Victorian Studies in Scarlet
The Anti-Society: An Account of the Victorian Underworld
There is nothing like a description of a good murder to put one in a happy and receptive state of mind at Christmas, and Professor Altick, who has taken time off from higher things at Ohio State, certainly whisks us through the most famous of the nineteenth-century murders in England from Maria Marten in the Red Barn through Burke and Hare, Courvoisier, William Palmer, Pritchard and Peace to Florence Maybrick and Madelaine Smith. No one can complain at the number of murder cases he is offered. Of course some people will never be satisfied. I remember coming out of one of those prewar custard-pie movies, in which every thirty seconds, so it seemed, a missile whizzed across the screen, and hearing a dissatisfied member of the audience complain, “It was all right but there wasn’t enough of it.” Altick gives us enough murder cases. But mere numbers are not what we want. What we want are the horrifying details.
There are four climaxes to any murder story. The discovery of the corpse; the detection of clues and the unraveling of the circumstances leading to the murderer’s arrest; the trial; and the execution. None of the cases in this book is particularly interesting as an example of detection. So leave aside the background information, which can be fascinating, about the social circumstances of the victim and the murderer and, unless the most is made of the remaining three climaxes, horror will decline to come and sit in the reader’s mind. Part of the pleasure in recapturing the atmosphere of a murder case lies in the analysis by the Home Office pathologist of the morbid anatomy of the condition of the corpse. Yet in this book there is hardly ever a description of the putrefying body or an estimate of the exact degree of the decomposition of its vital organs.
Then the trial requires to be described to bring out the remorseless march of the forces of law and order in such a way as to splinter the sympathies of the reader and make him begin to side with the hunted and cornered animal, the murderer; or alternatively to harden his mind against him. But in this book the descriptions of the trials are so short that the brutal handling of witnesses under cross-examination by those domineering, hectoring bullies, the Victorian barristers, like Trollope’s Mr. Chaffanbrass, scarcely ever has time to develop. When a witness protested that he would have come forward to give evidence on behalf of the prosecution whether or not there had been a reward of £500 and added: “If it had been a shilling I should have done my duty the same,” defending counsel shut him up with: “I do not ask you to compliment yourself.” There are too few examples of such spirited repartee by the bewigged defenders of law and order.
What is worse, there are scarcely any descriptions of executions. We are fobbed off with a few extracts from street ballads and an odd reference to one or another of the public hangmen. We shall never be able to conjure up good Christmas cheer unless we are told, as the classic broadsheets always told us, what the condemned man had for breakfast. And what about the executioner? There is no reference to the prince of Victorian hangmen, Berry.
Hangmen have always held their profession in as high an esteem as lawyers or doctors theirs. When Abhorson in Measure for Measure is offered Pompey as his assistant he protests that to admit such a bawd to the profession would “discredit our mystery.” Berry’s predecessor Marwood invented the long drop, but it was Berry who made Abhorson’s mystery into a science, and calculated the exact length of the drop according to the weight of the murderer so that he neither died as in former days by strangulation, nor had his head pulled off, but suffered a simple dislocation of the vertebrae which always brought about instantaneous death—well, almost always. Berry’s book My Experience as an Executioner ought to figure in the bibliography of every work on Victorian murders.
Berry used to enter the condemned cell, hand the prisoner one of his own tracts written in verse beseeching him to confess his guilt to his Redeemer. Then he would ask the murderer to shake hands before pinioning him and leading him to the scaffold, where he would pull down the white cap over his eyes and adjust the rope so that the metal ring (one of Berry’s scientific additions) nestled under the left ear. Usually his victims went as quiet as lambs, but he once complained that one of them became violent and gave him a nasty kick on the shin the marks of which he bore for many a year. Again Altick makes no mention of that agreeable Irish murderer, Connor. When he was hanged the rope broke, and on being hauled up again for a second drop, he asked: “What do you call this? Murder?”
Perhaps this is ungenerous—after all we get a good deal of painless Victorian social history in this book and mercifully no psychoanalytical interpretation at all. Altick is right enough when he says that the transcripts of the trials recording the long drawn out cross-examination of witnesses often throw into the light some curious instance of Victorian manners, such as the wife who concealed from her husband her habit of attending horse race meetings; and he brings out the fact that, though he does not explain why, accounts in ballads, fly-sheets, newspapers, magazines of murders and murderers were, and still are, the staple reading of so many of us.
The trouble is that he does not lay his finger on the most striking contribution of the English to the literature of murder. No doubt Altick is right in saying that cases of the poisoning of wives by husbands, and probably more often of husbands by wives, in days when divorce was virtually impossible were far more numerous than ever got into the courts. But the classic English murder is not like the French for money, or like the American as a celebration of violence. It is par excellence the sexual murder. Presumably because the murderer was never brought to account, there are only a few fleeting references to the hero of horror in Victorian times, Jack the Ripper.
Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888 disemboweled four East End prostitutes and made away with another. Every so often some journalist, flogging his wits for a tidbit to liven up the Sunday breakfast table, resurrects the facts and regales the English public with them. The other day, however, the English were startled to read that an eminent octogenarian surgeon, Thomas Stowell, had broken the silence of a lifetime in the columns of the Criminologist, a journal of forensic science, to claim that he had for years held the vital clues to the identity of the Ripper.
The murderer was, he said, so exceedingly well-connected that the police had dropped the case like a hot potato.
He was the heir to power and wealth…his family had earned the love and admiration of large numbers of people by its devotion to public service…. His grandmother, who outlived him, was very much the stern Victorian matriarch, widely and deeply respected.
Stowell’s suspect was a gay young man who went on a world tour at the age of sixteen and contracted syphilis, and who resigned his commission in the army after a homosexual brothel in Tottenham. Court Road had been raided by the police and its address linked with a member of the royal family. This young man was treated as a patient by Sir William Gull, the royal physician, and died soon after in an asylum. That was why the police relaxed precautions after the last murder and why much evidence at that inquest was suppressed.
Meanwhile another investigator, Donald McCormick, had published a book in which he claimed that the Ripper was a Russian doctor called Konovalov. Mr. Stowell’s Identikit did not fit this man, but the press gleefully drew attention to another suspect whom McCormick mentioned. That was Prince Eddie, King George V’s elder brother, who at the time of his early death was betrothed to the lady who later became his younger brother’s wife, Queen Mary. Even worse, when Mr. Stowell was interviewed on television and asked to comment on this intriguing supposition, he put aside the suggestion with such gentleness as to encourage viewers to imagine that this was indeed his secret.
Admirers of England will be glad to know that the nation took the news with characteristic sang-froid. The Palace maintained a lofty silence—though someone not far from it has informed the Times that on the occasion of one of the Ripper murders the Prince was in Scotland and of another at Sandringham. Yet such alibis are unnecessary. Prince Eddie was a young man of such vacuity—an example of nature anticipating art, in this case the art of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster—that he would not have had the imagination, diseased or otherwise, to disembowel anybody.
Nevertheless speculation mounted. So Mr. Stowell wrote a letter to the Times denying that he “associated His Royal Highness with the Whitechapel murderer”—and the very next day expired. His file containing the evidence was promptly destroyed by his son. He has thus taken his secret to the grave, and mankind, however much it will respect him, will forever regret that Mr. Stowell, having lived for fifty years knowing which “scion of a noble family” perpetrated these dastardly murders, was too high-minded to reveal it. There’ll always be an England.
You cannot awaken a sense of horror merely by inflating language. This was one of Dickens’s worst failings and he as often defeated his end as achieved it. His magazine descriptions of London low life, overloaded with epithets, were indeed designed to arouse indignation, but an indignation that was at the same time unctuous. These descriptions served as a model for many years. John P. Marquand recalled that the late George Apley wrote in 1883 at Harvard a theme in Freshman English entitled “A Night of Regret” which “dealt with a social problem not frequently mentioned” and described to what dens of vice “a thoughtless man might be led by heedless companions and he left the place at once, filled with fear and loathing and tortured with remorse.” The exercise “was given the deservedly low mark of C minus.”
For the first few chapters it looked as if the same mark would have to be awarded to Kellow Chesney, for it seemed as if he were going to adopt this manner of description. Victorian crowds are “restless and shifting,” cellar homes “dark and foetid,” graveyards are “over-brimming charnel-houses,” and the bourgeois naturally are “taboo-ridden.” If one compares this kind of writing with the wonderfully underemphatic accounts, quoted by Chesney, so meticulous in the observance of minute details, which Mayhew gave in his London Labour and the London Poor, still the greatest source book for this sort of study, one can see the difference between the recording of experiences which haunted their author and the retelling of experiences which are designed to haunt the reader—and don’t.
After a bit, however, the high moral adjectival fog lifts, and Chesney gets down to the familiar business of sorting out the different groups who made up the mid-Victorian under-world. For just as Beatrice Webb discovered at the end of the century that poverty and the poor were not an undifferentiated state or mass, so the inhabitants of the underworld found that their trade or calling or type of housing, or lack of it, condemned them to enter or hover on the edge of the criminal fraternity. These groups were the navvies who had built the canals in the eighteenth century and were now building the railways; the actors, jugglers, and entertainers who set up their booths in the itinerant fairs; the costermongers and chimney sweeps; the Romany gypsies and other tramps and vagrants (then called mouchers and today mumpers).
Then there were those who controlled the dwellings where the poor lived. There were the “Deputies” who collected the rents from their fellow lodgers. (In The Mystery of Edwin Drood Dickens significantly called the vagrant boy, Deputy, whom the beersodden mason, Durdles, employs at a halfpenny a night to stone him home to bed.) There were dozens of different kinds of tyrants to their own kind who kept “netherskens” and “rookeries.” There were the hangers-on and exploiters of boxing, horseracing, dog-fighting, or any other activity on which bets could be laid. Finally there were the criminals themselves, magsmen, macers, forgers, gonophs, footpads, and the pimps and those who lived off prostitution.
