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Capital Offenses

The Geography of Class and Crime in Victorian London
Simon Joyce

BUY Cloth · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813921808 · $59.50 · Jun 2003
BUY Paper · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813935782 · $35.00 · May 2015

As London became the first major city of the nineteenth century, new models of representation emerged in the journalism, poetry, fiction, and social commentary of the period. Simon Joyce argues that such writing reflected a persistent worry about the problem of crime but was never able to contain it. Such commentators as Wordsworth, Dickens, Mayhew, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Booth, and Wilde all struggled with the same questions about how to represent London and the relations among its varied populations, yet their accounts often undermined one another.

Whereas Victorian social science presumed a correlation between criminal activity, geographical residence, and social class, the popular literature of the period often sought just as strenuously to deny the link, giving rise to privileged and pathological offenders like Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll. This in turn shifted attention away from the urban slums that had been the setting for the so-called Newgate novels of the 1830s and 1840s. By 1900, crime appears as a distinctively modern problem, requiring large-scale solutions and government intervention in place of an older approach that was rooted in personal morality or philanthropic paternalism.

Illustrating "literary geography"—in which physical space is not merely a backdrop for the plot but an integral element in shaping textual meaning—Simon Joyce’s Capital Offenses reveals how certain geographical patterns can not only give weight to interpretive meanings already suggested in the texts but also enable us to read them in a new and surprising light.

Victorian Literature and Culture Series


"This is a several-layered book that uses the geography of London to reopen often-studied works with a new look and emphasis. From Mayhew to Darwin to General Booth, the London underworld and its literary accounts are studied for their importance as signifiers of the central place London played in the Victorian frame of mind. A good read for any serious student of Victorian literature and culture, this book offers an important look at the literary narratives that consider important segments of 19th-century London: the criminal, law enforcement, and the poor and their plight.


About the Author(s): 

Simon Joyce is Associate Professor of English and Director of Literary and Cultural Studies at the College of William and Mary.

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