Cult Criminals: The Newgate Novels 1830-47 
by Juliet John.
Routledge, 2750 pp., £399, December 1998, 0 415 14383 7
Show More
Show More

While other Victorian novelists rested comfortably in the routines that had brought them success in the past, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73) was always committed to experimentation. He was his own pitiless taskmaster, working for money as strenuously as a starveling, and received £30,000 from Routledge for a 15-year option on his novels. He wrote successful silver-fork novels like Pelham (1828); historical romances such as Rienzi (1835); an occult novel, Zanoni (1842); a domestic realist novel, The Caxtons (1849); detective thrillers; a science-fiction novel, The Coming Race (1871); a pioneering sociological study, England and the English (1833); 11 volumes of poetry; a history of Athens and translations of Horace and Schiller. He published ten plays: some bombed, but three remained stockpieces throughout the 19th century. The best of these, Money (1840), was revived last June at the Olivier Theatre, where it seemed a curious hybrid of Restoration comedy and Victorian meliorism.

In addition to literary work that would have exhausted many people, Bulwer-Lytton sat in the House of Commons as a Whig from 1831 until 1841, and as a Disraelian Conservative from 1852 until 1866. During a short period as Colonial Secretary in the late 1850s he supervised the creation of Queensland and British Columbia. On the accession of Queen Victoria, he was nominated by the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to a baronetcy as the representative man of letters at the same time as Herschel was nominated as the representative man of science. His attempts to attain a peerage were for many years frustrated by his wife, who behaved after their separation with the magnanimity of Margaret Cook. (His 1873 novel Kenelm Chillingly contains numerous jibes at the institution of marriage.) His peerage was finally gazetted in 1866.

He experimented with different genres, not (as his enemies said) as an eager caterer to the restless appetite of contemporary readers, but for personal motives which were a characteristic blend of the grave and the dandyish. Novelists, he believed, should elevate their readers by imparting their own souls to them. In this way the novel would become the supreme literary form of the 19th century. He worked at this task with a mixture of ambition, vanity and idealism. It is relevant to his high view of his function as a novelist that he was all his adult life a confirmed opium-eater. He had resplendent daydreams.

There was also a frivolous reason for the diversity of his output. He enjoyed teasing the critics and loved to be talked about at any cost. He was seldom so happy as when launching a new book without his name on it, and hearing what the critics had to say. He enjoyed being praised by people who did not know who they were talking about. He was so versatile and fluent that on several occasions he deceived critics by publishing uncharacteristic new books or staging unexpected new plays anonymously. The revelation that he was the author of The Lady of Lyons proved so humiliating to the Times in 1838 that it retaliated with an attack which W.C Macready called ‘vulgar, virulent and impotent from its display of malice’.

Bulwer-Lytton was thought too delicate for education at Eton, and was tutored at home under the eye of a protective mother. His Bulwer father owned the Wood Dalling estate in Norfolk and his Lytton mother inherited the Knebworth estate in Hertfordshire, which she bequeathed to him as the youngest son. He reproduced this situation in Lucretia (1846), in which the heir of the St John’s Laughton estate marries the heiress of Vernon Grange. ‘Two sons were born. To the elder was destined his father’s inheritance – to the younger the maternal property. One house is not large enough for two heirs. Nothing could exceed the pride of the father as a St John, except the pride of the mother as a Vernon.’ After an infatuation at 16, and a later scandal with Lady Caroline Lamb, Bulwer-Lytton married in 1827 an Irishwoman, Rosina Wheeler. His mother severed his allowance as a mark of her displeasure. This forced him to write for money and increased the attraction for him of déclassé men. The life of Bill Gawtrey, in Night and Morning (1841), becomes steadily seedier after he graduates from Cambridge until he is reduced to operating a matrimonial agency under the nom d’amour of Mr Love. Gawtrey’s career has the exciting versatility of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels: ‘I have been an actor, a money-lender, a physician, a professor of animal magnetism (that was lucrative till it went out of fashion, perhaps it will come in again); I have been a lawyer, a house-agent, a dealer in curiosities and china; I have kept up a hotel, I have set up a weekly newspaper.’

