A History of historical fiction

Over the last month Dr Matt Phillpott has published on the IHR Digital blog a series of posts describing the results of his investigation into the history of historical fiction.  The idea was to provide a brief overview of the subject.

These have now been collated into a short online article which is now available as a pdf file.

A history of historical fiction PDF Copy

For access to each section as blog posts click the links below.

1. A Brief History of Historical Fiction Introduction

2. Theories of historical fiction

3. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – the first historical novel? Part One

4. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – the first historical novel? Part Two

5. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – the first historical novel? Part Three

6. Early French historical novelists

7. The first phase of Historical Novels: Don Carlos, Montpensier and The Princess of Cleves

8. The Nineteenth Century Historical Novel – An educative genre

9. The Nineteenth Century Historical Novel – Nationalism and Desire

10. Historical Fiction in the twentieth Century

11. The gendering of historical fiction Part One

12. The gendering of historical fiction Part Two

13. Postmodernism and historical fiction Part One

14. Postmodernism and historical fiction Part Two

15. Novel Approaches



Debating the Cultural Revolution in China


Brothers by Yu Hua
Picador: London, 2009; ISBN: 9780330452755; 600 pp.; Price: £8.99.

Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MS, 2006; ISBN 9780674027480; 752 pp.; Price: £17.95.

Mao's Last Revolution cover imageBrothers cover image

Reviewer:Julia Lovell (Birkbeck, University of London)

In Western imaginations, the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76) – in which one of the world’s oldest, most elaborate cultures began destroying itself, in which a successful, disciplined political organisation tore its own heart out, and in which colleagues and classmates turned murderously on each other – stands among the landmarks of the recent Chinese past. In the late 1980s, when Chinese history and culture remained esoteric to all but specialists, it was accounts of the Cultural Revolution – told in English through the personal narratives of those who endured it – that drew general audiences in their millions to read about the country. The success of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans in particular turned the Cultural Revolution memoir into a genre sensation, beloved of publishers and readers alike. By the late 1990s, Wild Swans had been joined by a clutch of cygnets – To the Edge of the Sky, The Vermilion Gate – mostly family sagas, mostly written by women, many of them focusing on the traumas of the Cultural Revolution. (At the close of that decade, it was even rumoured that literary agents had defined ‘Chinese pain’ as a product, because a profit could be made from it.)

In China, the Cultural Revolution – the ‘ten years of madness’ – is also regarded as one of the seminal tragedies of the country’s 20th century. For obvious political reasons, however, there are limits to how the event can be commemorated. The Cultural Revolution, after all, was a civil war (with disastrous consequences for China’s political, economic and cultural development) unleashed by China’s pre-eminent leader, Mao Zedong; a civil war that was made possible by Chinese communism’s culture of violence and one that Mao’s feted successor, Deng Xiaoping – a high-ranking leader in 1966 – signally failed to prevent.[d1]  It is hardly surprising that the regime does not want to encourage free-form, open-ended debate about its causes and consequences. In the interests of drawing a veil over such contention, the Party passed its own, final judgment on the Cultural Revolution and on Mao’s role in the early 1980s, declaring that the Great Helmsman had been 70 per cent right, and 30 per cent wrong, and that no further discussion was required. Nonetheless, memory of the Cultural Revolution has inevitably resonated through Chinese cultural life – not least because so many writers were affected. Literary commemorations of the Cultural Revolution have long outnumbered those of the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward (1958–62). This is perhaps because, although the latter was in absolute terms far more destructive of Chinese life (claiming some 40 million deaths, to the Cultural Revolution’s estimated 1.5 million), those worst affected were (predominantly illiterate) farmers, while the Cultural Revolution particularly targeted intellectuals. And although substantial restrictions still exist on coverage of the Cultural Revolution in China’s public history industry (especially in the mass media), there is greater, if still incomplete, freedom for fictional explorations of these events.

Over the past 20 years, China’s most critically acclaimed novelists – writers such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua and Su Tong, born between the 1950s and early 1960s – have turned the historical novel into the pre-eminent genre in serious contemporary fiction. For the most part, they have concentrated on recounting the 20th century, and particularly the landmark traumas of the Communist decades through which they themselves lived: Land Reform, the Great Leap Forward and, of course, the Cultural Revolution. In Brothers, one of the bestselling Chinese novels of the early 21st century, Yu Hua created a two-volume blockbuster covering China’s last four decades: a portrait of the country’s transformation from Maoist political thuggery to money worship. The first volume is taken up by a startlingly brutal account of the Cultural Revolution.

