When considering an author as culturally monolithic as Charles Dickens, it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t born the national author, anymore than Shakespeare was. As a young journalist in the early-1830s, although already possessed of considerable talent and ambition, he was just another freelance writer in the Darwinian world of London publishing. As a court reporter, Dickens covered debates in the Commons as well as following election campaigns around the country and reporting on them for the Morning Chronicle. These travels became the bases for a series of ‘sketches’ of everyday life in several periodicals, written under the pseudonym ‘Boz’. And the rest is history, as they say. John Macrone published Sketches by ‘Boz’ to considerable popular and critical acclaim in 1836, Chapman and Hall offered Dickens the humorous sporting serial that became The Pickwick Papers, another hit; he assumed the editorship of Bentley’s Miscellany and began serialising Oliver Twist, arguably one of the most iconic English novels of the 19th century, multiply adapted for stage and screen. In short, Dickens’ rise was meteoric. Or was it?
By the mid-1830s, Dickens’ star was undoubtedly in ascendance, but since the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832, no obvious successor to the throne of English letters had yet been crowned, although the smart money was on a colourful historical novelist from Manchester called William Harrison Ainsworth, closely followed by the radical Whig MP Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Both authors were hugely popular in the 1830s and both were conceptually linked through the development of what came to be known among reviewers as the ‘Newgate’ novel. As the term implies, the heroes of these novels were criminals, often lifted from the pages of Newgate Calendars, lurid accounts of crimes, trials and executions named after the infamous prison.
Lytton had originally started writing to support a young family after his aristocratic mother stopped his allowance because she did not approve of his chosen bride, Rosina Doyle Wheeler, the daughter of the Irish feminist Anna Wheeler. His breakthrough novel was Pelham: or The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828), a fashionable or ‘silver fork’ novel about the dandy lifestyle, social climbing and the philosophy of taste which kept readers and reviewers guessing which characters were based on real public figures. Lytton was adept at a variety of popular genres, including historical and gothic romance, and in 1830 published a highly political and redemptive tale of a fictional Georgian highwayman, Paul Clifford. The title character was something an amalgam of several real Newgate calendar villains and the brooding Romantic hero of Friedrich Schiller’s 1781 play The Robbers (Die Räuber), Karl von Moor. In the novel, Clifford is imprisoned as a boy for an offence he did not commit. Inside, he mixes with hardened criminals and emerges into the world apprenticed in crime and ready to use these skills to survive, later explaining that, ‘I come into the world friendless and poor – I find a body of laws hostile to the friendless to the poor! To those laws hostile to me, then, I acknowledge hostility in my turn. Between us are the conditions of war’ (Bulwer-Lytton, 1865: 219).
Through his mouthpiece, despite a footnote stating that these sentiments are those of character not author, Lytton is craftily paraphrasing the political philosopher William Godwin, who in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice had written that:
The superiority of the rich, being thus unmercifully exercised, must inevitably expose them to reprisals; and the poor man will be induced to regard the state of society as a state of war, an unjust combination, not for protecting every man in his rights and securing to him the means of existence, but for engrossing all its advantages to a few favoured individuals and reserving for the portion of the rest want, dependence and misery (Godwin: 1993, 90).
In a preface to the 1840 edition of Paul Clifford, Lytton confessed that his novel was ‘a loud cry to society to mend the circumstance – to redeem the victim. It is an appeal from Humanity to Law’ (Bulwer-Lytton: 1865, x). A powerful novel in its own day, Paul Clifford is now only remembered, if it is remembered at all, for it’s opening line, which begins ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, but in moving beyond the picaresque tradition into recent English history and political allegory, spiced up with a bit of melodrama and adventure, Lytton had essential created the so-called Newgate novel, the modern criminal romance.
Lytton followed Paul Clifford with another exploration of guilt and the moral conflict between violence and visionary ideals, Eugene Aram (1832), this time based on a real eighteenth century murderer. The original Eugene Aram was a schoolmaster of humble origins from Yorkshire who had taught himself Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Arabic. In 1744, while Aram was living and working in Knaresborough, a close friend and business associate called Daniel Clarke disappeared after obtaining a considerable quantity of goods on account from local tradesmen. Some of this produce was found on Aram’s property, but there was not enough evidence to link him either with Clarke’s fraud or his disappearance. Nonetheless, Aram thought it prudent to leave Yorkshire (and his wife), and after a stint in London he ended up teaching at King’s Lynn Grammar, where he started writing a book entitled A Comparative Lexicon of the English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Celtic Languages. With his ground-breaking theory of the Indo-European origins of the Celtic languages, Arum could have been a major etymologist, his research pre-dating that of J.C. Pritchard’s Eastern Origin of the Celtic Traditions by decades. Instead, a skeleton believed to be that of Daniel Clarke was unearthed in a cave outside Knaresborough in 1758 and suspicion once again fell on Aram. He was arrested and tried, conducting a spirited defence on his own behalf against the fallibility of circumstantial evidence. Convicted and condemned, Aram finally confessed, his motive being an affair between Clarke and his wife. He was hanged at Knavesmire (‘York’s Tyburn’) on August 16, 1759.
Aram’s duality as a brilliant scholar and homicidal cuckold was a rich source for writers, and in addition to appearing in numerous Newgate calendars (his story ideally fitting the chapbook model of sensational violence and morality tale), he had been the subject of Thomas Hood’s ballad The Dream of Eugene Aram, published in his annual, The Gem, in 1829. In the poem, Aram relates his troubling dream of a murder to a schoolboy before his arrest and the revelation that the crime was his own. Hood presents Aram as a tormented, conflicted and guilt-ridden man who is both thoughtful and articulate. The poem was immensely popular and was reprinted in a slim volume of its own by Charles Tilt in 1831, the year before Lytton’s novel was published. Interest in the case was reopened, and the opportunistic Lytton was quick to capitalise. This time there was no call for social reform. Instead, Lytton turned a real killer into a broadly sympathetic protagonist and attempted a deeply psychological character study, making Aram a Faustian seeker after knowledge laid low by poverty and foreshadowing Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, also making use of the codes of gothic romance as had William Godwin in Caleb Williams. As with Paul Clifford, Lytton used footnotes to distance himself from his hero, but whether by accident or design his narrative voice can be read as once more siding with a criminal.
Although Eugene Aram garnered a massive readership, critical opinion was more divided. Regency icons like Harriette Wilson and Pierce Egan loved it, while the Athenæum hailed the book as a work of genius which probably should not have been written, and the Spectator reminded its readers that Bulwer’s novel was closer to Byron’s Manfred than the Newgate Calendars. William Maginn, who Lytton had caricatured in Paul Clifford, unsurprisingly took the most strident view among the voices of disapproval, writing in Fraser’s Magazine that, ‘We dislike altogether this awakening sympathy with interesting criminals, and wasting sensibilities on the scaffold and the gaol. It is a modern, a depraved, a corrupting taste’. He further suggests, citing copy-cat murders for profit supposedly inspired by Burke and Hare, that a criminal romance like Eugene Aram may similarly incite violence, because the author ‘little dreams of the lurking demons he may thus arouse’ (Maginn: 1832, 112).
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