Updated: May 11
The Savage Instinct by M.M. Deluca follows Clara Blackstone, a young Victorian woman who has recently been released from Bethlem Asylum into the 'care' of her husband. As Clara tries to re-adjust to life following the trauma she encountered in the asylum, she begins visiting Mary Ann Cotton, a woman imprisoned awaiting trial for the murder of her children and husband(s). Comparisons naturally evolve between Clara and Mary Ann's lives and situations as Clara suspects her husband of trying to have her re-committed to access her money without her interference.
The historical fictionalised true crime is quite a large subgenre all on its own, its most famous contribution perhaps Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. The prison visiting element also brought to mind Affinity by Sarah Waters. However, in The Savage Instinct, it feels like we are promised a centrality to the true crime element of Mary Ann Cotton that actually becomes quite side-lined. As in many stories of this genre, Mary Ann's account of the crime is the only one we're really given -- she is the only person who really knows her own guilt or innocence. But even within this framework, there isn't the ambiguity we find in Alias Grace or Anna Mazzola's The Unseeing. There doesn't seem a lot of choice except to see Mary Ann as guilty; no real evidence is given to the contrary. This robs the reader of part of what is so enjoyable about historical true crime fiction: the fact that a case is so cold, and forensic science so new, that we often can't be entirely sure.
The main thrust of the story is rather Clara's, and her rapidly faltering relationship with her husband, Henry. Without wishing to pathologise, Clara suffered from what appears to be post-partum psychosis following a miscarriage and was committed. The conditions and treatments of Victorian women's mental illness are described at length and in vivid detail. While I think it is important that we bring to light the way conditions were, in order to better understand how society now views women's mental state and mental illness in general, I found the descriptions really upsetting. Perhaps as a woman with bipolar, knowing I almost certainly would have suffered the same fate during this period with probably little hope of escape, it hit a bit close to home.
The disgust and dread I felt through most of the novel felt like it would be rewarded by the end, as there are 'flash-forwards' throughout the book that suggested Clara eventually attains a life as a free, happy woman. However, I found the ending ultimately unlikely and unsatisfying.
The Savage Instinct is very well-written and has very interesting things to say about the role of womanhood. It highlights the Victorian assumption that women were essentially all mad, but some of them were 'tamed' by strong-willed husbands and the duties of motherhood. However, as a reading experience, the book left me miserable and deflated. I would definitely read more of Deluca's work in future, but this story was not for me.
Many thanks for the review e-advance review copy provided by the publishers and NetGalley.
The Savage Instinct is released on 18th May 2021. You can pre-order a copy here.