THE LADY IN THE CELLAR
She was an eccentric, rich old lady – one who attracted odd looks and even laughter from strangers as she paraded around with her dyed ringlets and fancy clothing deemed more appropriate for a young woman than one in her 60s. However, Matilda Hacker little deserved the mockery she received, but she certainly didn’t deserve the horrific death that was inflicted on her in the autumn of 1877. For nearly two years, her body lay in the cellar of a Euston Square boarding house, decomposing under a pile of rubbish and coal, until it was eventually uncovered, prompting a murder investigation and a trial that had longterm repercussions for those involved.
Prolific author Sinclair McKay has a knack for uncovering and writing about oncenotorious Victorian crimes, and this is certainly a peculiar one – a tale that enables McKay to explore issues around gender roles, attitudes towards sex and illegitimacy, the role of the press, and how mental health issues were treated in the era.
Alas, he seems determined to make the case more exciting: he tries to whip his readers into a sense of anticipation about what might occur next, only for the narrative to fail to meet that expectation. His desire to ‘ solve’ the crime is also, ultimately, disappointing, due to his desire to paint individuals in a dark light that they may well have little deserved – just as Matilda Hacker did not deserve her violent death. To use the evidence to suggest an individual struggling with gender and class roles in Victorian society is one thing; to suggest they are actually sociopathic instead seems a bit too much of a leap of imagination.