The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury

A painstakingly researched and totally absorbing account of a once sensational, now forgotten, murder from 1935. Alma Rattenbury and her young lover, George Stoner, 18, faced the hangman in an Old Bailey trial following the murder of her husband, distinguished architect Francis Rattenbury. The case shocked, horrified, electrified the nation and went on to inspire plays and TV dramas.

Francis Rattenbury was a rather ratty old husband, pushing 70, his best years behind him. Alma was a flamboyant 43-year-old, a former musical prodigy, now stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage in a suburb of Bournemouth.

She fell passionately for teenage Stoner when he was taken on as the family’s driver, and all the fevered elements of a drawing-room tragedy were finally in place. In March 1935 Rattenbury had his brains bashed in and the lovers were soon in the dock.

Author Sean O’Connor, who is also a director and producer in TV, radio and film, conjures the mood and prejudices of the era for a superb account of the trial and its heartbreaking aftermath.

‘Revulsion’ for Alma Rattenbury

Alma was portrayed as virtually a predatory nymphomaniac who had controlled the guileless Stoner in this murderous scheme. The Old Bailey jury were even asked to separate the ‘natural revulsion’ they might feel for Alma from the crime of which she was accused. So, even if she were found innocent, she was still to be reviled by right-thinking folk.

O’Connor explores the cases of two other women put to death during this period – Edith Thompson in the UK and Ruth Snyder in the US – as indicators of the mood about wives on trial at this time.

I felt my own feelings about Alma shifting all the time while reading these pages. She was perhaps foolish and rash – how could she abandon her two sons? – and by the end it is hard not to have sympathy for a brave and artistic woman who lost everything. On the other hand, whatever we feel about her husband, he did not deserve to be murdered because he stood in the way of the couple’s obsession for each other.

Like Sean O’Connor’s previous book, Handsome Brute, about the murderer Neville Heath, The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury is engrossing, provocative and will linger in your thoughts.

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