Constance Kent - The Brighton YearsBy Jane Lucas
Constance Kent is a well-known figure, following the recent publishing success of "The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. But her time in Brighton is regularly passed over in accounts of her life. After a drawn-out investigation, she was eventually convicted of the murder of her step-brother in the infamous Road Hill murder in 1860. Elements of the story were used by both Dickens and Wilkie Collins. However, the time Constance Kent spent in Brighton in 1865 has not been explored in detail, even though it is pivotal in her journey to prison. It is here that she underwent a religious conversion which led her to make the confession that formed the basis of her conviction.
The story touches on a number of fascinating historical developments in Brighton. The priest to whom Constance confessed belonged to the Wagner family who were responsible for the building of key Brighton Churches, including St Paul’s in West Street and St Bartholomews, London Road. As the very act of confession was controversial, the public reaction to the case highlights the fervent rivalry between High and Low Church in the town. The phenomenon of Homes for Penitent Females (which persisted in Brighton until the 1960’s as Homes for Unmarried Mothers, in some cases) is seen in her residence at St Mary's Home, 10-11,Queen Square. The background to this moment in time sees the development of Brighton station, the opening of the Elm Grove workhouse, the development of Hanover and a plethora of minor characters and scandals.
Constance Kent’s story is also fascinating from a psychological point of view. What led Constance to a path that could have only one outcome - prison? Her past suggests a rebellious and unconventional girl who would not have been expected to "come quietly’ in the name of religion. She had always vehemently denied responsibility for the death of her step-brother. Her family life had been strained and unusual; her mother had been closed in one part of the family home whilst her father installed her governess, whom he later married and with whom he fathered the murdered child, in the main part of the house. Unsurprisingly, she tried to run away.
However, the really interesting and unexplored part of Constance’s story takes place in Brighton, where she made her transformative decision. I believe there is scope for an interpretation of the case in the context of an imaginative response. I envisage a graphic realisation which blends fiction and fact, including both real and imagined characters and settings from 1865.
What follows is an imagined account of an episode in Constance’s early life.
Ada, my doll, sits on the nursery window-sill, staring across the garden into the dark woods. Chairs are piled on table-tops and the bookshelves have been pulled from the walls, revealing damp brown patches on the peeling wallpaper. I reach for her, but keep my eye on the doorway and, like a horrible magic, there is Mama; a dark shape. We stand still. Beneath her bonnet, sunken into a criss-cross of lines, eyes stare at me as she raises a thin arm towards me. Does she want me to go close so she can touch me with her shaking hands?
Suddenly, a voice calls from the hall and tapping feet ring down the passageway.
“Constance! Constance! Where are you?”
Light floods the room, tumbling from my nursemaid’s golden hair as she enters the room in the moment that Mama slips away. Mary always pretends not to see Mama and I’m glad, shuddering with relief as she catches my hand and I follow her out of the nursery, down the hall. I don’t want to think about Mama’s dark shape, so I blink and forget it. Mary tells me to stay close, not to get lost on this important moving day.
“You don’t want to be left behind, do you? Then you’d have to come later, travelling in the cart with all the chairs and pots and pans?”
“And the tables and the plates..,” I join in our shared song, swinging our joined hands.
“..and the lamps and curtains and sit in the laundry basket!” she adds, laughing.
We reach the wide entrance hall, where Elizabeth, my grown-up sister, looks cross.
Because she wears a shorter dress than usual and strands of her tidy hair escape her cap, I know it’s one of her busy days and that she hasn’t been sitting in Mama’s dark room like she normally does.
“For pity’s sake! Everything is out of place today. Get out of the way, “ she snaps, “or we’ll never be ready. Go into Mama’s room.” Elizabeth pauses and glances at Mary’s feet, not her face. “Mary will get you later.”
It’s dark and I don’t want to go down the shadowy rounded stone passage, beyond which Mama’s rooms lie. I want Mary to appear and warm me, but, afraid of Elizabeth’s anger, I creep past the open door to the scullery. I’m nearly there, but here’s Mr Hutchinson, the groom, and Louisa, who does the washing. I stop, hoping they won’t notice me and peer through the crack in the door.
Mr Hutchinson rests his squat body against the iron mangle, whilst Louisa sits on the edge of the tin bath, chewing her lips, her hands tucked into her white apron. I hear them talking and decide to wait till it’s safe to move.
“The elder son, Edward, came down the other week and you should have heard him! The Navy has taught him some rum words, I’d say.” Mr Hutchinson says, shifting his weight.
Louisa looks like she’s heard something she’s been waiting for.
“He said if Mary’s not gone next time he comes back, he’s not coming back at all!” Mr Hutchinson added, snorting like a whale. Louisa looks important.
“The lot at the Commission don’t like the trouble either, don’t you know? And I’m not surprised, having someone like the big man going round telling everyone how to run their factories and not setting an example himself. You think he’d have some feeling for his poor wife.”
She stands up, unfolding to her full height. “Moving house is one way to go about it, I suppose. And maybe he’ll be able to pay his servants in the next one. Mind you, if moving solved problems, I’d be moving every two minutes!”
They both laugh and, hidden in the clattering sound, I run across the opening to the end of the passageway and the stairs to Mama’s rooms.
Mama’s door opens before me, but I’m afraid to go into the bed-room, where she might make me get into her hot bed to be cuddled and talked to like a baby. I’m not a baby now, I’m a big girl.
Narrow slats of sunlight struggle through the closed shutters and create a funny pattern on Mama’s mantelpiece where she keeps the pictures of all her babies who died in a straight line. Except that they’re not there today. They are piled in a box by the grate, waiting to be put into the cart. I try to picture Mama in a new house, wonder how she would look out of these rooms in which I’ve always known her. She’s sitting in her chair with her cap and shawl off and is very still, like she’s asleep, but her eyes are open. When she sees me, she pats her lap, moving jerkily like a puppet. I climb onto her bony knees, then squash myself against the hard wooden arm of her chair. The thick tapestry pattern on her headrest is faded, so I can’t see the deer in the forest very clearly. Whenever I have to sit on her lap, I always search for the deer. It looks like it’s being chased, but has stopped for a moment to rest and its nose is raised to smell the air. Mama grasps my arms tightly and puts her leathery face close to mine.
“Good girl, good baby, good girl.” I think of Mary’s soft lap and smooth skin. Why did Mama want to have skin like this? It’s no wonder she has to hide her face away in these dark rooms. When I’m older and can choose, I’m going to be beautiful and nice and smiling and smell of flowers. Then Papa will love me the best.
Finally, we all leave the house, after a jumble of waiting, then hurrying; everything upside down and nearly broken; mama getting in the coach behind, leaning on Elizabeth, with my brother squeezed in beside them. I cry till they let me in the front coach with Mary.
Then we have to wait for Papa to come home before we can leave. The coaches stand on the gravel driveway in the silence, with only the horses occasionally stamping a foot or blowing through their cheeks. Summer flies buzz around their twitching ears. We’re on a stage but the show can’t start without Papa so we watch out of the misty carriage windows for him. Mr Hutchinson, Louisa and the cook lean against the open door, as if they can’t wait to shut up the house; not saying good-bye or coming up to the coaches. Mary tells me there won’t be servants in the new house.
Because Papa is taking so long, the furniture carts set off. I try to play the cloud-counting game while I’m waiting, but Mary is prickly and isn’t in the mood. So I show Ada the sky instead. Mary stares fixedly out of the carriage window, as if she can make him appear. In the next carriage, Mama’s face is also pushed against the glass. Nothing can happen without Papa.
There he is! Our coach horses look up as Papa’s mare canters up the driveway and he is off the horse before it has even stopped properly, throwing the reins to Mr Hutchinson, who has to come forward to take them. Papa jumps up into our carriage and plumps himself down in between Susanna and I, catching hold of our hands in his warm, bear-like grip. Everything comes to life again; the coaches rock and we move forward.
This page was amended on 09/04/2014
This is so evocative. I saw the tv adaptation but never realised the connection with Brighton. This is seeing things from another perspective, though Constance's eyes as a child. I want to read more and follow through the family background leading up to later events.
From Val Williams
Absolutely gripping, interesting reading! I want to hear more!
From cat Douglass
This is amazing. I want to read more please! Feel like I was taken to another world.
From Estelle Fitzpatrick
|Constance Kent - The Brighton Years|