Caroline: In the introduction to her 1924 criminological study Murder and Its Motives, the writer F. Tennyson Jesse declared, ‘It has been observed, with some truth, that everyone loves a good murder.’
This was a personal as well as a general observation. Although she had no formal training in law or criminology, the publication of this book near the start of the golden age of detective fiction marked the beginning of a decades-long career for Jesse in writing about crime. Few people, it turned out, loved a good murder as much as she did.
Through both her fiction and non fiction, F Tennyson Jesse explored some of the most high profile cases of her time. Her way of telling these stories and the theories that she evolved from them fascinated readers, and continues to shape the way we tell stories about murder today.
Today, we’re going to meet the queen of true crime.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we get into her life and work, I feel I should spend a little bit of time on the name, F Tennyson Jesse. This was a penname she adopted in her late teens — she was born Wynifried Margaret Tennyson Jesse and was known through most of her childhood as “Fee”. When she was at art college, she altered her first name to “Fryniwyd”, mostly shorted to Fryn, although she was sometimes nicknamed “Frilliwyd” when she was being more frivolous than usual. It was also at this time that she started writing seriously and signing her work as F. Tennyson Jesse, and this stuck as her professional name throughout her career. Her name strikes us as somewhat unusual and eccentric now, and I think to some extent it did at the time, too. In 1924, her husband wrote a comic poem for her birthday, and poked fun at her decision to change her name:
"My name is Fryn T'would be a sin If it were Win- i-fred — or anything common — like that"
Her surnames, Tennyson and Jesse, she came to via her father, Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt Jesse. He was a nephew of the famous Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, his mother Emily being Alfred’s sister. Emily had rather famously been engaged to Alfred’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam. After Arthur’s premature death at the age of 22 — which her brother the poet wrote about in his 1850 poem “In Memoriam” — Emily married a naval midshipman named Richard Jesse and had two sons, the younger of whom was Fryn’s father. Incidentally, Emily named her elder son “Arthur Henry Hallam Jesse” after her deceased fiancé — as Fryn noted in a letter much later in life no record remained of what her living husband thought about that.
Both the Tennyson and the Jesse families boasted notable literary ancestors and lineages that could be traced back to Tudor times and beyond. The Jesses were naturalists, theologians, historians, minor poets, courtiers and landowners, while the Tennysons were very proud of being able to trace their line all the way back to the noble Norman family of d’Eyncourt. Fryn’s father was so proud of this that he legally added this name back onto his own. He loved being “the Reverand Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt Jesse” and would sign it as much as possible; perhaps his daughter’s preference for just “Fryn” was a response to this.
Fryn had an unusual upbringing. She was the second of three daughters born to Eustace and his wife Edith. Neither of her parents ever enjoyed robust health and, despite the fancy ancestors they didn’t have much ready money between them. The family was constantly moving abroad for Eustace to take shortlived posts as a curate or chaplain and then coming back to Britain when it didn’t work out. Fryn’s youngest sister Ermentrude died in infancy when the family were in Cape Town, South Africa, and her older sister Stella was increasingly left back with her mother’s parents in Croydon. Fryn followed her parents through a succession of boarding houses and rented rooms all over the world, which although not a necessarily happy childhood did gift her with a love of travelling that she would put to good use in her adult life.
Although not nearly so enamoured of her famous Tennyson and Jesse relatives as her father was, Fryn did enjoy hearing stories about her great uncle the poet laureate. Later, she would attribute some of her passion for murders to the impulses she shared with him. According to family lore, Alfred loved to read The Newgate Calendar before going to sleep — that being a compilation of penny dreadful type tales about London’s worst criminals that was produced by the Keeper of Newgate Prison. Rather gory bedtime reading, but Fryn delighted in this macabre connection with him, and later also cited the poet’s passion for discussing crime late into the night with his friend the actor Henry Irving as evidence of the murderous fascination they shared. “In other words, I am a Tennyson,” she would say.
Fryn was a passionate fan of crime in fiction too, from an early age. When she was briefly sent to boarding school at the age of 12, one of her few brushes with conventional formal education, she was found to be good at languages and history but terrible at mathematics. She got through the classes by setting up a bartering system with the other girls. She would use her ability to recite Sherlock Holmes stories word perfect to keep them entertained after lights out, and they would do her maths for her. She would edit the stories in her head so that they were always in the first person, as if she was Watson and had been on the cases herself, and kept her schoolmates spellbound. They were happy to do her homework in exchange, and according to an account she wrote later, she “apparently turned in correct sums every week”.
