Watson’s Apology: On murder 

Watson’s Apology: On murder 

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Beryl Bainbridge’s based-on-real-life novel Watson’s Apology, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Zack Handlen: "My mother made my father happy," Anne said. "I remember a particular smile."

"You won't remember mine," he replied, "particular or otherwise. You've not caused me to smile in twenty years."

There is, so far as we can tell, no history of violence between them. At least not of the physical kind. And yet one night, something happens, Watson snaps, and then there's blood everywhere. One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how Bainbridge chooses to handle the crime itself. We don't witness it happening; we see most of the build-up, and then the scene jumps ahead to when the serving girl comes back, finding Watson scrubbing stains on the floor with the adamant insistence that it's just spilled wine. I love how ominous this is. The entire book has been building to this moment , but when it finally happens, there's no sudden release, no catharsis, no horrible satisfaction in events leading to an inevitable conclusion. Like so much of the relationship that proceeds it, the killing feels at once unavoidable and bizarrely coincidental, as though something was bound to happen, but there was no real reason it would happen when it did. 

Despite the narrator's omniscience, we're never really privy to what finally sends Watson over the edge. He's in the decline, having lost the one position in his life that gave him satisfaction, and his fortunes are dwindling, so he's under a certain amount of strain. Anne's own agonies have made her increasingly difficult to deal with; she assaults the help, wounds herself for attention, and drinks to excess. And yet there doesn't seem to be any planning behind Watson's sudden fury. Afterwards, he makes vague attempts to cover for his crime, and attempts suicide, but there's no break between who he was before and who he was after. I love how, after the trial, he's most upset over how the courts and the newspapers assumed he had ordered a trunk after killing Anne in order to hide her body. He claims he wanted the trunk to move his papers. Whether this is the truth, or a strange way to alleviate some of his guilt (he killed her, but he didn't have a plan or anything), is difficult to say.

It's difficult to say anything for certain by the end, apart form the facts of the case, and while I can see that frustrating some readers, it's another element of the novel I enjoy. I still don't know what Watson's actual apology is supposed to be; the Latin quote that so many would-be translators obsess over in the letters section of the newspaper (one of the book's few forays into outright humor, I think)? Or maybe it's his final fantasy life in prison, still struggling to figure out what went wrong in his life, still unable to face his own responsibility. After a generally straightforward, realistic text, Watson's attempts to mentally flee from prison life, only to find that some part of his mind won't ever let him go, are surprising, and profound in a way that doesn't immediately reveal itself. For me, this is a book about the mystery of murder itself. Watson's trial, with its stream of witnesses debating the defendant's mental state, and attempting to catalog the crime in as precise detail as possible, are notable in how all the details don't really shed any clear light on the event itself. It's forever obscure, and yet, in the context of the marriage as a whole, weirdly mundane--a flat act of brutality which is at once in keeping with all that preceded it, and definitively of itself. 

There's another quote, here from the very end, right before Watson dies: "It was done now, and he was glad. He had not harmed her, merely rid her of the bad things that kept them apart." That's horrifying and pathetic all at once--a man so incapable of comprehension that the only way he can bring himself closer to the person he should be closest to is by beating the soul out of her body. 

Thoughts? 

Donna Bowman: Why does he do it?  I suggested a socioeconomic rationale in the last post.  But let's think in literary and judicial terms.  The notion of insanity in this case, although clung to most tenaciously both by the defense and by the various observers eager to deny that a man of this standing and religious training would be capable of such a thing in his right mind, is clearly too confused to make any sense of.  Bainbridge's narrative jump at the moment of the murder, coupled with the out-of-body fantasy in the epilogue, suggests that it was not Watson in a conscious and intentional moment who caves his wife's skull in.  Does that mean he is beyond moral categories, though, and unable to exercise self-restraint?  Almost certainly not.  He acts with fractured rationality afterwards, but the strangeness of warning the servant girl that he might need a doctor later (did he want to be saved from his suicide attempt?) and so forth doesn't seem to rise to the level of complete break from reality.

The murder is striking for its continuity with what surrounds it, at least as much as for the way it heads off in a new direction.  Take those stains that Watson is scrubbing when Eleanor Pyne returns to the house.  As readers well versed in the murder mystery genre, we know at once that they are not wine.  And yet the immediately preceding narrative makes it eminently possible that they are wine; Anne sloshes red wine all over the room while Watson tries and fails to ignore her.  And what about that curious shell that Anne steals from her sister when she leaves home to marry Watson, and whose position in the house -- either on the mantelpiece, or in her weirdly named "glory hole" -- is a matter of frequent comment?  Watson apparently goes into her room to retrieve it after the murder, puts it back in the sitting room, and draws the attention of the doctors to it whenever possible.  Again, that points to the continuity of the violent act with the suppressed violence of these ongoing tugs of war between the married partners.  Without the bludgeoning and the blood, these would be perfectly understandable and ordinary moments -- although not something anyone would want described in open court, revealing the pettiness and cruelty of the inner workings of this marriage.

