I found The Suicide Bride by Tanya Bretherton confusing book and felt Bretherton was not sure of her thesis statement.
According to the book’s blurb she is investigating how a “depraved criminal” is created: nature or nurture. However, the book jumps all over the place. It is more an exploration of domestic violence in Sydney in the early 1900s. The title suggests that the book will be about one particular woman, Ellie Sly, murdered by her husband Alicks Sly with a cut-throat razor, who then committed suicide using the same weapon. But the book spends little time on Ellie, before expanding into a broader exploration of life on the tough streets of Newtown and Glebe, and the violence so often experienced by women of the time.
Bretherton has done her research, and the book is weighed down by how much of it she feels she needs to share with the reader. There are several passages where she lists so many examples to support her statement, they read like shopping-lists! However, I did learn a lot about accidental poisoning of children during the era!
Bretherton does, however, reveal how society and the law turned a blind eye to domestic violence. Neighbours were often aware of abuse, but felt it was none of their business, as did the local police, and the courts offered no support at all. In the words of one judge “Marriage is marriage however miserable it turns out to be.”
The real tragedy is the damage done to the Sly children. Bretherton has some success in uncovering how their lives were blighted by the violent loss of their parents. With no other close family willing to take on their care, the children became wards of the state. The youngest, a daughter, was adopted and no information could be uncovered about her life. The three boys were sent to St Michaels, a Catholic boys home in Baulkham Hills. Their is no evidence that they were mistreated while in the care of the Sisters of Mercy. However, after two years they were moved onto St Vincent’s, an Industrial school also run by the Catholic Church. Again, although there is no evidence that the three boys were mistreated, it is know that they “would have experienced an environment in which nurturing and the cultivation of attachment played little role.”
The eldest son, Bedford, had a very sad life. I found his life-story particularly moving. He lived in a time when “society was still a long way from understanding the complex trauma that [he] undoubtedly carried.” Bedford saw his parents bloody remains as a very young boy, a trauma from which he never recovered. It’s Bedford’s poignant story that I will not forget, and the irrevocable damage done to young lives by a society that did not offer support to victims on domestic violence.