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  • Capital Offenses: Geographies of Class and Crime in Victorian London
  • John K. Walton
Capital Offenses: Geographies of Class and Crime in Victorian London. By Simon Joyce (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003. ix plus 267 pp.).

Although the title might seem to suggest otherwise, Joyce’s book is not a work of historical geography or the history of crime in any conventional sense, although it has interdisciplinary aspirations which reach out in those directions. It is a work of literary criticism and cultural studies, borrowing its organising principles from Franco Moretti’s concept of ‘literary geography’ and Fredric Jameson’s notion of ‘cognitive mapping’. Joyce takes us through nineteenth-century fictional depictions of nineteenth-century and mainly Victorian London, from Dickens and Harrison Ainsworth to Walter Besant, Mary Harkness and Arthur Morrison by way of R.L. Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, with cross-references to social commentators such as Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth. At one level it is a critical investigation into the idea of the rise of the detective story; at another (and relatedly) it is a broadly sympathetic critique of Foucault in which the idea of the Panopticon makes regular reappearances. Much of the historical material [End Page 261] is derivative and over-simplified, and some of it is just plain wrong (although the critique of Gertrude Himmelfarb hits the spot). The interest of the book lies in its comparative commentaries on literary sources and the distinctive angle from which it views contemporary debates on class, radical politics, crime, charity and social reform in Victorian London. At times it is an interesting read, but at times it frustrates the reader from an adjacent academic culture.

A particular frustration is the failure to deliver the nuanced mapping of metropolitan crime that is promised in the introduction, with its allusions to Mayhew’s detailed social descriptions and Booth’s coloured maps of social contours. What we actually get is an extended riff on the familiar contrast between East End and West End and the middle-class emotions of incomprehension, fear, commitment, guilt and attraction that accompanied it, with some acknowledgement of a middle ground, of the rise of suburbia, and of the existence of islands of the ‘East’ in the ‘West’. Crime itself, as a theme, ebbs and flows alongside discussions of contemporary perceptions of social, moral and cultural divisions, problems and threats, but it is surprising how little we learn that is really new about geographies of class and crime outside the pages of a few novelists and social commentators. There are flashes of transferable insight, such as the discussion of the applicability of ‘orientalism’ as an organising principle in these settings; but these are intermittent and not always convincing.

The book is also unreliable in its discussion of important themes, especially early on (though the author does date the last great Liberal landslide election victory as 1908 rather than 1906, and he is often uncertain on such details). He begins unpromisingly (p. 3) by regarding London’s “rapid and largely unplanned” population growth between (presumably) 1821 and 1841 as exceptional for country and period, and by ascribing it “largely to an influx of peoples from rural areas of Britain and its colonial territories.” The Irish were important, but not that important. The key chapter on ‘Mapping the capital city’ takes its tone from Simmel’s grossly over-simplified vision of “the emergent workers’ and republican organizations in Britain” as based on Enlightenment ‘ideals of liberation’ and in conflict with nineteenth-century individualism. This is the prelude to (among other things) an extraordinary treatment of the Peterloo Massacre, which contrives to make four clear errors of fact in a single sentence. After these unpromising beginnings, it is no surprise to find that Joyce’s grip on Chartism is tenuous at best, while his presentation of police reform is equally unconvincing. It is outrageous to suggest, after a quarter of a century of revisionist historiography, that the Whig interpretation of English police history is still the dominant one, while the idea that a centralised national force was instituted in 1856 is a surprise to those of us who watched Margaret Thatcher taking giant unconstitutional strides...

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pp. 261-263
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