Today I bring you a review of a book that I think many of you will find interesting. And what a cover!
The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver
Underworld n. 1. the part of society comprising those who live by organized crime and immorality. 2. the mythical abode of the dead under the earth.
Take a walk on the dark side of the street in this unique exploration of the fears and desires at the heart of the British Empire, from the Regency dandy’s playground to the grim and gothic labyrinths of the Victorian city. Enter a world of gin spinners, sneaksmen and Covent Garden nuns, where bare-knuckled boxers slog it out for dozens of rounds, children are worth more dead than alive, and the Thames holds more bodies than the Ganges. This is the Modern Babylon, a place of brutal poverty, violent crime, strong drink, pornography and prostitution; of low neighbourhoods and crooked houses with windows out like broken teeth, wraithlike urchins with haunted eyes, desperate, ruthless and vicious men, and the broken remnants of once fine girls: a grey, bleak, infernal place, where gaslights fail to pierce the pestilential fog, and coppers travel in pairs, if they venture there at all.
Combining the accessibility of a popular history with original research, this book brings the denizens of this vanished world once more to life, along with the voices of those who sought to exploit, imprison or save them, or to simply report back from this alien landscape that both fascinated and appalled: the politicians, the reformers, the journalists and, above all, the storytellers, from literary novelists to purveyors of penny dreadfuls. Welcome to the 19th century underworld…
About the author:
Stephen Carver is a literary historian, editor and occasional novelist. For sixteen years he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as a professor of English at the University of Fukui. He left UEA in 2012 to become Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing, and to work with The Literary Consultancy in London. He retired from teaching in 2018 to write full-time, although he continues to be affiliated with TLC as a reader and a mentor. He is the biographer of the Victorian novelist W.H. Ainsworth, and his short stories have appeared in Not-Not, Cascando, Birdsuit, and Veto. His first novel, Shark Alley, was published in 2016. The 19th Century Underworld was published by Pen & Sword last year and Steve has just finished a follow-up on Ainsworth and Dickens.
Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
I am not a scholar in the topic of XIX century Britain, London in particular, although I have read a number of fictional books set on that period and place (it has always proved popular, especially with crime writers, for evident reasons) both recent and from the era, and also some historical books (some of the best coming from Pen & Sword as well) on specific aspects of the era, like children’s deaths. I was therefore not sure about what I would find here but hoped that it would enhance my understanding and give me a better sense of what life might have been like, away from the sometimes romanticised version we have of the Victorian era. This volume did that and more.
The book, which contains illustrations of the period as well (some black and white photographs, but mostly sketches and ink drawings that appeared in publications of that era, with a separate table of illustrations), contains facts and descriptions of the less savoury aspects of the XIX century life in London, but the emphasis is not on a XXI century perspective, but on written (and illustrated) sources of the period, and how the different topics were approached by the press, literature, and theatre of the time (movies are also mentioned, although those are references to later versions of the stories and characters discussed). Although most of us will be familiar with the penny dreadfuls, the author shares his expertise and offers us a catalogue of publications, authors (quite a few anonymous), publishers, guides and popular venues that reflect the fact that the hunger for certain types of subjects and the morbid interest in crime and vice are nothing new.
The book combines scholarship (there are detailed footnotes including information and sometimes explanations about the quotes and sources used in the text, at the end of the book, and also a lengthy bibliography and an index) with an engaging writing style, and manages to include plenty of information in each chapter, without cramming too much detail or leaving us with the impression that we are missing the most important part of the story. Although I’m sure most readers will be intrigued by some of the events and characters mentioned in the book and will want to learn more about them, Carver facilitates that task with his sources, and this book is a goldmine for researchers, writers, and anybody interested in the era in general. I usually mark passages I find interesting, to research later or to mention in my review, and in this case I can honestly say I broke the record for number of notes.
To give you an idea of the topics, I’ll briefly (-ish) go through the chapters. Chapter 1: Various Crimes and Misdemeanours, where the author explains that our view of the XIX century underworld is a product of popular culture, and he explains the efforts the society of the time made to try to categorise and control the crime in the capital. Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and magistrate who liaised with Jeremy Bentham (a philosopher and social reformer we studied in Criminology for his ideas about prisons and reforms) wrote a book called A Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis in 1796, where he classified the criminals in London into 24 separate categories and estimated that there were around 115000 of them. The Radcliffe Highway murders and how these influenced some of the legal reforms are also discussed in detail.
Chapter 2: A Corinthian’s Guide to the Metropolis, talks about bare-knuckle boxing, betting, and also about a number of articles, guides, and books, purporting to inform discerning gentlemen of the entertainments and lifestyle that could be found in this part of town. We learn where Tom and Jerry came from (Pierce Egan’s writings and his characters seem to have inspired Hanna and Barbera), and the author notes that at this point (early in XIX century), the underworld was not represented as the gothic nightmare it would become later.
In Chapter 3: Bad Books for Bad People, we hear about authors that are more familiar to us, like Dickens and Thackeray, although also some others who’ve faded into oblivion mostly because their take on the topic lost the favour of the Victorians. They chose to write about criminals and outlaws (like Dick Turpin), but not in an overly moralistic or condemnatory manner, and although that was popular at first, later reformists condemned that stance, and it resulted in their loss of popularity and later ruin. There are wonderful examples of the use of jargon and vernacular, very popular at the beginning of the period but that would later fall out of fashion. (This chapter reminded me of the gangster movies of the 1930s, which could depict violent and immoral characters as long as they ended up getting their just deserts).
Chapter 4: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, looks at the Resurrectionists, those who stole bodies from graves and sold them to medical schools. Although I’ve read some fiction about the subject and knew about Hare and Burke, I didn’t quite realise it was such an organised trade and the huge amounts of money involved. The inquiries and the law changes these incidents caused are discussed, and it is difficult to imagine how such events could have been ignored for so long, but there were powerful interests at play.
Chapter 5: The Real Oliver Twist, focuses on how life was like for children living in poverty, and it reminds us that studies of the 1840s showed that half the children born in the UK at that time died before age five. Children living of picking up dog’s dung, or being trained to become pickpockets or worse were not only the protagonists of fictional stories. They were all too real.
Chapter 6: Fallen Women, talks about prostitution, and I was fascinated by the author’s account of the biography and writings of French writer and activist Flora Tristan, a woman who was a feminist, a social commentator and reformer, who rather than blame prostitution on women’s lack of morals, blamed society and the lack of opportunities for women to get an education and make an honest living. She talked to prostitutes and wrote about what she found in 1840 and she anticipated some of Marx and Engels ideas. A woman I definitely want to learn more about.
Chapter 7: The Greeks Had a Word for It, talks about pornography, the ups and downs its publishers went through (as the period grew less and less tolerant), and it starts by reminding readers of the fact that pornography as a subject is very ancient, as people digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum found out. Many ancient objects of this nature that were recovered made it into private collections, mostly those of discerning gentlemen, and many museums had (and still have) hidden stashes of them. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this chapter, not because of the topic, or the content of the books mentioned (although some of the samples are hilarious) but because of the cat-and-mouse games writers and publishers played with the authorities and also of the evident hypocrisy of the whole endeavour.
Chapter 8: The Death Hunters, treats about what the author describes as “another type of pornography”, the interest in crimes and murders. True murder is not a new genre and although there were not many murders in London (or even the whole of Britain) at the time, the public appetite for it was huge, and sometimes writers would make them up. I had a chuckle at some of Illustrated Police News headlines (‘A Burglar Bitten by a Skeleton’ and ‘A Wife Driven Insane by a Husband Tickling her Feet’ are my favourites). The chapter ends up with Jack the Ripper’s murders, which the author elaborates further on Chapter 9: A Highly Popular Murder, where he notes that much of the speculation about the murders was created by media, and Jack the Ripper has become a phenomenon that combines reality with fiction. He does note that while the Ripper has grown in attention and popularity over the years, little time is dedicated to the victims. I am pleased to say that there is a new book due to be published by Pen & Sword about the victims of Jack the Ripper, and I hope to comment on it in the future.
I recommend this book to anybody interested in London history, history about crime in the XIX century, researchers and writers keen on exploring and writing on any of the topics covered in the book, and to anybody who wants to gain a different perspective on the London of the Victorian era. Highly recommended.
Thanks to Rosie Croft, to the author, and especially to all of you for reading, liking, sharing, commenting, clicking, and for reviewing. Remember to keep on smiling!