Leonard Pierce:  Murder is a strange and terrible thing, but it's also a frighteningly common one, and when it happens in unexpected quarters, we're torn between the tendency to shrug it off and the tendency to completely overanalyze it.  Did John S. Watson really snap the night he beat his wife to death with a pistol butt?  I see it not as a line snapping, but one reaching a point of maximum slack.  After an intolerable reduction in his circumstance, and faced with the possibility of decades more of life with a woman who he felt had already been let down enough -- and who clearly had no intention, or even ability, to show him affection or understanding -- he became exhausted, overwhelmed at the very prospect of more life.  The very prospect of it weakened him.  He had married his wife, more or less, because he couldn't think of anything better to do, and he killed her for much the same reason.  He planned his own demise (I don't think he intended to live -- I think he asked the maid to send for a doctor just to confirm his death, to have an official present), and, having lost the only thing that kept his marriage and life from being intolerable, ended them both. 

And then, to have even that final punctuation erased!  No wonder he was so sullen and uncommunicative after his suicide attempt failed:  even his way out had been denied him, and, once again, we find that this uncreative, selfish man can think of no further alternative than to carry on as before.  His prison life finds him being just as fussy and unengaged as he was before his ghastly act; his unwillingness to engage in the realities of prison life shows him to be just as closed off as ever, and his letters from prison, showing no recognition of why he was there and little but scorn for anyone at whom they were directed, are much the same as his interactions with others when he was a free man.  The only time Watson really seems alive is in his moments of madness:  his obsession with the idea that animals are capable of reason, for example, or the moments just before and just after he commits a murder.

It's very tempting -- and I think this is very much by Bainbridge's design -- to think of his murder of Anne as something of an act of mercy, the ending of an utterly miserable life before it had a chance to get even worse.  But this is the easy way out.  It not only ignores all the social factors at work, but it lets our two protagonists off the hook for key elements of their own complicity in the murder:  Anne, for making her entire identity about victimization, and forever blaming others for her reduced circumstances; and John, for being completely unable to recognize, let alone solve, his problems until they reached the point of insolubility.  There are a lot of interesting things about the murder from historical, legal, and social standpoints:  the way that Watson receives public sympathy despite his brutal act because he is perceived as a decent bourgeois man of god; the then-unheard-of notion that depression might be a sign of mental illness; the convoluted legal wranglings that the judge employed to commute Watson's sentence to life.  But the most fascinating aspect is the literary one, and Bainbridge should get full credit for it:  she upends the normal formula of a murder story by making the killer and the victim unlikable people, robbing us of the normal sense of loss and injustice that murder engenders.  There's no real sense of loss, of a life ended before its time; there's no traditional villainous motive of money, power, sex, or passion.  There are just two miserable people who never should have met, sliding down a rough slope toward, if not the inevitable, at least the inexorable.

Ellen Wernecke: I’d love to toss the Watson case to an undergrad abnormal psychology class and see what diagnosis, if any, they can pin on Watson for the murder. One of my favorite, but most enduringly creepy, passages from Watson’s Apology is the span of time between when Watson tells Ellen Pyne about the stain and when he catches her crying over the prospect of leaving the household (undoubtedly the only one happy to see this relationship so dissolved) as he continues to so coldly go about his business so the servant doesn’t expect. Ellen Pyne can tell that something has shifted in their relationship through his words, but since he can’t confide in her, they continue to act as master and servant, he as a man who would never be so stirred by emotion as to brutally beat his wife to death.

Not the last moments of Watson’s physical life, these are instead the last moments he will be seen as he clearly wants to be all along, as a learned, decent man. As Watson prepares to commit suicide, one can almost see him revel in that last act of drawing up his will to allot his library and suggesting arrangements for the house, tying up his life in the way he imagines a man of stature would do – never mind that he leaves behind only debt, and manuscripts no one wanted to publish.

While it would be simplistic to attribute the murder to one comment or even one fight, here’s my take: Watson decides to kill his wife when he believes that her threat to leave him is credible, because while he can find nothing good about her and wants to spend as little time with her as he can get away with, she forms a critical part of his self-deception. As long as she’s around, though he might hate her, the outside world views him as a certain type of man with some decency and prospects left. He may have lost his job, but he hasn’t been reduced to running a boarding house like Mr Bush, nor going on welfare or traveling from pulpit to pulpit. In the twisted wreck of their marriage, Anne has welded herself into his image of earthly success, just as he had suspected when he married her – and the thought of going on without her is so painful to him in his heightened state that he would rather see her dead than lose that part of his self-definition, no matter how weak and painful. He is only not in his right mind to the extent that he’s willing to commit such a sick act of violence to preserve that picture of himself.

