Psychology & Psychiatry Trials of Passion by Lisa Appignanesi | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on April 11th, 2014


Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness by Lisa Appignanesi

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Blurb: This book journeys into the heart of dark passions and the crimes they impel. When passion is in the picture, what is criminal, what sane, what mad or simply bad? Brighton, 1870: A well-respected spinster infuses chocolate creams with strychnine in order to murder her lover’s wife. Paris, 1880: A popular performer stalks her betraying lover through the streets of the city for weeks and finally takes aim. New York, 1906: A millionaire shoots dead a prominent architect in full view of a theatre audience. Through court and asylum records, letters and newspaper accounts, this book brings to life a period when the psychiatric professions were consolidating their hold on our understanding of what is human. An increasingly popular press allowed the public unprecedented insight into accounts of transgressive sexuality, savage jealousy and forbidden desires. With great story-telling flair, Lisa Appignanesi teases out the vagaries of passion and the clashes between the law and the clinic as they stumble towards a (sometimes reviled) collaboration. Sexual etiquette and class roles, attitudes to love, madness and gender, notions of respectability and honour, insanity and lunacy, all are at play in that vital forum in which public opinion is shaped – the theatre of the courtroom.

(Virago 2014)

Miranda Seymour, The Telegraph 

“Enthrallingly narrated, Appignanesi’s book compels with its gruesome subject matter and delights with a wealth of bizarre detail.”

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Susan Hill, The Times 

“Appignanesi, a writer interested in psychiatry, has collected together stories of crazed lovers, the abused and abandoned, seducers, obsessives and stalkers are about those taunted beyond endurance, about women like Edmunds, who bring their nemesis upon themselves — and they include one or two men. Interwoven with them are the medical/psychiatric diagnoses and “explanations” used in and outside the courtroom, which change and change about, many seeming as mad as the minds of the patients.”

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Dinah Birch, The Guardian 

“Appignanesi’s study highlights sweeping changes in social, legal and medical definitions of mental illness, as courts struggled to decide the limits of personal accountability. Her book is enlightening on the differences in the national legal processes underlying the sensational trials she describes. It is not, however, Appignanesi’s sober investigation of the context of these cases that the reader is likely to remember. What lingers in the mind is a series of desperate images: Edmunds trying to force a poisoned sweet into the mouth of her supposed rival in love; Bière lurking in the shadows, watching her lover with revolver loaded and ready; Stanford White lying in the rooftop garden he had designed with half his face blown away.”

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Kate Colquhoun, The Observer 

“Appignanesi stitches these studies into a convincing, enlightening narrative that skilfully blends scholarship with a seductive interest in what makes us human. My only quibble is one of style: the choice to slide between the present tense – used in recounting the crimes – and the past tense simply doesn’t work: irritatingly inconsistent, it interrupts an otherwise lucid flow.”

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Louise Jury, The Independent 

“Appignanesi is a warm and clever writer – and a chair of the Freud Museum in London. But her fascination with the “mind-doctoring” sometimes proves more disruptive to a potentially gripping narrative than illuminating.”

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Daisy Goodwin, The Sunday Times 

“These are all good stories, and it is a shame that Appignanesi, who is also a novelist, doesn’t give them the narrative treatment they deserve. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher this is definitely not. I could have forgiven the leaden story-telling if there had been a coherent argument that linked the various trials, but by the end of the book I was still unclear why it had been written.”

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