Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alma Victoria Rattenbury: Setting the Record Straight

On Guy Fawkes Night this year, I watched the 1987 film version of Sir Terence Rattigan's last play, Cause Célèbre (1977), about the famous Rattenbury murder trial of 1935. Dame Helen Mirren played the murder victim's wife, Alma Victoria Rattenbury, and David Suchet of Poirot fame, played her learned counsel, T.J. O'Connor, K.C., M.P.

Alma was a Canadian who had married the famous English-born, British Columbia architect, Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867-1935) in Canada before they moved to Bournemouth on England's Dorset coast with two young sons, Christopher (born to the second of Alma's three husbands) and John (the child of her present union). Alma, who had been a musical prodigy in her youth in British Columbia, was of a passionate nature, and as her much older husband Rattenbury (Ratz to Alma and their circle) grew morose and incapable, she took a much younger man, a teenager, aged barely 18, as her lover. One thing led to another, and the verdict in the joint trial of Alma and her young lover, let her off, but found him guilty, and bound for the high jump.

Consulting the historical accounts available, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which includes a biography of Alma, I was struck by just how vague and imprecise every one of them seemed to be about Alma's background: where and when she was born, who her parents and family were, and when and where her three marriages (and one divorce) had occurred. Even her name was a source of confusion as I examined the books by F. Tennyson Jesse (The Trial of Alma Victoria Rattenbury and George Percy Stoner, 1935), Terry Reksten (Rattenbury, 1978, rev. edn, 1998), A.A. Barrett and R.W. Liscombe (Francis Rattenbury and British Columbia: Architecture and Challenge in the Imperial Age, UBC press, 1983), and Sir David Napley (Murder at the Villa Madeira, 1988). So, as someone well-versed in British Columbia genealogy, history, and the how-to's of research, I set about to clearing up the unnecessary mystery about Alma's background, perpetuated as recently as this decade by Elizabeth Murray, a former assistant to Sir David Napley, in her entry on Alma for the new ODNB (2002) put out by my alma mater's famous publishing wing, Oxford University Press.

So watch this space as I progress with my work on uncovering Alma Rattenbury's true origins.

1 comment:

cjwainwr said...

good luck....and good wishes to all alma's descendants.

eustacia. new zealand