The novel is set in Liu Town, an east-coast backwater near Shanghai, and tells the lives of two victims of Mao’s China – Baldy Li and his stepbrother Song Gang. Approaching their teens during the Cultural Revolution, the boys witness Song Gang’s father, Song Fanping, tortured then battered to death (ostensibly for being the son of a landlord, in reality for a linguistic slip interpreted as slandering Mao) only 14 months after his marriage to Baldy Li’s mother, Li Lan; within another few years, she dies of kidney failure and sorrow. In Brothers, the Cultural Revolution starts out as burlesque anarchy – a chance for children to skip school and enjoy heaping humiliation on ‘class enemies’: ‘[The boys] only knew that now Liu Town had become as festive and rowdy as if every day were a holiday’. Soon enough, however, the ubiquitous mob violence – daily lynchings leave the town literally smeared with blood – turns against the boys and their family. The killing of the boys’ father – described in horrifying detail across four pages – is the centrepiece act of mindless cruelty. Six local Red Guards beat him steadily to death, shredding his flesh, ripping an ear off, finally bayoneting him with a splintered wooden bat: ‘As the spikes were yanked out blood gushed from his body as though it were a perforated wine skin’. Even after he has died, reinforcements arrive to take over the beating, trampling and pummelling, while the first group of killers breakfast ‘with savage delight’ on ‘soy milk, buns and fritters’. Even in death, Song Fanping has to endure the humiliation of having his kneecaps smashed so that he can be fitted into the only cheap coffin available.

In the interests of achieving a faithful likeness of these extreme times, Yu Hua makes use of a style that is crude in almost every respect: in its freakish protagonists and plot twists; in its fondness for repetitions and expletives (or, ideally, repeated expletives – one paragraph alone is graced by eighteen conjugations of ‘f**k’); in its fountains of body fluids (snot, blood and saliva). Modern China, its author has reasoned, ‘is so sick that a writer can’t pretend to be a doctor. Instead, the best one can do is admit that one is ill and try to describe the symptoms’. And the coarseness of the novel’s literary language seems technically well-matched with the grotesquerie of the violence being described: archival and anecdotal evidence tells us that Yu Hua’s descriptions of hyperbolic sadism are historically accurate.

The highly negative portrayals of the Cultural Revolution in Yu Hua’s Brothers are indeed a sign of the writer’s political bravery (and proof of the greater creative freedom that Chinese novelists enjoy, relative to peers working in film, television or newspapers). In refusing to allow these events to go quietly forgotten, and in commemorating them in such scurrilous, brutish style, Yu Hua flagrantly contradicts the exhortation by the Chinese Writers’ Association (the government’s official literary union) that writers should ‘make positive contributions’ to sounding an ‘elevated main note in literary creation’. And yet Brothers also illuminates the interpretative limits faced by Chinese authors describing the Cultural Revolution. The book ultimately pulls its punches when it comes to seeking the origins of these events. The horrific violence of the Cultural Revolution is portrayed as an irrational explosion of mass thuggery, without any attempt to search for deeper causes (in, say, Communism’s institutionalisation of violence at all levels of government and in its caste-like system of class designations). As a result, the book is often rich in superficial shock value – in its explicit descriptions of violence and sex – but weak in its grasp of the political roots of Maoist cataclysms. Moreover, there is scant introspective attention paid to perhaps the most interesting psychological legacy of the Cultural Revolution: the way in which the great majority of victims and persecutors have had to co-exist quietly with each other since the regime turned its back on class struggle after Mao and his revolution came to an end in 1976. Yu Hua’s sensationalist style seems almost deliberately designed to forestall deeper thought about the causes and outcomes of these events. By militating against careful reflection on the Cultural Revolution, Yu Hua unwittingly furthers the regime’s project to stifle widespread debate about its sources.

