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Book Review: Bloody Victorians: Violence and Historical Narrative

2012 June 5
by Lucinda Matthews-Jones

Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London, by Rosalind Crone, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, xv + 304 pages, illustrated, £16.99 (paperback), ISBN 978 0 7190 8685 4

Reviewed by Sara Hackenberg, San Francisco State University

shackenb@sfsu.edu

Sweeny Todd refuses to die. Ever since his 1846 debut in Lloyd’s sensational serial, The String of Pearls, the murderous barber of Fleet Street has been adapted countless times into literary, dramatic, cinematic, musical, and even balletic forms, most recently in Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical. Rosalind Crone’s fascinating new study of Victorian violent entertainments opens with Todd and the extraordinary mid-nineteenth century popularity of his brutal story. The String of Pearls and the melodramas it triggered, she argues, were no products of a marginal or underground culture; rather, they were mainstream expressions of a culture that overtly delighted in representations of extreme violence. Crone’s central argument is that we cannot anymore ignore the widespread popularity of a host of bloody entertainments and representations that saturated Victorian culture from the 1820s to the 1870s—violent entertainments which, incidentally, continue to be embraced in a host of new forms by our own twenty-first century culture. The Victorians’ embrace of such violent entertainments, she asserts, provides an alternative story to the narrative of the nineteenth century’s achievement of increased cultural “civilization”. Crone makes a compelling case for how, in the face of such violent entertainments, historians, literary critics, and other scholars must rethink their investment in the pervasive power of the Victorian cult of respectability.

Violent Victorians provides ample evidence against the “taming” and “civilizing” abilities of Victorian culture. Through her investigations of Punch and Judy shows, public executions and the entertainments they generated, popular melodramas, sensational serial narratives and “penny bloods” and early crime reporting, Crone traces the ways in which earlier forms of violence as entertainment (cock-fighting; bull- and badger- baiting; staged and random fisticuffs) persisted into the nineteenth century in the form of representations that functioned as a kind of social “play” through which Victorians worked out their relationship with the past and their rapidly changing present. Occasionally, some of her early claims—that the Victorian era showed that “things were becoming much less civilized”, for instance—fail to provide a very useful frame for an otherwise nuanced study of the migration of violent entertainment from the physical and material into the realm of representation (6). However, the study as a whole tends to resist the binary of civilized/uncivilized in favor of pursuing a project of excavating the “lively and vibrant” and “innovative and assertive” manifestations of popular culture and the “people’s intellect” (10).

The violence manifested in Victorian popular entertainments, Crone proposes, served at least three powerful cultural purposes. First, such entertainments were forms of protest against the rapid changes and social fissures brought about by industrial urbanization, including resistance to the developing, hegemonic narrative of middle-class respectability. Second, they helped create a new, local, modern urban identity for the laboring classes that remained in dialogue with a pre-modern past. Finally, they served as “safety valves” for the expression of frustration, discontentment, and anomie, and as such, provided a “carnivalesque” conduit that eventually helped aid—even as they worked to transform—establishment “schemes for the reformation of manners and the taming of the streets” (33).

While Chapter One introduces these themes, the remaining five chapters provide specific case studies of the Victorian embrace of violent representations in the metropolitan centre of London. Chapter Two examines the transformation of the beloved clownish marionette “Punchinello” of early modern and eighteenth-century culture into the lethal, stick-wielding glove-puppet of nineteenth-century Punch and Judy shows. The “vivid and often confronting representations of interpersonal violence” in the nineteenth-century Punch show, Crone argues, helped replace the disappearing presence of “saturnalia in public festivals” (40). Therefore, these shows can be read as part of the “renegotiations of the relationship between the people and authority” in early Victorian culture, as they provided a controlled outlet for the release of social tension (49). Crone is especially interested in the capacity for such extreme violence to work as a form of street-level satire and irony. She notes the “elements of satire and humor” in Punch’s murderous beating of his wife, Judy, which had become such an integral part of the show in the nineteenth century that the show’s name changed to include her, and she considers how such “grossly exaggerated” and repetitive representations of uxoricide might reveal working people’s frustration with the developing middle-class ideology of separate spheres and “passive and submissive ideals of femininity” (67, 55-6).

