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date: 17 October 2019

Crime in Nineteenth-Century Literature

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Please check back later for the full article.

Crime abounds in 19th-century British fiction, although the kinds of crimes depicted, as well as the narrative significance, thematic weight, and cultural meanings assigned to them, varied widely over time and across fictional genres. As the 19th century’s dominant literary form, the novel was necessarily an admixture of art and commerce; for the burgeoning class of professional novelists, and particularly those whose livelihood required them to produce popular works in quick succession, criminality was an invaluable element of story that reliably performed several key narrative functions. Criminal characters and actions engaged readers’ imaginations and emotions, crimes undetected or unpunished created suspense, and the restoration of order brought stories to satisfying conclusions. Utility alone, however, cannot fully account for crime’s ubiquity. Fictional representations of criminality reflected, and sometimes inspired, changes to Britain’s social, political, and legal landscape, as authors used crime thematically to examine or exploit popular anxieties regarding the apparent instabilities of a rapidly changing society, to comment on current controversies, or to prescribe or dispute codes of conduct and morality.

Crimes and criminal behavior form an essential component of three key precursors to detective and mystery fiction, both of which emerged as recognizable genres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: conspiracies and crimes, ranging from forgery and fraud to kidnapping and murder, characterize late 18th- and early 19th-century Gothic fiction; the Newgate novels of the 1830s and 1840s depict urban criminal underworlds of thieves, fences, and prostitutes; and sensation novels of the 1860s and 1870s rework such Gothic crimes as bigamy and blackmail in contemporary British settings. Although popular with readers, Gothic, Newgate, and sensation novels were frequently decried as immoral or corrupting. Yet fictional genres typically deemed less scandalous are also rife with criminal activity. Walter Scott’s immensely popular and influential historical novels, published between 1814 and 1832, feature several memorable villains and spectacular crimes. Similarly, the Industrial or Condition-of-England novels of the 1840s, which sought to anatomize the plight of England’s factory workers for middle-class readers, are frequently plotted around conspiracies involving murder, arson, or riots.

In the mid-Victorian period, Charles Dickens reworked elements of these narrative traditions to create a catalogue of crimes and criminals unrivaled in scope and inventiveness. Contemporaries, including Eliot, Thackeray, and Trollope, exploited the narrative possibilities of criminality in a somewhat more restrained fashion; although violent crime is rarely a central element, their works are nevertheless populated by cheats, swindlers, forgers, and thieves. Conversely, lurid crimes featured prominently in much of the period’s cheap popular fiction. Later in the century, new forms of criminality appeared in the fiction of the British Empire, in New Woman novels, and in the literature of aestheticism and decadence. Across these vastly different works, crime captivated readers while encoding cultural values and beliefs regarding not only law and justice, but also property and authority, social class and social change, individual and collective responsibility, faith, forgiveness, and life and death itself.