Friday, February 01, 2008

The serendipity of the archives

At the LRB, Charles Nicholl considers the lexicons of Ripperology in a review of Charles von Onselen's new book about (hmmm, this is in bad taste, really...) "Saucy Jack":
‘It all fits!’ is the axiomatic cry of the conspiracy-theorist, but of course it only does so after a stringent process of selection, in which convenient pieces of the evidential jigsaw are accounted significant and many others less convenient are discarded. Inevitably, van Onselen’s argument proceeds in this way, but it feels cogent and compelling even when there is little more than self-belief holding it up. This is certainly a more meaningful kind of inquiry than the more fashionable sub-genre of the celebrity suspect. Over the years these have included Queen Victoria’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence; a celebrated doctor, Sir William Gull; a Liverpool merchant, James Maybrick, supposed author of the manuscript known as the Ripper’s ‘Diary’; and the artist Walter Sickert. Sickert’s candidacy has been energetically championed by the thriller-writer Patricia Cornwell, though she did not originate the theory. Sickert had a louche interest in the London underworld, and in the Ripper in particular, and he did a series of paintings, the ‘Camden Town Nudes’, loosely inspired by the murder of a prostitute in 1907. But Cornwell seems to have missed an early and major fork in the biographical highway, where one road leads off to the painting of pictures on disturbing sexual themes and the other to the actual perpetration of sex crimes. That one might be seen as actual evidence of the other is psychologically implausible (do we suspect the author of Titus Andronicus of cooking up children in a pie?) and logistically absurd (being rather a giveaway after he had concealed his identity so well at the time). Cornwell’s book is now mainly memorable for its enormous research bill – she reportedly spent $6 million acquiring Sickert works and memorabilia – and for her alleged folie de grandeur in destroying a painting in the hope of finding traces of the artist’s DNA, to match with traces on one of the letters purportedly (but almost certainly not) written by Jack.

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