Thursday, 18 April 2013

Arsenic



Emma pretends that she wanted to kill the rats that kept her from sleeping." (Part III, Chapter 8). She asks Justin to give her the key to Homais's laboratory. Together they climb the stairs.

In the nineteenth-century arsenic was not only used as rat-poison, pesticide and in fly-papers and sheep-dip. There was arsenic in paints, wallpapers, furniture, toys, artificial flowers and even cake decorations. Arsenic was used in dyes to produce a beautiful emerald green. Ladies (like Ms Florence Maybrick, convicted of poisoning her husband in 1889) soaked arsenical fly-paper to get a face-wash. Arsenic was good for the skin and produced a rosy-glow (by stimulating the blood vessels under the skin). Arsenical soaps and lotions were also available in shops. The only danger for avid use was that you hair might fall off, but that just made arsenic a good hair-remover, too. During the Maybrick trial a local chemist testified that Mr James Maybrick together with other gentlemen would line-up daily at his shop to take their arsenic-laced tonic as a 'pick-me-up.' It was a stimulant with, so men believed, aphrodisiac properties. Arsenic was also given to horses to work them, to make their coats glossy and to make them run faster. For a full and entertaining history of arsenic in the Victorian period, read James C. Wharton's The Arsenic Century (OUP, 2010).

Arsenic is colourless, odourless and tasteless. It is a white powder and cannot be detected without chemicals tests. It was therefore thought to be the choice weapon of poisoners, particularly unhappily married or abandoned women. In the 1840s there were two famous cases of poisoning by arsenic in France: Marie Lafarge and Euph─Śmie Lacoste were both ladies forced into marriages by poverty and family with men they did not much fancy. (Their stories are included in Mary S Hartman's Victorian Murderesses [Robson Books, 1977]). In the 1850s, there was a minor panic about arsenic in Britain. Although statistics do not seem to support the idea of a poisoning epidemic, the media made a bid deal out of arsenic. Like Julie Flanders writes in The Invention of Murder (Harper Press, 2011): "Once newspapers picked up the idea, the ubiquity if arsenic made it terrifying; as they printed more (and more sensational) cases, it appeared that poisoning cases were on the rise." (Flanders, p. 232). In fact, in the ten years 1849 to 1858, according to Flanders, there were only seventeen trials for poisoning at the Old Bailey (p. 234). Arsenic was seen particularly as a woman's weapon. This makes sense, because its administration in food to an unsuspecting victim and its acquisition in fly-paper, rat poison or cosmetic products are both activities that fall within the feminine realm in the Victorian house. Also, administering arsenic does not require physical force, only cunning and daring and, often, desperation.

M. Homais is very careful with this lethal substance and horrified by the prospect of mixing it with domestic activities. When Justin brings him a pan for jam-making from the laboratory, Homais explodes in anger, while Emma stands by to witness the scene:

"Didn't you see anything in corner, on the left, on the third shelf? .... You saw a bottle of blue glass, sealed with yellow wax, that contains white powder, on which I have even written 'Dangerous!' And do you know what it is? Arsenic! And you go and touch it! You take a pan that was next to it!"
            "Next to it!" cried Madame Homais, clasping her hands. "Arsenic! You might have poisoned us all."
And the children began howling as if they already had frightful pains in their entrails." (Part III, Chapter 2)

Now, "Emma went straight to the third shelf - so well did her memory guide her -seized the blue jar, tore out the cork, plunged in her hand, withdrawing it full of a white powder, she began eating it." (Part III, Chapter 8). "Then she went home, suddenly calmed, and with something of the serenity of one who had performed a duty." (Ibid.) Emma's action is quick and impulsive. She executes her suicide without forethought and without giving any consideration to consequences. She stays true to her character. But she might have thought it through a little more and chosen a less painful way. Emma is perhaps not aware of the agonies in store for her: "Ah! it is but a little thing, death! ... I shall fall asleep and all will be over." (Part III, Chapter 8). On the other hand, she has chosen her poison well for a melodramatic, prolonged death scene. Taking an overdose of opium, readily available in most households like the Bovarys', would have been quick and quiet; she would have just fallen asleep.

Arsenic is a mineral hat exists naturally around us and in our bodies. Small doses of arsenic may even be good for us, it stimulates metabolism and may help growth. Excess arsenic is processed by the liver. Our individual arsenic tolerance can vary greatly, and we can increase that tolerance by taking small doses of the poison. In the 1850s Styrian peasants in the Alps astonished the medical world by their ability to withstand lethal doses of arsenic without any ill effects. This was down to their life-long habit of dosing themselves with it. (This information and the following details of arsenic poisoning are from The Elements of Murder by John Emsley [OUP, 2005]).
When too much arsenic enters the body and its natural mechanism can no longer cope the first reaction is for the body to empty the gut. Vomiting starts any time between fifteen minutes and several hours after arsenic has been swallowed. The victim feels thirsty, she finds it difficult to swallow and her mouth and throat feel sore.

"I'm thirsty; oh, so thirsty," Emma sighs. Then she tells Charles to open a window "I am choking." "She was seized with a sickness so sudden that she had hardly time to draw out her handkerchief from under her pillow." (Part III, Chapter 8) Flaubert's description of Emma's symptoms follows closely those of acute arsenic poisoning. The painful stomach sensitive to pressure, the pale, damp and cold skin, weak and erratic pulse are all indications of acute arsenic poisoning. Decorously Flaubert has left out the diarrhoea, which starts after twelve hours and goes on until the body is convulsed in empty spasms. Death comes usually in 12-36 hours, some have been known to linger up to four days. The doctors cannot save Emma. She receives last rites from M. Bournisien.

"Her chest soon began panting rapidly; the whole of her tongue protruded from her mouth; her eyes as they rolled, grew paler, like the two globes of al amp that is going out, so that one might have thought her already dead but for the fearful labouring of her ribs, shaken by violent breathing, as if the soul were struggling to free itself." (Part III, Chapter 8).

Emma's servant is kneeling before a crucifix, the priest is praying in Latin, her husband is kneeling by the bed, his arms outstretched, holding on to her hands. Even Homais "slightly bent his knees" while M. Canivet, the celebrated doctor "vaguely looked out at the Place." The death scene tableau is almost perfect in its conventional piety. Suddenly the scene is penetrated by the "raucous voice" of the blind, homeless beggar singing of love: "Maids in the warmth of a summer day / Dream of love and of love alway."

"Emma raised herself like a galvanised corpse, her hair undone, her eyes fixed, staring." She laughs "an atrocious, frantic, despairing laugh." "The wind is strong this summer day, / Her petticoat has flown away." The song goes on and she falls dead with a final convulsion.

Emma has killed herself. In one sense her death seems selfish and unnecessary, a dramatic gesture of a wildly romantic young woman.  But at the moment she scoops up a handful of arsenic from the blue bottle and pushes it into her mouth, she is also desperate, lost and feeling that she has run out of options. She is not considering the impact of her actions, she just wants out. Her lovers have rejected her; all she has left is the hopelessly inadequate husband, a child she does not love and financial ruin. What does that final atrocious laugh mean? What memories, desires or regrets does the blind beggar's song recall?

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