Everyone nowadays seems fascinated by the Victorian criminal underworld. From Ripper Street to Peaky Blinders, it seems people cannot get enough of murdered sex workers and brutal yet gentlemanly gangsters. We all now know the tropes: most of the action—murder, rape, theft, domestic violence—in these television dramas takes places at night in gas-lit slum courts and alleyways where downtrodden working-class people eke out a living on poverty.
In The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption, historian and novelist Stephen Carver, drawing upon a wide range of archival and literary sources, takes us on a journey through the seedy courts and sinister alleyways of the criminal underworld which existed during the nineteenth century. Yet while we today—as many Victorians did also—associate the idea of an underworld solely with the poor and destitute, Carver’s subtitle is significant: he examines the actual crimes which occurred in the period, taking us through the various laws which were passed against specific crimes theft and murder; he then takes us through a discussion of the controversy surrounding these crimes which was aired in the press and popular literature; and through his discussion of “white collar” crimes such as fraud, shows us how corruption reigned supreme in the higher echelons of society … Some of the events Carver recounts are unpleasant, but because he is a skilled writer he manifests a certain sensitivity in dealing with the more horrid aspects–child murders, for instance, are dealt with maturely and soberly. So this is not some rather rubbish true crime book–which always seem to be about ogling the foul deeds committed by brutes–but a well-written book which entertains where possible but treats the source material and subject (and the reader) with respect. I enjoyed all of the chapters, but I have to admit my favourite was chapter 5 on ‘The Real Oliver Twist’. He does not attempt to find a ‘real’ Oliver Twist in the manner that some would try and look for a ‘real’ Robin Hood; instead, he contextualises Dickens’s famous tale alongside contemporary high-profile cases and scandals such as baby farming, pick-pocketing epidemics, and the career of Ikey Solomon, a Jewish fence who almost certainly provided inspiration to Dickens for Fagin.
Please click here for the full review.