Worsley (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, 2012, etc.) explains England’s love affair with scandals, lurid murders and executions.
Readers’ initial apprehension that this might be just another list of sensational crimes, trials and public hangings quickly fades as the author exhibits her exceptional knowledge of social and literary England. Her position as chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, which manages the Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and other significant British sites, gives her a broad supply of informative resources. Simply put, murder was the TV of the Victorian era, an escape from everyday woes—of which there were plenty. With the burgeoning newspaper industry printing every minute detail, the public began expressing their conclusions by sending letters to investigators. In the early 18th century, news was spread by traveling troupes, which presented melodramas and puppet shows depicting the latest horror. There was also plenty of “penny blood” fiction adding to the descriptions of blood and gore. As the London stage became more “legitimate,” melodramas faded, and the detective appeared, as did the “respectable murderer.” Thanks to authors such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, the clever, observant detective became one of the most popular characters in literature. These stories were more concerned with explaining the why and who of a crime rather than describing the beastly deed. Then, during the “Golden Age” between the wars, demand grew for the “Mayhem Parva,” mysteries set in quaint but “stultifying, repetitive, hide-bound and reactionary” villages. These cozy mysteries can still be found on bookshelves alongside darker spy thrillers and crime novels.
Worsley ably shows how audiences drove writers, actors and purveyors of news to satisfy their morbid curiosities.