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  • The Man of Letters as Criminal: Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell and Henry Labouchère’s Truth
  • Alexis Easley (bio)

A resonant trope in the New Journalism of the fin de siècle was the upper-class male villain. From the sexual predators in W.T. Stead’s “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” series to the fictional protagonist of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, upper-class men were associated with cultural decadence and decline. They were also objects of suspicion and surveillance within late Victorian social-purity movements. As Judith Walkowitz has shown, social-purity activists were focused on exposing “men’s double lives, their sexual diseases, and their complicity in a system of vices that flourished in the undergrowth of respectable society” (6). Indeed, after the 1889 Cleveland Street scandal, none of the aristocratic clients of male prostitutes had been brought to trial, and the allegedly upper-class perpetrator of the Ripper crimes was still at large. After 1885, newspapers associated with the New Journalism increasingly relied on investigative reporting of upper-class crime to maintain reader interest.1 As much as the New Journalism denounced the perpetrators of such crimes, it also relied on scandal to sell papers and consequently had much at stake in extending criminal narratives into melodramatic serials. Meanwhile, the editors of these newspapers were themselves sometimes forced to stand trial. W.T. Stead, for example, served three months in prison for procuring a child prostitute as part of his investigations during the “Maiden Tribute” series in the Pall Mall Gazette. Consequently, as the century came to a close, the line between journalist and criminal was increasingly uncertain.

It was not just investigative reporting on upper-class male sexual misconduct that produced the idea of the journalist-criminal. As mass media became more ubiquitous and profitable at the fin de siècle, the number of novice writers grew dramatically, and the number of criminals eager to take advantage of their inexperience increased correspondingly.2 Using stealth and imposture, literary criminals preyed upon amateur authors, offering them instruction, publishing opportunities, and other “assistance” without any intention of fulfilling their promises. The Author (1890–1926), a weekly magazine published by the Society of Authors, frequently recounted tales of publishers, agents, and other tricksters eager to take advantage of unwary amateurs.3 In this article, I analyze the case of Sir Gilbert Campbell [End Page 253] (1838–99), a man of letters who took advantage of fellow writers struggling to succeed in an overcrowded literary marketplace. In October 1892, Campbell was convicted of conspiring to defraud the public by co-managing a fraudulent literary agency that offered fake diplomas, promises of publication, and editorial assistantships in exchange for cash payments. Amateur writers paid for their manuscripts to be read and published only to find weeks later that the agency had closed shop and its managers were nowhere to be found. Due to his aristocratic title and military background, Campbell was able to gain the confidence of those who knew nothing of his checkered history or embarrassed financial state.

What made Campbell’s career as a literary con man noteworthy was not just that he had an aristocratic title but also that he himself was a writer, editor, and translator. He translated cheap editions of the works of French writer Émile Gaboriau, a pioneer of the detective novel genre. He also published his own detective stories in Christmas annuals and wrote a handful of mystery novels, including The Mystery of Mandeville Square (1888) and The Vanishing Diamond (1890). In 1890, he became editor of Lambert’s Monthly, which published serialized sensation novels and detective fiction. At the same time that Campbell was translating, writing, and editing detective fiction, he continued to pursue a life of crime. His story was a case of life imitating art—or art imitating life.

As a crime writer and criminal, Campbell’s engagement with popular print culture was compelling and complex. On the one hand, he was an obscure hack writer, who, like so many others, was simply trying to get by, yet, on the other hand, he was a criminal who took advantage of his fellow authors struggling to get...


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pp. 253-270
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