I’ve been reading quite a lot about the Victorian period, and particularly about Victorian crime, newspapers and newspaper reporting as well as reading a number of Victorian sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins’ “Woman in White” and Mary Braddon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret”.
Doing this in parallel, especially with my reading about the Madeleine Smith trial made it quite obvious to me that the reporting of crime in newspapers had clearly influenced the ‘sensation novels’ of the 1860’s.
Besides the normal tales of human greed and misbehaviour, some of the stories sound almost theatrical and wildly dramatic.
Examples include the governess who conspires with the husband to have the wife locked up in a private asylum, or worse poisoned, the maidservants made to serve dinner to the master and his (male) friends with their breasts exposed, or the grim story of the young governess hired to accompany the family on a trip to Italy, only to be raped and abandoned in Florence to make her own way home.
Shocking stories all, perhaps even more so to the twenty first century reader who is unused to stories of servants and their maltreatment. The stories often sound more like stories of the maltreatment of Filipina or Indonesian maids in the Middle East than something we associate with Europe.
The newspapers of course played a part.
Freed from stamp duty in the mid 1850’s there was a circulation war among the newspapers. At the top end, the (London) Daily Telegraph took on the Times, and lower down the scale, the News of the World appeared – characteristically its first issue featured a tale of ‘grievous ravishment and violation’.
And crime reporting played a part in selling newspapers, allowing the very Victorian combination of salaciousness and moral rectitude.
And it was against this background that the sensation novels appeared. It’s important to remember that when they first appeared they didn’t appear as novels to bought in railway bookstalls, but as serials in magazines – hence both their length, and their convoluted plots, just like some of the better and more complicated TV series today.
The sensation stories sold magazines, and if they were successful, they became books in their own right.
(Quite where this leaves Fergus Hume, who arguably created the first Australian best seller with his sensation novel ‘The mystery of a hansom cab’ some twenty years later is a different question)
Inevitably the sensation novels drew on the crime reports. They also make frequent reference to the penny post – fast and efficient, and to the railways – to anchor themselves firmly in the present day of the 1860’s and seventies, just as Bram Stoker referred to Kodaks and typewriters to give an air of modernity to Dracula, something which now passes the reader by.
So, the black swine.
I had been groping towards what I’ve outlined above, when, via Dr Beachcombing, I came across the book ‘Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead’ about Victorian sensationalism. This was just before Christmas, and I thought it might be a fun seasonal read, so I tracked down a copy via AbeBooks.
Well, in fact it turned out to be a semi autobiographical account by a professor of English at Brooklyn College in New York, describing his research into Victorian sensationalism on the basis of a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1850’s and 1860’s. And it’s good. It crystallises just about all I’ve spent the past few months groping towards.
However, the author, Thomas Boyle, who sadly is no longer with us, was circumscribed by his collection. For him, searching and finding material in the pre-internet 1970’s and 80’s was a complicated manual process, involving visiting document repositories and spending long hours carrying out manual searched of indices, or poring over blurry photocopies of old newspapers.
It’s a little easier now. With papers past in New Zealand, and the NLA’s trove we can find and search for digitised reports from the time just as I did with the Madeleine Smith case, and that of the murder of Mary Dobie.
And because the newspapers in Australia and New Zealand reprinted some of the more dramatic stories from Britain, we have easy access to a range of reports. While one still has to do the work, one could perhaps, by looking at the newspapers of the time track down the sources for the inspiration for Fergus Hume’s ‘Hansom Cab’ without numerous and tedious trips to the NLA and the National Library of New Zealand.
The same goes for the various bushrangers of the 1860’s and 70’s, and more intriguingly, to me at least, the role of the Chartists involved in the various disturbances of the 1840’s, such as the Pull Plug riots, who were transported to Australia, almost as political prisoners, who then appear in various protest meetings for miners’s rights in the 1850’s in Australia, such as the monster meeting in Castlemaine, the Madman’s gully meeting in Beechworth, and of course the Eureka stockade in Ballarat …