Fear and Loathing in Victorian London
Victorian England tried to present itself as a pristine white handkerchief, but upon closer inspection, we see that this garment was saturated with blood. No one knows how many murders Englishmen of that time actually committed, but we do know that this dastardly deed fascinated the culture, and the official estimates were woefully inadequate due to the incompetence of the police (Altick 281-283). The massive number of crimes which went unpunished helped to shape the attitudes of the citizenry. During this era, people believed that they were really no different from any other animal (Wiener 26). A person from any walk of life might unleash his inner villainy upon his unsuspecting friends and family. Stephen F. Altick and Martin J. Wiener addressed this crisis in their nonfiction works, Victorian Studies in Scarlet and Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England, 1830-1914, respectively, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigated it in one of his Sherlock Holmes tales, “The Speckled Band.” Altick, Wiener, and Doyle portray the Victorian view that man, while appearing good, is innately savage; thus, people of any social class could kill anyone, even members of their own families, for anything, even money; therefore, the best of people could be the worst of villains, and no one could be trusted.
Under the clothes of culture, Victorians said, man is a cruel beast. Though he usually controls this part of his dichotomy, it sometimes manifests itself in hideous acts, be they violent or sexual. The high-profile murder cases of the Victorian Era were extremely popular, inspiring reams of reporting from newspapers (Altick 297, 300-301). Some critics found the citizens’ thirst for bloody reading material unnerving. Among them was the Bishop of York who criticized the sensational novels of the time for making murder seem commonplace. Some thinkers, such as Thomas Malthus, said that sexual desire must be controlled before it wrecked the society with lust and overpopulation (Wiener 26-28). Anyone could succumb to desire, even the most modest woman. When Malthus softened his stance on sexuality, saying that moral restraint might save English society from ruin, his disciples turned against him and called him a “voider of menstrual pollution” (28-29). To social critics like Thomas Carlyle and Charles Kingsley, the entire society was as polluted as the Industrial Revolution-era skies. The gang rape and ensuing death of a young woman in 1874 led the Daily Telegraph to rhapsodize that Englishmen were no better than the people they colonized or even the beasts of the wilderness (294-295). For poet Matthew Arnold, a case of infanticide which a young girl named Wragg perpetrated was proof positive that the nation was corrupt (Altick 293-296). With mankind’s dark, animalistic nature so prevalent in society, many Victorians agreed with Malthus’s disciples that saving society would be impossible. The festering boils of hatred might break out anywhere at any time.
The Victorians exempted neither beggars nor kings from the beasts that live inside of them. They believed that everyone, both poor and rich, was a slave to the instinctive passions which could rip him apart (Wiener 26). Many fiction and nonfiction works portrayed the slums as a chaotic, deviant, savage place (30-31). The poor are a mindless tribe of hooligans who could overthrow the social order at any moment (32-33). This evil could wash over the middle and upper classes, as well (35-36). Charles Dickens’s novels also include rich savages such as Lord George Gordon of Barnaby Rudge and the Marquis de Evrémonde, a French aristocrat whose runaway carriage murders a young boy at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities (36-37). Doyle’s Dr. Grimesby Roylott, the antagonist of “The Speckled Band,” is a textbook case of a rich, respected person who is inwardly wicked. The Roylott line, whose last member is the nefarious Doctor Grimesby, is one of the oldest Saxon families in England and was once among the richest (Doyle 3). Unfortunately, a number of miscreants have sapped the family of its strength, and they have also developed a hereditary predisposition for madness (4). When the doctor returns from India, the neighbors welcome him because they are so happy to see a member of his family return; unfortunately, he wastes this goodwill with his misanthropy. He instead uses the proceeds from his estate and from his practice to purchase exotic animals (5). For a society as class-conscious as Victorian England, the egalitarianism of crime is an interesting twist. Truly, fear can cross all artificial boundaries.
Terror can cross natural boundaries, as well, including the bonds between family members. People could be trying to kill their kin at any time. In fact, domestic murders were more common than any other kind (Altick 286). Roylott, for example, uses a venomous snake from India as his instrument of death (Doyle 24-25). With it, he attempts to kill his step-daughters whom he should love and cherish. Lovers, too, would often turn into killers. The untimely death of a wife or mistress could free a man from an uncomfortable situation, or women might slay each other for jealousy. The aforementioned Wragg’s murder of her child is a detestable example of a mother betraying the closest connection in all of human relationships. If children survived the threats of abortion and infanticide, they would often disappear into the institutions, be it the state or a baby farm (Altick 284). People who did not want the pressure of raising children would give them to baby farms for a fee (284-285). Conditions there were often so brutal and unsanitary that many of the youth perished, but this did not deter desperate parents. That a person could kill his closest loved ones in cold blood reveals something monstrous about human nature and substantiates the Victorians’ fear. Family members have a responsibility to protect each other; if the bond of blood is not enough, what is?
What motivated men to bow to their lower natures? What substance could be thicker than respect or blood? Often, it was something as transient and piddling as money. The second largest class of murders was those committed in the act of robbery (287). Doctors Palmer and Pritchard made their offering to Mammon when they killed their charges for insurance money (297-298). Dr. Grimesby Roylott attempts to kill his step-daughters because they are entitled to a piece of his wife’s estate after they marry, and Roylott wants to keep the riches all to himself (Doyle 12). In cases of violence between lovers or between armies, there is passion or ideology at stake, but the man who murders for money risks death and destroys his responsibilities to his class and to his family to gain a medium of exchange which he can use to procure goods and services. If they could kill their loved ones for cash, what could stop them from slaying strangers? Everyone has money, and most people carry it on their persons, so anyone could be a target for murder. How much blood would spill, then, over a serious dispute between families? Truly, none should be trusted.
If a person could master both sides of his nature, he could commit insidious murders in such a refined fashion that he would completely escape observation (Altick 284). The prime examples of this phenomenon were doctors Palmer and Pritchard (297-298). The character of Dr. Grimesby Roylott, who attempts to murder his daughters so that he can keep the entire annual income from his wife’s will, appears to be modeled after these men (Doyle 12). Like Palmer and Pritchard, Roylott turns his great intelligence, which helped him to establish a large practice in Calcutta, to the service of villainy (4). As Sherlock Holmes says, “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession” (20). Clearly, the Victorians would not take anything at face value. A man might fall victim to his savage nature at any time; the greater the man, the greater the evil. Thus, no man could be trusted; even the most magnanimous of men could be immensely malicious.
One of the scourges of modern America is white collar crime. In the past few years, heads of major corporations such as Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia have suffered criminal convictions. These leaders were upright, trusted citizens, and their scandalous behavior greatly damaged Americans’ esteem in businessmen. In the common man’s mind, anyone could now be a criminal. The Victorians would have accepted this analysis wholeheartedly. In their world, death was rampant, and one never knew when a person’s carefully cultivated restraint over his savage side would collapse. Though cases of clandestine domestic violence are few and far between now, we can apply their teachings to the worlds of business and politics. We should presume people are innocent until proven guilty, but when we see wrongdoing, we should not hesitate to prosecute it. We should not equate success with morality, and we should not have blind faith in anyone. People err; people sin. If we raise them to the level of gods, we may be too often disappointed.
Altick, Stephen F. Victorian Studies in Scarlet. New York: Norton, 1970.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” <http://bakerstreet221b.de/canon/spec.htm>. 26 Oct. 2004.
Wiener, Martin J. Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England, 1830-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.