Fred and Edie

Fred and Edie

by Jill Dawson

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In a dazzling act of literary license, the novelist and poet Jill Dawson has transformed the sensational true story of Britain’s infamous condemned adulteress into a dramatic novel of passion, murder, and scandal, as seductive as it is shocking. One night in London in 1922, a clerk named Percy Thompson is stabbed to death as he walks home from the theater.


In a dazzling act of literary license, the novelist and poet Jill Dawson has transformed the sensational true story of Britain’s infamous condemned adulteress into a dramatic novel of passion, murder, and scandal, as seductive as it is shocking. One night in London in 1922, a clerk named Percy Thompson is stabbed to death as he walks home from the theater. The spectacular case that follows captures the imagination of an entire nation, as Percy’s wife, Edith, and her young lover, Frederick Bywaters, are imprisoned, summarily tried, and hanged for murder, even as a petition to spare their lives receives more than one million signatures.
Stylish, tantalizing, “with descriptions of the sex act from a woman’s viewpoint [that] are both lyrical and sublime” (Daily Mail), FRED & EDIE is a hauntingly authentic portrait of a woman whose passio ultimately leads to her destruction. Reminiscent of both Lady Chatterley and Emma Bovary, Jill Dawson’s Edie falls into the category of the unforgettable.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Dawson's third novel (after Tricks of the Light and Magpie) strikingly and elegantly blends fact and fiction in a reimagining of the events surrounding the spectacular 1922 London trial of Edith Thompson and her lover, Frederick Bywaters, who were convicted and hanged for murdering Edith's husband, Percy. Told primarily in letters Edie writes to her "darlint" Freddy while they are both imprisoned, the story offers a moving portrait of domestic tragedy and an understated but penetrating social commentary. Actual newspaper accounts and a few excerpts from the real Edith Thompson's letters are interspersed throughout; ironically, perhaps, they are less interesting less convincing, even than the fictional material Dawson attributes to Edie. Defiant, intelligent Edie finds solace in writing and in reliving her doomed but passionate affair with Freddy, a ship's steward seven years her junior who had been her sister's "paramour" first. Her language full of longing, rich with metaphor is stunning, and her increasing understanding of brutish Percy, callow Freddy, herself and human nature in general is almost redemptive. In a letter that Freddy never receives, she writes: "We had our happiness didn't we, the light might shine through it sometimes but it was green and fresh and unbending as a blade of grass, wasn't it, Freddy, while it lasted?" It is a testimony to Dawson's abilities that even though the novel must advance toward an inevitable conclusion, its story is gripping, surprising and beautiful. 5-city author tour, national advertising. (Sept.) Forecast: This title was a finalist for the Whitbread Prize; a film (Another Life) based on the same incidents premiered in the U.K. and is scheduledfor U.S. release this year. Though set 80 years ago in England, the novel should draw a contemporary American audience given the controversy that continues to surround the issue of capital punishment. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A third novel from British poet and editor Dawson (the YA How Do I Look, 1991, etc.), shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread and Orange Prizes and already a bestseller in the UK (30,000 copies thus far), works history and fiction seamlessly together in a complicated story of passion and murder that caused a sensation in England in 1922. Using letter fragments, newspaper accounts, and a good bit of poetic license, a striking picture of Edith Thompson, successfully employed young wife of her murdered husband Percy and lover of the still younger murderer Freddy, emerges. Starting from her prison cell in the days soon after Percy was stabbed to death on the street while walking home with her from the theater, Edie exhibits a passion for her lover that vies with her sense of horror at the crime. Initially, she believes that she'll be set free, since she didn't actually do the deed, and chastises Freddy as if the murder were an impulsive act. But when her previous letters to him surface, containing her discussion of how the abusive drunkard Percy might be removed from the scene, her disposition darkens. Shunned by her family and vilified in the press as the letters' details are made public, Edie still remains true to herself, adapting to the prison routine, winning over one of her warders, and even sparring with the chaplain over matters of faith and justice. Nonetheless, she's profoundly uneasy, dogged by dreams of Percy and a daughter she might have had, to the point that she requires sedation. Even though it swiftly becomes clear when her trial begins that both she and Freddy face execution, Edie clings to the memories and the love she shared with Freddy as the fulfillment that her marriageand the rest of her life denied her. A riveting story, not so much because of its tragic dimensions, but because of the remarkable degree to which Edie rises from the page to tell her tortured tale. Can the movie version, to be released here this year, compare? (Trick Of The Lights; Magpie, not reviewed: PUBLISHED HERE?) Author tour

