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6. The Newgate Novel and the Police Casebook

Lauren Gillingham

Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405167659.2010.00007.x


When a spate of novels appeared in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s dealing principally with crime, criminals, the urban underworld, and prisons, critics responded as though it were not only deplorable, but largely unprecedented. One need only think of works like Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), Fielding's Jonathan Wild (1743), or Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) to appreciate that British novels throughout the eighteenth century (not to mention other genres, especially drama) had familiarized readers with illicit acts, immoral desires, and nefarious characters. These new novels, nonetheless, which differed widely from one another in tone, structure, and ideology, were regarded as part of a distinct cultural phenomenon, and were collectively dubbed “Newgate fiction” by literary reviewers. The label referred to the frequency with which these novels drew characters directly from publications of criminal biography such as The Newgate Calendar , or introduced fictional characters who could have appeared in such publications. Even this feature, though, was not especially original. Authors had long been drawing on the narrative resources offered up by Newgate biographies, yet the new crime novels provoked a critical reaction that Keith Hollingsworth suggests was significantly more violent than that which had greeted earlier texts: the Newgate novel “attract[ed] a new kind of attention” ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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