In his novels Bulwer-Lytton relished reworking cases of corruption that had occurred in respectable society. The hero of his third novel, The Disowned (1829), has been repudiated by his noble father, who disbelieves the legal doctrine of pater estquem nuptiæ demonstrant; his consequent misfortunes involve him with a villain called Richard Craufurd, whom Bulwer-Lytton based on the banker Henry Fauntleroy, who had been hanged for forgery before a crowd of 100,000 people at Newgate in 1824. The central male figure in Lucretia is an artist, murderer and forger called Gabriel Varney, who was reworked from elements in the life of the forger-poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.

Bulwer-Lytton was the most distinguished of the sensationally popular Newgate novelists. His closest rival, Harrison Ainsworth, managed nothing more than romantic escapism with a thick accretion of historical allusions. Bulwer-Lytton himself had inaugurated the fashion for this brand of crime fiction with Paul Clifford (1830), and restrained the tendency to verbosity and false pathos that marks his other fiction. He believed, he wrote in an essay of 1838, that

in the portraiture of evil and criminal characters lies the widest scope for an author profoundly versed in the philosophy of the human heart. In all countries, in all times, the delineation of crime has been consecrated to the highest order of poetry. For as the emotions of terror and pity are those which it falls to the province of the sublimest genius to arouse, so ... the grandest combination is when the artist unites in one person the opposite passions of terror and pity – when we feel at once the horror of the crime, yet compassion for the criminal.

Later, in the afterword to Lucretia, he quoted Burke to justify his claim that ‘the image of crime, made execrable, may pain and revolt us, but for that very reason, it does not allure or corrupt.’ It was partly such self-justifications that provoked James Thomson’s judgment on Bulwer-Lytton in 1874: ‘he was one of the most thorough and hollow humbugs of the age; false and flashy in everything; with pinchbeck poetry, pinchbeck learning, pinchbeck sentiment; stealing whatever good things he could lay his hands on, and making it a bad thing as he uttered it.’

There is real boldness in Bulwer-Lytton, however: he is not all pinchbeck. The scenes in Night and Morning where the caustic and worldly debauchee Lilburne abducts a young girl with the intention of deflowering her – unaware that she is his own grand-daughter – would outrage today all those who lately denounced the film of Lolita. But he also wrote so hurriedly that his prose could go horribly awry, and he was perhaps sometimes too blurred by opium to revise his work strictly. In Paul Clifford, when he wanted to indicate that Mrs Lobkins had lit her pipe, he wrote, ‘the Promethean Spark had been communicated to the lady’s tube.’ Sir Miles St John in Lucretia is described with similar circumlocution: ‘absorbed in the sensual gratification bestowed upon Europe by the immortal Raleigh’.

Detective fiction did not seem to him degrading: Schiller, whom he adulated, had at the end of his life thought about writing a drama on the subject of ‘The French Police’. Bulwer-Lytton’s family loved Paris – his brother Sir Henry Bulwer, who was the inspiration of George Sand’s Mauprat, in 1834 published sketches of Parisian life which have the verve of Balzac – and his conception of Newgate fiction was coloured by the career of Vidocq, the police informer who founded the Sûreté in 1811, and who coined the slogan, ‘set a thief to catch a thief.’ The Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police were published in a four-volume English translation in 1828-29, and adapted into a two-act melodrama as Vidocq! The French Police Spy! The translator was supposedly William Maginn, who retaliated for Bulwer-Lytton’s caricature of him as Peter MacGrawler in Paul Clifford by using his position as editor of Fraser’s Magazine to publish a series of wounding articles about Bulwer-Lytton’s novels. ‘Illustrious Vidocq’, as Bulwer-Lytton called him, was the inspiration for the ambivalent personal history and psychological shrewdness of the Parisian detective Favart in Night and Morning. Formerly a faux-monnayeur himself, Favart hunts the coiner Gawtrey, who exclaims of the Sûreté: ‘Those d—d fellows learn of the mad doctors how to tame us.’

