Everything about the cover of this tale of gangster bridal woe screamed ‘THIS REALLY IS NOT YOUR SORT OF BOOK, BRONTE’: the Woman’s-Own-headline-esque title, the rose-between-two-Kray-shaped-thorns picture of its heroine, and the melodramatic front blurb trumpeting ‘the first full account of the beautiful, innocent young woman who married Reggie Kray – and became trapped in the violent and terrifying world of the Kray Twins.’ But it cost 30p from a charity shop near the solicitors where the other half and I had just committed to the 25 years of financial terror that is a mortgage on a London home, and I thought that I might be able to pass this bargain off as a gift for my Nanny Iris and look generous despite mortgage-induced ‘poverty’, so home with me it went.
Deep down, though, for all of my intellectual pretensions, I love those Woman’s Own stories, so I started to read The Tragic Bride, and was soon ashamed of my book snobbery. Hyams has elevated the tabloid tale of Frances Shea to a social history. The story of two East End families, the Krays and the Sheas, is used to illustrate the wider post-war working class experience as Britain moved into the swinging sixties with, for example, the establishment of our beloved NHS, the peak of the grammar school system, and increasing prosperity. In the tale of Frances’s control by her spouse, we learn about the position of women at the time and how easily traditional and accepted marital norms could morph in to something more sinister if taken to extremes. There is also much about the treatment of anxiety and depression in the sixties. Amidst all of this is the retelling of the familiar story of the Krays, those bully boys Britain insists on worshipping, because Babs Windsor liked them and they were nice to their mum Violet.
As you can probably tell, it’s not a cheerful tale, although the moment where an enraged Ronnie Kray yells ‘SING F*CK YOU SING’ because no one was singing the hymns at his brother’s wedding will retain the power to amuse me for years and may well be a tactic employed at my own wedding if the Turners and the Georges do not use the lungs which God gave them them to sing Jerusalem at full pelt. The only real let down for me in this book was the cringe-worthy recreation of Cockney Chit Chat (e.g. ‘Wot are you on about Reg…this is wot ‘appened); otherwise the tale of Frances Shea’s tragic death at 23, and its impact on her family, is told sensitively and set within a wider context which makes it a genuinely interesting read.
Following a disastrous romantic liaison with a policeman many years back, I was wont to joke that I was of course much more suited to the life of a gangster’s moll. Er, no thank you. I will leave you with the words of Frances’s formidable mother Elsie, delivered to Reggie at her daughter’s graveside, after spitting in his face:
You killed my daughter, you bastard, and if you spend a thousand pounds a week on flowers it won’t do any good because we will never forgive you and neither will she.