Reframing the Victorian. Sensationalism: Newspaper Articles and Stories.
When one is asked to consider Victorians as a society, the first thing to pop into their heads is the Victorians obsession with propriety and the maniacal preoccupation they exhibited in presenting a façade of genteel respectability. Yet, it is also quite common to discover that as a culture, Victorian society was engrossed by and fanatically obsessed with the strange and unusual, which runs the gamut of a wide range of fields and subjects such as Séance’s, prostitution as a profession, and the obsession with collecting eccentric and unusual objects. Although the most lasting and prevalent eccentricity from the Victorian era, which is still rampant with modern society and culture, is the preoccupation with sensation and sensationalism. The eternal and abiding curiosity which Victorians and modern society continue to exhibit is provoked by the impression that scandal creates upon one’s imagination, of the notion that “‘in almost every one of the well-ordered houses of their neighbours there [is] a skeleton shut up in some cupboard’” (Griffin; 67). This sentiment encourages the reader of sensation texts to indulge in the belief of the essential fallibility of their fellow man, and which allows for the belief that these undisclosed acts may be discovered, if only perseverance were to be applied.
The text reads as the following:
To all the Thieves, Whores, Pick-pockets, Family Fellons etc in Great Britain & Ireland. Gentlemen and Ladies. You are hereby desir’d to accompany yr worthy friend ye Pious Mr J —- W — d from his seat at Whittington’s Colledge to ye Tripple Tree, where he’s to make his last Exit on , and his Corps to be Carry’d from thence to be decently Interr’d amongst his Ancestors. Pray bring this Ticket with you
Although sensational newspapers and stories chronicle the development and advancement upon the subject of Sensationalism, the initial creation of what is now known to be, was developed and established from a desire to provide “a reassuring set of parables which illustrated [that] virtue [was] rewarded and immorality punished” (Boyle; 44). As a consequence of the desire to provide the prisoners of Newgate, England’s most notorious prison, a set of ethics and morals to counteract their criminal tendencies, Victorian society saw witness to the birth of sensationalism, with the creation of a prison newspaper, named “The Newgate Calendar”. Although largely attributed to the creation of “The Newgate Calendar”, Sensationalism would not have developed the far-flung and popular readership which it gained had a number of factors not affected this success. In the wake of the battle of Waterloo, society exhibited a decline in the interest of war news, which in conjunction with the repealing of “‘taxes on knowledge’-in the form of Stamp duties, paper duties, and [the removal of the] enforced distinctions between ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ papers” (Boyle; 42) by the government. This caused both a fall in the price of newspapers, and an increase in readership as newspapers became more financially accessible and popular as a consequence of “the revolutionary impact of the telegraph and the railroads in the 1840s” (Boyle; 47).
Although the technological era, made the availability of newspapers, and by extension sensation texts more readily available, in spite of these feats of modernity, the success of the genre of sensationalism pervaded households across Britain and in some instances overseas, as a consequence of the insatiable drive for scandal and infamy. The desire to unmask and expose previously hidden acts of a scandalous nature is driven by the instinct for self-gratification and self-validation at the expense of another, once it has been revealed that they have committed a shameful act. Which perhaps accounts for the pervasive interest the former wet-nurse to the Prince of Wales inspired when she “stab[bed] to death her six children” (Boyle; 40). The account of Mary Ann Brough’s murderous action inspired much interest in part from the disbelief that a person with such an intimate association with a prominent figure could and did act in such a barbarous and violent manner. The prominence of Brough’s association with the Prince of Wales coupled with the horrific nature of her crimes may have inspired a compulsion within society in general to know as much as possible the full intricacies of her crime, because it evokes sensations akin to the impression, that having learnt of the hideous crime after all is said and done, you are obligated to at least try to familiarise yourself with the full details of the offense.
A copy of The Newgate Calender.
The compulsive drive to learn everything possible in regards to a shockingly salacious sensation text, is evidenced by those who consume sensation texts such as Wilkie Collins The Woman in White, in which the theme of luridness is personified by all those directly and indirectly associated with Miss Anne Catherick, as the exaggerated events, which list encounters with members of a lunatic asylum, subsequent escapes from the aforementioned asylum, haunted graveyards, drowning, stalking and star-crossed love are all mentioned and pivotal to the narrative of Collins’s text. The continued reference to sensational events, and the variety of such occurrences which befell the figures within The Woman in White “unabashedly blurred the lines between fiction and fact. […] [as they] wilfully inserted imaginative but uncorroborated versions of ‘truth’ into their non-fiction narratives” (Boyle; 5). The framing of the text so that it is perceived to be an “story of an offense against the laws [which] is told in Court by more than one witness […] to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect” (9) reinforces the exaggerated nature of sensation texts within newspapers as the stories and narratives which accompany the real life events are at times challenged by the interpretation that journalists present to newspaper readers for consumption.
The presentation of a final article to a newspaper by a journalist did at times challenge the authenticity and accuracy of the narrative which is then presented to society in general via the newspapers. The rearranging of a narrative to fit a presupposed and prearranged narrative like a jigsaw puzzle is also evident within The Woman in White as Mr. Fosco and Sir Percival Gylde labour to deceive the Limmeridge townspeople into believing the authenticity of the identity of the female as being Laura in a “‘plain narrative of […] conspiracy’” (Kendrick; 32). Although both Collins’s novel and the newspaper stories do at time veer from the path of the realistic onto the gravelled lawns of the wildly speculative and unbelievable, the reshaping that both Collins and the journalists undertake is motivated by a more concise and truthful narrative. Yet, retelling of the last scenes of the novel a number of times is an attempt to accurately recreate an ‘authentic’ and ‘truthful’ account of events. The journalists alternative methods of a clear-cut narrative employs a forcible removal of large tracts of the criminals personal history, which may contribute towards the reasoning behind their criminals acts, in an attempt to provide a more streamlined narrative of events, which can be summarised as clearly as possible.
Cover of The Newgate Calender, detailing a murderess in the act.
In Conclusion, my visit to the British Library and online exploration of murderpedia, has led to an awareness of the vast array of sensationalised and shocking acts, many of which are criminal. Although this blog entry did not delve too deeply into the sub-sections and sub-genres of sensation text, which extend towards the edge of criminality following the individuals who were brought up on charges during the Victorian era, ranging from divorce, which may seem quite tame in relation to modern society, to poisons, serial murders and a whole host of other salacious criminal acts. Yet, the subject of sensationalism within newspapers and novels also prompts an acknowledgement of the more taboo and unspeakable subjects within Victorian culture, which are becoming more and more common within the public sphere as they are being discussed within a courtroom, and shortly thereafter immersed within the pages of a newspaper, waiting to be consumed by Victorian society.
Griffin, Susan M. “The Yellow Mask, the Black Robe, and the Woman in White: Wilkie Collins, Anti-Catholic Discourse, and the Sensation Novel”. Ohio; Ohio State University Press, 2004.
Kendrick, Walter M. “The Sensationalism of The Woman in White”. California; University of California Press, 1977.
Boyle, Thomas. Black Swine In The Sewers Of Hampstead. Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism. New York; Viking Penguin, 1989.
Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. London; Penguin Group, 2003.