“Roderick Usher as a twelve-year-old boarding school bully, precocious and defensive.” – The Fall of the House of Walworth, by Geoffrey O’Brien

September 22, 2010 at 11:50 am (Book review, books)

Like true crime? Enthralled by American history? Enjoy the high drama of courtroom confrontation? Intrigued by stories of outwardly respectable families with plenty to hide?

Have I got a book for you…

This story really begins with Reuben Hyde Walworth, a lawyer who was the last Chancellor of New York State.

Reuben Hyde Walworth 1788-1867

(The Court of Chancery was a holdover from colonial times and was abolished in 1846.) He was a dour Presbyterian with strict teetotaler convictions. Following a brief foray into politics, Chancellor Walworth – for such he continued to be called – presided as a judge in the district that included Saratoga Springs, New York, where he lived with his family. He had a long and varied career – but in later years at least, an exceptionally short commute. This is because he had the courthouse over which he was to preside built as an addition to his dwelling place in Saratoga Springs. That dwelling place was called Pine Grove. This is one of those books in which a house is almost like another character in the story. Several fateful events occurred at Pine Grove.

(I find myself thinking of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…”)

In 1812, Reuben Hyde Walworth married Maria Averill. Together they had five  children, three daughters and two sons. Maria, pious and devoted, died in 1847. Three years later, Walworth took as his second wife Sarah Hardin, a 39-year-old widow from a distinguished Kentucky family. She and her three children went to live with her new husband and his children at Pine Grove. The result was what we call these days a “blended” family. The word implies a harmonious configuration. And so it seemed at Pine Grove – at first.

Author Geoffrey O’Brien provides a succinct summary of the subsequent unfolding of events:

There were Walworths, with their own peculiar sense of history and identity, their special claims on the world as they found it, and there were the Hardins. The Hardins married the Walworths and that’s where the trouble began.

Did it ever. It was trouble that ultimately culminated in murder.

I don’t want to give away any more of this stranger than fiction story. But  I do want to praise Geoffrey O’Brien’s incisive and evocative writing:

Those self-nominated patricians who had for so long exercised a stranglehold on upstate politics, while flaunting their wizened teetotaling virtue in the face of the vibrant Gomorrah at the mouth of the Hudson, now looked like the creaky figurines in antique woodcuts. There was a certain satisfaction in seeing this foppish mother’s boy from Saratoga, the spoiled product of boarding schools and starched cotillions, tossed among the worldly-wise pimps, whores, and confidence men of Manhattan.

Sounds like schadenfreude run amok, doesn’t it? And who exactly is this “foppish mother’s boy?”  Be patient – all is revealed, in the course of this riveting narrative. I will tell you this – or let O’Brien tell you – the perpetrator was, initially at least, one cool customer:

His oddly matter-of-fact behavior gave just the right seasoning to the event: this was a disturbingly modern crime, in a modern hotel, committed by a modern kind of youth – refined, stylish, in some accounts irresistibly attractive (“He had the prettiest mouth I ever saw on a masculine face,” one correspondent reported) – manifesting “utmost calm” and “utter indifference” amid the bloodiest circumstances.

Thomas Mallon entitles his review of this book in the New York Times, “Saratoga Gothic.” Indeed, The Fall of the House of Walworth is a tale rich in Gothic elements. The title seems a conscious echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s High Gothic masterpiece, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In addition, the book put me in mind of Lady Audley’s Secret, a novel referenced specifically by O’Brien. And Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher almost seems an exact British counterpart. (The latter is currently being adapted for the screen by Britain’s ITVThe Fall of the House of Walworth would likewise make a terrific feature film.)

I have one small cavil. This story covers several generations of the Walworth clan, and I would  have appreciated having a family tree to consult. Books like this usually include such a feature on the flyleaf. Perhaps such a chart can be inserted in a subsequent edition.

At the conclusion of his review, Thomas Mallon says the following:

A century from now, if editors still exist, they’ll be getting pitches for books that promise to reassemble the lives of O. J. Simpson or Bernard Madoff — long-forgotten characters whose discovery has excited some hopeful writer. That aspirant author would be well advised to turn to “The Fall of the House of Walworth” — a first-rate book about a second-degree murder — for lessons in how to do it.

I agree absolutely!

Geoffrey O'Brien

3 Comments

  1. Yvette said,

    Now this sounds like a real humdinger, Cathy! What The Common Reader catalogue used to call ‘a thumping good read.” It goes on my tbr non-fiction list for sure.

  2. hotels in saratoga springs said,

    This is great reading as I love non fiction and also history. Great review as well.

    I will definitely want to come back and read more of your insightful postings.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thank you so much – All praise gratefully received!

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