The narrative style of Roderick MacFarquhar’s and Michael Schoenhals’ Mao’s Last Revolution could hardly form a greater contrast with the tone of hysterical violence that dominates Brothers. The former – the most authoritative, comprehensive single-volume account of the Cultural Revolution in English – does not in any sense shy away from the physical horror of these events, mind; it is littered with appalling spectacle. We read of an early victim of Mao’s purge hurling himself off a building; his suicide attempt failed but left him crippled, after which his opponents hauled him to mass criticism meetings inside a cabbage basket. Red Guards beat class enemies to death without understanding their alleged counter-revolutionary crimes. Cities up and down the country were – as Yu Hua describes in microcosm – spattered with blood: some 15,000 were killed or wounded in Wuhan alone. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals describe how factions of students murdered each other with sugar sickles intended for Cuba; funeral processions in which Red Guards held aloft the severed body parts of the fallen; how some victims were not only killed but also eaten; how one man with a bad class background bled to death in front of his family after having his ear cut off.

But MacFarquhar and Schoenhals are constantly at pains to explain not only what happened, but also how it could have happened. There is a devastingly effective coolness to their writing, as they explain the course of the Cultural Revolution: not only Mao’s central culpability, but also the complicity of his chief lieutenants (none of whom tried to prevent Mao from launching his political witch-hunt, most of whom were purged in the course of the Cultural Revolution). Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s recent, best-selling biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, turned the Cultural Revolution into melodrama: the villains (Mao, his wife Jiang Qing and his Defence Minister, Lin Biao) lined up on one side; their good-hearted victims (Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Deng Xiaoping) on the other. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals paint a picture in which blame was far more troublingly widespread. Both Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were deeply implicated in the culture of political violence that made the extremism of the Cultural Revolution possible; both mocked early victims of the movement before it turned on them.

Technically, the book is a tour-de-force, a heteroglossic survey of Cultural Revolutionaries at every level of Chinese society, that makes use of both conventional archival material and sources from below: interviews, memoirs, pamphlets, posters, diaries and denunciations, and other flea-market finds. (Michael Schoenhals has been acclaimed elsewhere as the ‘doyen of Chinese garbology’ – presumably for his skill in excavating historical gems from piles of apparently waste paper that have found their way to such markets.) Even traditional archival sources on the Cultural Revolution, it should be remembered, are far from straightforward to access in China today. Much evidence from these years is routinely shut off to foreign researchers without special connections and permits. In MacFarquhar’s and Schoenhals’ narrative, the voices of external observers inject welcome tonal variety into the turgid political formulae of official PRC communiqués. Although in the eye of the storm, British diplomats stationed in China during the Cultural Revolution still kept their upper lips almost miraculously stiff. One Foreign Office functionary evacuated from Beijing laconically observed that as he, his wife and young family fell under attack at the airport from Red Guards, his ‘tie was pulled into so tight a knot that it had later to be forced open with a tea spoon.’ Imprisoned within the British embassy in Beijing on the evening on which it would be sacked, its inhabitants almost burnt to death and its women sexually molested, the ambassador reported back to London that the staff ‘dined together … off a dinner of tinned sausages and peas, claret and biscuits and cheese, prepared by the ladies. After dinner I went to the first-floor … to play bridge, while those of the staff who were not at work watched Peter Sellers in a film entitled not inappropriately, ‘The Wrong Arm of the Law’!’

MacFarquhar’s and Schoehnals’ dispassionate, clear-headed account is therefore more profoundly unsettling than the surface sensationalism generated by a novel like Brothers. We gain a powerful sense of a tragedy unfolding: of a fundamental failure by Mao and his subordinates to predict the consequences of their actions; of the hypocrisy of a revolutionary elite who – themselves enveloped in privilege and learning – wished to deny these things to their countrymen. We are left with greatly enhanced understanding of a disaster – still insufficiently explained and discussed in China today – driven by an over-concentration of power and by a lack of institutional accountability, both issues that remain political hazards in the contemporary People’s Republic.

Day 4 Best bits

Today our lectures tackled the difficult question of whether the success of historical fiction benefits or threatens academic history.  Jackie Eales, Cora Kaplan, Paul Lay, and Stella Tillyard all tackled this question in their own unique ways.  Throughout the conference it has been stated and questioned as to whether historical authenticity and accuracy matters – does it really make a good historical novel.  Tillyard argues that what makes a good novel is the novelist not its authenticity.  This is a point definitely worthy of more discussion. 

