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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 291-296
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Law, Narrative, and Performance
Northern Kentucky University
Donna V. Andrew and Randall McGowen. The Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd: Forgery and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century London (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Pp. xii + 346. $35.00.
J. M. Beattie. Policing and Punishment in London 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Pp. xix + 491. $80.00 cloth. $35.00 paper.
Hal Gladfelder. Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). Pp. xiii + 281. $52.00. [End Page 291]
Jonathan H. Grossman. The Art of Alibi: English Law Courts and the Novel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.) Pp. xii + 202. $41.00.
The cross-disciplinary study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century law, narrative, and performance is particularly complex, and the authors represented by the publication of these four books, two written by historians and two by literary scholars, address the field in vastly different ways and with varying degrees of success.
In his previous book, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800, J. M. Beattie reported the results of his study of crime and its prosecution and punishment in Surrey and Sussex. His current book, Policing and Punishment in London 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror, continues that work by investigating how criminal administration practices in London evolved and influenced changes in criminal law and its institutions. Focusing primarily on property crimes documented in the records of the Old Bailey, Beattie meticulously analyzes the ad hoc processes by which responsibility for policing, prosecution, and criminal investigation transferred from individual citizens and crime victims to the state and to city government. At the same time, he demonstrates how changes in both courtroom procedures and the law broadened both the rights of the accused and the sentencing options available to judge and jury, ultimately leading to a shift away from punishment that was public, such as hanging and whipping, or that left outward signs, such as branding.
Beattie begins with an overview of crime and criminal administration in the City of London. According to Beattie, the late seventeenth-century system proved inadequate to deal with both real and perceived criminal threats, with magistrates resolving complaints by victims against defendants who had no legal representation. Real increases in crime occurred particularly during periods of high unemployment; these followed wars, when discharged soldiers flooded the city, as well as during periods of high emigration, both from rural areas and from abroad. Perceived criminal threats, generated by a burgeoning trade in increasingly detailed and sensational official, journalistic, and fictional crime literature, also influenced changes in the legal system.
Throughout this book, Beattie's attention to the local and particular yields fascinating insights into generalized trends without losing track of differences among local jurisdictions. Particularly interesting are Beattie's analyses of crime and punishment statistics. The eighteenth-century legal system is commonly described as featuring draconian legal penalties and high conviction rates in capital cases. Conversely, Beattie argues that such statistics mask the actual practices of magistrates, who expanded their sentencing options by dismissing cases in the examination phase or by reducing felony charges to misdemeanors, thereby avoiding the mandatory capital sentence. Consequently, only the most egregious offenders may have been charged as felons, skewing the conviction rate.
In Part I: "Policing and Prosecution," Beattie traces the evolution of policing and punishment in London and Middlesex. Beattie begins by explaining the use of the term police as "social administration, especially the management of what seemed to men in power to be troublesome groups in society, and the development of solutions to social problems that would make for a more orderly and a safer environment" (77). As a consequence, policing was associated, not only with crimes against property, but in general with public safety issues, including such functions as street-lighting, water and sewage, traffic and crowd control, and with such challenges to morality as gaming, prostitution, fairs, and failure to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest...