Crime and crime fiction

Why was crime such a popular subject in 19th-century fiction? How did literature balance fear, social commentary and entertainment? How were gruesome murders and shocking punishments treated by the press, the public and the authors of the period?

Crime in Oliver Twist

Crime in Oliver Twist

Article by:
Philip Horne

Dickens's Oliver Twist depicts the excitement as well as the danger surrounding the criminal underworld. Here Professor Philip Horne examines how Dickens’s portrayal of crime was influenced by public executions, contemporary criminal slang and other sensational literary works.

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Oliver Twist: depicting crime and poverty

Oliver Twist: depicting crime and poverty

Referencing Dickens’s original manuscripts, Professor John Bowen explains how Dickens used crime and poverty in Oliver Twist.

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Murder as entertainment

Murder as entertainment

Article by:
Judith Flanders

Looking at broadsides, cheap pamphlets and the works of Charles Dickens, Judith Flanders explores how crime in the 19th century – particularly gruesome murder and executions – served as entertainment in both fiction and real life.

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Penny dreadfuls

Penny dreadfuls

Article by:
Judith Flanders

The penny dreadful was a 19th-century publishing phenomenon. Judith Flanders explains what made these cheap, sensational, highly illustrated stories so popular with the Victorian public.

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Crime in Great Expectations

Crime in Great Expectations

Article by:
John Mullan

Crime exists as a powerful psychological force throughout Dickens’s Great Expectations. Professor John Mullan examines the complicated criminal web in which the novel’s protagonist, Pip, finds himself caught.

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Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper

Article by:
Judith Flanders

The unidentified killer known as Jack the Ripper murdered a series of women in the Whitechapel area of London during 1888. Judith Flanders explores how the excitement and fear surrounding the mysterious murderer made its way into late-Victorian literature.

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The creation of the police and the rise of detective fiction

The creation of the police and the rise of detective fiction

Article by:
Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders explores how the creation of a unified Metropolitan Police force in 1829 led to the birth of the fictional detective.

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Juvenile crime in the 19th century

Juvenile crime in the 19th century

Article by:
Matthew White

Novels such as Oliver Twist have made Victorian child-thieves familiar to us, but to what extent did juvenile crime actually exist in the 19th century? Drawing on contemporary accounts and printed ephemera, Dr Matthew White uncovers the facts behind the fiction.

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An introduction to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

An introduction to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular and famous detectives in literary history. Andrew Dickson explores the fame, success, trials and tribulations that Holmes brought to his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

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An introduction to The Hound of the Baskervilles

An introduction to The Hound of the Baskervilles

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

The Hound of the Baskervilles merges two popular genres, the detective story and the Gothic tale. Here curator Greg Buzwell examines the novel’s depiction of scientific deduction, eerie landscapes and violent ancestry.

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An introduction to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous literary detective

Article by:
John Sutherland

Why has Sherlock Holmes continued to captivate readers generation after generation, while other fictional detectives of the Victorian period have been forgotten? To investigate, Professor John Sutherland explores shilling shockers, arch criminals, and forensic science.

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Further themes

Romanticism

How did the Romantic poets explore landscape, class, radicalism and the sublime?

The Gothic

What are the key motifs of Gothic literature and how do these works reflect the contexts in which the genre emerged and evolved?

Childhood and children's literature

Was children’s literature intended to entertain or instruct?

Crime and crime fiction

Why was crime such a popular subject in 19th-century fiction?

London

How did the writers of this period portray our iconic capital city?

The novel 1780–1832

From the origins of the Gothic to depictions of the emerging middle classes, what are the key characteristics of late 18th- and early 19th-century literature?

The novel 1832–1880

How did the writers of this period incorporate fantasy, realism, sensationalism, and social commentary into their work?

Fin de siècle

How did the literature of this period reflect attitudes to gender, sexuality, immigration, class and scientific discovery?

Victorian poetry

How did the Victorian poets approach composition, form and language, and what inspired their subjects?

Popular culture

From music hall to pleasure gardens, explore the extraordinary range of entertainments on offer in Georgian and Victorian Britain.

Poverty and the working classes

How did writers respond to the social inequalities of Victorian society?

Power and politics

How did writers respond to the tumultuous political events of this period?

Reading and print culture

How did rising literacy rates, libraries and new technologies influence literature and reading habits during this period?

Technology and science

How did 19th-century authors respond to the new possibilities afforded by technology and science?

The middle classes

How were the tensions surrounding social mobility explored in the literature of the period?

Visions of the future

How did 19th-century depictions of the future reflect contemporary fears of social, political and technological change?

Gender and sexuality

How did the literature of this period portray and challenge traditional gender roles?