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Quite Happy Together and No Quarrel ... I Did Not See Anybody About at the Time

`I heard him call out "Oh!" and he fell against me ... We had no quarrel on the way; we were quite happy together ... I did not see anybody about at the time.'

    In these words Edith Thompson (27), widow of the stabbed Ilford shipping clerk, told the police the story of her husband's death. Her statement was read at Stratford court yesterday, when she and Frederick Bywaters, the 20-year-old ship's steward, were remanded on the charge of murder.

    Mrs Thompson, said the police, made other statements, and Bywaters also made a statement, but none of these were put in yesterday's hearing.

    A large crowd had gathered around the police court in the hope of seeing the couple, but they were brought from Ilford in a cab, and manoeuvred into court before the waiting people knew of their arrival.

Woman's Covered Face

Bywaters, who entered the court first, is a tall young man of striking appearance. A plain clothes officer stood between him and the woman, who was helped into court by a woman attendant.

    Mrs Thompson was wearing the clothes in which she went to the theatre on the night of the tragedy.

    When she entered the dock she covered her face with the deep fur collar of her coat until the magistrate asked if there was anything the matter with her face. She was requested to put the fur collar down, was provided with a chair, and demanded a glass of water. During the hearing she sat with her limbs trembling and hands clutching at her garments.

    Divisional Detective-Inspector Hall stated that when he saw Mrs Thompson on Wednesday morning he said to her, `I understand you were with your husband early this morning in Belgrave Road and I am satisfied that he was assaulted and stabbed several times.'

    Mrs Thompson then made this statement:

    `We came along Belgrave Road and just past the corner of Kensington-gardens I heard him call out "Oh!" and he fell up against me. I put out my arms to save him, and found blood which I thought was coming from his mouth. I tried to hold him up. He staggered several yards towards Kensington-gardens, and then fell against the wall and slid down.

    `He did not speak to me, and I cannot say if I spoke to him. I found his clothing wet with blood. He never moved after he fell ...

`I ran across the road for the doctor and appealed to a lady and gentleman passing. The doctor told me my husband was dead. Just before he fell down I was walking on the right-hand side of the pavement nearest the wall.

`We were side by side ... My husband and I were talking about going to a dance.'

The Inspector added that Mrs Thompson appeared to be very agitated at the time.

He took possession of Bywaters' overcoat.

Mrs Thompson had practically to be carried out of court.

Before Bywaters left the dock he asked if he might have legal assistance, and was told the police would give him every help and facility.

Dodging the Crowd

By a ruse the police succeeded in getting the man and woman away from the building without attracting the attention of the crowd.

    The inquest on the dead man was opened at Ilford Town Hall. Only evidence of identity was taken.

The Daily Sketch, Saturday 7th October, 1922

Sunday 8th October, 1922

Darlint Fred,

Here I am. The room is small, as you might expect, but on another matter, the matter of the light, there is more than you might imagine. In fact, it was light that woke me this morning; weak slivers of October light from the oddly shaped window. Today is the official end of British summer time. Now that I have said that to myself the phrase has a strange ring about it. The end of summer. The end of our summer. I wonder why I have remembered such a detail? Of course, it's ludicrous, I can't imagine why it matters, but a picture popped into my head as I opened my eyes — a picture of you, somewhere across London in Pentonville, in a grey room with a concrete floor just like this one, lying in bed and altering your watch, spinning the hands quickly, so that they slip around as they do in a picture show, without regard for convention. The hands on a watch, flashing through hour after hour, or the pages on a calendar, torn and fluttering, time eaten, time flying and time lost. Of course, this is sheer imagining. Your watch has — no doubt — been confiscated, as have all of my belongings.

