Murdering Stepmothers by Anna Haebich
Published UWA Press, 2010
(Review first published July, 2010)
Long before Disney cashed in on her notoriety, the sinister archetype of the murdering stepmother has held the collective psyche in thrall like no other villain. In an intriguing interlacing of fact and fiction, Anna Haebich takes this morbid fascination as her premise to investigate the trial and execution of Martha Rendell – a Perth woman convicted of poisoning to death three of her stepchildren in the early 1900s and the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia.
Rather than a straight forward fictionalised biography, Haebich has chosen to narrate the story through a succession of characters either lifted directly or composited from the historical record. These multiple points of view give a Haebich a nuanced means of conveying the prevailing attitudes (particularly towards women), bigotry and religious dogma of the time, while entertaining variously informed opinions on Rendell’s guilt or otherwise. Rich in detail, it is a narrative devise calculated to show what a woman in Rendell’s position was up against and how she was unlikely to have ever received a fair trial.
The detail comes as a product of Haibich’s meticulous research which she uses to close the gap between the known facts of the case and what could have just as likely have happened. Haebich articulates possible theories, alternative scenarios and the forensic and psychological thinking of the day through the speculative musings of her narrators. It is a display of knowledge that makes for interesting reading, but it does stretch the bounds of credible characterisation at times.
Haebich’s formal prose is in keeping with the era, without being unnecessarily flowery. After four male voices, with their necessary, era-specific sexism, however, there is a strong desire for the author to speak for herself and lay bare her own conclusions on Rendell’s trial and execution. Haebich satisfies this need by writing as the fifth and final narrator – ‘The Researcher’ and only woman to offer her opinion.
Ultimately, what Haebich achieves – through her own voice and the cumulative effect of her male narrators – is a persuasive argument against trials by media, public hysteria (witch hunts) and the malignant employment of stereotypes to condemn a person, all of which resonates as being just as applicable to the modern age as it was 100 years ago. It is also the closest thing to a fair trial stepmother and convicted murderer, Martha Rendell, will ever receive.