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 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

Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia Episode 1: Dancing into Battle – Recap & Review

Belgravia Julian Fellowes 2016 x 200Hold on to your bonnets historical fiction fans! Today is the official debut of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia, a new serialized novel by Downton Abbey’s creator/writer. Set in London in the early Victorian-era, the story follows one family’s life and how a secret from twenty-five years earlier, changed them forever.

Austenprose is honored to be the first stop on the Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia Progressive Blog Tour which will, over the course of ten weeks, travel through the ether visiting popular book bloggers and authors specializing in historical fiction and romance. Today we will be recapping and reviewing the first episode, “Dancing Into Battle.”

Released in 11 weekly installments, each episode of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia will conclude with twists, turns and cliff-hanger endings popularized by the novels of Dickens, Gaskell and Conan Doyle in the nineteenth century. Delivered directly to your cell phone, tablet or desktop via a brand new app, you can read the text or listen to the audio recording narrated by acclaimed British actress Juliet Stevenson, or jump between the two. In addition, you will have access to the exclusive bonus features available only through the app including: history, fashion, food & drink, culture and more that will frame the story while immersing you into the character’s sphere. In addition, the first episode is totally free!

Here is a short video on how it all works: Continue reading

Progressive Blog Tour for Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia Begins April 14

Belgravia Julian Fellowes 2016 x 200Downton Abbey may have ended but its creator/writer Julian Fellowes has not missed a beat. The multiple award-winning screenwriter, playwright, and TV show creator has a new novel called Belgravia to fill that huge whole in our hearts when the sixth and final season of Downton concluded in the US last March. Breaking new ground in the digital age, the book will be released in 11 serialized installment beginning Thursday, April 14 by Grand Central Publishing followed by hardcover release on July 05, 2016.

Julian Fellowes’ Belgtavia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode. Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is people by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s new legendary ball, one family’s life will change forever.

The serialized novel is hardly a new concept. Victorian authors such as Dickens, Gaskell, Collins and Conan Doyle became famous through their weekly newspaper installments popular because of their addictive episodic format of twists and cliff hangers. Belgravia will embrace the same concept but with new technology. An app available for download from the official website will send the weekly file to reader’s phones, tablets or computers. Additional annotation and historical detail will also be available to embellish the narrative while readers can jump between the digital text and the audio recording by acclaimed British actress Juliet Stevenson. Continue reading