Originally written and self-published in 1990, Fierce Fiction is “a rip-roaring study of the greatest literary rivalry of the 19th century” – as Charles Dickens, Harrison Ainsworth, WM Thackray and Edward Bulwer Lytton vied and sparred for the title of the world’s most popular novelist. In the process, they created and perpetuated a strain of fiction that elevated the common criminal to heroic stature, damned the authorities and revelled in degradation. Contemporary observers called it “the Newgate School,” after the prison of the same name.
out of print
Oh beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly
Play the dead march as you carry me along
Take me to the churchyard and throw the ground o’er me
For I’m a young man and I know I’ve done wrong
The late 1820s/early 1830s saw the sudden explosion of popularity in England of a strain of literature which critics, for the most part disdainful, referred to as Newgate fiction, out of deference to the London gaol from whose annals the heroes of these books were drawn.
With roots which stretched back 100 years (not to mention seeds which still propagate 150 years on) it was hardly a new development; crime and the criminal had exerted a fascination upon all aspects of the arts since time immemorial, and the popularity of the Newgate books, whilst taking some people by surprise, was not particularly noteworthy. The hostility with which they met, however, was.
The premise of the Newgate novels, in the eyes of the critics, was, as the name implies, to take from the pages of history a hero of the lowest, basest character, a gaolbird, a convicted felon, a hanged man, and, by portraying his adventures in a wholly new light, to arouse sympathy, interest and admiration for him.
And amongst the authors themselves, few sus-tained, dissenting voices were heard. The argument that they were simply supplying the public with what they required sounded as lame then as it does mercenary today, while the notion that good can come out of even the blackest evil was, in too many cases, dispelled within a few pages.
Rather, the Newgate novels were for the most part conceived as exercises in sensationalism. They echoed the concerns, and interests of the working classes as evinced by the massive popularity of published copies of famous confessions and testimonials, hawked on the streets for a penny a time by enterprising local printers. That they rose above that level was, in many ways, coincidental; the authors involved had greater pretensions towards literary credibility, it is true, but the merits of their work were very secondary to their themes, the non-criminal subplots irrelevant.
All the same, it was a narrow tightrope that they trod. The existence of the criminal, either as an individual (Dick Turpin, Eugene Aram, Jack Sheppard) or a stereotype (the Artful Dodger, Mr Ginger, Paul Clifford) was essential. The crimes, in the main, needed to be an end in themselves, not a means to an end.
Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, would have been an unsuitable candidate for a Newgate novel. And while the hero’s admirable qualities, more often that not, were best exemplified in the performing of some heroic feat – Jack Sheppard twice escaping from Newgate, Dick Turpin’s midnight ride to York, Eugene Aram’s scholarly accomplishments and so forth – no lesson or moral need be displayed, no great satire, no mighty revelations or profound philosophies. The be-all and end-all of the Newgate novel was the crime and the criminal. All else was superfluous, and in establishing the boundaries of the Newgate novel it is essential, first, to look at three books whose subject matter, while appropriate to the theme, was treated in such a fashion as to place them well without those parameters:
Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild The Great, ostensibly a study of the 18th century thief taker, was more properly an examination of the abuse of the term “The Great” in the eyes of the world at large.
Daniel Defoe’s Roxanna treats of the life of a prostitute, but justifies her choice of the oldest profession by first forcing her into that profession as the only means of keeping her five children alive following the desertion of her first husband. She marries a second time and reforms, only for her past to be discovered, and when her second husband dies, leaving her but a pittance upon which to survive, she is imprisoned for debt, and dies repentant.
And finally, there is Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, an honest drover crushed and embittered by the system and fighting injustice and cruelty in the only way left to him. His basic qualities of generosity and kindness remain; only in the eyes of the authorities is he an outlaw and bandit.
In all three works, worthy antecedents each to the Newgate novel, the portrayal of the criminal is softened by the moral. Seldom before had a criminal been lauded simply because he is a criminal.
