The Victorians are not immediately associated with murder and mayhem; they have the impression of a very civilised and straight-laced generation of people. However, these few books recently put up in the Oxfam Bookshop window on Petergate here in York tell a different story. Altick and Hartman delve into the seedy underbelly of Victorian culture to examine those who cracked under social pressure and committed terrible crimes.
Humanity has always been fascinated by homicide. There can be no doubt, what with the many multitudes of crime dramas on tv (CSI, Midsomer Murders, and Murder She Wrote are globally famous) and in books like Agatha Christie and the great Sherlock Holmes series. By the way, the bookshop here has a huge selection of thrillers and several nostalgic copies of Agatha’s works!
Hartman makes the point that the suppressed circumstances of Victorian women led to their secret indiscretions- some women read romance, some drank and did drugs, and some just went nuts and killed people. As you do. Her book details the murder trials of thirteen specific “respectable” women and what set them off towards murder. It seems like such a fascinating read, and apparently the women of the time felt so, too! Middle-class women everywhere read followed the trials and executions of these homicidal ladies, perhaps living vicariously? Or just as guiltily intrigued by the kill as society today seems to be?
Altick’s text, along with having brilliant black and white sketch drawings throughout, describes how the news agents of the time, the “penny broadsheets” and newspapers detailed every gory detail of each event, and puppet shows, novels and gaslight melodramas took up the stories for their own use with relish. Even waxworks museums and peepshows exhibited the horrific scenes for the enjoyment of the audience, and such gruesome vignettes were often the most popular.
I can’t help but be fascinated by these stories. Maybe it’s because I have always secretly wanted to solve crimes like Sherlock Holmes and the newer Shawn Spencer, but I think there is more to it than that. Not everyone wants to be a detective, and yet millions of people read the books and watch the shows. Maybe humans always want to see what we are capable of, as horrible as that is. What a terrible notion. Maybe it is all in the puzzle- who did it? Why would they commit such an atrocity? How can humans do that to each other? Figuring out the answers is always compelling. Why else would so many people do crossword puzzles and Sudoku for fun? For thousands of years at least murder has been a part of society. Greek tragedies and ancient tales all contain death, medieval coroner reports survive until this day to be read out by Latin students across medieval history programs everywhere.
What makes these two books so particularly interesting is their focus on female killers. Women as murderers have always been unusual and therefore all the more fascinating to people. The actions of the 13 “classic” Victorian women killers are all the more worthy of study by their nature as outliers of female behaviour. Through their more restricted Victorian social regulations, did these women simply snap? Did they coldly calculate the benefits of knocking someone off (to put it quaintly)? Women have always been seen as the more nurturing, forgiving, and emotional gender, so what made these particular women suddenly turn that stereotype on its head? Some turned their emotions to evil and wildly beat their own pupils to death, and others coldly killed their husbands through poison. Intriguing!
I don’t know about you, but I think these books would make a fascinating read. Along the same lines, there is another curious piece about the seedy side of Elizabethan society. Another point on the long line of humanity’s less charming aspects. If you think you’re interested, or just want to browse the thriller section for some more modern murder madness come by and see us at the Petergate Oxfam Bookshop. We are putting these featured books in the window, so hurry!