Paul Lay answers the question by looking at the role of empathy and myth.  Cora Kaplan brings up a suggestion of a politics of the novel and Jackie Eales looks at how historians use and control their sources – worryingly perhaps for the historian she concludes that historians treatment of source material does not necessarily differ that much from a novelist. 

In addition we’ve received book reviews starting from the Romans with Robert Harris’ Pompeii, through to the reformation in the sixteenth century with a book about John Bale.  Tracey S. Rosenberg also treats us to a behind the scenes look at how she wrote her book The Girl in the Bunker (thus bringing our historical coverage up to the twentieth century).   

Don’t forget our competition.  So far entries are rather light so the prizes are all to play for.  Remember you could win £25 in Amazon vouchers or a year’s subscription to the Historical Research journal. 

Today we also announced our intention to run a workshop about using historical research for writing novels.  There are plenty of creative writing courses available but we feel we can offer something different – skills training that will enable you to carry out the research which this conference has highlighted time and time again can make or break an historical novel.  Please let us know if you are interested by commenting on that item.

Tomorrow we end the active phase of this conference (at least from our end) with audio from the roundtable of speakers, various book reviews and articles and the announcement of our competition winners.

So stay tuned and please do keep on commenting and discussing!

The popularity of historical fiction: Peter Straus


Speaker: Peter Straus (Rogers, Coleridge and White)

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction offers one method for judging the popularity of historical fiction.  For a long time historical fiction never saw the light of day when it came to this prize but recently it fills the lists.  Peter Straus asks what a Booker prize winner looks like as a way for judging popular traits in the genre.  Straus also looks at publishing promotion and advertising and luck of timing.


Please see the Podcasts feed for audio files

The dark side of Victorian London (Kaye Jones)


London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City by Drew D. Gray
London, Continuum UK, 2010, ISBN: 9781847252425, 280 pp, Price £20

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
London, Canongate, 2002, ISBN: 9780857860019, 838 pp, Price £9.99

‘I am what you would call a Fallen Woman, but I assure you I did not fall – I was pushed’ (Faber, p. 336).

Meet Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute and protagonist of Michel Faber’s novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. Forced into prostitution at the tender age of 13, Sugar plies her trade at Mrs Castaway’s, a brothel in the St Giles area of London. Set in 1875, the fictional Sugar exists in a world that has not yet witnessed the brutality and depravity of Jack the Ripper – the focal point of London’s Shadows by Drew Gray – the second book of this review.

Gray begins London’s Shadows by stating that he is neither a Ripperologist nor does he intend to contribute to this already vast body of work. Instead, Gray uses the Ripper murders as a focal point for his investigation, arguing that this spate of brutal murders refocused public attention, primarily within the urban middle class, to the social problems of poverty and vice that existed on the streets of London’s East End.

Defining this area of London is not an easy task; contemporary social commentators and modern historians, like Paul Begg and Alan Palmer (1), disagree over its exact geographical boundaries. Gray overcomes this difficulty by arguing that we should focus less on these details and more on the ever-changing and evolving social construction of the East End. From industrialisation to EastEnders, Gray argues that the East End, like Jack the Ripper, has evolved into a semi-mythological entity, coloured by images of the ‘plucky cockney’, rhyming slang and the music hall. For the middle classes, it was here in the East End – amid the hotchpotch of cultures and races, the smog and the slaughterhouse – that crime, poverty and sexual deviance, including incest and prostitution, festered and flourished.

Working-class neighbourhoods were the subject of numerous articles, investigations and exposes (Gray, p.1) from as early as the 1830s. In London’s Shadows, Gray relies heavily on such reports, like The Bitter Cry of Outcast London by the Rev. Andrew Mearns (1883) and East London by Charles Booth (1889), but warns against taking these sources at face value. Instead, Gray argues that these reports should be seen as evidence of a cultural, social and economic chasm that existed between the middle and working classes, characterised by ignorance and notions of superiority. This also manifested itself in the social construction of the working class as a ‘different race’ (Gray p. 125).

