MURDER BY THE BOOK
By Claire Harman
Knopf, $26.95, 272 pages
For many weeks of 1840 London’s newspapers and magazines throbbed with news about the murder of Lord William Russell and the subsequent execution of the man found guilty of the crime.
One particularly shocking thing was that the victim was brother of the sixth Duke of Bedford and uncle of the politician and future Prime Minister Lord John Russell. Queen Victoria no doubt expressed the view of many of the great and good when she wrote in her diary “This is really too horrid! It is almost an unparalleled thing for a person of Ld [sic] William’s rank to be killed like that.”
Another seriously shocking thing was that Lord William had been found in his own bed with his throat slit so deeply that his trachea was severed. Yet there was no obvious motivation for this bloody act.
A room in the house had been ransacked, and some valuables left by a door, but only a few small items were actually missing. Theft was not therefore a credible motive. Nor was enmity. Lord William had been long a widower. Now in his 70s, he spent his days pottering about at his club, buying occasional art objects and walking his dog.
The police quickly decided that the murder was an inside job and arrested Francois Courvoisier, Lord William’s Swiss valet. Lacking other obvious motives the newspapers decided that he had been prompted to murder by having read or seen dramatized versions of W.H. Ainsworth’s novel “Jack Sheppard.” Courvoisier agreed that this was the case.
Ainsworth is now scarcely remembered, but his 39 historical novels were enormously popular in the 19th century. “Jack Sheppard,” the tale of an early 18-century thief and jail-breaker, was the runaway success of 1839, and in 1840 various dramatized versions were playing in no less than six London theaters.
Jack, who had previously inspired McHeath in John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera,” was not the only such hero. The 1830s and 1840s saw a wealth of novels about the lives and adventures of criminals. Collectively called Newgate novels after London’s fearsome prison, they were beginning to raise criticism for leading young men astray by glamorizing the criminal life.
Courvoisier was but one example. Another was Edward Oxford, who threatened Queen Victoria and her husband with pistols. Like Courvoisier, Oxford readily agreed that Jack Sheppard was his role model, saying that the sole aim of his attack on the Queen was to win fame comparable to Jack’s.
Prompted by this and Lord William’s murder, critics now mounted a full attack on the Newgate novels. Thackeray had long complained that they romanticized atrocious crimes in “absurd and unreal” ways. Edgar Allan Poe called Jack Sheppard “poisonous.” Charles Dickens characterized as “jolter headed enemies” anyone who classed “Oliver Twist” as a Newgate novel despite its having much in common with “Jack Sheppard.” As criticism of the Newgate genre strengthened, Dickens cooled his friendship with Ainsworth, and altered later editions of “Oliver Twist” to tone it down. Yet, always better at talking the talk than walking the walk, he continued throughout his life to give dramatic readings of Sykes’ frightful murder of Nancy, thrilling himself no less than his audience with his histrionics.
In “Murder by the Book” author Claire Harman traces the twin histories of Lord William’s murder and the literary furor over the Newgate novels. She has little truck with Dickens’ disingenuous bluster about “Oliver Twist,” noting that it shared a publisher with “Jack Sheppard” and that the Artful Dodger would be equally at home in either book. She notes, too, that though Dickens professed to think that public hangings brutalized both victim and onlookers, and wrote persuasively to that effect, he himself voluntarily witnessed not one but two of them.
Among the strengths of this book is the lucid explication of the murder of Lord William Russell and the subsequent court proceedings. The portrait of Francois Courvoisier is as convincing for what it leaves in the shadows as for what it highlights, and the sympathetic description of the lives of Victorian servants clarifies his potential motives. And perhaps most valuably to anyone interested in 19th-century British fiction, she usefully summarizes the characteristics and appeal of the now little-known Newgate novels, as well as the huffings of pundits who took to the press to deplore their influence.
But if these novels of amoral criminality really had the dire effects ascribed to them by critics and affirmed by Courvoisier and other victims of their effects, how and why did this happen? Answers must lie in both social history and in the psychology of young people. “Murder by the Book” doesn’t delve into these depths, but one of the many points of interest in this well-written book is that it provokes thought about them — as well as about what really inspired the murder of Lord William.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.