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Victorian Melodrama: a Treasure Trove!
on 7 June 2011
Bought this on the strength of some very complimentary newspaper reviews, and discovered a thoroughly-researched, heavily-evidenced study of murder and its coverage in the media of the time, linked to the public's insatiable appetite for scandal and gore (interesting how little things change!). Flanders meticulous study works methodically through how murder was exploited to line the pockets of newspaper hacks,the income of magazines, souvenir sellers, the theatre, Madame Tussaud's, and to influence the Victorian novel, and give rise to the 'crime novel', with both Wilkie Collins, Dickens and many others re-working real-life characters into the murderers and victims of their books.
At the same time Flanders charts the impact on the police force of the time, from its hotly debated establishment as a 'preventative measure', then through its disjointed local jurisdiction which inhibited any notion of criminal pursuit, to its development as a detection agency, using the new-fangled wonders of the telegraph to track down their quarry. Endless murders are examined, and the appalling nature of the court system, and the general absence of a defence counsel, which meant innocent characters were condemned to the gallows, while those with money (and the right social class) walked free. The bias and complacency exhibited by judges, doctors and coroners alike truly make the blood run cold.
I found this well written, with the occasional glimpses of humour necessary to leaven some of the horrific injustices revealed. The illustrations (posters, papers, handbills, cartoons, souvenirs) reveal the extraordinary and greatly exaggerated depiction of these events, which caused understandable waves of panic and insecurity amongst predominantly middle and upper class households, and provoked 'knee-jerk' legislative reactions as a consequence (sound familiar?). Clearly, the 'established order' felt threatened by both the rate of social change, and the way in which murder increasingly seemed to respect no social order at all. Unlike some other reviewers, I found this provided some fascinating sociological insights, even if some were provided indirectly or inference.
This is a substantial tome, and should not be considered 'light reading', given the mass of information contained within the main text, let alone the copious notes and references. Perhaps my one reservation is that there are rather too many examples given, and this introduces a sense of repetition and 'sensory overload' which can dull the attention span at times. Anyone with an interest in the development of the modern crime novel, or the Victorian social order, or the history of policing and the court system, or the reciprocal relationship between the media and public spectacle, is likely to find this fascinating. In fact, anyone with a curious mind at all, which I feel is high praise indeed for a book which must have been a labour of love. Strongly recommended.