Despite her enthusiasm for crime and the macabre, it wasn’t immediately clear to Fryn what she was going to do with her life. For a while as a teenager she maintained that she wanted to be a nun, but this was mostly a ploy to please her excessively religious mother. Her calling did not stand up to scrutiny once representatives from potential convents started interviewing her. At the age of nineteen, she was sent to study art at the Newlyn School in Cornwall, where she exhibited some talent at painting and illustration.
It was here, though, that she began to take writing seriously. She was asked to become the editor of the college magazine, The Paper Chase, which was her first real journalistic endeavour. She greatly enjoyed putting it together and did such a good job of it that those around her began to encourage her literary aspirations. It was also at this time that she began writing poetry of “such promise” that her father began to have romantic ideas of her achieving the kind of “Tennyson glory” that he had never himself attained.
After art college came what Fryn called her “descent on Fleet Street”. She moved to London and rented a tiny basement in Chelsea, living on one meal a day so as to make her meagre funds stretch as far as she could. She had a portfolio full of short stories she had written in the last couple of years, but while she waited for any of her inquiries to publishers to bear fruit, she needed to earn a living, and that meant journalism. Her strategy for gaining employment was simple: she turned up unannounced at newspaper offices on Fleet Street and tried to talk her way in to see editors who might give her a commission to write something.
She ended up succeeding with Harold Child, who was then the drama critic of the Times. Child had just been put in charge of launching a new “feminine supplement” and was looking for women writers to staff it. When Fryn arrived, so the story goes, he had just declared he did not need to see any more women, but the commissionaire on the door recommended that he “see this one” because she was pretty. That got Fryn’s foot in the door, and she quickly became a reliable contributor for Child, writing leaders for the ladies’ supplement and covering things like dress shows and new exhibitions at the British Museum for the Times proper.
Reflecting later on how she got her start, Fryn was dismissive of the attractions that had made the editor first pay attention to her. She wrote
“I was not beautiful, though I gave the effect of it… I had golden hair and big grey-green eyes with black lashes and eyebrows. It as only the beauty of youth and it did not last long, but I had it when I started.”
It wasn’t long before one of her short stories found a home. To her great surprise, the English Review not only published “The Mask” but gave her the princely sum of 15 guineas for it. The story received good reviews and in the spring of 1912 she had a letter from someone called HM Harwood wanting to adapt it into a play. When she went for a meeting with this person, she discovered that he was in fact “Tottie Harwood”, a university friend of her uncle’s, and he found that she was “Fatty Fee”, a childhood acquaintance.
They worked on the play, which appeared in December of 1912 as The Black Mask, and was popular in London, New York and Paris. They became friends — she went on holiday with his family, and they discovered a mutual interest in sailing that was to become important later on. They would marry in 1918, and after a turbulent first few years of marriage in which Tottie had a mistress that he treated like a wife and a wife that he treated like his mistress, they settled down into a personal and professional partnership that was to last the rest of their lives.
In 1913, Fryn fulfilled a lifelong ambition to fly when Tottie arranged for her to go up above Lake Windermere in the Lake District with a friend who was a pilot. On the first flight, she put her hand out to wave to those on the ground and caught it in the propeller. The injury was a serious one and, after becoming hooked on the morphine she had to take to manage the pain, she ended up travelling to New York to have it operated on by a surgeon there. She referred to this period as her “lost years”, although her short fiction and journalism continued to do well despite her physical limitations.
Having been a traveller since an early age, Fryn was at home on the road and travelled in America and the Caribbean until summer 1914, when she came home to London and got herself a commission from the Daily Mail to report on the first battles of the First World War in France and Belgium. She quickly became quite well known for her war reports, and other publications took them too. She made four trips in total, and focused in particular on the plight of women at or near the front lines.
It was after the First World War that Fryn published her first piece of crime writing. Murder and its Motives was released in 1924, and looking just at her bibliography up to that point you could be forgiven for thinking that it came out of nowhere. And it did, if you didn’t already know about Fryn’s childhood passion for Sherlock Holmes and her eclectic reading habits. Up to this point she was known for literary fiction, plays and journalism.
