"Villainy Detected!" Crime and Consequences in Britain and America in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Crime in Literature

Crime, Literature, and Culture

Rosemary Mundhenk
Professor of English
Lehigh University

Attorneys at Law Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin in their 1824 "Preface" to The Newgate Calendar, comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters who have been Convicted of Outrages on the Laws of England since the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century. . . ," argue that their collection of short biographies of infamous18th and 19th century criminals will inspire those readers who are "unhappily moved with the sordid passion of acquiring wealth by violence, or stimulated by the heinous sin of revenge to shed the blood of a fellow-creature," to see "before them a picture of the torment of mind and bodily sufferings of such offenders." Crime, in short, will end in punishment: "[The] most artful secrecy could not screen the offenders from detection, nor the utmost ingenuity shield them from the strong arm of impartial justice." The representation of crime, at least of crimes that have been detected and punished, the editors argue, is an antidote to crime. The example of crime and its punishment will awaken readers to the social message that crime does not pay in the temporal world, but also to the moral and perhaps eternal repercussions of sin.

Yet, as the extended title of the 1824 Newgate Calendar suggests, with its promise of "occasional anecdotes and observations, speeches, confessions, and last exclamations of sufferers,"the volumes will also entertain. And indeed they do. The history of John Thurtell, whose 1824 murder trial is known as the first "trial by newspaper," combines its portrayal of "cold-blooded villainy" with grotesque farce: Thurtell initially attempts to shoot William Weare with cheap pistols "no better than pop-guns," and, once the murder is accomplished by driving the gun's barrel into the victim's brains, the blundering Thurtell and his accomplice Joseph Hunt ineptly attempt to dispose of the body, first finding it too heavy to move, then trying to sink it in an acquaintance's pond where the dead man's feet protrude about the water, and finally transporting it to another pond, leaving a trail of blood, bits of brain, and various weapons. The biography of the celebrated schoolteacher-turned-murderer Eugene Aram (1704-1759) invites readers not only to applaud his guilt-ridden last days and pre-execution confession, but also to marvel at his ingenuous, erudite courtroom defense of his innocence.

The popular 1824-28 Newgate Calendar and its 18th-century predecessors (1758, 1773, 1795) reveal the paradoxically dual function of representations of crime. The description or dramatization of crime titillates, exciting its audiences to terror, sympathy, laughter, or vicarious pleasure. It also instructs and disciplines, morally and culturally. Contradictions within the Newgate Calendar thus encapsulate, although they do not exhaust, the complex of purposes and appeals in 18th and 19th-century representations of crime and the reading audience's responses to those depictions. Newspapers, major journals, Parliamentary Commissions, and novels debated the causes, effects, and possible solutions. Broadsheets, penny-dreadfuls, Punch-and-Judy shows, and stage melodrama sensationalized both the criminal's actions and his punishment.

The rapid growth of the cities (London, New York, Boston, Manchester, and Birmingham), their overcrowding, their lack of adequate infrastructures, and the displacement of artisans and rural laborers from traditional employment, resulting from the industrial revolution and the enclosure of public land, no doubt contributed to the public's perception that crime was on the rise and to anxieties about--and widespread fascination with--crime and its perpetrators. A selected but not entirely unrepresentative list of important fiction indicates that crime is difficult to avoid in 18th and 19th Century literature: Defoe's Moll Flanders, Fielding's Jonathan Wild, Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, Godwin's Caleb Williams, Brockden Brown's Wieland, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Poe's tales, Dickens's Oliver Twist and Great Expectations (in fact, just about anything by Dickens), Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and The Scarlet Letter, George Eliot's Adam Bede, Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, and Norris's McTeague. Within the pages of even these very canonical texts, the reader discovers an astonishing array of offenses--murder, infanticide, rape, kidnapping, arson, fraud, embezzlement, bigamy, theft, burglary, rioting, etc.--that fuel the plots and entangle the characters in social and sometimes psychological mayhem.

