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The Art of Alibi

English Law Courts and the Novel

Jonathan H. Grossman

Publication Year: 2002

In The Art of Alibi, Jonathan Grossman reconstructs the relation of the novel to nineteenth-century law courts. During the Romantic era, courthouses and trial scenes frequently found their way into the plots of English novels. As Grossman states, "by the Victorian period, these scenes represented a powerful intersection of narrative form with a complementary and competing structure for storytelling." He argues that the courts, newly fashioned as a site in which to orchestrate voices and reconstruct stories, arose as a cultural presence influencing the shape of the English novel. Weaving examinations of novels such as William Godwin's Caleb Williams, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, along with a reading of the new Royal Courts of Justice, Grossman charts the exciting changes occurring within the novel, especially crime fiction, that preceded and led to the invention of the detective mystery in the 1840s.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Alibis, even when true, draw their strength from the support of others, and so has this book, concerned in part with the history of alibis. The case it makes for placing the English novel at the scene of the law courts could never have been made without the incisive comments that Nina Auerbach penned in purple and green ink ...

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pp. 1-6

Walking down the Strand in 1871, one would come upon a massive, unprecedented construction project at the heart of London: the building of the Royal Courts of Justice. The Victorians were erecting a palace to the judicial process, one they had begun planning in the 1830s. Throughout the nineteenth century similar projects were under way across the nation. ...

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One: From Scaffold to Law Court, from Criminal Broadsheet and Biography to Newspaper and Novel

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pp. 7-36

During the era stretching from the English novel’s eighteenth-century beginnings up to its establishment as the nation’s ascendant literary form in the Victorian period, the gallows, which was both a public, physical site around which the climax of justice was focused and a central symbolic figure in the culture, ...

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Two: Caleb Williams and the Novel’s Forensic Form

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pp. 37-61

After attending a play in 1830, Henry Crabb Robinson jotted down in his diary with some hyperbole that the “adoption of legal incidents as the source of romantic and dramatic interest . . . began with Godwin.”1 As Robinson, a barrister and a highly literate reader, perceived, the publication ...

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Three: Mary Shelley’s Legal Frankenstein

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pp. 62-82

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), so well known as both gothic and science fiction, has never registered as a particularly legal story. So, it may come as a surprise to some readers to realize that Victor Frankenstein— the descendant of “counsellors and syndics,”1 which is to say lawyers and judges ...

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Four: Victorian Courthouse Structures, The Pickwick Papers

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pp. 83-106

It is no accident that Mitford begins her discussion with the economics of Pickwick and ends with the book’s changing shape—“fragmentary, except the trial.” At the time she writes, Pickwick is ushering in a new era in the serialization of novels. With Pickwick, for the first time a serial begins drawing on material that an author is producing ...

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Five: Mary Barton’s Telltale Evidence

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pp. 107-136

Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton (1848), climaxes in a trial scene. John Barton, Mary’s father, has assassinated a factory owner’s son to protest the lethal conditions suffered by workers in Manchester. Jem Wilson, however, is mistakenly put on trial for the murder, which is attributed to a romantic rivalry ...

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Six: The Newgate Novel and the Advent of Detective Fiction

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pp. 137-163

In the 1830s and 1840s a literary controversy raged over the depiction of criminals in novels. William Makepeace Thackeray shuddered “for the public, whom its literary providers have gorged with blood, and foul Newgate garbage.” “Let your rogues in novels act like rogues, and your honest men like honest men; ...

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pp. 164-174

In the 1890s Robert Gemmell Hutchison reimagined Abraham Solomon’s 1857 painting Waiting for the Verdict. For us Hutchison’s painting, titled Awaiting the Verdict (fig. 10), offers a glimpse of the evolving tenor of the novel’s juristic structuring later in the century, again allowing us to envisage in its narratival tension …


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pp. 175-196


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pp. 197-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780801877872
E-ISBN-10: 0801877873
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801867552
Print-ISBN-10: 080186755X

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 10 halftones
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 51493790
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Art of Alibi

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Legal stories, English -- History and criticism.
  • English fiction -- History and criticism.
  • Courts in literature.
  • Law and literature.
  • Law in literature.
  • Literary form.
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