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Crime and Punishment

Schwan, Anne



Juliet John


The study of Victorian crime and punishment is a rich area of research that has attracted the interest not only of literary scholars but also of social historians, legal historians, and criminologists. Related scholarship therefore often situates itself at the intersection of traditional disciplinary boundaries, facilitating interdisciplinary conversation. Crime and punishment was a pressing issue for the Victorians and provoked a wealth of responses from contemporaneous commentators in literature, culture, and science. As a new phase of industrialization brought immense wealth for some and abject poverty for others, Victorian urban centers in particular were afflicted by crime. Without an effective system of social welfare in place, social inequality and deprivation drove women, men, and children into petty crime and more serious offenses, resulting in severe punishment ranging from incarceration via penal transportation to hanging. Public executions, not abolished until 1868, attracted huge crowds of spectators, including authors such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, who wrote about these experiences. A forerunner of the popular press, street literature conveyed and illustrated these events for a broad audience. Execution broadsides of famous cases, printing the alleged last lamentations of convicts on the scaffold in verse, are estimated to have sold by the million. As the legal system was undergoing reform (comprising changes in legal evidence procedure, divorce law, women’s property rights, and punishment for sexual offenses, for example), sensational trials caused furor and stimulated commentary in literature and the media. Crime and punishment was discussed in a range of literary and popular genres, poetry, and reformist writing. The “Newgate School” of fiction was accused of glamorizing crime, and the popular penny dreadfuls were feared to corrupt public morals. Sensational fiction in the 1860s, which often drew on real-life criminal cases and newspaper reports, depicted the supposedly respectable middle-class family home as a center of transgression. Similarly, detective fiction typically focused on crime in the world of the middle classes. For the student new to the subject of crime and punishment, this area’s interdisciplinary nature can pose an initial challenge.

Acceptance Date Sep 9, 1999
Online Publication Date Jan 13, 2014
Publication Date Jan 13, 2014
Deposit Date Jun 2, 2016
Publisher Oxford University Press
Book Title Oxford Bibliographies Online
Keywords Crime; punishment; Victorian era;
Public URL