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Reviewed by:
  • Criminal Conversations: Victorian Crimes, Social Panic, and Moral Outrage
  • Marjorie Levine-Clark (bio)
Criminal Conversations: Victorian Crimes, Social Panic, and Moral Outrage, edited by Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson; pp. xxxii + 318. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2005, $49.95.

For the Victorians, "criminal conversation" was a phrase with multiple meanings. Legally it referred to men's civil claims against their wives' adulterous lovers, but commonly it alluded to gossip about scandalous associations, the "crim. cons" frequently written about in the newspapers. Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson adopt criminal conversation as their keynote to examine "debate and discussion in the press about ideas and people which aroused social panic and moral outrage in a public arena" (xxii). Their volume focuses on the Victorians' construction and management of scandals. Their overall point is that the social meanings attached to crime can be more significant than the legal framework in our understanding of how Victorians handled their crimes. They pay particular attention to the ways in which commentators and moral entrepreneurs identified the "newness" of what they perceived as problems of crime, violence, or morality, and then produced outrage through the press to enhance their own interests. [End Page 534]

This is the second volume on discourses surrounding crime and bad behavior to emerge from a 2002 interdisciplinary conference on those topics, and the essays' authors include historians, a judge, a solicitor, and scholars of business and law. As in any interdisciplinary text, there is some difficulty reading across the disciplinary conventions, but the editors make a good effort to smooth out the edges, explaining terminology and highlighting connections. The authors converse with each other throughout the collection, developing quite pointedly the themes of criminal conversation and print media. This is truly an ensemble, rather than a loose fitting together of chapters under one title. The editors have done very well on this account.

They have done less well, I think, in organizing their sections meaningfully. Section one, "Identifying the Causes and Impacts of Bad Behavior," examines how tensions in Victorian values could produce bad behaviors. In his essay on the "dangerous classes," David Taylor argues that it became increasingly difficult for Victorians to draw sharp distinctions between respectable and criminal society as more and more crime was recognized to come from the "respectable" working class as well as from within the middle classes themselves. Jane Abbott reveals how the supposed innocence of children was corrupted by the presence of masses of juvenile offenders. Chapters by Paul Barnes and Graham Ferris demonstrate that the virtues of capitalism taken too far could result in corruption and crime: financial crises surrounding limited liability, on the one hand, and larceny, on the other. And the rural countryside, according to Gary Moses, the presumed location of moral virtues, was demeaned by hiring fairs that created opportunities for illicit heterosexual encounters.

Section two investigates "'External' Threats to the Security of Society." Rowbotham and Roger Swift both explore the Victorians' desire to displace bad behavior onto external others. Rowbotham examines the increasing social and legal lack of tolerance for behavior—such as female violence and working-class lack of discipline—linked with "lesser races," while Swift focuses on the Irish as a population associated with crime and violence in English cities. Ivan Crozier looks at medical challenges to legal definitions of same-sex behavior, arguing that medical practitioners' panic about homosexuality was more about their own authority than it was about actual practices. In an interesting study, Tony Ward demonstrates that in domestic poisoning cases, Victorians could be just as worried about trusting expert testimony as they were about the threat of poisoning itself. Sandra Morton's discussion of the lack of change prompted by the scandals surrounding food adulteration reveals just how selective Victorians could be about their moral outrage.

Section three stresses "the feminine element" as "The Threat from Within." Shani d'Cruze's somewhat overstated reading of a domestic murder case demonstrates tensions within the supposed "normality" of the home and family. Like Morton's essay on food adulteration, David Bentley's chapter on baby-farmers shows the selectivity of Victorian motors of change; baby-farming was a pragmatic solution for poor...


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pp. 534-536
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