If London’s Shadows exposes these problems then it is Michel Faber’s novel, Crimson Petal, that truly brings them to life. Rightly considered as a ‘Dickensian novel for our times’ (2), Faber’s descriptions of Victorian London are about as vivid as they come. St Giles, for instance, is described as a place at the ‘very bottom’ where ‘prosperity is an exotic dream’ (Faber, p. 8), where hansom cabs are looted by children (Faber, p. 10) and the ground is covered in human and animal excrement.

While the residents of St Giles can only dream of escape, there are some men, like William Rackham, that just can’t keep away. Heir to the great Rackham Perfumeries, William reads about Sugar in the pamphlet, More Sprees in London, an extensive guide to the capital’s ladies of the night. Described as an ‘eager devotee of every known pleasure’ and ‘a fit companion for any True gentlemen’ (Faber, pp. 83–4), Sugar, it seems, is worth navigating the filthy streets of St Giles for.

Just as the More Sprees pamphlet drives the plot in Crimson Petal, the media also played a role in fuelling middle-class anxieties about poverty and vice in the real East End. The last quarter of the 19th century witnessed the emergence of sensationalism – a new style of journalism (Gray, p. 95). Under intense competition to attract readers, editors needed to find new ways of presenting stories that would keep the public hooked. Crime reporting, in particular, was one way that newspapers could achieve this aim. Focusing less on information and more on entertainment, this ‘new journalism’ became a powerful force in society (Gray, p. 115). Using Stanley Cohen’s theory on moral panics and the garrotting scandal of 1862, Gray convincingly demonstrates the power of the late Victorian press. From a few cases of wildly-exaggerated street robbery came soaring arrest rates and changes in penal policy (the Security Against Violence Act of 1863) (p. 114). Could Cohen’s theory be applied to the Whitechapel murders? Gray thinks not and urges us to remember that the Ripper was so brutal, media exaggeration was unnecessary. Furthermore, despite the public outrage and significant police investigation, the murders never resulted in additions or changes to criminal legislation.

But there were many journalists in Victorian London that were not just interested in boosting sales figures through sensationalist reporting. Away from the authoritative, patriarchal and often judgemental tone of newspapers like The Times, Gray draws our attention to William Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who believed that the influence of the press could be harnessed and used for the greater good. The ‘Maiden tribute of modern Babylon’, for example, was Stead’s attempt to uncover child trafficking in the capital and force parliament to raise the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16. In 1885, with the help of a former madam, Rebecca Jarrett, Stead procured a young girl, the 13 year-old Eliza Armstrong. Although Stead’s intention was to show that he could easily buy a child for the ‘purposes of sexual exploitation’ (Gray, p. 155), the breaking of the story resulted in scandal, public outrage and Stead’s imprisonment in Holloway for three months. It did, however, contribute to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and a series of measures to protect young women and girls from exploitation. Gray places the Maiden campaign in the context of an ongoing class war, characterized by the gulf between the middle and working classes. Like the treatment of working women by the CDA, Stead’s campaign began from the viewpoint that women were the passive victims of lustful males instead of ‘a consequence of a deeply unequal capitalist society’. As a researcher interested in female sexuality in this era I would like to have seen more on the trafficking of young women both in and out of the capital, but coverage of the ‘Maiden tribute’ is a welcome addition nonetheless.

Crimson Petal does not shy away from the issue of trafficking and under-age sex either. Prior to his first meeting with Sugar, William heads to the ‘good, cheap brothels of Drury Lane’ to meet Claire and Alice, the twins recommended by More Sprees. After arriving in London ‘as innocents’ and promised help with securing lodgings and employment, the girls were robbed and installed in a brothel (Faber, p. 70). Faber presents the encounter with no holds barred but dispels the myth of young women as sexually passive victims when the twins refuse to succumb to William’s unconventional requests.

In agreement with Judith Walkowitz’s landmark study into Victorian prostitution, both Gray and Faber view sex workers as ‘independent and assertive’ women. Rather than portraying prostitutes as the victims of their male seducers, the authors see them as victims of circumstance. Caroline, the first character that we meet in Crimson Petal, for example, turned to prostitution as a means of paying for her dying son’s medical care (Faber, p. 15). Similarly, Jack the Ripper’s victims generally fell into prostitution as a result of ‘failed marriages, lost children’, or the inability to find paid work in a more respectable profession (Faber, pp. 164–5). Attempting to reconstruct the experiences of these women and understand city life through their eyes is a highlight of both books, especially considering the scarcity of primary source evidence.

