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  • Review: Victorian Studies in Scarlet August 27, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Best read of the summer? For Beach an easy choice, Richard D. Altick, Victorian Studies in Scarlet: Murder and Manners in the Age of Victoria. OK it was first published in 1970 but what is forty years between friends? Altick, who died in 2008, was a maverick academic: it would be great to induct him, sooner or later, into the rogue researchers series. Jonathan Rose, in an introduction to another of Altick’s books, decided that Altick’s genius came down to the fact that he had never had any academic training in the Victorian age, his specialty, and that he steadfastly refused to get roped into any critical fashions, those cold sores running through recent academic history: colonial theory, post colonial theory etc etc. ‘Like a backyard engineer’ writes Rose ‘[Altick] was continually inventing wonderful things, even if his neighbors did not immediately appreciate their possibilities.’ To this independence of mind Beach will add that Altick was a stunningly good stylist with native wit and that he had that resigned attitude to human foibles, which can be a product of unbearable self satisfaction or profound wisdom.

    His nose for rotting human apples made him an excellent crime writer and this brings us to Victorian Studies in Scarlet. Altick begins the book with some general thoughts on how the Victorians perceived murder and particularly how they became obsessed with the idea that murderers were everywhere: you see the buxom milk maid; you see the smiling doctor; you see the American just off the boat… Almost certainly Britain’s pre-eminence in the murder mystery tradition began in the freak enthusiasm for killing in the 1870s. Still more interesting, at least for the morbid reader (ego) are the thirteen chapters on individual murders. Altick treats each killing as an excuse to excavate the rich soil of Victorian social history. He thrills over the reports of what a Victorian, for example, had in his pocket when he was arrested. It is certainly true that the police interrogations and trials throw up a wealth of welcome details. Beach particularly enjoyed the ménage a trois of a husband, a wife and her Methodist preacher lover and Altick’s dissection of Victorian attitudes to condoms. But they are also great stories in themselves: one of the chapters is entitled ‘The Man Who Trained Nude Bicyclists’. I can see you clicking your Amazon pages now…

    Thanks to Chris from Haunted Ohio Books for putting me onto this one. Any more weird and wonderful books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com