The period at which the Newgate novels appeared was the heyday of English fiction. Vast numbers of new works were appearing, amongst which, in numerical terms, the Newgate novel formed a very insignificant community. No more than four authors were regularly described as indulging the public’s fascination with the theme, no more than eight works condemned as the vehicle by which they did it.
Yet they aroused a hostility perhaps unparalleled in the annals of English literature, a hostility which was all the more violent because in the eyes of the country’s literary community, staid and traditionalist, the books represented just another example of the decay in social values which, in the political arena, was – and had for some 20 years – been the premise of misguided Whig politicians, sentimental liberal reformers, and a common rabble of troublemakers and agitators. The war which erupted between authors and critics, and which can be divided into three chronologically overlapping periods, was a war of morals.
The controversy lasted, in all, no more than twenty-one years, 1828-1849. The first stage was the bitter war of words conducted between the author Edward Bulwer, and his critics on the influential Fraser’s Magazine, and which ended only when Bulwer defected, temporarily, to the less tempestuous waters of the historical novel.
The second epoch commenced when Harrison Ainsworth stepped into the breach left by Bulwer’s departure (this period also encompasses Charles Dickens’ brief dalliance with the theme, Oliver Twist) and closed with Ainsworth beating a hasty retreat following the involvement of his second Newgate novel, Jack Sheppard, in a sensational murder case.
And finally, there was the outspoken William Thackeray’s furious antagonism towards the Newgate theme in general and, following his return to the fray in the early 1840s, Edward Bulwer in particular, a period which closed with the final routing of Bulwer and of the theme.
The fascination of Newgate, or rather, of its inmates, to these authors is self-evident. Crime has always exerted a deadly fascination upon the human mind – one needs only inspect the tabloid press of today to realise that much remains true even today. But more than that, the writers of the time were themselves performing against a backdrop of drama and intrigue no less captivating than any web woven by the criminals whose lives and escapades they now sought to put down in print.
The British Isles were undergoing their final, violent, transition from the feudal system of government which had served since the middle ages and before, to the democratic basis which the so-called Three Revolutions (French, American and Industrial) had inspired the common man to demand.
Reform and revolution were on every tongue, and from nowhere could the ideal scenario, that of man liberated from the conventions, or dictates, of society, be better drawn than the annals of criminal lore. And what better repository of criminal lore was there than Newgate Prison?
It has been established, then, that not every novel which takes for its basic premise, either the exploits or the conditions of the common criminal can thus be referred to as a Newgate novel, and that the story of criminal literature, be it Conan Doyle or Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie or Jessica Fletcher, is by definition a study unto itself. Neither can it be stated that the political turmoil of the age was manifest only in the works of the Newgate novelists. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound was published very shortly after the Peterloo Massacre; Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Coleridge, the direct literary descendents of the first signs of political discontent, all wrote their greatest pieces during, or within very few years of, the Napoleonic Wars and the ensuing Tory reaction to the problems it bred.
The discarding of classical traditions and diction which they represented, spilled over, too, into the writings of Sir Walter Scott. His Waverley novels commenced in 1816, the year after the war ended, and until Scott himself had exhausted the various permutations of the theme, a little more than midway through the series, proceeded to revolutionise the popular conception of the historical novel.
Prior to Scott, the historical novel was essentially a study in the manners and rituals of the aristocracy, a blending of Royal pomp and feudal grandeur. The working classes, beyond providing a witch, a rustic, or a bandit to the speaking cast, were seldom portrayed in any form greater than a homogenous mass of humble servitude or turbulent mischief.
Scott, in selecting for his heroes and heroines characters from history’s humbler streams, and infusing them with characteristics far more exemplary than the stereotypical faults and virtues beloved by authors of previous eras, swept away not only the pompous mannerisms which had hitherto characterised the genre, but also indicated the only direction in which the novel, if it was ever to truly reflect the changing society around it, could go.
The ever-expanding consciousness of the lower orders required heroes in every field, and with general standards of literacy increasing at no less a rate, the novel lay very high on the agenda. It is no coincidence that the work of the aforementioned poets, like that of Scott, addressed the common man in language he could understand – a cause of some friction amongst their peers, it is true, but a friction which by its very existence for almost the first time allied the republic of letters with the world of the working man.