    Freddy, I hope you are bearing up, as I am, and not feeling too afraid. I'm staring at the window, so that I can describe its shape exactly to you. A cathedral-shaped window? No, that doesn't make sense, it's more like the shape of a loaf of bread, if you can imagine that, yet there is something here that reminds me of being in church. A smell rather like school, a smell of the boiled cabbage cooking in the kitchens, also of boiled clothes and sheets, perhaps even boiled skin, and of carbolic soap. I am adequately warm and at the moment there is thankfully, some quiet. It's not a tiny window and it's not high up particularly. The bars would be wide enough to slip a child's hand through. That is, if the glass was not there to prevent such a thing.

    Do you remember, Freddy, reading about Lady Constance, about the Suffragettes in Holloway? But no, you would be what, ten or something like that, while I, thinking of myself already as a young woman at seventeen, I suppose I took some notice of such things. I couldn't help wondering this morning, if one of those women hadn't been kept in this exact room. After all that starving she did, maybe her hands and wrists did become tiny, maybe they were slim as two sheets of paper and maybe she thought of breaking the glass and slipping a hand right through. But to what avail? She could only have held the bars and stared out. She would have had no strength to do more. Just a thought that crossed my mind, Freddy. A random thought. No doubt you have wondered, too, at who might have slept in your cell before you. It helps, doesn't it, to keep the mind on other matters and not to expend ourselves worrying about our own predicament.

    It was the young wardress who brought me my breakfast. She has pale skin like a freckled brown egg and she finds it impossible to meet my eyes. I can tell she is curious about me. (Judging from the crowd yesterday at Stratford, it must have been in the newspapers by now.) I think she would love to stare outright, but she pushes her lank hair behind her ears (they all wear such strange caps, I cannot see that they are use or ornament) and she scuttles out again, with almost — I'm not joking darlint — almost a curtsey. I'm cheery and in fine spirits and I hope this letter finds you the same. I'm still groggy with sleep and last night's crumpled dreams and the dress I slept in.

    I wear my prisoner's number on a yellow cloth badge on my own dress, which I've been allowed to keep until tomorrow, as they were not quite prepared for me and have had some delay in finding my prison garments. As long as I don't think about the last week, if I concentrate instead on the small details: the shelf, the stool and pail in the corner of the room, the scratchy grey blanket, the white egg-cup painted with a black arrow and the words Prison Commissioner on it, the beaker of milk and the dry roll on a tin plate, the pillow which is surely stuffed with something akin to straw (when I mentioned this to the wardress she snorted at me), I feel fine. I have found I am in possession of an astonishing capacity to not think, if I so desire. For instance, I believe I have not thought of Percy, not for one moment in twenty-four hours. Is that not remarkable?

    I have asked the Governor if I could send this to you and he has kindly replied that I might not. It was an odd experience, stepping out of my shoes and my wonderful crepe de chine in that small office that they call the `Reception'. I'm now wearing some unspeakable items of underclothing which seem to have been constructed from the sacks used to carry coal.

    The officer taking down my details asked: Where were you born, do you know? That might tell you something about the kind of ladies they are used to in here!

    I can apparently visit the library — accompanied by a wardress — as often as I like and whilst on remand I won't be put to work and may remain in my room. The Governor has supplied me with paper and plenty of it and a pencil, but no pen, so I am writing anyway in the hope that you can read these words at some time in the future, when this dreadful mess is cleared up. I am so in the habit of writing letters to you that I find it impossible to stop. Always in my mind, a conversation with you, with my Great Pal, continues. Knowing that your situation is so similar to mine only increases this tendency.

    I am not allowed a fork or knife and, of course, you must be in the same position. It will be hard, won't it, to have to eat everything with a spoon? But then again, since twice a day we are given porridge without salt and with a great hunk of bread, I can see that a spoon is the most useful of items.

