- The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice & a Mystery about Words in 1920s England by Christopher Hilliard
As an exciting experiment in merging the genre of the mystery novel with a work of historiography, Hilliard’s The Littlehampton Libels succeeds in crafting an engaging, pacey, and intellectually stimulating account of an unusual criminal case in 1920s England. Oriented around a series of libels sent to the close-knit inhabitants of the seaside town of Littlehampton, ranging from imputations about prostitution, extramarital affairs, thefts, and other neighborly grievances, the monograph keeps its readers guessing [End Page 148] about the culprit until the final chapters. Part of Hilliard’s brilliance lies in demonstrating how these libels signified more than “petty” grievances to their recipients, for whom issues of reputation still had economic consequences. Among those whose employment was often precarious, and who depended on credit and neighborly assistance for survival during periods of hardship, the libels imperiled crucial relationships that were already fraught due to the proximity of their living arrangements.
Hilliard’s painstaking examinations of “the textures of writing and speech” (177), as recorded in police interviews with suspects and witnesses, courtroom testimony, contemporary letters, and the libels themselves, flesh out how increasing levels of literacy in this era profoundly impacted the ability of the poor to express their individuality. Indeed, the writing style—both penmanship and literary coherence—of one suspect, who displayed the ability to modify her letters to become “proficient in the language of official correspondence” (139), serves as a fascinating example of the kinds of agency that literacy afforded, creating a means to interact across social classes and institutions. Herein lies the significance of sometimes derided “micro-histories” and the case-study approach. As Hilliard writes, The Littlehampton Libels offers “an attempt to push my earlier exercises in intellectual or literary history ‘from below’ further, and treat vocabularies and handwriting styles as sites of individuality and ambition” (177).
This work is interdisciplinary in format rather than methodology. It inhabits the style of a novel successfully, but is unmistakeably an academic text, informed by exhaustive research into the lives of its protagonists as well as the local and institutional structures that they encountered. Hilliard also explores broader themes of poverty, gender, class, and notions of respectability at intervals that enhance the development of the main “story” without jarring shifts in tone. As such, The Littlehampton Libels is an outstanding work of social history, but it also deploys cultural history’s emphasis on conflicting narratives of the past in a manner doubly effective because the case actually hinged on these concerns. Playing with historians’ abilities to act as “detectives” when confronted by testimonies that deliberately sought to obscure the truth, Hilliard’s book creates a new template for exposing the methodological and intellectual challenges of claiming to “know” the past in a way both elegant and engaging.
Chapter 9 (133–144), following the revelation of the culprit’s identity, marks a change to a more conventional style of academic writing. Hilliard discusses the etymology of the “bad language” used in the libels and its resonance in the period and place under study. This change in tone would be problematical in a history that sought exclusively to appeal to a “popular” audience, but this chapter and its successor bridges the gap between academic and popular histories by summarizing the key arguments succinctly. It recalls Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, albeit with a more explicit social-historical emphasis.1 [End Page 149]
The Littlehampton Libels is an engaging and ambitious work that scholars in the fields and sub-disciplines of history and English will mutually enjoy, particularly for its suggestive insights into working-class agency through literacy.
1. Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Or, The Murder at Hill Road House (London, 2008).