That prostitutes were frequently targeted by Christian reformers, missionaries and do-gooders has been well-documented.(3) The middle-class need to ‘raise up, rescue and reform’ these fallen women led hundreds of individuals, particularly women, to enter the slums, roll up their sleeves and attack this Great Social Evil (Gray, p. 62). Reformers weren’t always sure how best to tackle the issue and Gray deals with this dilemma in chapter five. He identifies individualism and collectivism as the two competing reform ideologies of the later Victorian era. Espoused by the likes of Beatrice Webb and Helen Bosanquet, he makes no attempt to tell the story of this ‘intellectual war’ in any great detail. Rather, Gray places this ideological battle in the context of the country’s journey towards the welfare state. His comparison between this Victorian reform dilemma and the modern preoccupation with ‘benefit scroungers’, notably within the tabloid press, is an interesting point. Returning to prostitution, the one criticism of this section is that Gray could have focused more on specific prostitution reforms, outside of the Contagious Diseases Acts which have been extensively documented.

The devout widow, Emmeline Fox, is Crimson Petal’s spirited reformer. Working daily with the Rescue Society, Fox views reform as a crusade to cleanse the streets and save the souls of the fallen women of St Giles. Armed with her Bible, Fox is driven by apocalyptic fears where the souls of St Giles become the property of the devil. Technological progress, like the factory or the Underground, has moral consequences and is responsible for tempting people away from God. But Fox and her mission are rarely taken seriously by others of her class. Even Henry Rackham, her confidante, is more interested in forming a romantic liaison than in her work at the society. Despite her efforts, Fox encompasses the ignorant attitude described by Gray – that judges and condemns the behaviour and culture observed in St Giles rather than attempting to understand it.

Merging the themes of gender, sex and religion, it is with the character of Agnes Rackham that I became most intrigued when reading Crimson Petal. In complete contrast to other female characters in the novel and to contemporary domestic ideologies, Agnes is the mad woman locked away in her bedroom and hidden from public view.  While the omniscient narrator informs us that Agnes’ mental health problems are caused by a brain tumour the size of ‘quail’s egg’ (p. 218), Dr Curlew has identified her troublesome womb as the culprit. Though Agnes has no idea about the internal workings of her body, she is still expected to perform as a wife through intercourse and bearing a child. Ironically, it is these acts that have caused much of her psychological damage. For Dr Curlew, Agnes is, for the most part, a lost cause. Along with leeches, laudanum and internal examinations, his advice to William is to pack Agnes off to the asylum – lest her madness infect the rest of the household.

Faber should be applauded for bringing Victorian constructions of female sexuality, reproduction  and mental illness into the wider public arena through his characterisation of Agnes. While she retreats deeper and deeper into her imaginary world (where she is cared for by nuns from the Convent of Health), Faber draws the reader’s attention to the patriarchal ideas and practices, from rape to the ‘wandering womb’, that have controlled and determined the fate of her life.

Returning to London’s Shadows, Gray tackles the Victorian construction of the so-called criminal class in chapter 7. Standing below the respectable working class and existing entirely from crime, this underclass first emerged in the writings of Henry Mayhew. This idea was further developed by the prominent psychologist, Henry Maudsley, who argued that ‘heredity and environment’ were factors in determining deviant behaviour rather than an individual choice. This belief was also echoed on the Continent where Cesare Lombroso began developing a criminal classification based on physical features. This biological theory of crime affected the way that contemporaries viewed and dealt with the criminal, from the old days of reform, through education and religion, to a new era of taking photographs and measurements to determine the specific attributes that made him behave in this way (p. 200). But what sort of crimes did this class commit?