The best chapter is on beggars, the least interesting on prostitution. Probably we’ve reached a point in Victorian studies where the traditional bibliography of the subject which Chesney draws upon is now giving diminishing returns. The new generation of scholars who publish in Victorian Studies and whose rallying points are in America at Bloomington, Indiana, and in England at Leicester, are beginning to dig into the little-read periodicals, police records, and other material, particularly in the provinces, and will not find this book much use. But there is something to be said for the variety of low life it covers and its glossary of criminal’s slang.
What I miss is any attempt to relate the types of crime to the Victorian economy and manners. The point about crime is that it really pays, and the most successful criminals are those who understand how best to exploit the society in which they live through its own folly and passions. The manners of a society can also restrain as well as encourage criminals. The awe which invested authority, the deference paid to the upper classes, the unquestioning assumption that law and order must be sustained against liberal encroachments, on the grounds that only a fragile beam of conventional behavior protected Victorian society from collapse into anarchy, all these circumscribed the criminal and enabled a small police force to deal with him. Dickens’s description of going on a tour of low dives with Field, the Scotland Yard inspector whom he portrayed in Bleak House as Bucket, shows how far the mere sight and manner of a police officer cowed gangs of criminals who could have outnumbered and overpowered an inspector and two constables.
In this collection of books J. B. Priestley starts with one clear advantage. He knows how to write—attractively, humorously, sensibly. There is not much depth—it is no rival to G. M. Young’s Portrait of an Age. But it has got range; and Priestley, coming from the north of England, never lets London entirely steal the show. Underneath the glitter of the trumpery court and the philistine plutocracy with its sacrosanct round of diversions called the London Season stood the patient, dogged, provincial society into which Priestley was born. Its poor were really poor—the English economy was in recession during the Edwardian age—but solid and unimaginative as they were in their sufferings they had great capacity for enjoyment and their amusements, such as women and horses, time and again coincided with those of their popular easygoing monarch.
Priestley is taking a ramble round a countryside talking all the time, quite often about himself, about his memories of the society into which he was born and of its gusto which he has inherited. He is an English radical but without the sourness or contempt for his fellow men that drives so many radicals on and makes them so disagreeable. I am not sure that he makes quite enough of the boredom of upper-class Edwardian life, its insufferable mindlessness and opulent exhibitionism, which made so many of its amusements a Gehenna for anyone whose intellect still functioned.
Nor does he stress how stratified society still was. It was not that the rich could not buy their way in—they always had been able to do so in England, and they could do so far quicker at the beginning than in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was that the class structure kept on erecting cultural barriers between different parts of the same class, between different parts of the provinces, between, on the one hand, the artists, intellectuals, and serious professional men and, on the other, the ruling classes whose connections with the former were almost limited to the mediation of the Souls and other clever butterflies who fluttered across the hedges.
Where Priestley is particularly strong is in reminding us how much intellectual and artistic vitality there was gushing and gurgling underneath the surface. He makes a spirited defense of English painting—the work of the Slade School under Tonks—of the influence of Roger Fry; he shows what a large following in the provinces Bennett, Shaw, Wells, and Chesterton could command. He reminds us that these years saw the flowering of British scientific genius, Rutherford, Soddy, Brearly, and—a personal touch—the first British biochemist, Hopkins, to whose younger daughter, the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, he is now married.
It is in fact Priestley’s thesis that, although there were fearful social divisions, crystalizing after the King died into open syndicalist trade unionism, the astonishing fact about the age was that it was held together…by what? By its amusements. At a time of resounding political battles over the powers of the House of Lords, education, imperialism, and Home Rule for Ireland, the mass of the people held together because they enjoyed the same pleasures as the King. Priestley writes with particular authority and love of the Edwardian theater (whose ghastly triviality was partly redeemed by Harley Granville-Barker’s productions) and of the music hall and vaudeville which were on the point of being threatened by the movies. Priestley could have made his theme even more impressive if he had not omitted the most important of all these amusements.
That was games. The Turf was now joined by football and cricket as pastimes which absorbed the thoughts and energies not only of schoolboys but of adults of all classes, and drew vast crowds. This omission is all the odder in that Priestley is a Yorkshireman, and Yorkshire is the greatest of all counties at cricket, up to every art of gamesmanship, despising the upper-class maxim of playing fair, being out to win by any means and if not to draw or wrangle. (Similarly its best football side, Leeds United, heads the league table today.) It should be a sobering thought to English historians to realize that their country’s most widespread cultural achievement in the twentieth century has been to introduce the rest of the world to football in particular and to competitive games in general. The influence of games upon the public schools, upon British education, upon British business—businessmen preferred to hire games players rather than bright pushing entrepreneurs—was both malign and deep-seated. But as an anodyne, as a social anaesthetic, it was remarkably successful.
The photographs and pictures in The Edwardians are chosen with brilliant imagination and feeling. The text bounces off the page. Those who write Priestley off as a middlebrow ought to acknowledge how truthful, unvindictive, and singularly well-balanced this essay is. People are ready enough to praise his independence of mind: they ought also to praise its decency.
Jack & Eddie February 11, 1971