Evidently, Bulwer-Lytton hit a convincing note in his Newgate fiction. Allan Pinkerton, the Glaswegian Chartist who in 1850 started the Chicago detective agency with its famous slogan ‘The Eye that Never Sleeps’, had a favourite novel, which he frequently reread: Eugene Aram, he constantly averred, was die greatest novel in history. This romantic tale of human frailty, murder, remorse and incrimination satisfied the great detective’s imaginative needs and moral sense. Pinkerton himself wrote, or gave the protection of his name to 18 volumes of criminal memoirs that popularised the Pinkerton’s man as a familiar figure of American culture. The Pinkerton books often resemble Bulwer-Lytton stories turned into pulp factoid.

Bulwer-Lytton’s crime fiction reflected changes in both the criminal law and its administration. The Metropolitan Police was established in 1829. In 1832, the death penalty was lifted from such offences as stealing livestock and most types of forgery. Subsequent legislation in 1833-34 removed it from crimes involving property. The Old Bailey was reconstituted as the Central Criminal Court in 1834. In 1841, after the death penalty was removed from rape, there were only eight offences still subject to it, and of them only murder actually resulted in capital sentences. In the midst of these reforms Bulwer-Lytton published Paul Clifford. Its hero is a disadvantaged youth who has been corrupted by his experiences in the House of Correction and by his reading. He becomes leader of a gang of highwaymen, narrowly escapes execution, suffers instead transportation, falls in love with a virtuous girl, repents and discovers gentility. In the 1840 preface to Paul Clifford Bulwer-Lytton explained that he had written the novel

to draw attention to two errors in our penal institutions, viz. A vicious Prison-discipline and a sanguinary Criminal Code, – the habit of first corrupting the boy by the very punishment that ought to redeem him, and then hanging the man, at the first occasion, as the easiest way of getting rid of our own blunders. Between the example of crime ... from the felons in the prison-yard, and the horrible levity with which the mob gather round the drop at Newgate, there is a connexion which a writer may be pardoned from quitting the loftier regions of imagination to trace and detect. So far this book is less a picture of the king’s highway than the law’s royal road to the gallows, – a satire on the short-cut established between the House of Correction and the Condemned Cell.

He had also aimed, so he wrote, to show that ‘there is nothing essentially different between vulgar vice and fashionable vice, – and that the slang of the one circle is but an easy paraphrase of the cant of the other.’

This is the great moral of Night and Morning. Its hero Philip Beaufort is usurped from a great inheritance because his parents’ marriage cannot be proved. By nature he is energetic, adamant and brave; but poverty sours him, and to the world he seems vicious and vengeful. After several misunderstandings caused by his angry pride and obdurate perversity, he is gulled into friendship by the conman de Burgh Smith and his fellow outcast Bill Gawtrey. The latter is a fallen gentleman whose life has been ruined by the cardsharp Lord Lilburne. ‘The difference between man and man is money,’ Gawtrey says in order to explain the different fates of Lilburne and himself. Harried by respectably veneered hypocrites, Gawtrey is driven to crime and becomes a coiner. Beaufort is so shocked by witnessing Gawtrey’s murder of Favart of the Sûreté together with his police informer that he becomes a soldier of fortune in India. There, he makes money enough to remodel himself. Returning to England with the character of a ‘simple, masculine, severe, abstemious ... man of action’, he soon obtains justice and reconciliation.

Admiration for the man of action implies a mistrust or dislike of erudition. In Bulwer-Lytton’s Newgate novels characters with studious habits or intellectual outlook are often villainous. The 18th-century virtuoso Eugene Aram is a murderer like Gawtrey. He has killed Geoffrey Lester to obtain money enough to pursue his own speculations. The body is hidden away, and the story spread that Lester has gone to the East Indies. Aram becomes so famous for his studious character that a minister of state offers him the post of secretary; when he refuses, the minister bestows a pension on him. Then the scholar recluse unwittingly goes to live as a neighbour of the brother and son of his victim, and compounds this indiscretion by falling in love with his victim’s niece, Madeline Lester. Her cousin, Lester’s son, resents this romance and begins enquiring into his father’s disappearance. Discovering the truth of Geoffrey Lester’s death, he hastens to his uncle’s house and seizes Aram when the latter is dressed to lead Madeline to the altar. The narrative closes with Aram’s trial and execution.

