Book Review: The Doctor’s Wife is Dead by Andrew Tierney

A mysterious death in respectable society: a brilliant historical true crime story

In 1849, a woman called Ellen Langley died in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. She was the wife of a prosperous local doctor. So why was she buried in a pauper’s coffin? Why had she been confined to the grim attic of the house she shared with her husband, and then exiled to a rented dwelling-room in an impoverished part of the famine-ravaged town? And why was her husband charged with murder?

Following every twist and turn of the inquest into Ellen Langley’s death and the trial of her husband, The Doctor’s Wife is Dead tells the story of an unhappy marriage, of a man’s confidence that he could get away with abusing his wife, and of the brave efforts of a number of ordinary citizens to hold him to account. Andrew Tierney has produced a tour de force of narrative nonfiction that shines a light on the double standards of Victorian law and morality and illuminates the weave of money, sex, ambition and respectability that defined the possibilities and limitations of married life. It is a gripping portrait of a marriage, a society and a shocking legal drama.

What I Thought:
What started out as a genealogical curiosity is presented by Andrew Tierney in a well-reasearched, and rage-inducing account of the appalling treatment of a woman at the hands of her husband.

In The Doctor’s Wife is Dead, Ellen Langley’s life and death are presented in all their gory details, with supporting evidence presented in a really accessible way. This real-life account of a woman considered and old maid by the social mores of the time, but certainly not by today’s standards, finally married to a younger doctor with prospects could have been a happy and unremarkable tale but, as is presented in the book, Ellen’s husband was more interested in her connections, leading to a miserable life of physical and mental abuse, ending with a burial in a pauper’s grave.

It should be pointed out that there are some educated suppositions made, based on the evidence that Andrew Tierney has unearthed but it seems that the story is indicative of the treatment of any number of women during this time – those declared insane or hysterical when they were nothing of the sort, but who simply had no rights and no hope should the men in their lives turn against them.

As dry as non-fiction can sometimes be, this account is as gripping as any fiction title and is paced beautifully, through to the conclusion of the case, and an epilogue in which we find out how Dr Langley ended his life. Definitely recommended for lovers of true crime.

Please Note: I was sent a copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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