I thought the detail of the trunk was a fascinating vignette, although at no point could I decide whether Watson’s adamancy marked him as insane or a sane (but completely twisted) criminal. It reminds me of the prisoners on death row who begin answering all their fan mail and become causes célèbres from their cells, as if lacking the attention they would have been getting from their trial, they need to recaptivate the public’s notice. Watson in prison doesn’t make a big stir, but he’s still determined to keep writing, perhaps dreaming that the right manuscript could clear his name – a difficult task given his stingy paper allowance. Or perhaps his visitors are too kind toward his ravings in that direction, and there was never going to be any book, but they egged him on anyway to give him a purpose for living. But why should he have any purpose for living? Watson’s ignominious end may be the most noble thing about him. 

Rowan Kaiser: It all seemed so easy, doesn't it? Watson just grabbed the pistol, beat Anne to death, and probably could have covered it up had he been cogent enough to make a good try at it. It's not like anyone really cared about Anne – or him, for that matter. But, of course, he wasn't cogent about it. He was some kind of crazy, which was why he committed the murder in the first place.

Watson's precise kind of crazy dominates the last section of the book even more than the actual murder itself. It is an interesting ethical question, made more fascinating by Bainbridge's storytelling in the first half of the book. We do sympathize with Watson, and we do understand that the murder was very much out of character for him. Yet we're also perfectly aware that, in a shocking fit of violence, he murdered an innocent woman.

So when it came time for Watson to pay for his crime, I found myself agreeing with virtually every argument made. Yes, the poor man deserved mercy, but if he got mercy, then every wifekiller should receive mercy. However, he certainly shouldn't be hanged by the neck until dead. He just snapped in a depressed/disassociated state! Anyone could do that, under the right circumstances. But then, if that's not a crime, then what is a crime? Don't most murders occur in a fit of rage, with major external circumstances imposing themselves on all parties involved? And so on and so on.

I think Bainbridge successfully encourages this reader conflict in her portrayal, or lack thereof, of the murder as it happens. We don't have an description of Anne's skull shattering under a blow, or any dialogue from her, begging for her life. We just know that yes, it happened, and Watson did it, but he's still a sympathetic figure. The trial's description of his insanity, as I mentioned yesterday, gave a much fuller presentation of his insanity than Bainbridge did in the text, which only serves to increase our moral confusion about the case. At the time, he seemed odd, but still understandable. With the testimony of the witnesses about his clear mental dysfunction, he's both understandable and crazy at the same time – a winning combination for gaining our sympathy. Yet still a murderer.

Again, I'm impressed by how straightforward and understandable Bainbridge makes the shocking murder. The book gives the reader the perception is that this could happen in any reasonably unhappy marriage, and only the social contract manages to prevent this from occurring more commonly than it does. That's an impressive authorial feat, and if it's also true, it's an impressive feat for humanity.

Todd VanDerWerff: It's in the treatment of the murder that I think the book's class-based sentiments are most fully expressed. As that newspaper article Bainbridge reprints suggests, the only reason anyone's interested in this tale of salacious murder is because it took place among members of the middle-to-upper class, not the lower classes. In the lower classes, murder is considered "commonplace," for better or worse, but in the class the Watsons belong to? It's a novelty, and that sells newspapers. Really, this fascination is no different from, say, the fascination that surrounded the Laci Peterson murder a few years back. Our version of it is just ostensibly more sophisticated, since we have so many platforms to spread that fascination across. But the base level of it is the same: Some rich, attractive people have gotten involved in a situation that ended bloodily, and there's a certain salacious interest on the part of almost anybody with a heartbeat and a conscience. Obsessing over an incident like this creates a situation where the news reader is allowed to feel superior to those who gave in to their baser instincts, which is why the novel spins further and further from questions of just what spurred John Watson to his terrible acts and into largely pointless questions of Latin translation.

This class distinction is also why questions of "insanity" enter into it. I'm not a legal expert, but it strikes me that Watson's basic argument - I was really depressed! - probably wouldn't hold up in court today, unless our Watson equivalent were rich and/or famous enough to sneak it by via high-powered lawyers. (Watson may have a showboat trial, but he's got nothing on O.J. Simpson.) Still, the reason that this question of whether Watson briefly took leave of his senses - a sentiment the book seems to tacitly endorse here and there, mostly by how the narrative goes off-kilter in the moments immediately surrounding Anne's death - became so dominant in the trial was largely because Watson's class subconsciously created an expectation that surely he wouldn't commit murder unless something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. Thus, his lawyers are able to pitch the idea that he's taken leave of his senses, an idea that pretty much everyone seems to just go along with, even if they're skeptical.

I think Rowan's on to something when he suggests the true message of the book is that any unhappy marriage could end thusly and it's a surprise more don't, only enforced by the strictness of the social contract. But at the same time, it's usually easier for someone in a higher class to rent a bigger place or find a more time-consuming hobby to take themselves away from their despised spouse. The people of Watson's era (and maybe of ours) sort of expect those of the lower classes to break out into murder at any given time. That's just what "They" do. However, Watson's able to get away with his ridiculous defense (maybe even in the eyes of Bainbridge) because the expectation is that if he was unhappy in his marriage, he'd find a way to create some space and suffer in silence, not actually DO something about it.