The Unseeing

‘Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence.

Even the things you think you know.’

Set in London in 1837, The Unseeing tells the story of Sarah Gale, a seamstress, nurse and mother, sentenced to death for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.

After Sarah petitions for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Idealistic, but struggling with his own demons, Edmund is determined to seek out the truth. Yet Sarah, despite protesting her innocence, refuses to add anything to the evidence given in court: the evidence which convicted her. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone would willingly go to their own death?

Read the first chapter or listen to the audio version.

Q & A

What drew you to this period in particular?
I first read about the Edgware Road Murder in The The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, where it is mentioned only briefly. As the crime took place in Camberwell, where I live, I wanted to find out more about it. I read the Old Bailey transcript and was intrigued to find that Sarah Gale’s barrister says very little throughout the whole proceedings to counter the fairly outlandish allegations made against his client. Sarah gives only the short statement quoted in The Unseeing. That got me thinking: what would keep a woman silent despite the risk of a death sentence: guilt? Fear? Love?
How did you approach the borderline between known fact (whatever that is) and your fiction?
I spent a long time researching the facts and even longer trying to prise myself away from them in order to write a story that anyone would want to read. That meant, at some points, diverging from the known facts of the case. I agonized over this for many months, and it is part of the reason that one of the key themes of the novel is truth/deception. I have also made clear in my historical note that The Unseeing is a work of fiction. No doubt some people will criticize me for playing with the truth, but, ultimately, I’m a storyteller, not a historian.
Did you find the fictional characters easier to work with than the 'factual' ones?
Not easier, necessarily, just different. Both Edmund and Rosina are entirely works of imagination and that gave me more freedom to create. However, having some clues as to what Sarah Gale and James Greenacre might have been like as people gave me the basis of a structure which with to work. I think, to be honest, that we always draw on real people, or facets of real people, when creating fictional characters: we just don’t admit which ones.
How did you endeavour to anchor your characters in your era, to make them truly historical and not simply twenty-first century people in period costume (which you did very well)?
I tried to think about how they would have interacted with the world around them, rather than just reeling off descriptions of their clothing and their surroundings. It’s always tempting to shoehorn your research into your writing, but a reader can spot that from a mile away. I also tried not to project too many of our modern sensibilities unto my characters. While I would, for example, have liked Sarah to be a true feminist, that just wasn’t realistic for the era in which she was living and her position in society. She had to do what she could in order to survive.
Tell us about your research? Have you got any particular tips for someone else venturing into the very early Victorian era?
I conducted most of my research online. Harvard University is an amazing resource and it was there that I found many of the original pamphlets relating to Greenacre and Gale: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/5792279. The newspaper articles came mainly from The British Newspaper Archives (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk ) which was also a useful way of finding out what else was going on in London in 1837.
Lee Jasper runs the wonderful Victorian London site (http://www.victorianlondon.org), and Forgotten Books (http://www.forgottenbooks.com) do a great line in out of print nineteenth century texts. I also used Google books search, restricting my search to nineteenth century, to check particular facts.
Judith Flanders’ books on the Victorian era are great, as is Jerry White’s London In The Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God.
Are there any recognisable places or landmarks that feature in the novel?
Almost all of the locations named in The Unseeing were real places, although many of them no longer exist. Windmill Lane in Camberwell (where James Greenacre lived) is no more, but was near to what is now Wyndham Road. St Giles Church, where Greenacre and Hannah Brown were to have married, was rebuilt after a fire in 1841. The Angel Public House on Coldharbour Lane, where they were supposed to have their wedding breakfast, has been developed into housing.
Newgate prison, where both Gale and Greenacre were imprisoned, was demolished in 1904. The Old Bailey of course still exists, but in a very different form to how it appeared in 1837. People are no longer led through Dead Man’s Walk to be hanged, although the passage itself is still there.
How did you fit writing around your day job? Now that you’ve given up the day job, is book two proving easier?
Like most writers, I snatched bits of time here and there: in the evenings, on the train, during the weekend while my baby napped. I took a few months out to finish The Unseeing and I am again having some time off law to write my second novel. That of course gives me more time to read, research and write, but I need to ensure I stay focused. I am finding Scrivener helpful in setting targets and I now have a proper desk to make me feel like a real writer.

Reviews

“This sizzling first novel was inspired by the Edgware Road Murder, a sensation of 1837. The author is a criminal justice solicitor, and she uses her knowledge of the law with great skill, but the characters, cleverly and sympathetically imagined, are the engine of the story.”
Kate Saunders, The Times

“A twisting tale of family secrets and unacknowledged desires. Intricately plotted and extremely convincing in its evocation of the everyday realities of 1830s London, this is a fine first novel.”
The Sunday Times

“I can’t remember the last time a book gave me such pure, unalloyed pleasure.I can’t imagine reading another new novel, and certainly not a debut, as thrilling and moving as this one for the rest of 2016.
The Irish Independent

“[An] accomplished debut: Mazzola quickly draws the reader in to this intriguing mystery. Mazzola skilfully conjures up a bygone world. If you like historical fiction then you’ll love this compelling murder mystery.”
The Daily Express

“Set in a vividly-imagined Victorian London, from the seamy horrors of Newgate Gaol to the bloated inns of court, this is a wonderful combination of a thrilling mystery and a perfectly depicted period piece. A brilliant debut.”

