Fatal Triangle

How a dark tale of love, madness and murder in 18th-century London became a story for the ages

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Finally, in the 20th century, female authors were able to draw on Burgess' "documents" to write the history of the crime from Martha Ray's point of view. They explored the moral dilemma of a woman tied by her children and her poverty to a rich keeper but who, it was supposed, genuinely loved a far more attractive, if impecunious, young man.

Every age, it would seem, rewrote the story for its own purposes. The stern Victorian condemnation of the love triangle is based on the same evidence as the sympathetic accounts written in the 18th century. The differences in motive and moral stance stem only from the larger narrative framework.

So where does the truth lie? I have to confess I do not know. Rereading the many versions, I find none totally convincing; at the same time, all lack the evidence a historian needs to offer an alternative narrative. I suspect, however, that the love triangle was more complicated (and messy) than the historical record implies. The "truth" will probably never be revealed, not least because early efforts to suppress it were so successful.

But the manner in which the story of the three lovers has been told gives us a different sort of insight. It shows how changing values and attitudes continue to shape our perceptions of the past. Who knows, the 21st century may yet yield its own, radically different interpretation. For now, however, the most widely cited version of the "truth" remains Herbert Croft's entirely fictional Love and Madness. Its enduring appeal lies in its powerful evocation of the snares and pitfalls of obsessive love that claimed three victims outside the Covent Garden Theatre on a sultry spring night in 1779.



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