Murder By The Book by Claire Harman

Reviewed by Gill Davies

Here is a real treat for readers interested in the sometimes hidden side of Victorian society and its relationship with literary culture. The book relates the story of a shocking crime that took place in 1840. An elderly and fairly insignificant member of the aristocracy was found in his bed with his throat cut so forcibly that his head was almost severed. It was a murder that gripped the early Victorian world from the young Queen down to the lowest servant. The theft of a few rather ordinary objects – spoons and trinkets – seemed an inadequate motive for such violence, and the commentariat of the time looked around for an explanation, or at any rate something that would tell a powerful story to sell papers and stir society. Claire Harman became intrigued by the murder of Lord William Russell when she was researching her biography of Charlotte Bronte. The case seemed to need further exploration and she has certainly taken it in some surprising directions. She is, of course, a brilliant biographer with previous books about Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson and here she uses her historical insight, knowledge of literary history, empathy and curiosity to explore not just a “true crime” but a revealing episode in Victorian culture and history.

Like Kate Summerscale’s best-seller The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the book explores a true crime in its historical setting with twists, unanswered questions and lots of Victorian atmosphere. Nevertheless,  the witty title tells us that Harman is doing more than unravelling a forgotten “true crime” story. Murder By The Book – A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime points to the fashion in the 1830s for novels set in the criminal underworld that shocked and titillated contemporary readers. Since this sub genre, called Newgate novels, came to be blamed for provoking crime and violence, Harman skilfully connects it to her main subject. Thus the book is a social, cultural and literary history as well as the account of a sensational murder. She is adept at covering for the general reader some less well known Victorian writers and genres, as well as bringing in the big guns, including Dickens, Thackeray and Bulwer Lytton. She alternates chapters that detail the stages of the murder, the investigation, trial and execution with chapters that discuss the concurrent fashion for Newgate fiction and the debates about its damaging effects.

I imagine that the only people who now recognise the name of William Harrison Ainsworth and his best-selling novel Jack Sheppard are students of Oliver Twist who come across references to the influence on Dickens of the Newgate novel. Jack Sheppard, which would become one of the last and the most notorious of the Newgate novels was published only a year before the murder, in 1839, and was massively successful. There were plays based on it, songs, newspaper cartoons, and plagiarised versions, and it dominated the popular culture of the time. Contemporary reviewers and social commentators, were all caught up in the discussion of Jack Sheppard and its possible effects. Dickens and Thackeray were concerned about the impact of literary scandal and reactions against Ainsworth on their own recently developing careers. And when Francois Courvoisier claimed to have been provoked into murder by reading and seeing the play of the novel, it was only the culmination of months of comment, debate and blame. Both novelists maintained their distance from Ainsworth – but they went to the public execution of the convicted murderer.

Harman makes some very interesting observations about the moral panic around the effects of pernicious fiction on lower class readers and contemporary concerns about mass literacy. In particular, there were fears that young men might be provoked by the heated stories they consumed to commit crimes including murder. And underlying that general fear was the the unsettling knowledge that the servant class had access to the secrets and most intimate everyday lives of their employers. Who knew what the consequence might be if the working class lost its deference and was stirred to violence? The establishment painter Edwin Landseer was a friend of Lord William and, according to Lady Holland, was “full of terror& horror, expecting an assassin to destroy him any minute.” Intermingled with the book’s main themes are other topics exposed by the murder such as class identities, attitudes to foreigners, the secret sexual liaisons of the ruling class, hypocrisy and deception.

At the centre of the book is the fundamental mystery of why an unassuming young Swiss valet would have murdered his master, and whether anyone else was involved.There are other puzzles too: why was there so much blood under the bed but no evidence of blood elsewhere? How much did the police interfere with evidence and the crime scene? Why were some witnesses neglected and others interrogated? These and many similar questions run through Murder By The Book. Harman suggests answers to some of them and leaves others teasingly insoluble. This is an engaging and illuminating account of a forgotten chapter in Victorian history.

Claire Harman, Murder By The Book  (Viking Penguin: London, 2018). 978-0241315224,  202pp., hardback.

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