- 1895: Drama, Disaster and Disgrace in Late Victorian Britain
As Nicholas Freeman argues in his finely executed book, 1895 was a key year in the last decade of the nineteenth century, a year when “ungovernable energies were breaking out everywhere” (52). This year saw mainstream sensibilities undermined by a range of subversive types, including aesthetes, homosexuals, and cross-dressers, while newspaper headlines were filled with stories about mine explosions, inclement weather, and murderous children. This fascinating book considers what went on in 1895 in detail, and its subject matter ranges from Oscar Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency to Aubrey Beardsley’s addiction to slot machines (165). The year’s popular preoccupations are also considered against the publication of that key text of fin de siècle paranoia, Max Nordau’s Degeneration, which went into seven print runs within six months of its first publication in English.
This was, of course, the year that saw the first performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the publication of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the outrage of prudish sensibilities by Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and the fusion of sensation and occult fiction with the appearance of Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan, while racy novels were labeled “Key Note-orious” by reviewers (89). Freeman offers an almost daily account of the year, and despite the difficulties that this might pose, his discussion is critically focused and thoroughly engaging, concentrating on the multiple, overlapping experiences of 1895 wherein a range of contemporary anxieties surfaced in a conflict between what he terms “the dissident modern and the brutally reactionary” (3). Rather than constructing a linear narrative, he identifies cultural patterns, and these are woven together in a fascinating account that blends literary discourse, cultural theory, and a historically focused history of the popular media. For example, he points [End Page 807] to the connection between bourgeois anxieties over working-class theater audiences, belligerent football fans, and continental anarchism, and in so doing highlights the very excitable nature of a public opinion that was at once exploited and managed by sensational press headlines. While these social phenomena were not directly connected to one another, Freeman insists that the manner and style of their presentation in the press is what marked the late Victorian period as an important staging post for an intensively mediated modernity. Rather than ending with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, these practices and preoccupations only intensified with the passage of time.
Wilde is a constant presence in this monograph. His trial certainly was the key public event of the year, but Freeman argues that it was not the only disaster to attract the attention of a sensation-hungry public. Plenty of other shocking events also made the headlines, feeding a seemingly inexhaustible popular appetite for scandal and sensation. Freeman’s exhaustive account of these often tragic and usually bizarre happenings always considers the role of the press in influencing their popular reception. This in turn underlines the contemporary understanding of modernity as a chaotic and unpredictable experience, a perception that is more generally associated with avant-garde modernism than with late-Victorian popular culture. Freeman’s careful excavation of newspaper and journal archives contextualizes Wilde’s trial by shedding light on the other trials and disasters that fed the public appetite for shock, sensation, and scandal. Thus we learn that the year was punctuated by, among other things, news reports of the death of the zookeeper Albert Hatwell, who was trampled to death by an elephant when he kicked its trunk (113). The so-called “Tooting Tragedy” also shocked the public (a desperate, unemployed plasterer murdered his wife and six children with a razor), but the year’s horrors were a varied batch, and the strangest was the case of the brothers Robert and Nathaniel Coombes. Aged twelve and thirteen (and addicted to penny dreadfuls), the pair murdered their mother and used her savings to go on a spree that included hansom cab rides around the...