Actress Joanne Froggatt Goes to the Dark Side as Murderess Mary Ann Cotton in Dark Angel on Masterpiece Classic PBS

After reading the advance press on Dark Angel – the new period drama starring Joanne Froggatt as Victorian-era serial killer Mary Ann Cotton – I was seriously considering skipping my weekly MASTERPIECE appointment with my television. Multiple murders by a woman who successively kills her husbands and children by poison for their life insurance sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me – something way beyond my comfort zone. The fact that it featured Froggatt, an awarding winning actress who I adored as Anna Bates in Downton Abbey, Emmy award winning director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and acclaimed screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets) softened the blow a bit, but I was still not convinced.

My tipping point was my love of English history and my curiosity. Life in lower-class Victorian England was harsh and bleak, however, many wives and mothers did not become serial killers. What was Mary Ann Cotton’s story? What pushed her beyond despair and made her a mass murderer?

“Why don’t you let me make you a nice cup of tea?” – Mary Ann Cotton

Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes had an extraordinary true-life story to draw from. It is estimated that Cotton poisoned with arsenic up to 21 people including: three of her four husbands, fifteen children, a lover, a friend, and her mother – collecting life insurance for many of them.

Joseph Nattrass (Jonas Armstrong) flirts with Mary Ann (Joanne Froggatt)

Born on Halloween day in 1832 in Low Moorsley, a small village just outside Sunderland in north east England, Mary Ann was the daughter of Michael Robson a colliery sinker (coal mine shaft construction and maintenance worker) who died in 1842 in a mine accident in Murton, Co Durham, when she was ten. This appears to be the beginning of a long list of family deaths for Mary Ann. At age 20 she married William Mowbray in 1852. He died in 1865. Husband number two was George Ward. He died in 1866. Employed in Sunderland as housekeeper by a recent widower, James Robinson, she snagged him too and they wed in 1867. Robinson resisted her pitch to insure his life and later threw her out over stolen money and debt, but not before 4 of his children and her only living daughter died under her care. Next, she became a bigamist and married Frederick Cotton, the brother of a young friend who died of stomach ailments shortly before the nuptials. Soon after their marriage she convinces her husband to move to West Auckland where a former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was now residing.

A brief aside. Nattrass is a unique last name originating in north east England. It happens to be my surname, but my line springs from Allendale, Northumberland, and Joseph’s is from Co Durham. It was a relief to know that I have no familiar connections to Mary Ann Cotton, whatsoever!

While married to Frederick Cotton, Mary Ann bears her twelfth child, Robert Cotton, in 1871. Up until now I have not mentioned all the children. All you really need to know is that up until this point they are all dead along with 4 of her step-children. (The one exception is her son George Robinson whom she left in the care of his father.) Husband number four Frederick Cotton dies in 1871, followed by their son Robert in 1872. The only child remaining is her 7-year-old step-son, Charles Edward Cotton, who she is now saddled with after the death of her husband. Free of all declared husbands, Mary Ann hooks up again with former lover Joseph Nattrass who becomes her lodger until he changes his will in her favor and dies in 1872, followed by her step son Charles Edward. This is where the madness ends for Mary Ann. You’ll have to watch Dark Angel to find out how her house of lies, deceit and death comes crumbling down.

Inspired by the book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer by noted criminologist David Wilson, screenwriter Gywneth Hughes has crafted an engrossing tale revealing the inner-motives of a ruthless killer. Over the course of twenty years, we see Mary Ann as a young mother eager to rise above the poverty, filth and disease of her life. We cringe at her dire circumstances and feel her pain. Froggatt excels as downtrodden as we experienced with her Anna Bates in Downton Abbey. It is great to see her acting chops in full action when her darker side appears as she morphs into the black widow – using her sexual allurements to entrap her next husband – and then her detached cunning in dispatching her victims; be it man, woman or child. The body count is staggering. It is no wonder that in real-life Mary Ann’s arrest, trial and execution were sensationally publicized in Victorian newspapers becoming a national obsession.

Was Mary Ann Cotton driven by nature or nurture? Her mother, step-father, husbands and friends all seem as helpful and supportive as they could be under their own limited means. It is amazing to think that no one in her inner circle noticed the pattern of death around her. Even the insurance company does not put two and two together and continued to pay her as each family member died. I have my own theories, but honestly being a pioneer of anything gives you great advantage as a criminal. Who could possibly suspect a woman of such deeds?

