- Reviewed by
This fascinating collection of essays traverses the century and ranges across Victorian criminal activity and social aberrance from regicide and serial murder to sensation and child sexual abuse. Focusing on bodies, moral and physical decay, exploitative [End Page 536] journalism, and abusive commercialism, the collection never fails to be engaging, though some essays are stronger than others. Even for those less interested in the seamy underside of Victorian England, the book provides insights into the relationship between the mainstream and the marginal in Victorian culture. While a clearer framework would have been valuable, this carnival of Victorian deviance is a worthwhile read.
Three of the collection's best essays deal with the politics of empire. Máire ní Fhlathúin's engaging discussion of the murderous Thugee cult in India reports that these criminals inspired rhetoric about the colonial salvation of India. The Thugees were "categorized as 'extraordinary' criminals—thugs—in order to facilitate the sanctioning of harsh legal and political moves against them" (35) and to rationalize empire itself. Her essay points to one of the volume's most compelling themes: the obsession with crime that produced both crime and culture in general. Maria Bachman's essay presents the critique of the Irish as passionate and irrational in Wilkie Collins's Blind Love (1890) as a justification for empire and English rule. Gita Punjabi Trelease's essay on India, fingerprinting, and crime analyzes both imperialist notions of Indian identity and evolving technologies of crime and detection, arguing that fiction like Arthur Conan Doyle's offers narrative as another of these "technologies."
Another fascinating group of essays investigates the press and sensation narrative. John Plunkett's discussion of regicide and regimania persuasively links the cultural obsession with the young Victoria and her intimate domestic life to regicide and the Queen's life in the press. While one wonders about agency in the creation of "royal privacy"—is it the royals, the masses, or both that generate the phenomenon?—the essay is most intriguing. June Sturrock juxtaposes newspaper narratives of infamous middle-class women on trial with similar narratives in popular fiction of the 1860s, and though more development of Sturrock's conclusions would have strengthened the piece, it is still an engaging discussion. She notes that even the most sensational novels refused to place the middle-class woman on trial, a pattern that reveals intense cultural anxiety about this possibility. Dallas Liddle's fine essay argues that the scholarly focus on sensational aspects of the media and on parallels between sensation fiction and the press have often elided the "strong strain of anti-subversiveness, even anti-sensationalism, that characterized middle- and upper-class periodicals of the 1860s" (90). Examining the reporting on Reverend Benjamin Speke's disappearance, Liddle argues that the press asserted the stability of narrative power rather than undermining it as sensation novels often did.
Some essays are too broad; a few are too narrow. Grace Moore's essay on the sexual politics of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is an example of the latter. While Moore offers a fresh and intriguing reading that points to underlying tensions about onanism and depravity, her rejection of queer readings of the same tensions is unnecessary and even counterproductive. Andrew Maunder's essay on East Lynne (1861) and degeneration, though very strong, is also narrow. He argues against constructions of Ellen Wood's anti-heroine as "subversive," suggesting instead that her condemnation of Isabel was genuine and mirrored cultural concerns about degeneracy and women's sexuality. Maunder reads both Wood and the novel as "guardian[s] of bourgeois propriety" (69)—a conclusion at odds with most feminist scholarship on the novel. While his argument is in many ways quite effective, locating a profound impulse toward propriety need not undermine feminist claims that the novel was simultaneously deeply disruptive. [End Page 537]
In choosing to focus their own essays so narrowly, perhaps the editors were responding to the almost overwhelming breadth of the collection as a whole...