Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
crime, genre, lower-class, penny bloods, prisons, Victorian
Literature in English, British Isles
In Jailbreakers, Villains, and Vampires: Representations of Criminality in Early-Victorian Popular Texts, I analyze moments of discursive dissonance that emerge through the juxtaposition of early-Victorian theories of criminality and representations of criminals in popular culture. In the 1830s and 1840s in England, methods for managing criminals underwent a series of revisions that corresponded to shifts in prevailing theories about the nature and course of criminal behavior. Assumptions that criminality was volitional, or that it originated in an individual's deficient self-discipline, gradually shifted into perceptions that criminality was pathological, and that malefactors were naturally brutish and incorrigible. Predominant conceptions of criminality as stemming from character flaws or biological predispositions influenced depictions of criminals in a variety of Victorian popular texts including novels, plays, and, importantly, penny bloods, which were cheap publications marketed to lower-class readers. Such popular lower-class texts are rife with criminals and crimes yet their representations of criminality remain understudied. This penny literature often reproduces prevailing middle-class discourses about criminality, but these texts do so in ways that simultaneously disrupt those discourses. Specifically, popular culture tends to locate the origins of crime not in criminals but in the very institutions and social structures designed to regulate them. Analyzing popular representations of criminals in lower-class texts at a transitional moment in penal history demonstrates how conflicts between legitimate and subordinate cultures activated antidisciplinary potentialities.
While historical and literary scholarship on middle-class crime fiction has flourished, crime literature popular with the lower classes has been largely neglected. Understanding how both dominant and subordinate literatures responded to and portrayed significant shifts in cultural theories and practices is, however, necessary to gain a fuller, more nuanced understanding of Victorian literature and culture. There is plenty of evidence available that suggests ways in which middle-class commentators interpreted the beliefs of the lower-classes, but much less is known about the views and narratives that were attractive to and so consumed, via this literature, by these audiences. Studying literature read by the lower-classes, especially those texts that were tremendously popular, is one step toward gaining insight into the possible interpretations of a largely inaccessible audience.
Stearns, Elizabeth Fay, "Jailbreakers, Villains, and Vampires: Representations of Criminality in Early-Victorian Popular Texts" (2013). English - Dissertations. 63.