Author: M.M. DeLuca
First Published: 16 March 2020
“Why, Clara. Everyone considers murder at some point in their lives. Even proper ladies like you.”
I will start by saying that I was given an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. Thank so much to the team over at Inkshare and NetGalley for sending a copy my way!
England, 1873. Clara Blackstone has just been released after one year in a private asylum for the insane. Clara has two goals: to reunite with her husband, Henry, and to never—ever—return to the asylum. As she enters Durham, Clara finds her carriage surrounded by a mob gathered to witness the imprisonment of Mary Ann Cotton—England’s first female serial killer—accused of poisoning nearly twenty people, including her husbands and children.
Clara soon finds the oppressive confinement of her marriage no less terrifying than the white-tiled walls of Hoxton. And as she grows increasingly suspicious of Henry’s intentions, her fascination with Cotton grows. Soon, Cotton is not just a notorious figure from the headlines, but an unlikely confidante, mentor—and perhaps accomplice—in Clara’s struggle to protect her money, her freedom and her life.
I first heard about Mary Ann Cotton on a Lore podcast. When I saw the synopsis of The Savage Instinct on NetGalley, I had to request. This is a gloriously gothic, wonderfully grim and dark exploration of the confining social norms and expectations placed on Victorian women. I was hooked from the open page.
Mary Ann Cotton is England’s first female serial killer. I adored how M.M. DeLuca weaved in the required historical fact into the narrative. Mary Ann is paradoxical and utterly unreliable. She pleads her innocence up until the end. I enjoy how DeLuca has represented her; she is charming. At times you believe that Mary Ann is the victim in all of this while, at other times, it is easy to justify her actions.
Despite Mary Ann’s captivating history, she’s not the focal point. Instead, she is the warped role model and close confident for our protagonist, Clara Blackstone. Clara sees the strength in Mary Ann that she lacks. The accused murder has taken control of her life and answers to no one.
My heart goes out to Clara. What we would not recognise as postnatal depression is the reason she’s been lock away in an asylum. She classed as insane and deemed unfit for polite society. After one year of horror treatments, Clara’s released. Her husband, Henry, expects her to slide back into her role as a dutiful wife. Despite the trauma, she’s been through. You can feel the suffocation and oppression Clara feels in her marriage. Henry lurks in the edges, watching her every move and quick to threaten to throw her back into the asylum. To escape the house, Clara volunteers as a spiritual guide at the prison. It is here she meets Mary Ann.
I am absolutely horrified at the medical treatment Clara received at the asylum. I had a vague understanding that the asylums were not the best, but I had no idea how much abuse they doled out to their patients. Clara’s cures range from heavy doses of laudanum to daily cold-water treatment. These treatments start when she first arrives despite the fact, her body is still recovering from her traumatic labour.
M.M. DeLuca introduces some flash-forwards as the story moves on, which didn’t work for me. I found them jarring. They cut the tension and suspense that has been building. Personally, I would have preferred these sections to part of an epilogue. In saying this, DeLuca was still able to throw in some unexpected twists.
This book holds back no punches. The Savage Instinct provides a terrifying and graphic look at the life of Victorian women. Gone is the romance of the period. And in its place is a horrible reality most women faced despite their status. They had no agency or control over their bodies, their minds or their lives. I adored the strange and unlikely friendship that bloomed between these two outcast women — the accused murder and the madwoman. Perfect for fans of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.