The Newgate novels (or Old Bailey novels) were novels published in England from the late 1820s until the 1840s that were thought to glamorise the lives of the criminals they portrayed. Most drew their inspiration from the Newgate Calendar, a biography of famous criminals published at various times during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but usually rearranged or embellished the original tale for melodramatic effect. The novels caused great controversy and notably drew criticism from William Makepeace Thackeray, who satirised them in several of his novels and attacked the authors openly.
The formula of the “novels of Newgate” arose from the combination of the traditions of historical narrative and Gothic narrative , but derived from a Renaissance literary tradition consistent in emphasizing the feats of famous criminals. At the time, the “novels of Newgate” caused considerable controversy and attracted criticism especially by the writer and critic William Thackeray , who came to satirize them in some of his works and attacked with vehemence to their authors.
The Newgate novel refers to a type of detective novel popular in Britain during the 1830s. Main representatives of this genre were Edward George Bulwer-Lytton and William Harrison Ainsworth. The novelists of the Newgate used as a basis for the plot of their novels real life cases. Frequently, the source for this was the Newgate Calendar, a biographical account of famous criminals, which was published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Critics saw in the Newgate novels a glorification of life of criminals. In Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Eugene Aramthe criminals shown as a guilty philosopher; William Harrison Ainsworth portrays the criminal in the novel Rookwood as a glamorous outlaw. In Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Catherine, the concept of the Newgate novel is rejected by portraying the lives of criminals in a rigorously realistic manner,
Among the earliest Newgate novels were Thomas Gaspey’s Richmond (1827) and History of George Godfrey (1828), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834), which featured Dick Turpin. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837) is often also considered to be a Newgate novel. The genre reached its peak with Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard published in 1839, a novel based on the life and exploits of Jack Sheppard, a thief and renowned escape artist who was hanged in 1724. Thackeray, a great opponent of the Newgate novel, reported that vendors sold “Jack Sheppard bags”, filled with burglary tools, in the lobbies of the theatres where dramatisation of Ainsworth’s story were playing and “one or two young gentlemen have already confessed how much they were indebted to Jack Sheppard who gave them ideas of pocket-picking and thieving [which] they never would have had but for the play.”
Thackeray’s Catherine (1839) was intended as satire of the Newgate novel, based on the life and execution of Catherine Hayes, one of the more gruesome cases in the Newgate Calendar: she conspired to murder her husband and he was dismembered; she was burnt at the stake in 1726. The satirical nature of Thackeray’s story was lost on many, and it is often characterised as a Newgate novel itself.
Returning to Rookwood, published in 1834, it is a romance historical and gothic set in the England of the eighteenth century, which describes a dispute over the legitimate right of inheritance Manor Rookwood Place and the family name of Rookwood, which hides dark secrets From the past. Unlike the castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764), initiator of the Gothic genre in the English narrative, in this work Ainsworth was not based on many of the classic clichés of Gothic literature, 2Besides moving the scene of the history of medieval Europe to England 3 of the eighteenth century. Ainsworth himself explained in the preface to his novel that his role model for this was the work of Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolfo (1794). The Gothic elements were fused with the use of historical figures, such as the legendary Dick Turpin. In this specific aspect, Rookwood follows the trail of other previous works that also recovered for fiction famous celebrities from the underworld, such as The Beggar’s Opera (John Gay / Johann Christoph Pepusch, 1728), Jonathan Wild (Henry Fielding, 1743), the drama Bandits (Friedrich Schiller, 1781) and the aforementioned novels Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram by Lord Lytton.
The genre reached its climax with the serial publication, between 1839 and 1840, of Jack Sheppard of Ainsworth, a historical romance based on the life and exploits of Jack Sheppard, a famous bandit and English highwayman of the beginning of the century XVIII, which was executed in 1724. In the book also appears as one of the main characters Jonathan Wild, another famous criminal of the time, perhaps the most bloodthirsty in the history of Britain, who had also starred in a novel by Henry Fielding of 1743. In his portrayals of the cruel nature of Wild and his grotesque murders, Ainsworth went further than his contemporaries would in their respective novels of the “Newgate genre”. Compared to Wild, the character of Sheppard is represented as a simple thief, and not as an example of the worst kind of criminal. The controversy surrounding this work arose when Thackeray, a great opponent of the “novels of Newgate”, denounced that certain vendors offered “backpacks of Jack Sheppard”, full of tools for theft, in the lobbies of the theaters in those who represented the dramatization of Ainsworth’s novel.
Both Rookwood and Jack Sheppard were fundamental in the popularization in England of the tradition of the ” picaresque novel ” of Spanish roots.
In response to the publication of the first installments of Jack Sheppard and his romantic vision of crime, Thackeray wrote his first long novel, Catherine (1839-1840), conceived as a satire of the “novels of Newgate” and based on life and the execution of Catherine Hayes (1690-1726), protagonist of one of the most shocking real cases of all those that appeared in the Newgate Calendar, which caused great commotion in the public opinion: this woman conspired to murder her husband, the carpenter John Hayes, who died by blows of ax and ended up beheaded and dismembered; After a trial attended by numerous nobles and knights, she and her two accomplices were sentenced to death in 1726. The satirical character of the story of Thackeray was diluted, and often the work has been described as one among the “Newgate novels.” In fact, the author himself acknowledged that he had developed a trait of “hidden goodness” for the main character and that he had not managed to make his novel unpleasant enough, that is, he had not fulfilled his intention to show the authentic brutality of the novel. the criminals. And, thus, the novel that supposedly proposed to present the criminals as absolutely vile characters, without any possibility of redemption, ended up making Catherine Hayes and her rogue cronies seem more attractive. Thackeray considered that the result of his work had been a failure, and perhaps for that reason the novel would not be published again during the author’s life. In this way, the novel has suffered abandonment despite its good qualities, such as its joyful sense of entertainment, its satirical tone and a heroine protagonist that somehow anticipates the famous Becky Sharp of the fair of vanities.