The third chapter moves from discussing the “murderous anti-hero” of the Punch puppet show to the plethora of popular representations—broadsides, wax effigies, figurines, and other “souvenirs”—of convicted murderers hung on the scaffold. This chapter is the only one in the study to consider the concurrent reception of violent entertainment as both real event and as representation. Public hangings, which were widely attended by cross-class audiences until they were abolished in 1868, allowed Victorians to view a person’s actual death alongside broadsides and other representations of the condemned criminal’s life and the murder victims. These entertainments depended on the frisson of the real merging with the represented: the text notes the “similarities between murder and execution broadsides and playbills” and the increased “theatricality of the event” of public hangings in the nineteenth century (82-3). Crone offers us additional tantalizing details of how the represented and real slid together in scaffold culture: for instance, she discusses at length the use by wax museums (from the “respectable” Madame Tussaud’s to itinerant “moving waxworks” displays) of actual “relics” of murderers and victims “collected at the scenes” of the crimes (88). (Such lucrative practices significantly alarmed the superintendant of the City of London police, who expressed reluctance to return a hanged convict’s body to its family in the worry that the family might “be inclined to exhibit it” [92]). Despite the fascination of this material, which Violent Victorians rightly notes is “much more complicated and confusing than historians have yet allowed”, this chapter leaves largely unaddressed what it might mean for bloody entertainments to move from the materially experiential realm to the representational realm, a migration that lies at the heart of the study’s larger historical argument (100). While Crone follows the work of V. A. C. Gatrell in suggesting that murder and execution broadsides harnessed the “power of the image” as a “totemic artifact” that became “a way of experiencing,” she avoids distinguishing between a transcendent, trans-historical “image magic” and new, distinct ways in which representations in the nineteenth century were received as, or merged with, material experiences (105, 107). Nevertheless, her argument that execution and murder broadsides “offer a rare glimpse behind the scenes, exposing overlap between old and new, or rather revealing the process of evolution at work in popular culture, something that remains largely hidden from view in other entertainments”, is inviting (115). This chapter—like the rest of the book—provides rich material for other scholars to use in continuing to explore the evolving relationship between material experience and the experience of representation, and in examining what the translation or migration of experience to representation might mean in a phenomenological sense, especially in regards to violence.

The final three chapters engage three more prominent genres of violent entertainments: melodramas, serial novels, and early crime reporting. In Chapter Four, Crone follows her earlier arguments by asserting that the “blood-stained stage” of the popular melodrama both helped foster community in its audience and “act[ed] as a form of cultural assertion against the establishment, not about politics, but on a far more unifying level, about the content and role of popular culture” (125). Turning, in Chapter Five, from the stage to the “penny bloods” of the 1830s to 1860s—a genre that, like the scaffold culture she examines in Chapter Two, enjoyed a complex relationship with melodramatic theater—she explores the equally radical and conservative uses of bloody serial fiction in the mid-nineteenth century. While scholars of popular serial fiction might take exception to Crone’s claim that “to read one penny blood is to read them all”, few would quarrel with her assessment that, like melodramas and sensational broadsides, this genre provided an “outlet for the expression and celebration of disorder” (172, 196). The final case study, on “the rise of modern crime reporting”, traces how the sensational entertainment of violent crime reportage was formative for both popular news entertainment sheets like the police gazettes and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper and for “serious” newspapers such as The Times alike (209, 228).

In these abundant ways, Violent Victorians presents us with a compelling catalogue of the complex pleasures of the “graphic portrayal of bloodshed” (146). This study is a timely reminder that violence and “civilization” have never been antithetical processes: rather, violence, like Sweeny Todd and the other current entertainments she mentions in her epilogue (Saw 3D; Call of Duty, Black Ops), remains a vibrant cultural presence, persisting hand-in-hand with “progress”. The lurid details Crone collects and excavates, along with her book’s open-ended invitation to continue to consider the significances of these powerful, violent representations, will make Violent Victorians an important resource for scholars across such disciplines as history, cultural studies, literary studies, theatre studies, and media studies.

Sara Hackenberg teaches literature at San Francisco State University. She has published articles on 19th-century popular visual culture and on sensational serials by Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, G.W.M. Reynolds, and James Malcolm Rymer, and is currently working on a book-length study of modern narrative mystery.

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