Copy­cat killing

DAISY HAY shiv­ers along in ap­pre­ci­a­tion as she reads an ac­count of our Vic­to­rian fore­bears’ love for grisly tales Mur­der by the Book: A Sen­sa­tional Chap­ter in Vic­to­rian Crime by Claire Har­man Viking, 224 pages, £14.99

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Daisy Hay’s lat­est book is The Mak­ing of Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein (Bodleian, 2018)

On 6 May 1840, a quiet May­fair street was dis­turbed by the cries of a dis­traught house­maid. She had just found her mas­ter, Lord Wil­liam Rus­sell, in bed with his throat cut and blood seep­ing lib­er­ally through the sheets. Her cries woke the neigh­bours and then sent shiv­ers through gen­teel Lon­don. If an el­derly gen­tle­man was not safe be­hind his own front door, wor­ried his peers, then who was? An aris­to­cratic class made anx­ious by Chartist stir­rings and by the Newport ris­ing of 1839 (which saw more than 7,000 men march in open re­bel­lion against au­thor­i­ties) looked to the ser­vants with whom they lived and won­dered if they were safe in their own beds.

As the po­lice closed in around the mur­derer, how­ever, a set of mo­ti­va­tions emerged that had less to do with pol­i­tics than with fic­tion. Claire Har­man’s new book traces the con­nec­tions be­tween Lord Wil­liam’s mur­der and the ghoul­ish nov­els that, in the late 1830s, trig­gered anx­i­eties in the English rul­ing classes. Dur­ing his trial, Lord Rus­sell’s ac­cused mur­derer an­nounced that he had drawn in­spi­ra­tion from Wil­liam Har­ri­son Ainsworth’s Jack Shep­pard, a novel that had in­spired mul­ti­ple cheap abridge­ments and the­atri­cal adap­ta­tions. The mo­ral panic trig­gered by this rev­e­la­tion was un­prece­dented. Ainsworth’s name was tar­nished for good, and the lord chan­cel­lor re­fused to li­cense fur­ther stage pro­duc­tions of the story. In the eyes of the es­tab­lish­ment, Jack Shep­pard be­came symp­to­matic of a wider cul­tural malaise. The Ex­am­iner cas­ti­gated it as a “de­testable book… cal­cu­lated to fa­mil­iarise the mind with cru­el­ties, and to serve as the cut-throat’s man­ual”. When the killer went to the gal­lows, Dick­ens and Thack­eray were among the crowd gath­ered to watch, and Dick­ens in­cor­po­rated the scene into Barn­aby Rudge.

It is this tan­gle of fact and fic­tion that Har­man ex­plores in Mur­der by the Book. In the process she re­veals a slice of early Vic­to­rian life, and re­minds us that our 19th-cen­tury an­ces­tors were seed­ier and more rack­ety than his­tory some­times sug­gests. Nov­els such as Jack Shep­pard have now dis­ap­peared without a trace, and those works of fic­tion that sur­vive from the pe­riod are not nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the van­ished works or­di­nary peo­ple read in huge num­bers. The Vic­to­rian novel may now be about as re­spectable a lit­er­ary form as it is pos­si­ble to imag­ine, but Har­man shows that orig­i­nally it was shadier and more dis­turb­ing, and that mo­ral pan­ics re­gard­ing the cor­rupt­ing ef­fects of pop­u­lar cul­ture are noth­ing new.

There is enough am­bi­gu­ity in the story of Rus­sell’s end to sat­isfy even the most ar­dent lovers of de­tec­tive fic­tion, and Har­man’s en­joy­ment at piecing to­gether the ev­i­dence is clear. The work of Ainsworth and his con­tem­po­raries may have fallen out of fash­ion, but our fas­ci­na­tion with crime and its cre­ative man­i­fes­ta­tions con­tin­ues un­abated.

A sou­venir print from a theatre pro­duc­tion of the no­to­ri­ous novel Jack Shep­pard

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