    Darlint, I've promised myself not to remonstrate with you and, as I say, not to think about the last few days which have brought us here, but occasionally it becomes difficult to keep my resolve. A sentence rises up in me, like a bird opening its wings in my chest and then beating them, harder and harder. Then I see you again in your coat and hat, running away down Belgrave Road and I see Percy slipping, slipping and — they have offered me drugs here to keep me from wailing — yes, I admit, I may have been wailing last night, although I can scarce remember — and the sentence is: Why oh why did he do it? I believe I know the answer, Freddy, and I believe that when you have the occasion to do so you will explain all to me, reassure me, as you have so often done in the past, so please, forgive me, won't you, for mentioning it just then.

    Let us move on to cheerier things. Although I am allowed a pencil, naturally I'm not allowed a knife to sharpen it, which strikes me as funny. After all, I could poke someone's eye out with a pencil, couldn't I, or my own, if self-injury is what they are hoping to prevent. This thought reminded me of the Punch and Judy show we watched, that first summer on the Isle of Wight, do you remember it? What, Judy, do you mean to cry? Why, yes you hit me in the eye. I'll just lie down and kick, and die! It must be curious to be a prison governor and to think of people in this way. To think, is this woman likely to do harm to herself or to one of my wardresses, is she a wicked murderess or a careless Baby Farmer or just a poor girl who couldn't pay the rent? So my point is this, that when this pencil is blunt, I must wait until such occasion as I can request permission to have it sharpened. What I am saying, of course, is please forgive me also if this letter has to end abruptly. I don't as yet, understand the routine in here enough to know when I will next speak to someone.

    I must end now as I can hear someone coming. Perhaps I will get to sharpen my pencil! Bear Up.

    Thinking of you,


* * *

It's strange but if I thought in the past of being in prison, which I have to say, I never did, never believing I would experience such a thing, but if I did in some recess of my mind ever imagine it, which I suppose I must have, given that I have dug up the image I'm about to describe; I realise now that I pictured a hospital ward or a dormitory, a long thin room stuffed with many people, sardines in a tin. I did not picture myself alone like this.

* * *

I need to calculate, to know the precise moment.

    Was it the first instant I clapped eyes on Freddy? Was it when I decided to marry Percy? Was it the conversation I had with Freddy the night of the theatre?

    If only I could pin-point it. That's what keeps me awake, struggling to land on the exact square — like a child playing hopscotch. Was it when I knocked on Freddy's door, that evening in the late summer of 1921? Or was it earlier than that — the evening the Irish hawker called at the door and made his sly remarks to me?

    For there must be one, one tiny moment, and if I could find it, search for it and land on it, it might be possible — just possible — to pick up the chalk and throw it again, so that it falls somewhere else. So that with a hop and a skip and a jump I'm landing with both feet on another square, doing something else.

    Not here in my cell, thinking this.

Monday 9th October, 1922

Dear Freddy,

A short letter, darlint, which perhaps I will be permitted to send to you. Tomorrow is the day of Percy's funeral. Mother came last night to tell me and to ask what I would like her to write for me as an inscription on the wreath. Can you imagine! What could I say? Mother suggested: From your Loving Wife, Edith, but after a lengthy discussion we decided on: From Edie. Judging from what mother says of the hubbub at home, the note will be torn up by some irate well-wisher before long.

    I am in good spirits again and hope this letter finds you in the same. I did suggest to Mother that she might plant some hyacinth bulbs, for me, on the soil above Percy's grave, which she seemed to think a very odd request. Mother says I cannot seem to get it into my thick head what has happened. Those were her exact words, Freddy! In fact she began shouting. I suppose when I get out of here I will have to plant the bulbs myself.

    I know you will find it painful for me to write to you of Percy but today is the first time I have been able to think of him without fainting. Even as I write my hands are perspiring and the pencil slips in my fingers. But I must press on because I have decided it is not a good thing at all to try to survive by not thinking. I am expecting Percy at any minute to walk in here with his navy jacket on and say, Come on, my girl, and then to take over, bustle a little, fill out the forms, do everything necessary to take me home.

    I long for cigarettes but I am allowed books and have ordered three novels.

