In Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London (Knopf, Mar.), Harman explores how the murder of William Russell in 1840 led to a vigorous debate about the influence of a fictionalized account of the life of criminal Jack Sheppard.
What interested you about Russell’s murder?
While I was researching the life of Charlotte Brontë and reading the periodicals and newspapers of the 1830s and ’40s, references to it kept appearing on the edges of the material I was looking at—particularly in the papers of Thackeray and Dickens. It piqued my curiosity: aristocracy, mystery, blood and gore, plus the intriguing and uninvestigated literary connections.
Does the debate around fictional violence in TV and movies today resemble the condemnation of sensationalized depictions of crime in newspapers and books back then, such as those of the Jack Sheppard case?
Definitely. I think people are always on the lookout for the potential moral impact of anything with a widespread cultural impact, and part of what I found fascinating about the Jack Sheppard craze was how many members of what one might call the chattering classes felt guilty about their own enjoyment of William Ainsworth’s sensational book about Sheppard and its adaptations, while worrying that less educated or cultivated consumers might not be able to filter its mixed messages.
How much did the controversy about the appropriateness of fictional depictions of violent crime and criminals in affect authors such as Dickens?
The success of Jack Sheppard had shown Dickens how much money and fame could be had from writing criminal romance, but the furore over the book’s moral impact certainly made him nervous about his own credentials. Dickens learned the lesson that sensational plots had to be leavened with other, more “intellectual” elements, a puzzle to be solved, a social issue to be aired. Explicit blood and gore was left to the newspapers and broadsheets, while the better writers started to evolve the world’s most popular genre—detective fiction.
Was there something about the vilification of novel writers that was uniquely British, or did such things happen around the time in other countries?
No, it wasn’t uniquely British. Sensational fiction was deplored on both sides of the Atlantic—think of the derided yellow-back novels in the States and Penny Dreadfuls in Britain—but that was much less to do with moral decline than with the sharp decline in the price of printed stories as print technology improved. There was suddenly a cheap mass market, and of course publishers and writers rushed to gratify it.