women such as my mother in law who refer to hoovering as ‘women’s work’ and judge people on how strongly their house smells of Zooflora; I’m sure there are many stay at home dads, single dads and combinations of parents consisting of all genders and sexualities who don’t conform to the North East ‘ideal’ of the male coal miner and his loving wife who has his slippers on the fire and tea on the table every evening. And, I’m sure there are many heterosexual, ‘typical’, nuclear families who have a perfectly even division of household labour, but it did get me thinking about how much things have actually changed for women.

In a news week where a woman finally had her conviction quashed for killing an abusive husband in self defense and police have suggested replacing knives with blunt blades is a viable solution to protect domestic violence victims, taking place well over a hundred years after Mary Ann Cotton’s era, this did heighten my curiosity about the kind of life she lived. No, we aren’t giving birth in coal dust, gathering water from a pump at the end of the street and catching smallpox at regular intervals any more, but the majority of women I know who are in long term, heterosexual relationships spend a lot of time feeling bloody stressed out, especially when children are thrown into the mix. And this is in a time of free healthcare, accessible contraception, maternity leave and child benefit – so living a life of being perpetually pregnant, existing in absolute poverty, having no understanding of mental health issues and living in a time where domestic violence and rape perpetrated by your husband was perfectly legal, must have been absolutely horrendous.

Again, I feel a need to disclaim that serial murder is never justifiable, but it is my personal belief that people are a product of their surroundings, and nurture is far more important than nature when it comes to understanding people; this is a woman whose own father’s dead body was brought to her house in a bag marked ‘property of Hetton colliery’ when she was barely out if nappies, it was bloody tough going in the 1800’s! I have seen in my academic and professional background that you can never really know how someone will react to being pushed to their absolute limits of survival until they are tested and what pure desperation can do to even the most level-headed of people. I do think Mary Ann’s story is a testament to just how extreme the situation was for working class women at the time, and although it’s generally accepted by Criminologists and Historians that she became motivated by pure greed and lust by the end of her criminal career, when you consider the perfect storm of depression, constant bereavement, living in squalor, not knowing where your or your children’s next meals are coming from, being unable to afford basic healthcare and being totally dependent on a husband to pay to have your basic needs met, although not excusable, it isn’t surprising to see how quickly things escalated. Wanting love and stability is probably a fundamental desire for the majority of people, especially women, and when faced with such limited options, specifically, the possibility of going to the workhouse or dying of starvation in a filthy alleyway because your husband is unable to work, I can see what she was trying to achieve, despite disagreeing with her choice of method on every level.

“I wanted more. More than coal dust, childbirth and men who think saying ‘I love you’ is enough” 

Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton, ‘Dark Angel’ (ITV, 2016)

It is worth noting at this point that despite Mary Ann Cotton being widely accepted as the UK’s first serial killer, and the first serious female offender, she was actually only ever convicted of one murder, which she steadfastly denied into the grave. I love a grizzly true crime story and a local history legend – I’ve had the ‘privilege’ of seeing up close what was Durham Gaol inside the prison and can confirm it is every bit as haunting and creepy as it probably was for Mary Ann Cotton when she walked her final steps to face the noose, so it’s no surprise really that I find her story fascinating. However, if you’re not familiar with it I strongly recommend watching ‘Dark Angel’ or reading the book by Professor David Wilson on which it is based, and inevitably forming your own theory – was she a desperate pauper doing what she could to survive, or the greedy black widow the nursery rhyme portrays?

Review – The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

It’s almost embarrassing that I’ve had this blog for about six months now and have yet to make a specific mention of my love for Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, but the most recent instalment was released at the beginning of February so it seemed the perfect time to profess said love. I first came across this series back in 2017 when I picked up The Woman in Blue by chance at my local Waterstone’s and was completely hooked, so I did what any rational person would do and consumed the previous seven books in the space of a couple of weeks. Although I loved the entire series, I do wish I’d realised at the first instance that the book I’d picked up was part of an existing series and had read them in chronological order because I ruined some quite major plot twists for myself by starting on book eight.

Ruth is one of my many, many literary heroes. Living alone in a cosy yet creepy cottage on the edge of Norfolk’s saltmarsh which I always imagine as Kate Winslet’s cottage in The Holiday but surrounded by an eerie fog, is basically the dream. She’s independent, intelligent and fiercely feminist which I love, and her day job is as an archaeology lecturer but somehow seems to get called in by Norfolk Police to examine murder victims’ bones at regular intervals. The only real plot hole in this saga is that people continue living in this area despite there seeming to be a new murder case approximately every six months.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Elly Griffiths’ fictional version of Norfolk Police force, this brings me to DCI Harry Nelson. Ah Nelson, how you confuse my emotions. I hated Nelson at the start of this series – he’s a narcissistic, indecisive pig who just loves to have his cake and eat it too. However, he’s also incredibly charming and clearly cares very deeply about both Ruth and his wife – we’re twelve books in now and I still go back and forth over whether I want him and Ruth to ride off into the sunset together and spend their remaining years solving crimes and doting on Kate, or stay as far away from each other as humanly possible because in many respects they are simply not compatible. To maintain any good saga, characters have to continually develop and this is something that Elly Griffiths absolutely nails. Keeping a story fresh after twelve books about the same set of characters is no easy feat, but I still feel like I’m seeing new sides of everyone every time I pick up the next book.

The Stone Circle probably wasn’t my favourite of all the Ruth Galloway series; I’d struggle to say which one was because I read them in such quick succession but A Dying Fall definitely stood out for me – the undertones of Pendle Witches made it extra creepy, though all Ruth books hvea given me a few creepy chills. However, that’s not to say I didn’t love The Stone Circle. The pinnacle of a good saga is that when a new book comes out, you feel like you’re catching up with old friends and this was no exception. Having a lot of principal characters, all of whom have intertwining plots and secondary characters around them, keeps the story fresh all the time and Elly Griffiths achieves that perfect balance for the reader where we can dive back in and know the characters inside out, but still be excited about fresh plots and new journeys on which they’re embarking.

Like every book in the Ruth Galloway series, I was immensely frustrated by The Stone Circle not answering the big question of what the future holds for Ruth and Nelson, and I’m still conflicted as to whether I want them to be together because Elly Griffiths does not like making things simple. The Stone Circle followed Ruth’s usual mysterious pattern of there being a really obvious culprit for whom it makes logical sense to have committed the crime, but you just know there’ll be a twist and the murderer will end up being someone you completely disregarded after the first few pages. Twelve times Elly Griffiths has fooled me with that. Twelve. The introduction of new characters created yet another layer to Ruth’s complicated story, and I’m quite interested to see if Star returns in book Thirteen and I would also like to keep seeing more of Michelle’s point of view. It would be great if Frank is explored more next too, because as much as I love Nelson I do also love Frank – which is precisely Ruth’s dilemma at this point in her journey.

Although it feels at this point like I’ve under-sold The Stone Circle, I do highly recommend the overall Ruth Galloway series. Each time I pick up an RG book I get completely sucked into her eerie world of lonely countryside and suspicious dark strangers appearing in the dead of night, which always makes me feel like I need to put the fire on and dim the lights – even if it’s the height of summer.