    I did so rely on Percy. I can see that now. Perhaps him being those few years older made a difference. He was dreary, and a terrible dance partner, and there's no need to mention to you his temper, after a drink or two! Still, that dreary side of him is something I crave a little, just now, after the excitement of the last week or so. If I ever get the chance to again, I will time his morning egg so perfectly, and I will not complain at all if he stands over me, squeezing my waist with his big hands, while the egg rattles at the edges of the pan, like something mildly angry, like something about to gently explode.

Tuesday 10th October

Freddy, just a little note. Last night I had such terrible nightmares and I've woken with such a strong sense of fear, feeling all the events of the last week rise up and tumble over me. I did so long to be held and comforted by you and writing to you like this is the closest I can come to that feeling.

    The nightmares were brought about by thinking of the funeral today. I suddenly pictured our lovely house at Ilford with the funeral cortege outside of it, and Percy's dreadful friend Harry lighting his pipe and trying to look solemn and my mother with that shocked expression she wears permanently now and Avis, wearing my borrowed black coat and my beautiful embroidered kid gloves. Then I tried to remember who else might turn up for Percy's funeral besides his mother and brother and realised I could think of no one! How few friends he had. Maybe Ernest — the old boy from the Shipping office — and that's the total. I'm not sure Ernest really cared for Percy much, either. There was an awkward occasion one Christmas when Percy had a tipple too many. That was when Percy was the new boy and great things were expected of him. He'll go far, Mother said when I brought him home, tall and broad in his smart black suit. She could hardly stop herself from rubbing her hands together in expectation! I don't suppose you can imagine that now, can you, knowing him only in the last two years? He was judged a promising catch once, you know.

    I mention this not to make you feel guilty, darlint, but only because I have no one else to talk to about such things. Percy had no son or daughter to mourn him, he only had me. I kept going over it and over it. Mother said the coffin had white lilies on the top and brass handles and I imagine Percy in there — yes, I have got that far, Freddy, I can picture him now lying in his coffin with his arms crossed and feel only the merest pang of pain when I do so, like a knife faintly drawn across my heart.

    I'm sorry I mentioned the knife there. I didn't mean anything by it.

    In my imagining of Percy, his arms are folded rather smugly, rather stonily and he has a look which says: I told you so. He has just finished one of those short coughs which announced his every comment. This morning when this thought first came to me, I wept and wept, realising the strange futile pleasure Percy took in being right about miserable things. Then I wanted to laugh out loud and get hold of Percy and say, so you see it was all true, your wife is a Judy indeed and that young Bywaters came to no good, all as you predicted. I thought I should hate him but instead I had such sorriness for him that his life was worn down to a tiny penny, dull and soiled, and that it should be his pleasure in reducing the lives of others, too. He knew I wasn't happy, didn't he? We often spoke of it and his stubborn response seemed to be: well I am not happy and never have been so what makes you think your life should be different?

    If only I could plant some hyacinths here in a bowl to make the room cheery. I am watched night and day — no I don't mean that a wardress is there constantly. I mean that whenever I glance at the spy-hole, someone seems to be passing, just checking up on me. I've discovered that the young one, the freckled, curtseying one is called Eve. I heard her name called by the stout one, Clara, who bustles in with great speed, in fact does everything speedily; ushers a girl in to take out the pail, replaces the tray, reports on events `outside', announces visitors: Governor's on his way to see you. Or: Your sister's waiting in the visitors' room. Despite her brusqueness (and I've heard her shouting at other prisoners, so I would certainly not like to be on the wrong side of her!) it's Clara I like best. I believe she is sympathetic to us. But I wonder if I'm a poor judge of such things? It seems to me that Eve glances at me slyly. Sometimes I catch her eyes on my waist, on my shapeless self inside this prison dress and I know what she is thinking.