Mary Ann Cotton was charged and convicted of willful murder of her step son Charles Edward Cotton by poisoning and has executed by hanging on March 23, 1873 at Durham County Goal. She declared her innocence until the very end.

Of Mary Ann’s 13 known children, only two survived her: Margaret Edith (1873–1954) who was born while she was in prison and was adopted by friends and her son George Robinson whom she left with her third husband James. They survived because they were in the care of others.

Now, when anyone offers me a cup of tea, I will be hard pressed NOT to think of Mary Ann Cotton!

Watch an interview of Joann Froggatt on her role as Mary Ann Cotton.

View Dark Angel online at PBS Video through June 3, 2017.

Images Courtesy of Justin Slee/World Productions and MASTERPIECE © 2016

Giveaway Winners Announced for Love & Friendship: The Janeite Blog Tour

Love Friendship Blog Tour graphic sidebar x 200It’s time to announce the winners of the giveaway contest for the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour. The three lucky winners of hardcover copies of the book drawn at random are:

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by July 7, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments and to Little, Brown and Company for the giveaway prizes.

Cover image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com

Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman – A Review

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman: 

Lady Susan is my favorite of Jane Austen’s minor works. A scheming widow who also happens to be “the most accomplished coquette in England,” Lady Susan Vernon is intelligent, attractive, and unscrupulous, agreeing with her immoral friend Alicia Johnson that “Facts are such horrid things!” (256) Her letters to Alicia detail her plans to snare wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter Frederica, while causing pain and suffering to those she deems detestable. As she includes her own daughter in this camp, calling her a “stupid girl,” she has no qualms in forcing Frederica to marry a decidedly silly man with a large fortune. Lady Susan is a terrible person, but a wonderful character. While the novella lacks the depth of later works, it is a wickedly funny short story in epistolary form; its tone is reminiscent of the snarky comments found in many of Austen’s letters.

Who better to capture Austen’s witty social commentary than filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman?  His first film, Metropolitan, was one of my favorites from the 1990s, but I confess that I didn’t catch its similarities to Mansfield Park until many years later. Now Stillman has written a companion piece to his latest film Love & Friendship in straight narrative form. He introduces a new character to the story: Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s nephew. Rufus has penned his “true narrative of false-witness” to expose Austen’s supposed hatchet job on his aunt. His loyalties are made clear with the novel’s subtitle, “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Cunning Daughter & the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family).”

Readers familiar with Austen’s Lady Susan will notice an inversion of good and evil from the outset. Rufus has dedicated his novel to none other than the Prince of Wales, mimicking Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, but in a much more effusively toad-eating style. After two knowing winks from Stillman in two pages: consider yourself warned. Rufus is the quintessential unreliable narrator, writing his rebuttal of Austen’s version of events from debtors prison in Clerkenwell in 1858. The vindication of his maligned aunt, riddled with inconsistencies and bizarre logic, is peppered with tirades on a range of subjects: history, theology, and grammar. These make for some of the funniest passages in the novel. Continue reading

Giveaway Winners Announced for the Julian Fellowes Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour

Belgravia_blog-tour_vertical-final x 200It’s time to announce the winners of the giveaway contest for the Julian Fellowes Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour. The three lucky winners of hardcover copies of the book drawn at random are:

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by June 30, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments and to Grand Central Publishing for the giveaway prizes.

Cover image courtesy of Grand Central Publishing © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com

Q&A with Love & Friendship Writer/Director/Author Whit Stillman

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200Austen scholar Devoney Looser joins us today during the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour to interview ‘Friend of Jane,’ writer/director/author Whit Stillman, whose new hit movie Love & Friendship, and its companion novel, are on the radar of every Janeite.

Welcome Ms. Looser and Mr. Stillman to Austenprose.com.

Devoney Looser: We Janeites know that you go way back as a Janeite yourself. (Would you label yourself that? I see you’ve copped elsewhere to “Jane Austen nut.”) You’ve admitted you were once dismissive of Austen’s novels as a young man—telling everyone you hated them—but that after college you did a 180, thanks to your sister. Anything more you’d like to tell us about that?

Whit Stillman: I prefer Austenite and I consider myself among the most fervent. Yes, there was a contretemps with Northanger Abbey when I was a depressed college sophomore entirely unfamiliar with the gothic novels she was mocking — but I was set straight not many years later.

