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Bridget Walsh, Domestic Murder in Nineteenth–Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations

Farnham, Sussex, U.K.: Ashgate, 2014, 185 p. ISBN : 9781472421036
Hubert Malfray
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Bridget Walsh, Domestic Murder in Nineteenth Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations, Farnham, Sussex, U.K.: Ashgate, 2014, 185 p. ISBN : 9781472421036

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1The question of crime has been a major source of interest in Victorian studies, particularly from the last quarter of the 20th century, ranging from literary to historical, sociological, scientific and literary studies, mostly because, as reminded by Bridget Walsh throughout her book, it keeps tormenting readers and critics with the double question of attraction and repulsion. With Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations, Walsh is clearly laying the stress on one specific type of crime, i.e. ‘domestic murder’, and its representation through various media, including trial transcripts, newspaper coverage, broadsides, but also fiction and, most original of all, the stage. Laying aside other types of crime or violence, her choice of ‘domestic murder’ is accounted for by ‘the greatest publicity’ (2) it received, thus revealing, according to Walsh, much about the Victorian state of mind. This undertaking also allows her to reflect about the domestic sphere, and how murder actually troubled the sanctity and sacredness of the Victorian home. Her wish is to analyze the evolution of the perception of domestic murder over a sixty-year period (from the late 1820s to the 1890s) through a multiplicity of conflicting written forms. Generic preoccupations are woven together with others engaging on gender perceptions as well as questions of class. The plurality of this approach is made clear in her introduction which convokes a multiplicity of canonical critical references on crime, but also on gender, and ideology (the works of Mary Poovey, Richard D. Altick and Judith Knelman, to name but a few) with which she starts a dialogue to affirm the originality of her approach, developed through five chapters following a chronological order.

2The first chapter focuses on the shift in the perception of domestic murder throughout the 19th century. Studying both street literature and the newspaper press from a wide range of sources first allows Walsh to consider the readership of domestic murder reports, from the middle class who indulged in cheap broadside literature to high-brow readers. She thus proves that domestic murder was an object of fascination for all, rallying all classes behind the common fear that the domestic sphere might be troubled. If the sanctity of home was threatened, Walsh shows that the newspaper press and broadsides first borrowed their rhetoric from melodrama and theatricality—two modes of representation based on amplification—to raise consciousness about good and evil and help reinforce the shared value of morality, beyond questions of class. With further considerations about media coverage, Walsh moves on to the 1870s, explaining that representations of domestic murder got even more complex, being now challenged by the evolution of psychological research as well as new class and gender perceptions of the law.

3Focusing on domestic murder and theatre, chapter two starts with a surprising contrast: though murder had huge media coverage, it was rarely to be found in Victorian theatrical representations; Walsh only managed to unearth eight plays featuring such crimes, but finds reason for such scarcity in the extreme censorship that had started affecting the world of the stage with the 1737 Act. Most of the few plays dealing with domestic murder had one point in common: they featured the murderer as a foreigner, or the figure of the ‘other’ (44), in order to reject criminality outside the domestic sphere. Among these representations, Walsh mostly focuses on those of the famous Red Barn murder. First reminding the reader of the original case’s extreme dramatic potential, she soon comes to the conclusion that the theatrical renditions of the case appealed to melodramatic techniques which altered the initial crime and diluted the original frenzy it generated among the public, only aiming at reinforcing the domestic myth.

4The third chapter mostly focuses on the Newgate controversy which Walsh extensively contextualizes—reminding the reader of the sharp criticism made against the Newgate novelists who were said to over-glamourize crime—before concentrating on two of its major opuses: Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Thackeray’s counter-Newgate novel, Catherine. What strikes the author is the difference of treatment of domestic murder in the two novels: the murder of Nancy constitutes the larger part of the chapter, and Walsh analyzes how Dickens managed to gain from his knowledge of street literature to reinforce the value of domesticity through the melodramatic portrayal of the Sikes-Nancy duet and the denunciation of murder as the most execrable threat to the private sphere. On the other hand, the shorter analysis of Catherine shows that Thackeray, whose aim was to condemn the Newgate novel, fell into the trap of making his murderess-heroine likeable even to himself, already foreshadowing the figure of the female villain who later appeared in sensation fiction.

5Chapter four focuses on male domestic murderers through a contrasted analysis of trial transcripts and sensational novels of the 1860s and 70s. After reminding the reader of what other critics defined as Victorian models of masculinity, she goes on to analyze the way murderous men fell into the traps of crime mostly because of the difficulty they had to position themselves in the domestic sphere. Through the shrewd analysis of the fictional trajectory of five male protagonists, from Wilkie Collins’s Basil to Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Walsh argues that men turned to murder or violence because, in an era when self-control and social constraints were imposed upon them, the home was the last place in which their passion sometimes came to explode.

6The last chapter focuses on the end of the period under consideration, and more particularly on female domestic murderers, contrasting once again fiction and actual murder cases. The study starts by stating the extreme ambivalence linked to this conflicting period of time caught in-between ‘anxiety’ inherited from the past and an ‘exhilarating sense of possibility’ (124). The figure of the female murderer, coinciding with the appearance of the New Woman, was chosen by Walsh as a paragon to illustrate the complexity of this period of time. The way domestic murderesses were portrayed is a clear echo of the ambivalence of the time: criminal women were depicted as plural, complex characters, both in the court cases analyzed by Walsh and in the fictional works she chooses (Mona Caid’s The Wing of Azrael and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Walsh proves that the more lenient perception of criminal women was influenced by the surge of new discourses like psychology and criminology which showed that the relation of society to domestic murder was being redefined together with the fin-de-siècle new mentalities.

7Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations is a very stimulating, multi-faceted analysis which ought to engage the attention of researchers in Victorian crime perception. Through a forceful literary approach that can be perceived in Walsh’s shrewd textual analyses, this work is also well documented, relying on an impressive amount of critical, often canonical, references that are clearly integrated to her demonstration. Walsh’s method is very precise, each chapter starting with the thorough exposition of critical premises, then evolving towards a detailed approach of illustrative, conflicting documents. Another very impressive point is the amount of primary sources that are involved in her study—though one might regret that she often centres on novels or murder cases that have already been much written about—, allowing her to scan through a very large period of time and a wide range of ‘genres’. Her considerations about stage representations (chapter 2) are extremely interesting and innovative, as well as her reflection upon masculinity in sensation fiction (chapter 4). Her analysis of the Newgate controversy (chapter 3) is extremely well documented, but one might wonder if the question of domestic murder, which she identifies in two novels only, is actually central to the Newgate genre as a whole. Last but not least, Walsh provides her reader with two illustrations that she skilfully comments on, making one think that integrating more of such medium could have been a good means to further her approach of ‘cultural’ representations. This being said, Walsh invites readers to think of domesticity and murder in stimulating ways, proving that the notions of home and murder are extremely fruitful vectors of cultural exploration.

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Hubert Malfray, « Bridget Walsh, Domestic Murder in Nineteenth–Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 84 Automne | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2016, consulté le 24 février 2017. URL :

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Hubert Malfray

Lycée Claude-Fauriel – Saint-Étienne, CPGE littéraires, chercheur associé LIRE IHRIM – Lyon

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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