To answer this question, Gray has compiled criminal statistics from London’s Central Criminal Court between 1850 and 1899. The historian’s work in compiling this type of data is made far easier with the Internet’s greatest resource on the history of crime, the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. From his analysis, theft, including burglary and simple larceny, was the most commonly committed crime at 49 per cent. Gray brings this section of the book to life by recounting tales from the proceedings that give some idea of the opportunistic nature of these crimes.  (Faber also echoes this sentiment of opportunism in his description of the hansom cab looting in Crimson Petal). As ideas about criminals changed and the keeping of records and statistics increased, it was much easier for the authorities to identify and label habitual offenders. Running parallel to these developments came debates about the nature and purpose of prison, most notably the introduction of a more regimented system, led by Edmund Du Cane. Despite these changes, Gray believes that internal management issues and ever-increasing costs prevented the Victorians from successfully dealing with recidivism. Furthermore, the concept of a criminal class prevented them from ever truly understanding the motivations of offenders.

In chapter eight Gray deals specifically with the police hunt for Jack the Ripper. Although the failure of the police to catch the killer has attracted criticism, both in the past and more recently, Gray takes a more sympathetic view of the Victorian police. With limited resources and criminal detection techniques still in their infancy, it is hardly surprising that they were unable to bring Jack to justice. Added to this were a number of hoaxes, false leads and other crimes to attend to.

Like the Ripper’s victims, there is no happy ending for the women in the Crimson Petal. Without revealing too much, Sugar may have escaped St Giles but she find that life is no more pleasurable as William’s mistress or as governess to his daughter, Sophie. Extremely well-researched, clearly informed by current historiography and described in almost painstaking detail, this tragic story keeps the reader hooked to the very last page. Combined with the recent BBC television adaptation, Crimson Petal should be applauded for bringing to life and into public focus the harsh realities of this period.

Gray is not the first historian to investigate the darker side of Victorian London but his book is well-researched and accessible, making it a welcome addition to this existing historiography. Both Gray and Faber highlight the tremendous social cost of industry that contemporaries recognised but could not remedy. Though the streets of London may be cleaner and the slums replaced by modern redevelopments, the then-and-now approach of London’s Shadows offers a stark reminder that poverty, deprivation and inequality are as problematic today as they were in the 1880s.

1                    See Paul Begg, Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History,(London, 2004) and Alan Palmer, The East End: Four Centuries of London Life, (New Jersey, NJ, 2000).

2                    Kathyrn Hughes, ‘Whores, Porn and Lunatics’, The Guardian, 28 September, 2002 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/sep/28/fiction> [accessed 8 August 2011].

3                    See, for example, Paul McHugh, Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform, (London, 1980), Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, (Cambridge 1980) and Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860–1914, (London, 2000).

A Prelude to Novel Approaches

As some of you may already be aware the IHR are already building up to our Novel Approaches virtual conference on our IHR Digital Blog with a series of blog posts investigating the history of historical fiction and its relationship to academic history.

I’m the author of those posts (Matt Phillpott Project Officer for History SPOT) and I won’t claim to be an expert in this particular field.  However, I nevertheless thought it would be interesting and fun to investigate the literature on the subject with a view to understanding its ebbs and flows from a beginners point of view.

If you haven’t already done so please do join me for this ‘prelude’.

Posts so Far:

A Novel Approaches prelude: A Brief History of Historical Fiction

A Novel Approaches Prelude (2): Theories of historical fiction

A Novel Approaches prelude (3): Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – The first historical novel? Part One

A Novel Approaches prelude (4): Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley – The first historical novel? Part Two

The next post will be published at 3pm on Friday 11 November with subsequent posts published on the following Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Posts will then continue daily throughout the week of the virtual conference ending with their collation on Friday 25 November on the virtual conference site.  






Novel approaches: a virtual conference 21-25 November 2011

The Institute of Historical Research is pleased to present its first ever online conference: a continuation and extension of our November 2011 conference entitled Novel approaches: from academic history to historical fiction.

Historical fiction is more popular and critically well-received than ever before, and its relationship with academic history is of increasing interest to historians. ‘Novel approaches’ seeks to explore this phenomenon by bringing together a wide range of speakers, including academic and public historians, authors and publishers.

The online conference takes place for one week and is free to all. Among much else it will cover the following themes:

  • The popularity of historical fiction
  • The differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history
  • Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history?

‘Novel approaches’ will include the following content once the conference begins on 21 November

See also our speaker biographies and online conference programme.

Please register for free today!