DL: What made you decide that “Lady Susan” wasn’t the right title to present this film to an audience? (Most of Austenprose’s readers will be wise to the fact that Austen herself didn’t choose that title for her novella, first published in 1871.) I like your new title Love & Friendship very much, but clever Janeites will know you lifted it from a raucous Austen short story, from her juvenilia, Love & Freindship. What led you to make this switch in titles? (I do want to register one official complaint. You’ve now doomed those of us who teach Austen’s Love & Freindship to receiving crazy-wrong exam answers on that text from our worst students for years to come.)

WS: Perhaps it is irrational but I always hated the title “Lady Susan” and, as you mention, so far as we know it was not Jane Austen’s;  the surviving manuscript carries no title (the original binding was chopped off) and she had used “Susan” as the working title for “Northanger Abbey.”  The whole trajectory of Austen’s improved versions of her works was from weak titles, often character names (which I know many film distributors hate as film titles*) toward strong, resonant nouns — either qualities or place names.  “Elinor and Marianne” became Sense and Sensibility, “First Impressions” became Pride and Prejudice, “Susan” became Northanger Abbey. Persuasion and Mansfield Park are similarly sonorous. Continue reading

The Janeite Blog Tour of Love & Friendship Begins June 13

Love & Friendship (2016) poster 2016 x 200A new Jane Austen-inspired movie released on May 13th. Love & Friendship has received rave reviews from critics and Jane Austen fans alike.

  • “FLAT-OUT-HILARIOUS. Jane Austen has never been funnier.” – The Telegraph
  • “Whit Stillman and English novelist Jane Austen make for a delightful pairing in this comedy of manners.” – The Star.com
  • “Kate Beckinsale magnetizes the screen.” – Variety

Written and directed by renowned independent filmmaker Whit Stillman, (a big friend of Jane Austen with his previous movies Metropolitan and Last Day of Disco), the movie has been adapted from Austen’s comic gem, Lady Susan, and features an all-star cast reuniting Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny and featuring a string of British period drama acting royalty: Steven Fry, James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave. I saw it on Sunday. I was astounded to discover there were actually people in the theater laughing louder than me, inspired by Tim Bennet’s performance as the rattle, Sir James Martin, and the all-around witty banter and comedic timing!

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200In addition, Stillman has written a companion novel to the film also entitled Love & Friendship with the added subtitle: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. For those who have read Austen’s original novella, you will remember that Lady Susan Vernon is described by Reginald De Courcy as “the most accomplished coquette in England.” and by others as devious, wicked and “with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white.” To vindicate her scurrilous behavior is an intriguing premise indeed!

Love & Friendship, the novel, is told from the perspective of a new character, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s  nephew. His voice throughout the book is very Austenesque, with tongue-in-cheek humor and inside Austen jokes that will delight Janeites. Continue reading

Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes – A Review

Regency Spies by Sue Wilkes 2016 x 200

From the desk of Stephanie Barron:

PARANOIA RUNS DEEP

From the moment I saw the title of Sue Wilkes’s latest book, Regency Spies (Pen & Sword Books, 2015), I was desperate to get my hot little hands on a copy. In a distant chapter of my life I was trained in espionage by the CIA, and I have a habit of inventing spies in my Jane Austen novels—most of them working nefariously on behalf of Bonaparte, but a few ready to die for King and Country. There’s a paucity of scholarly data on tradecraft, recruitment, and spy running during Jane Austen’s heydey, as Lauren Willig’s fictional Eloise discovers in the absorbing adventures of the Pink Carnation. A century ago, Baroness Orczy handed us the consuming history of the Scarlet Pimpernel and forever transformed our sense of the French Revolution. (Can there be any pleasure greater than tucking oneself up in bed with a soothing drink and a copy of one of these books on a stormy night?) Patrick O’Brian channeled the Secret Funds of the Admiralty’s Sir Joseph Banks into the hands of his irascible polymath Stephen Maturin, who collected intelligence wherever his voyages with Jack Aubrey took him; but O’Brian failed to detail his sources at the back of his marvelous novels.

Perhaps, like me, he had none.

So I was eager to discover what Ms. Wilkes had to share with the world.

I confess to a moment of dismay when I opened Regency Spies. As Georgette Heyer’s character Freddie Standen often observes, “I never knew a more complete take-in!” And as is so often the case with poor Freddie, the fault lay with me, not with Ms. Wilkes. I assumed that by Regency spies, she referred to dashing men in cravats and pantaloons, fencing the despicable minions of Napoleon on behalf of the Crown. In fact, Regency Spies is an impeccably researched and scholarly record of the informants recruited, generally by the British Home Office but also by local militias and constabularies, to report on the seditious conspiracies of their fellow Englishmen. Continue reading