The Newgate school, then, was nothing if not a child of its generation. While Bulwer’s Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram, treating of a highwayman in the first instance, a murderer in the second, were both conceived and written several years before the Parliamentary revolution of the 1830s, the first stirrings of which – the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), the Parliamentary Reform Act (1832) and the Poor Law Reform (1834) – were already plain, the speed with which the staff of Fraser’s Magazine, to name but the most vociferous of Bulwer’s critics, were to condemn the author’s so-called liberal morals is equally indicative of the state of ferment into which England was plunging.
No matter how powerful the rising generation might be, the literary world as a whole remained closeted, traditionalist, “stuffy”. Ideas and ideals put across by Bulwer, amplifying those of Scott and Shelley to a deafening pitch, were rejected out of hand by his peers; they reflected the thoughts of the reform lobby, not of the establishment, and the likes of Fraser’s were nothing if not establishment.
The nature of the Newgate school, then, was seen as one of rebellion, and at its best it could be construed as a blow against the established (mal)practises within the British judicial system. At its worst, however, and in the light by which it was viewed by its detractors, it was little more than a blood and thunder recounting of dastardly deeds of years gone by, spiced liberally with sympathy for the devil and an inevitable dance from Tyburn Tree somewhere towards the conclusion of the final act.
More than that, though, it was governed by parameters at least as strict as those which surround the spy story, the love story, the detective story of today.
Few people truly understood those parameters; fewer still chose to abide by them. The works of George Borrow, Thomas Burke, Catherine Crowe, Thomas Gaspey, William Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, Theodore Hook, TH Lister, Mary Sherwood, TS Surr and Frances Trollope, vital to the development of crime as a theme in popular Victorian – and later – literature, owe little to Newgate beyond, perhaps, the provisions it made for the furtherance of such a theme after it itself had been run out of town.
The heroes of their novels, for the most part, were the men who fought against crime, not the criminals themselves. Or they were purely imaginary criminals, drawn from life, perhaps, but nevertheless possessing no more tangible a hold over the public’s imagination than could be derived from the pages of the novel.
The Newgate novelists – Charles Whitehead, William Harrison Ainsworth, Edward Bulwer and, to a lesser degree, Charles Dickens – drew their heroes straight from the pages of history. Paul Clifford and Dick Turpin, the notorious 18th century highwaymen whose respective adventures fired Bulwer and Ainsworth’s imaginations, did exist, the former in theory, if not in actual fact.
So did Jack Sheppard, the housebreaker, Eugene Aram, the murderous scholar, and Richard Savage, the killer poet. And under another name, so did Fagin, the irascible old man who unsuccessfully engineers Oliver Twist’s downfall in the greatest of Dickens’ earliest novels. They existed, and in so doing, had already become the stuff of legend.
The authors who took those lives and wove them into fiction were embellishing those legends, furnishing them with new attractions. For the first time in over one hundred years, since John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera prompted society in general to dread its every reappearance on the stage for fear of the increase in violent crime which they knew it presaged, the public – particularly, it was said, the “lower orders” – had literary characters who were for the most part drawn from amongst their own number, role models who came from dust, were hastened back to dust, but who spent the period intervening living life as they wanted to, bucking the system, thumbing a nose at society, and living free of each and every constraint which governed their own lives.
Imaginary villains could have given a similar impression, but how much more exciting it was to know that these men really had lived, and really had done so much of what they were credited with. At a time when men were fighting, sometimes dying, to break out of society’s bondage for the common good, few readers, caught up in these monthly adventures, appreciated that the men of whom they read, who fought those same bonds just as valiantly, did so out of selfish gain. It was enough that they fought. And not even the disdain of those people who had sighted the contradiction, could sway them from their judgement.
A second factor in the overwhelming success of the Newgate novels was the fascination of Newgate itself. This, and the social conditions which so nearly set all England aflame in the early years of the 19th century will be looked at in the next chapter.