In Focus: The scandalous child of Empire, the murderous photographer and the woman who fatally brought them together

Eadweard Muybridge was not only the pioneering photographer of motion, but also a murderer. Jason Goodwin relishes this tale of the dashing rogue and adventurer who became his victim.

On October 17, 1874, a man was shot dead at point-blank range in a rooming house at the Yellow Jacket Mine near Calistoga, in northern California. A jury later acquitted the killer, Eadweard Muybridge, on the grounds that the victim had been conducting an affair with Muybridge’s wife, Flora. Muybridge went back to his career in photography and produced a series of studies that, for the first time, explained the way people and animals actually moved. He revealed, for instance, that a trotting horse lifted all four feet from the ground at once, which had been a matter of debate. Artists had depicted horses galloping with back and front legs extended; Muybridge showed the legs gathered instead under the horse’s belly.

Eadweard Muybridge (American, born England, 1830 - 1904), The Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography

Eadweard Muybridge (American, born England, 1830 – 1904), The Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography

His young victim remained a sorry footnote to Muybridge’s story. In The Scoundrel Harry Larkyns, Rebecca Gowers, his distant relative, takes Larkyns’s brief trajectory through this world and slows it down, frame by frame, like a Muybridge study.

Larkyns’s life gives the lie to anyone who thinks Victorians were tame, stay-at-home or stuffy. There was nothing sedentary or predictable about this child of Empire, born in India in 1843 into a family of East India Company men, ship owners and captains, civil servants, lawyers and soldiers.

‘He wrote millions of words for a San Francisco newspaper, and he fell fatally in love with a married woman’

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At the age of three, Harry was sent to England, with his sister. Mrs Larkins (Harry substituted the y) stayed in India and inflicted senseless wounds on her children from a comfortable distance. Letters travelled back and forth so slowly that her reproaches and reprimands were six months out of date, raking up long-forgotten trespasses. Meanwhile, she indulged in tender references to the children she had kept with her, including little Georgie, 10 years younger than Harry. It’s hard to guess how much Harry enjoyed hearing about Georgie’s jolly mischief, faithful servants and his naughty little dog, not to mention his easy way with his father, when he was exiled from them all at an English school.

After 1857, there were no more letters. Harry’s parents were stationed at Cawnpore and when the Indian Mutiny broke out, the garrison was destroyed under siege, bombarded, and tricked into the open by an offer of safe conduct. One hundred or so women and small children survived the initial massacre, to be butchered in their turn as an avenging army approached. No more Georgie, no Mrs Larkins.

Eadweard Muybridge

The fantastical twists and turns in Larkyns’s later life are brilliantly, and coolly, recovered by the author, who also draws on analogous experiences of, say, The Brontë sisters in a Brussels school, Walter Dickens in the Indian Army or R. L. Stevenson on the emigrant trail. Larkyns travelled across the globe. He saw active service in the Punjab. He staked a claim during the Gold Rush. He was charming, clever and lived in Paris like a milord, befriended ‘tous les lions du high life’, frequented the theatre, rooked jewellers and horse-dealers, used pawnbrokers to raise funds on jewels he could not pay for, and ended up in Mazas, a grim isolation prison. Once, he fought with a French guerrilla unit against the Prussians and won the Légion d’Honneur.

He wrote millions of words for a San Francisco newspaper. And he fell fatally in love with a married woman, Flora Muybridge.

Muybridge Human Locomotion, Man Leaping, 1881. Photograph shows 15 consecutive images of a man leaping. Eadweard James Muybridge (April 9, 1830 - May 8, 1904) was an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion

It’s not a comparison the author makes, but with his taste for women and adventure, high life and derring-do, Larkyns reminded me of another Harry, the fictional Flashman. His murder comes almost as an anti-climax.

We learn that Muybridge made no effort to exonerate himself, yet the jury acquitted him. Flora died and her child with Larkyns was raised in an orphanage. He became a car mechanic and died in the 1940s. Strange, brilliant, quirky and illuminating, books such as this remind us, if we need reminding, that books matter. Nothing else can take you away, take you back, take you to places you’ve never known, to meet people you would never meet. Only books roam wide. Without them, we are left with footnotes.

The Scoundrel Harry Larkyns, Rebecca Gowers (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)