The book has six chapters, each devoted to a particular reason that one human being might kill another: gain, revenge, elimination, jealousy, lust of killing and conviction. For each, Fryn takes a historical case that exemplifies the motive and unpacks the two in tandem. It’s a masterclass in how to write what we now call true crime. She both masters the details of the individual case and presents them in such a way as to speak to some larger truth about life and death and justice. It’s clever, forceful, sly and even funny at times. It also reads like a treatise from a writer who still had a lot more to say on her subject.
After the break: Fryn goes to court
Murder and its Motives received good reviews on its initial publication in 1924. As a result of this publicity, Fryn received a letter from Harry Hodge, the then general editor of the Notable British Trials book series, who was interested in recruiting her as a contributor for some new volumes. I’ve covered this series on the podcast before, back in November 2019, in an episode titled Notable Trials, so if you’re interested in more details do go and listen to that. Essentially, though, these books were edited transcripts of famous or significant trials from British legal history. Each one got its own volume and these were published in a distinctive binding with a preface by a well known writer or lawyer.
Hodge was keen to add the author of Murder and its Motives to his list of contributors. Thanks to her gender neutral penname, he addressed his letter to “Mr Jesse”, but she was enthusiastic about the project regardless — gleefully referring to it at one point as “money for jam”. She became the first woman editor for the series and went on to edit six volumes over the next thirty years. When a new edition of Murder and its Motives was published in 1952, it was dedicated to Hodge in thanks for bringing her on to the Notable British Trials team.
In a later catalogue for the Notable British Trials series, Hodge’s son James wrote that “A Notable British Trial, it may be explained, is neither a camouflaged ‘shocker’ nor a legal textbook”. The purpose of these volumes was to be informative and to lay the transcript of the trial before the reader in as informative a way as possible. Of course, what made one trial “notable” and another not was in part governed by the public interest it provoked at the time, but Hodge was firm that the point of the exercise was educational, rather than sensational. Later, some of the prefaces, including Fryn’s, were republished without the transcripts by Penguin as Famous Trials — further evidence, perhaps, that this kind of true crime writing had an audience both within the legal profession and beyond.
F Tennyson Jesse’s first volume dealt with the case of Madeleine Smith, who was tried in Scotland in 1857 for the murder of her lover. The facts of the case were notable enough on their own — Smith’s paramour had been ten years her senior and some of their letters to each other were read in court — but it was the controversial verdict of “not proven” that really made this case stick in the mind. This case had already been included in the series once before, and had been the inspiration for at least one novel already, but Fryn was charged with writing a new preface for a new edition.
In it, she placed much greater emphasis on class and gender as factors in the case. She described Smith as a woman “born before her time”, who had she been lucky enough to live in the twentieth century rather than the nineteenth, might have been able to conduct her relationships in the open and had better outlets for her frustrations about the restrictions of her life. Fryn even goes as far to say that in these circumstances, Smith could have been a “admirable member of society”, who would have driven an ambulance during the war and “been thoroughly competent and completely occupied”. She stops short of completely exonerating Smith on these grounds, but her analysis of the structural context in which the case took place is strikingly forward-thinking.
We see this in all six of her Notable British Trials prefaces — the desire to search for a new angle, to better understand the context in which a crime took place beyond just the bare facts of who struck who. Fryn never shied away from addressing the social issues raised by a murder, either. She used her introductions to make connections between cases and draw out narratives about how justice had been applied and also how public opinion and popular culture had influenced it.
The precise status of Fryn’s work on these prefaces is a bit tricky to pin down. She had no legal training whatsoever, nor indeed any academic degree of any kind, and they are not history or legal commentaries. Although she was a talented journalist and war reporter, it was not in this guise either that she approached these cases — she did make some visits to the places where victims bodies were discovered, but she didn’t conduct interviews with the people involved or investigate any aspect for herself. Her sources were the trial transcripts and the contemporary newspaper reports and that’s it. They were intellectual exercises, written by someone with a passion for understanding murder in all its forms. In a long and varied career, it was an approach she kept returning to.
