Book Review: “Black Widow” by Carol Baxter (#AWW2016)



I have previously explored the notion that writers can, and perhaps should, share their story ideas. I argued,

Different writers/artists can and should have the freedom to present the same story idea in considerably different ways. Each may tackle a unique aspect of humanity, a prominent phase of an event, a distinct part of the event’s political, social and/or cultural background, etc. … [More importantly,] Different writers can and should be confident that they are capable of fully utilising their literary voices and developing the same idea into considerably different stories. There is no reason why a story idea should be “locked down”…because every idea deserves a chance to be fully and carefully explored by different writers from different perspectives.

Curiously, two years after the presentation of that argument, I bumped into two Australian female writers who have explored the same story idea…with considerably different results. That story idea is Louisa Collins, the Australian woman who was accused, convicted and hanged for the death of her husband by arsenic in 1889. The two writers are Caroline Overington, who published her book Last Woman Hanged: The Terrible, True Story of Louisa Collins in November 2014, and Carol Baxter, who published her book Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer in May 2015.

My review of Last Woman Hanged can be seen here. Now, as I compare and contrast that book with Black Widow, it feels like I have come to understand two unique individuals that are both named Louisa Collins. The Louisa in Last Woman Hanged was a victim of her time, a woman with no political, economic and social rights, an accused murderer whose crime was never 100% ascertained, despite her conviction and subsequent execution. She was an ordinary woman whose plight inspired extraordinary opinions and actions that helped to shape Australia as a modern and truly democratic nation.

In sharp contrast, the Louisa in Black Widow is, as the book title implies, a serial killer “who broke not only the written criminal law but the unwritten social law. She breached society’s expectations of ‘womanly’ behaviour when it was particularly unwise to do so. Moreover, the face she presented to the world was cold and unemotional – ‘unwomanly’” (p.337). I find the following passage especially astonishing:

This was a time when society believed that external appearance denoted internal nature, that crime was most often a male behavioural trait, therefore, an unwomanly woman – that is, a more manly woman – was more likely to be criminal by nature.

This, also, was a time when women were becoming more assertive in demanding equality in employment, educational opportunities and voting rights, so the question of gender inequality was topical. One gender inequality that favoured women was the application of capital punishment. Men were executed; women were not… As one newspaper argued, if men were to be hanged to protect women, then women should also be hanged to protect men.

It was time to set an example, time to show the public that society was not as unequal as the reformers might claim – and, conversely, that society was making efforts to increase women’s autonomy. By a bizarre piece of logical illogic, it was time to hang a woman. (p.337)

This version of Australia is dramatically different from the one presented in Last Woman Hanged. Indeed, Black Widow begins with depiction of Australia as a society that was isolated and supposedly under threat. While the two telegraph cables connecting Australia with the rest of the world had ruptured somewhere in Bali Strait, the Victorian and South Australian governments “were taking precautionary measures to guard against a possible attack” that could be coming from China, France, Germany or even Russia (p.3-4). Perhaps it was such gloomy, tense and unnerving national mood that prompted two doctors to start collecting evidence, “just in case” Louisa Collins had something to do with the deaths of her first husband and baby and then with the illness of her second husband.

Black Widow reads like a crime novel, something with which I am not unfamiliar. Indeed, as a “history detective”, Baxter is known for telling stories of seemingly ordinary individuals as true-crime thrillers. Her four other non-fiction books were published to critical claim, and it seems fair to suggest that many historical figures and events in Australia only became known to common readers as a result of her representation.

So I proceeded, as led by Baxter, to explore why Louisa Collins committed her crimes. I was informed that as a murderer, “she was the first female serial killer in Australia, appearing on Sydney’s criminal stage in the same year that Jack the Ripper launched himself onto the world stage” (p.344). I was told that Louisa was guilty because she never cried out, “I am innocent!” Worse, while her motive for killing her first husband was “lust and greed” (p.329), she killed her second husband because she “’loved too much’ – if such a possessive, controlling attitude considered ‘love’” (p.333). In other words,

[Louisa] wanted to maintain the power and authority that her first killing had bequeathed her, particularly over her young, lazy, perhaps not-too-smart but much-loved [second] husband. A threat that he would leave, with everything such a threat encompassed, would have served as a powerful trigger for one who had already killed to gain him. (p.332)

So, what do I think, as a reader, about the two considerably different versions of Louisa’s story? How do I feel, as a fellow woman, about her life, love, loss and violent death? It sounds silly, but I would rather believe that once upon a time there were a “bright” Louisa and her “dark” twin sister. No one could tell them apart, yet the “bright” Louisa inspired while her “dark half” destroyed.

Now, talk about story ideas…


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: May Roundup – History, Memoir, Biography (HMB) | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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