Bulwer-Lytton seems to have suspected that a life of intellect was essentially selfish. The intellectual tendency was against Virtue and towards Vice. ‘The true movement of the last 15 years has been the progress of one idea – Social Reform,’ he declared approvingly in the 1848 preface to a new edition of Paul Clifford. ‘There have been periods of more brilliant actions on the destinies of States – but there is no time visible in History in which there was so earnest a desire to improve the condition of the great body of the people.’ His more virtuous protagonists often sought to reconcile a romantic commitment to self with more socially progressive, manly ideals of action and duty. Contrariwise, vice is personified by the cardsharp Lord Lilburne. He is anti-progressive on two counts: he bears the character of an ‘unredeemed and unmalleable egotist’ and is a reflection of French Enlightenment ideas, ‘vicious, polished and intellectual’. A post-Revolutionary revulsion from abstract French thought was even more heavily stressed in Lucretia, the novel in which Bulwer-Lytton deplored the corrupting effects of contemporary materialism. Lucretia Clavering’s moral sense is destroyed because she has ‘imbibed’ from her French tutor ‘the dangerous pride of the fallen angel, and set up-the intellect as a deity’. She is the ‘petted and trusted darling’ of her uncle, Sir Miles St John, but a vehement, unmanageable child until put under the tuition of his librarian, a Provençal called Dalibard. He is a cold, calculating parasite who has participated in the bloodiest horrors of the French Revolution, but has enough self-command to hide ‘the hell that lay black and devouring’ beneath the surface of his erudition. Lucretia is a ferocious and gripping story of confused parentage, kidnapped babies, murderous plots and invidious bequests. Its epilogue recounts a hideous retribution in which its anti-heroine is confined as a homicidal maniac in a lunatic asylum, ‘a grisly, squalid, ferocious mockery of a human being’; while her fellow conspirator Varney, a man who had had a mischievous zest for life, is tortured and abused by the rest of his chain-gang in an Australian penal colony. The novel closes with Varney vainly imploring his captors for the gibbet.

Lucretia Clavering is the tragic forerunner of Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale. Both women are intelligent, energetic and full of initiative. They know their own hearts, and their lives are transcended by one great love, which for a time seems to make sense of everything for them. Their existence is controlled, though, by the complacent benevolence of gentlemen who hold all the financial power and are bloated with a second-rate moral certitude. Both women dare to want financial independence; both desire to make their own choices in love; both resist being yoked under the tyrannous principle that all human happiness is family-centred. Certainly, both women are egotists, but they have consciences, and falter because of their capacity for remorse and self-doubt. The gentlemen who foil them, by contrast, are fretful prigs with short perspectives and an under-developed moral subtlety. In consequence, the retribution visited on the women for their self-assertion is terrible. One dies in the mad-house, and the other locks herself in a lethal gas chamber.

Their stories, however, weren’t just melodramatic fantasies. They had their counterparts in the causes célèbres of Victorian Britain. The real crime of the Glasgow architect’s daughter Madeleine Smith, who was accused of poisoning her lover in 1857, was glorying in their fornication in her letters. These, read aloud at her trial, were candid in their sexual pleasure (‘ill-regulated, disorderly, licentious feeling’, said the judge) and chafed at her father’s financial and moral authority. The real crime of Florence Maybrick, convicted at Liverpool in 1889 of poisoning her husband (who was almost certainly killed by bad doctoring), was adultery, and a similar restlessness with masculine social rules. Madeleine Smith and Florence Maybrick survived longer than Lucretia Clavering and Lydia Gwilt: Smith died in the Bronx in 1928 (having been threatened at the age of 90 with deportation as an undesirable alien), and Maybrick died in Connecticut in 1941. The tragic injustice of Maybrick’s case would not have surprised Bulwer-Lytton. It demonstrated the callousness of the legal system which he had attacked half a century earlier in Paul Clifford: ‘that system which makes wine out of the scorching tears of guilt; and from the suffocating suspense, the agonised fear, the compelled and self-mocking bravery, the awful sentence, the despairing death-pang of one man, furnishes the smirking expectation of fees, the jovial meeting, and the mercenary holiday.’ The Newgate novels, as Pinkerton knew, were real enough.

Paul Clifford, Eugene Aram, Lucretia and Night and Morning by Edward Bulwer-Lytton; Rookwood and Jack Sheppard by Harrison Ainsworth.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences