Another book in this year’s favourite topic; Victorian true crime, with the crime in this case committed in the early part of the young Queen’s reign. It was 6 May 1840 when Lord William Russell was found lying on his bed with his head almost severed. Quite a shock for the servants who found him. This isn’t a story from the backstreets of Whitechapel either, rather the scene of the crime was on a smart street in Mayfair.
The crime itself was shocking enough and kept those who followed the subsequent investigation duly scandalised, and to be fair, frightened. If a crime like this could happen in Mayfair, was anywhere safe in these ‘modern times’? What worried everyone even more though was when a culprit was found and questioned. The story he gave was that he’d changed from a former gentle young man to savage murderer because of his reading matter – the best selling crime novel of the day being Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth. A book that had gained a widespread following in part due to the rising levels of literature amongst the lower classes. Given that the story was of a daring (and dashing) jail-breaker in the style known as a Newgate Novel. The key to success for writers at this time were to be published as serials in the style of Charles Dickens and coincidentally Jack Sheppard appeared in some of the same editions of Bentley’s Miscellany as Oliver Twist himself and it seems Ainsworth jumped on the popular genre of the day and with a bit of slang and plenty of references to robbery and violence with a dollop of romance, the public couldn’t get enough. Giving the novel even more realism Jack Sheppard was a well-known criminal in 18th-century London.
The author of our book, Claire Harman goes onto describe how the theatres were quick to put their adaptions of the novel on the stage so aspiring criminals didn’t have to read the book itself for the power of crime to seep into the bones until it would seem that there was hardly a man or woman in the land from the lowliest to the mightiest who hadn’t read or watched Jack Sheppard’s daring dos.
The newspapers who were as quick back then as now to have something concrete to blame. Newgate Novels were held up as the cause of the murder of Lord William Russell and Jack Sheppard in particular. All of this is terrifically interesting especially the reaction of Ainsworth’s former friends including Charles Dickens who went out of his way to explain why Oliver Twist wasn’t a Newgate Novel despite many of the themes in the two books being remarkably similar.
Needless to say for all the hoo-ha the books continued o be popular but Ainsworth toned down the writing style in subsequent books and was never as successful again.
Unfortunately from an interest perspective this wasn’t the most exciting of investigations as the police fairly quickly alighted on their main suspect, although of course from this distance of time and knowing how few scientific resources the police had to use, there is always a level of wonder about the apprehension of the right man. The interest comes from the reading matter of our ancestors who’d have thought a book could cause quite such a stir? This alongside the interesting legal facts the author presents from the day meant that the result was I felt I’d got some real insight into social history from an unusual angle.
I’d like to thank the publishers Penguin Books UK for allowing me to read a proof copy of Murder by the Book. This review is my unbiased thanks to them.