BLACK SWINE IN THE SEWERS OF HAMPSTEAD: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism by Thomas Boyle
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BLACK SWINE IN THE SEWERS OF HAMPSTEAD: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism

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Boyle, best known for his police procedurals Only the Dead Know Brooklyn and Post-Mortem Effects, has here produced a highly readable study of Victorian sensationalism that will engage many readers outside literary circles. Boyle finds in the so-called Sensational fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, J.S. Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins, and the later Dickens not only a note of protest against the social optimism and complacency so often associated with Victorianism, but a pervasive critique of Victorian orthodoxy that emerges more directly in newspaper reports of the ""extraordinary"" crimes that were all-too-ordinary. In an eye-opening though unsystematic survey of crime reporting in British newspapers from 1840 to 1861, he notes now the bestial images of criminals challenge the received wisdom placing man just below the angels and 19th-century London as the apex of civilization--since poisoners like William Palmer could display the best Victorian manners while carrying on grim secret lives. By 1860, public fascination with accounts of brutality and perversion was epidemic (Boyle compares it to our own fascination with TV news), preparing for the sensational novels of the following decade. Boyle examines two of these in detail--Braddon's Lady Audley Secret and Collins' Armadale--linking their sensationalism to a critique of Victorian meliorism and insularity derived from and extending the critique of earlier crime reporters. He concludes that the official version of Victorianism that survived represents a frantically repressive reaction against a horrifying view of human nature that British society could not afford to acknowledge. Though the analysis of novels is foursquare and Boyle's narrative account of his own adventures as a ""scholar-detective"" obtrusive, this is a fascinating, disturbing book that continues the challenge to the Victorians' self-image that has been waged by authors ranging from Lytton Strachey to Steven Marcus.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Viking