The trial and execution of Edith Thompson have been discussed several times on this blog. The 1923 trial was extensively covered in the press of the period. In short, Edith Thompson was tried and executed alongside her lover Frederick Bywaters, for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. At the time, newspapers judged Edith harshly for her affair with a younger man (she was nine years older than Frederick). Current scholarship is generally of the opinion that Edith probably knew nothing about the planned murder and should not have been found guilty. You can read a fuller account of the case here.
Due to the high profile nature of the case, it is no wonder that contemporary authors drew on the case for inspiration. I’ve previously discussed E.M. Delafield’s 1924 novel Messalina of the Suburbs which was based on the Thompson-Bywaters case. Where Delafield’s interpretation of the case was fairly loose, a novel published a decade later took a more forensic approach to recreate the story.
The extra years which had passed since the case no doubt help F. Tennyson Jesse to gain more perspective when she wrote A Pin To See The Peepshow, a novel frequently referenced as the definitive fictionalisation of the case. Tennyson Jesse was a prolific writer across several genres including novels, plays, poetry and non-fiction. Some of her work is available to read for free online. She had a definite interest in true crime: in 1924 she wrote a non-fiction work Murder and its Motives and throughout her career she contributed to the long-running book series Notable British Trials. One of the volumes she was responsible for was the trial of Sidney Fox, who was found guilty of killing his own mother.
In A Pin To See The Peepshow Edith Thompson is transformed into Julia Almond, a young, somewhat pretty woman who, like Edith Thompson, works in a women’s fashion boutique and ends up marrying to a man she finds dreadfully dull. The strength of the book is that Julia is not necessarily a sympathetic character, the reader does sympathise with her. Like E.M. Delafield before her, Tennyson Jesse leaves no doubt that her fictional heroine had no involvement in the plot to murder her husband.
The novel starts when Julia is a school girl, living in West London with her parents and counting down the days to her adulthood. When she is ordered to mind a class of younger children one day, one of the younger boys, Leonard Carr, has a ‘peepshow’: a cardboard box with a decorative interior that can be seen through a small hole. Julia is enchanted by this portal into another world: a first indication of her romantic nature which is reiterated throughout the book. Leonard Carr, when he grows up, becomes the fictional version of Frederick Bywaters. In Tennyson Jesse’s narrative, Julia and Leonard’s relationship is marked by make-believe from its inception.
During the real Thompson-Bywaters trial, much was made of Edith’s letters to Frederick. He had kept these letters despite the couple’s agreement that they would destroy each other’s epistles – Edith did destroy Frederick’s letters to her. The letters alluded to supposed plots to kill Percy. The prosecution at the time used them as evidence that Edith wanted her husband to die, and that she was manipulating Frederick to commit the act for her. From the novel, it appears that F Tennyson Jesse agreed with scholars such as Lucy Bland that the letters were works of fiction, written by a woman with a vivid imagination. Another feature that Tennyson Jesse awards her heroine, which may not be entirely historically accurate, is that Julia is terribly short-sighted. This gives her a plausible defense when she claims she did not recognise her husband’s killer, as the real Edith Thompson also initially said.
The heart of the case is, of course, extramarital relationship which Edith Thompson deigned to embark on. In Delafield’s novel, the heroine is sexually active at a young age, but also gets sexually abused by a series of men who are in positions of power over her. Tennyson Jesse’s Julia is less obviously interested in men, but the brief affair she has with a young man at the start of the First World War is described as completely natural and nothing to be ashamed about.
Julia’s eventual marriage to family friend Herbert Startling is primarily motivated by her desire to leave her parents’ home, and her inability to afford her own living space. When Leonard Carr re-appears on the scene as a young adult, Tennyson Jesse makes it clear that sexual relations with Leonard are extremely satisfying to Julia, again without judging or moralising about it.
Julia is less obviously a victim than Delafield’s heroine. Throughout A Pin To See A Peepshow, Julia is often in command. She earns more money than Herbert and is largely able to dictate when she allows him to sleep in her bed. Nonetheless, Tennyson Jesse makes clear that ultimately, Julia is too naïve to understand the passions she’s unleashed in Leonard which drive him to his ultimate act. Her subsequent foolish attempt to cover up Leonard’s involvement to make the murder seem like an accident, seals her fate in a patriarchal justice system. Tennyson Jesse’s Julia probably comes close to the real Edith Thompson: a woman not without faults, whose options in life were narrowly determined by her sex and who paid the price for transgressing accepted norms.
A Pin To See The Peepshow was recently re-issued as part of the British Library Women’s Writers series. Copies can be bought here.
 Lucy Evans, ‘Preface’, in F. Tennyson Jesse, A Pin To See The Peepshow (London: British Library, 2021), p. viii
 Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in 1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, no. 3 (2008), 624-648