Moral Panic and William Harrison Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” (1839)

Many people will remember the furor over so-called “video nasties” in the early 1990s, when certain horror movies had been blamed for some particularly heinous juvenile crimes. Newspapers such as the The Sun carried headlines such as “burn your video nasties.” This was a knee-jerk reaction that is known as a “moral panic.” However, itwas not the first time that the newspapers had blamed a form of entertainment for particularly heinous crimes.

Jack Sheppard by George Cruikshank (1839)

In the 1830s a very popular genre of fiction came out which was known as the Newgate Novel. These were romances, and featured as their heroes criminals, often from the eighteenth century. Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton wrote two entitled Eugene Aram and Paul Clifford. William Harrison Ainsworth also wrote two entitled Rookwood (featuring Dick Turpin), and Jack Sheppard (featuring the famous thief from the eighteenth century, Jack Sheppard). Even Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) has been classed under this genre.

At first the Newgate genre was well-received by the reading public. In 1831 the gothic novelist Mary Shelley (1797-1851) recorded her feelings upon reading Paul Clifford. It was ‘a wonderful, a sublime book’. Indeed, the middle classes initially loved the genre as it provided entertainment, nostalgia, and a critique of contemporary society. The genre was ‘the last breath’ of the literary tradition of criminal biography, which the middle classes in the eighteenth century had been fond of reading. However, the popularity of these tales waned with the respectable middle classes, for the intended sympathy for the criminal in Ainsworth’s second Newgate novel about Jack Sheppard proved too much for them to bear.

The book received very unfavourable reviews, with one reviewer saying that it was:

‘A bad book, and what is worse, one of a class of bad books, got up for a bad people…a history of vulgar and disgusting atrocities.’

Alongside the unfavourable reviews in magazines, matters came to head in July 1840. In that year Lord William Russell (1767-1840) was murdered in his sleep by his valet, Benjamin Courvoisier. In one of several public confessions, the valet stated that the idea for murdering his master came from having read the novel Jack Sheppard. W. M. Thackeray was disgusted with the genre and wrote his own Newgate novel, Catherine (1840) in order ‘to exhibit the danger and folly of investing [criminals] with heroic and romantic qualities’. The reaction to Ainsworth’s work ‘broke through the romantic quarantine’ which the popular heroes of his work had hitherto enjoyed. Ainsworth responded to his critics by calling these attacks ‘a most virulent and libellous attack upon [his] romance’. However, the damage had been done. The genre fell out of favour with the middle classes. The work really was perceived by them as ‘a bad book…one of a class of bad books’.

Jack Sheppard tricking the Gaoler

There was a moral panic amongst middle-class newspaper commentators about the influence of the novel. This was because Jack Sheppard was not a gentlemanly highwayman as Turpin was, neither was he the secondary criminal character in a tale of an innocent or virtuous character, as in Oliver Twist. Although it should be noted that Dickens’ novel received censure as well as Ainsworth’s, for portraying certain sections of the criminal underworld such as Nancy – a prostitute – in a positive light. Ainsworth’s boy thief, rather, ‘act[ed] on his impulses and [took] pleasure in his crimes’. There was no justification for Sheppard’s crimes in the novel.

Sheppard’s moral ambiguity accounts for why the novel was deemed to be truly subversive by middle-class commentators in the press:

Critics of the novel objected to mixed motives and mixed morality, preferring the security of a moral universe in which the good and bad, the criminal and the law-abiding, [were] readily identifiable as such.

The context of the novel’s publication was debates about unruly and delinquent youths. In many contemporaries’ minds, the presence of unruly youths on the streets was equal to an unstable society. Youths who had been abandoned by society were often represented as overthrowing it. This was evident across the channel in Eugene Delacroix’s painting The Barricade, depicting the 1830 French Revolution, with De Tocqueville writing that ‘it is the Paris urchins who usually start insurrections’. Indeed, the most famous work of French fiction about the 1832 French Revolution, Les Miserables, has the street urchin Gavroche playing an active role in the insurrection. Comparisons were made by nineteenth-century commentators between English and French street urchins. London was said to possess ‘a class as wild and perhaps even more incorrigible than those spawned forth by the dangerous classes in Paris’. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) would still have been within the living memory of many people when Jack Sheppard was released, and the memory of those events haunted the British ruling classes for years. More immediately worrisome for middle-class contemporaries was the emergence of Chartism in 1838 – the year before the publication of the novel. In the summer of 1839 – the year of Jack Sheppard’s publication – there was particularly violent rhetoric coming from the mouths of Chartist leaders, many of whom advocated strikes and violence against authority. Many youths took an active role in the Chartist movement, with police reports between 1842 and 1848 laying a particular emphasis upon the presence of young males at Chartist meetings. Although admittedly many of the boys present at those meetings may simply have been pickpockets who wished to capitalise upon the pickings to be had where a great number of people were present. Be that as it may, ‘the Artful Chartist Dodger was looming large for Middle England, combining threats of both criminality and political insurrection’. With Ainsworth’s novel featuring a boy criminal ‘thumbing his nose’ at authority, in 1859 the Lord Chamberlain, who licensed all theatrical performances in London, had every play representing Jack Sheppard banned. Thus the ‘Sheppard-mania’ caused anxieties to middle and upper-classes because of the contemporary debates surrounding juvenile offenders and the fear of popular insurrections, and as such constitutes one of the first cases of moral panic in Britain. Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard was, in effect, the first “video nasty.”

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  • Gillingham, L. (2009). ‘Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Crimes of History’, p.887

Categories: History

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