Readers' appetites for crime did not go unchallenged. The immensely popular Gothic novels of the late 18th-Century were criticized for their excessive violence and "pernicious tendencies," and parodied by many, including Austen. Even Coleridge, no abstainer from Gothic depictions of crime himself, complained in a review of Lewis's The Monk: "We trust, however, that satiety will banish what good sense should have prevented; and that, wearied with fiends, incomprehensible characters, with shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons, the public will learn, by the multitude of the manufacturers, with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured." The Newgate novels of the 1830s, notably Bulwer's Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram were damned for romanticizing the lawbreaker, wallowing in vice, and attacking England's laws and penal codes. Novel reviewers in the 1860s were particularly alarmed by the popularity of the so-called "Sensation Novels," beginning with Wilkie Collins's Women in White and followed quickly by Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, etc., which brought crimes of murder, bigamy, adultery, and fraud into the upper-middle-class household. W. Fraser Rae, in a review of Braddon's fiction for the North British Review, advised those who "either possess or delight to buy such books, that the proper shelf on which to place them is that whereon stands The Newgate Calendar." Blackwood's reviewer Margaret Oliphant warned that the sensation novel could be dangerous to the reader's psychological and spiritual health, acting as a kind of "mental food," exciting the appetite for clandestine wickedness and illicit desire.

The 19th Century witnessed the arrival of the detective on the scene, as hero and preserver of social order, as well as expert in understanding the criminal mind. The creation of metropolitan police forces--most obviously in London in 1829 (followed by the Detective Department in 1842), Boston in 1837, and New York in 1845--no doubt prompted his appearance, but so did the increased emphasis on surveillance and the cultural faith in the collection and rational consideration of facts as instruments of keeping pubic order. From Poe's Dupin and Dickens's Inspector Bucket, to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, the Victorian detective relies on both rationality and intuition to solve the crime and to plumb the recesses of the felonious mind. Some are official police investigators, like the ingenious, keenly observant Bucket in Dickens's Bleak House and the less effective Sergeant Cuff in Collins's Moonstone. Most are professional detectives, like Dupin and Holmes, who outsmart the police as well as the offender. And some are amateur or accidental detectives, like Braddon's Robert Audley and Collins's Walter Hartright, who awake from inaction or indolence to prove themselves and construct new identities as social and morally responsible individuals. Furthermore, while 19th century detective fiction champions rationality and social order, it also provides its own version of voyeurism and vicarious pleasure, as the detective, and we with him, solve the mystery by repeating and re-experiencing the crime.

To the 21st century student of culture and literature, crime offers an index to the tensions and contradictions of 18th and 19th century cultures: the historically particular anxieties and values, construction of categories of "normalcy" and "deviance," definitions of moral and social order, toleration of particular forms of disorder, conceptions of the individual or subject (her agency and her societal duties), methods of apportioning value to property and to human life. Crime is a site where a culture's assumptions and values crack and fracture, where the supposedly universal truths are reiterated and questioned. Even the texts most apparently critical of cultural assumptions, reveal their inability to escape from them. For example, Dickens's Oliver Twist challenges the familiar association of poverty with crime and parodies Utilitarian politics in Fagin's sermons about self-interestedness, but the text also cannot find any other reward for Oliver's goodness than the discovery of his bourgeois parentage and his ascension to a financially secure middle-class life with his godfather Brownlow. Bronte's Jane Eyre challenges both the English class structure and domestic ideology, but its conclusion rewards Jane with both gentility and marriage.

Selected Bibliography

Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Review of Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk. The Critical Review (Feb. 1797) 194-200.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Hollingsworth, Keith . The Newgate Novel. Detroit: Wayne State U. P., 1963.

Knapp, Andrew and William Baldwin, eds. The Newgate Calenda;comprising interesting memoirs of the most notorious characters who have been convicted of outrages on the laws of England since the commencement of the eighteenth century; with occasional anecdotes and observations, speeches, confessions, and last exclamations of sufferers. London:J. Robins and Co., 1824.

Maunder, Andrew & Grace Moore. Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

Oliphant, Margaret. "Novels," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 102 (September 1867).

Pristman, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2003.

Rae, W. Fraser. "Sensation Novelists," North British Review 43 (1865) 180-204.

Thomas, Ronald R. "Detection in the Victorian Novel." The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. Deirdre David. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2001. 169-191.

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