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
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