The publication of Catherine coincided with the serialization of Ainsworth’s novel, but it was the murder in 1840 of Lord William Russell by his valet, Benjamin Courvoisier, that spurred the authorities to act. Courvoisier was reported to have been inspired to the act by a dramatisation of Ainsworth’s story. Although Courvoisier later denied that the play had influenced him, the furore surrounding his case led the Lord Chamberlain to ban the performance of plays based on Jack Sheppard’s life, and sparked off a press campaign which attacked the writers of Newgate novels for irresponsible behaviour. Courvoisier’s execution led to further controversy. It was one of the best attended hangings of the era, and Thackeray and Dickens both witnessed the execution, Thackeray using it for the basis of his attack on capital punishment, “On Going to See a Man Hanged”. His most vigorous attack in the piece was reserved for Dickens, specifically for Oliver Twist, which Thackeray regarded as glorifying the criminal characters it depicted:
Bah! what figments these novelists tell us! Boz, who knows life well, knows that his Miss Nancy is the most unreal fantastical personage possible; no more like a thief’s mistress than one of Gesner’s shepherdesses resembles a real country wench. He dare not tell the truth concerning such young ladies.
It was believed that the character of Fagin was based on the real pickpocket Ikey Solomon, but while Dickens did nothing to discourage this perceived connection, he was at pains not to glorify the criminals he created: Bill Sikes is without redeeming features, and Fagin seems pleasant only in comparison to the other grotesques Oliver meets as his story unfolds.
It can be said that it was the murder in 1840 of the aristocratic Lord William Russell at the hands of his valet, François Benjamin Courvoisier, the event that marked the beginning of the decline of the genre, since the murderer allegedly had been inspired to commit his crime – the victim She died her throat – in one of the theatrical dramatizations of Jack Sheppard of Ainsworth. Although the defendant later denied that the work had influenced him, the furor around his case led the Lord Chamberlain to make the decision to prohibit the performance of playsbased on the life of Jack Sheppard, and unleashed a campaign in the general press in which the writers of “Newgate novels” were attacked with virulence for their irresponsible behavior. The public execution of Courvoisier (in July 1840, before the Newgate prison) did nothing but increase the controversy. It was one of the hangings that more excitement aroused in the public opinion of the time (it was estimated at 40,000 attendees to the event), and even Thackeray and Dickens witnessed the execution; the former would later use it as an argument for his critique of capital punishment in his allegation On Going to See a Man Hanged (“Going to see a hanged man”):
“I came back this morning upset about the murder, but it was for the murder I witnessed… I feel ashamed and degraded in the brutal curiosity that led me to that place.”
His most virulent attack in this essay, however, was reserved for Dickens himself, and more specifically for his Oliver Twist, a work that, according to Thackeray, glorified the criminal characters represented in it:
“Bah! what figments these novelists tell us! Boz, Note 6 who knows life well, knows that his Miss Nancy is the most unreal fantastical personage possible; no more like a thief’s mistress than one of Gesner’s shepherdesses resembles a real country wench. I Dare not tell the truth Concerning Such young ladies. ”
The “novels of Newgate” were similarly attacked in the specialized press, with Jack Sheppard described in the magazine Athenæum as “one more of a kind of bad books, supported by bad readers”, and the humorous magazine Punch publishing a satirical «Literary Recipe »For a shocking romance (…). The criticisms were enough to persuade both Ainsworth and Lord Lytton to devote themselves to other subjects; Dickens, however, was made up of another dough and continued to use criminals as main characters in many of his stories.
One of Newgate’s last essential novels was Newgate: A Romance (1847), a love story between criminals written by Thomas Peckett Perst. Later the genre would merge into the so-called “sensation novels” and the first detective novels of the 1850s and 1860s. The former included in their plots and arguments transgressions away from the purely criminal, as is the case of The Lady in White (Wilkie Collins, 1859), while an early example of detective fiction is The Moonstone (1868), also from Wilkie Collins. All the novels of this trend were often published in installments giving rise to the proliferation of a penny magazines.
The Newgate novel was also attacked in the literary press, with Jack Sheppard described as a “one of a class of bad books, got up for a bad public” in The Athenaeum, and Punch published a satirical “Literary Recipe” for a startling romance, which began “Take a small boy, charity, factory, carpenter’s apprentice, or otherwise, as occasion may serve – stew him down in vice – garnish largely with oaths and flash songs – Boil him in a cauldron of crime and improbabilities. Season equally with good and bad qualities…”. The attacks were enough to make Ainsworth and Lytton turn to other subjects; Dickens continued to use criminals as the central characters in many of his stories.
Among the last of the pure Newgate novels was T. P. Prest’s 1847 story of love among criminals, Newgate: A Romance. The form melded into the sensation novels and early detective fiction of the 1850s and 1860s. The former included transgressions outside the purely criminal, such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859); an early example of the latter is The Moonstone (1868), again by Collins. All were often serialised in a form that gave rise to the penny dreadful magazines.
Source from Wikipedia