|Constance Kent 1862|
Kate Summerscale's bestselling and award-winning The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008), an examination of the Constance Kent case, appeared eighty years after the publication of John Street's The Case of Constance Kent (1928).
Although in her Suspicions Summerscale alludes briefly to John Street's important role in the untangling of the Constance Kent affair, most reviewers of Summerscale's book seem to have been under the impression that Summerscale was plowing a virgin field in true crime. Indeed, some reviewers of Summerscale's most recent book, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace (2012), have remained under this impression. "Like her award-winning The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," writes Rachel Cooke in the Guardian, "[Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace] blows the dust off long-forgotten people and events...."
|this latest account of the |
Constance Kent case
became a bestseller
For the purposes of this piece, I want to look more closely at John Street's role in the Constance Kent historiography. It has been a disappointment to me that no review of Summerscale's Suspicions that I have seen has acknowledged Street by name (a 2008 review in The Independent is as close as I have seen to an acknowledgement, but, alas, Street is referred to only as "a writer investigating the case").
|Road Hill House, home of the Kent family in 1860, when three-year-old Francis Saville Kent |
was found dead with his throat cut, in the household's outdoor privy
In 1860, Francis Saville Kent, the three-year-old son of Samuel Saville and Mary Pratt Kent (Samuel's second wife), was found dead with his throat cut, in the household's outdoor privy. Jonathan Whicher, the celebrated Scotland Yard inspector eventually called in by a floundering local police force, soon charged the dead boy's sixteen-year-old half-sister, Constance, with the brutal crime. The charge against her was dismissed by magistrates, leading to Whicher's public humiliation and premature retirement.
Five years later, however, Whicher was vindicated when Constance, who had come under intense religious influence, confessed that she had indeed done the dark deed with her own hand. After serving twenty years in prison Constance was released and left for parts unknown. At the time of the publication of John Street's The Case of Constance Kent, Constance had been absent from England for forty-three years and was generally assumed to be dead.
|John Street was not enamored with|
conceptions of Victorian patriarchy
and class privilege
Samuel Kent had continued to father numerous children by his first wife, even after her health irretrievably broke down (at the time of the murder and also in Street's day it was accepted that she had developed gradually worsening insanity). Five of the couple's ten children died in infancy. Himself the father of only one child, Street vigorously condemned Samuel Kent's conception of family planning. He damned Kent as a "typical mid-Victorian father" who "seems to have considered it right and fitting that [his wife] should continue to become the mother of defective children [meaning the five who died], irrespective of her mental condition."
|Constance Kent in later life|
Constance pretended that the letter writer was a friend of Constance's and that Constance Kent had died. Street was unable to determine whether, as he suspected, Constance was truly the writer of the letter. It was Bernard Taylor who discovered several decades later that Constance indeed had migrated to Australia, survived into the late 1920s and written the letter, which Street had dubbed the Sydney Document.
After the Detection Club was formed in 1930, Street donated the Sydney Document to the Detection Club library of crime fiction and history, where it was lost or destroyed amid the chaos of World War Two.
Providentially Street himself typed a copy of the letter. This copy was discovered in his papers after his death and included in the 1989 reprint edition of Bernard Taylor's book on the Constance Kent case.
I hope this piece helps provide a fuller picture of the historiography of the Constance Kent case as well as an understanding of John Street's role in aiding scholars of the case to reach definitive answers about it. Yet more detail on this matter is found in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961. See here.