But F Tennyson Jesse didn’t just write non-fiction about crime. Arguably one of her most lasting works about a real life case was actually a work of fiction: her novel, A Pin To See The Peepshow from 1934. This book takes the raw material of a real murder case — of Edith Thompson, which I covered on the podcast back in January 2019 — and fictionalises it. Edith becomes Julia Almond, a young woman in suburban London who dreams of a bigger, more fulfilling life. She enters into a loveless marriage to escape her parents’ house, and then begins a passionate affair with a younger man.
When Julia finds herself in the dock charged with murder, as with Edith it ends up being her social status and her emotional temperament that is on trial, rather than her actions. The events of the Edith Thompson case occurred in late 1922, but there was a sense in which it was a version of outdated Edwardian morality that dominated the narrative. These themes are the same ones that surface in her Notable British Trials version about Madeleine Smith, and they were to recur again and again in her crime writing: the status of women, their class struggles, their frustrated passions, and the shifting way in which they were treated by society. Alma Rattenbury, whose case Fryn wrote about in 1950, had much in common with Thompson and Smith, but her sentence was different. The parallels she found between the cases greatly enhance Fryn’s telling of them.
The way in which Fryn wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow is indicative of how her non fiction work informed her fiction, too. As it was so heavily based on a real case, she knew exactly how the story was going to end before she began. And so she wrote the first and last sections of the book first, before filling in all the events that came in between. Just as with a factual essay about a court case, she knew the point that she was writing towards from the start.
Because A Pin to the See the Peepshow is fiction, Fryn was free to play with perspective in a way that she could never have done had she been writing about the Thompson case for the Notable Trials series. Some of the novel narrows down to Julia’s point of view, while at other times it broadens to show the general atmosphere of the courtroom. She’s able to be definite about motives and relationships in a way that would have seemed false if she were merely reflecting real life. She can include scenes that were never described by witnesses and give the impression that there is a larger purpose at work, rather than just a random tragedy unfolding.
When A Pin to See the Peepshow was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, James Hodge bought the space on the opposite page to advertise Fryn’s work on the Notable British Trials series. The connection between fact and fiction couldn’t be clearer. If you enjoyed her novel, he was saying, then you will also like her factual crime writing. The two go together, hand in hand.
For all that F Tennyson Jesse wrote sympathetically about women caught up in crime, we mustn’t make the mistake of attributing modern or progressive views to her. She was more empathetic than many of those who wrote about crime in her time, but she could also be dismissive of women’s choices in a way that read uncomfortably for the modern reader. In Murder and its Motives, she also popularised the term “murderee” as opposed to a victim to mean someone susceptible to the predations of a murderer. A murderee is not necessarily a woman, although when clarifying this for a later edition of the book, Fryn inserted the phrase “What I always say is: You’ll never find a nice girl in a trunk” and mused on the characteristics of “trunkable” and “untrunkable” women. Sometimes, her desire to categorise and anatomise everything about murder lead her to some unpleasant places.
A big part of the attraction of F Tennyson Jesse’s crime writing is her certainty. There are six kinds of motives for murder — not seven or five. She slots events into a coherent narrative, giving the impression that crime makes sense, that it can be contained and comprehended. Already knowing the outcome of the cases that she wrote about allows her to act like a detective novelist exploring the limits of fair play. She gives the illusion that there is logic to crime, that it can be controlled. Just as the great detective will always solve the mystery, in F Tennyson Jesse’s true crime narratives, the ending is final and satisfying.
But even when we read her accounts and stories critically, picking at the edges of them to unravel the neat tapestry that she has woven, they retain their power. Her fascination with murder is evident in every line: we care because she does.
In the preface to her 1948 book Comments on Cain, which was a study of how the law of murder differed in Britain, America and France, she laid out why she kept returning to murder as a subject.
She wrote: “Why murder is the greatest of all crimes is not that the life taken may be that of an Abraham Lincoln, but because it might be yours or mine.”
No matter how long F Tennyson Jesse spent formulating grand theories about murder, she never lost sight of its ordinariness, of the omnipresence of violence in everyday life. And that’s why she’s the queen of true crime: she understood the mundane horror of it, and she kept writing anyway.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitbookclub.com/thequeenoftruecrime. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Special thanks to Dr Victoria Stewart, whose chapter on F Tennyson Jesse in her book Crime Writing in Interwar Britain: Fact and Fiction in the Golden Age was invaluable in the making of this episode.
If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. The show’s production assistant is Angela Sullivan. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
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