    Hyacinths, violets, how much difference it would make to be allowed to have flowers in our rooms! Violets always remind me of that night when we stood under the statue of Eros, and I was saying to you that the sky was snagged on his arrow because when I threw my head back to look at the stars, that's exactly how it appeared. And you said, not listening to me at all, but searching amongst the women at the steps of the statue, Damn these flower-sellers, milling around the place, why do they never have violets? until the prettiest of the lot came to you and said: Sir, I have the most beautiful violets, what'll you give me for 'em? and you said, A good spanking if you talk to me that way again. But, of course, you were laughing and you bought some anyway and she took it in good spirit when I appeared beside you to take your arm, seeing that you were taken.

    Those violets lasted very well. They were kept in a beaker of water beside my bed for nearly a week, prompting no comment at all from Percy. Sometimes I think he knew exactly who they were from. In my fondest moments I think that at some level Percy regretted his ban on happiness and thought: Let her have that tiny scrap and no more. That much doesn't threaten me.

    But he was wrong, wasn't he? I think that happiness — once planted — grows roots. Before I was ever happy, I had no idea of what it might feel like. So many people seem to have no idea at all that they might choose to be happy: one only has to look around to see that. Perhaps it only takes the tiniest shoot of true happiness for that to germinate, to exist somewhere and contain the seed of itself, something that might be passed on. For surely it is impossible to feel something if you don't know — if you have never been told — that such a thing exists?

    We had our happiness didn't we, the light might shine through it sometimes but it was green and fresh and unbending as a blade of grass, wasn't it, Freddy, while it lasted?

* * *

The first time I clapped eyes on Freddy. It must have been then.

    Percy carries the cases, of course. We take a number 25 from Cranbrook Road to Victoria station, and sit at the front on the top deck, this being a treat to get us into the holiday mood (since we could have just as easily taken a tram) and Percy remarks, more than once, on the heaviness of my case.

    What have you in there? he teases, amiably enough. Half of Carlton & Prior?

    I return his teasing moments later when I read an advertisement on the side of the bus passing us. FORCE, a wholewheat breakfast cereal, and under the picture it reads: For breakfast try FORCE.

    I nudge Percy. For breakfast, try force! You've been taking that too literally, darling ...

    His head swivels towards me as if on a stick, and at first he looks like someone who has just sat on a bee. Then right after that, he bursts out laughing. (This, I know, might be considered provocative. But when Percy is in a good mood, I like to take liberties.)

    So we arrive in good time at Victoria station, where we are to meet Avis and Freddy. We buy our tickets and have a cup of tea and a Sally Lunn in the tea-shop at the station. That's where we are sitting when they turn up. Fred and Avis. I have my back to them; I'm smoking a cigarette.

    Percy sees them first. I watch his face register their arrival and then he noisily scrapes back his chair and stands up and it is all a flurry of greetings and introductions. I stub out the cigarette hastily and stand up too.

    My first impressions of Freddy are ... not particularly tall, perhaps, and wearing a long midnight-blue sort of coat, a spotless grey hat? His shoes gleaming and freshly polished.

    He is smiling, a charming smile, a smile that tells me he is conscious of his handsomeness and his good teeth. He holds out his hand. If I close my eyes now I can feel his palm — smooth, warm, flat, the texture of a pebble washed smooth by the sea. When I try, try as I'm doing now, to bring that moment to mind, I can hear him jingling coins in his pocket, or hear that odd whistling he did. The snap and click of footsteps on a pavement, the hiss and sulphur of a match being lit ... but that's not right; that's not my first impression of Freddy surely, that's from somewhere else?

    Well, we have scarce a moment to acknowledge each other's existence in the run to the platform and with Avis twittering that we had all misjudged the time and that Percy's watch must be wrong. We bundle ourselves onto the train, laughing, and Percy takes our coats for us and hangs them up and the train begins moving almost as soon as we sit down.

Excerpted from fred & edie by JILL DAWSON. Copyright © 2000 by Jill Dawson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Jill Dawson is an award-winning poet and the editor of several anthologies, including The Virago Book of Love Letters. She has published two previous novels, Tricks of the Light and Magpie. She was the British Council Fellow at Amherst College in 1997 and is currently the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of East Anglia. She lives with her family in Cambridgeshire, near London.

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