Deirdre O’Brien, The Sunday Mirror

“A compelling did she/didn’t she that’s full of the sights and sounds of Victorian England, this is a winner.”
The Sun

“This engrossing debut novel dramatically investigates a true murder case. The Unseeing engulfs you in a heady, addictive fog from the very start.”
Grazia

“[an] expertly crafted novel crammed with authentic descriptions and characters, and with a fascinating and compulsive plot, this is a thrilling debut.”
Heat

“Tragic, terrifying and authentic.”
Woman and Home

“The Unseeing is the debut novel of Anna Mazzola and you’d never guess it. This engrossing novel is thoroughly researched and beautifully written, presenting a dramatic interpretation of a true and infamous murder case.”
Kate Atherton: For Winter’s Night Book Blog

“With this intricately woven tale of trust, self-trust and deceit, Anna Mazzola brings a gritty realism to Victorian London. Beautifully written and cleverly plotted, this is a stunning debut, ranked amongst the best.”
Manda Scott

“Every now and then a debut novel comes along that stands out from the crowd. The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola is one…If you like your historical crime beautifully written, intelligent and genuinely moving, this is one for you.”

Katherine Clements (author of The Silvered Heart)

“Anna Mazzola’s Victorian crime novel has all the pace and drama of a psychological thriller. A book to be read voraciously; open-mouthed at the twists and turns. Who really murdered Hannah Brown? Why is the accused Sarah Gale so silent? Mazzola keeps the reader lurching from conviction to doubt over Sarah’s innocence. The twist at the end is utterly unpredictable, and the tension is ratcheted tight until the final pages. Historical crime fiction has a new star.”

Antonia Senior (author of Treason’s Daughter)

“A brilliantly researched, emotional, perceptive, and utterly engaging slice of Victorian crime fiction. Highly recommended.”
Raven Crime Reads

“I loved it, couldn’t put it down. As well as being a gripping, page-turning novel,The Unseeing immersed me in all the sights and sounds and smells of Victorian London, so that each time I put the book down I would look up surprised to find myself still in my own house in the twenty-first century.”
Claire Fuller (author of Our Endless Numbered Days)

“Whip-smart and crisp, I really enjoyed The Unseeing. Fine historical fiction.”
Kate Mayfield (author of The Undertaker’s Daughter)

“Had to finish The Unseeing this morning. A story of frailty, love & control, a plot to die for.”
Mary Chamberlain (author of The Dressmaker of Dachau)

“The Unseeing is deft, dark and delicious. Anna Mazzola writes brilliantly about Victorian London, a fascinating crime and an intriguing heroine. Her portrait of Sarah Gale is unforgettable, she has created a vivid and recognisable young woman who is of her time but speaks to ours.”
JANET ELLIS (author of THE BUTCHER’S HOOK)

“Gripping plot and superbly vivid description of murderous Victorian history.”
SD Sykes (author of Plague Land)

“A sophisticated crime novel, page after alluring page. Anna Mazzola has brought to life a real life criminal case, no less prescient for today’s readers in its questioning of why we do the things we do. I urge you to read it.”
Dreda Say Michell (author of Blood Sister)

The Crime

The murder of Hannah Brown caused a sensation at its time. It became known as ‘the Edgeware Road Murder’ due to the first body part – the torso – having been found under a paving stone on the Edgware Road on 28 December 1836. A week later, a lock-keeper at Regent’s Canal in Stepney recovered a woman’s head, the right eye ‘knocked out’. The head was taken to Paddington Green workhouse, where the parish surgeon matched it up with the trunk, before preserving it in a jar. On 2 February 1837, two labourers found a pair of legs sticking out of a sack in an osier bed off the Coldharbour Lane. It was the writing on the sack that allowed the police to trace the murder back to carpenter James Greenacre and, from him, to his lover, Sarah Gale, who was in Greenacre’s bed when the police arrived.

When she was arrested, Sarah had in her possession several items said to belong to Hannah Brown, including two gold rings and some carnelian eardrops.

The Silence

During her questioning by the magistrates, Sarah Gale maintained that she knew nothing about the murder of Hannah Brown. However, she was reported to be shaking so much that she struggled to hold the pen to sign the deposition.

At the trial at the Old Bailey, Sarah gave a short statement in which she said she was not at the house at the time the murder took place and knew nothing about it. That was disputed by the barristers for the Crown, who emphasized that that she had been surrounded by Hannah’s belongings, had pawn tickets for some of her clothes, and had borrowed water, supposedly to wash the blood from the floor. Sarah was said to have watched James Greenacre intently throughout the proceedings.

On 3 April 1837, Greenacre was convicted of Hannah’s Brown’s murder; Sarah of aiding and abetting him. The Spectator reported that Sarah seemed, ‘almost stupified’ at the verdict. She later, ‘threw her arms round Greenacre’s neck, and kissed him.’

The Prison

Much of The Unseeing is set in Newgate, which was one of the most notorious prisons in England at the time. An 1835 Committee referred to it as a ‘stain’ on the character of the City of London; an institution ‘which outrages the rights and feelings of humanity.’

The prison was divided into three parts: the debtors’ side, the criminal side, and the woman’s side. By 1837, thanks largely to the work of social reformer Elizabeth Fry, conditions on the women’s side were far less squalid than they had been earlier in the century. However, prisoners were still cold, ill, and underfed, and many female prisoners had children with them, from babies to girls of 11 and 12.

Part of Newgate’s notoriety was connected to the fact that it was the place of public executions, a scaffold being erected outside the ‘debtor’s door’. Executions were moved inside the gaol in 1868, and the last execution took place in May 1902. In 1904 the prison was demolished.

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