Ratcliffe Highway Revisited

In Victoriana, I describe a piece of ink-black satire written by the Romanticist, Thomas De Quincey, entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”

“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.

The entire chapter, “Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre,” can be read here on the blog.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders took place two hundred and ten years ago this month. At Spitalfields Life, The Gentle Author has a serialized account of the events running roughly coterminously with the 1811 dates. So far he has published three chapters: “The Death Of A Linen Draper,” “Horrid Murder,” and “The Burial of the Victims.”

The Unexpected Return of Dennis Severs

I wrote at length about Dennis Severs’ House in my book Victoriana. You can read the chapter in an earlier post. The house is an extraordinary creation that defies easy explanation. Is it a museum? Is it a work of theater? Is it an artwork that the viewer enters into? It is all of these things.

The Guardian reports that curators have recently discovered “hundreds of cassette tapes stuffed in cupboards” containing narration of the original house tour given by Severs, who died in 2000. The headline reads: “Dennis Severs’ House recreates his eccentric tours based on found tapes.”

These recordings “have been distilled down to create a new tour” by The Gentle Author who writes the Spitalfields Life blog. An actor will conduct the tours in place of Severs.

Dan Cruickshank is quoted as saying, “Dennis was an amazing character and his spirit does live on with these tapes. There is life after death, he is back from the grave … We have resurrected him. We’ve brought Dennis back, and he would love that.”

Introduction to Victoriana

VICTORIANA: ARTS, LETTERS, AND CURIOSITIES OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Hardcover, 160 pp (New York: Castle Imprint, 2019)
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“That after men might turn the page / And light on fancies true & sweet / And kindle with a loyal heat / To fair Victoria’s golden age”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, To the Queen (draft), 1851.

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity in Britain. The transatlantic telegraph, Bessemer steel, modern sewage systems, and the first forays into analytical computing were all introduced during this time, when the British Empire governed a quarter of the globe. In the Anglosphere of the twenty-first century we have inherited the technologies of the nineteenth century but we have not inherited the culture that once contained them. The World Wars obliterated that culture. In the crisis of the early twentieth century the context in which the modern world had been developing was suddenly removed.

Was a different modernity possible? Something more romantic? Something more authentic? A future of dirigibles, telephones, Prussian and Russian monarchy on the Continent, railways (instead of motorways), heritage crafts, muscular Christianity, classical education, art and architecture that continued to develop within the Western vernacular not against it?

The Victorian period occupies a special place in our popular culture. Every year it is recreated on page, stage, and screen in pastiche. No other era is revisited with such regularity. What is it that fascinates us? I believe we see in the Victorian past a future that might have been. Or that might yet be. The Victorians were forced by the exigencies of history to find a balance between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and populism, community and individuality, the old and the new. These forces coexisted, if not always comfortably, then at least sympathetically and effectively. We have lost that balance. Sooner or later the exigencies of our own history will demand that we strike it again.

This book involves a cultural history of nineteenth-century Britain. I write “a” cultural history and not “the” cultural history because it is by no means exhaustive. The major figures in arts and letters are examined in detail: Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite painters particularly. But you will read nothing of Darwin, Marx, or Freud. And you will read rather more about Thomas De Quincey than you might in another book about the period. Insomuch as I have written a general introduction to Victorian arts and letters, I have also, necessarily, written a very personal one. I trust that you will encounter in these pages interesting people and works previously unfamiliar, and familiar ones from unexpected angles. If I am successful you will come any with a touchstone to that lost future that still fascinates us. What you will make of it (indeed, what we will make of it as a society) remains to be seen.

Victoriana

Victoriana1

My book Victoriana is available now from Castle Imprint. Via the publisher’s website:

Our latest title, Victoriana: Arts, Letters, and Curiosities of the Nineteenth Century, is currently on sale in hardcover at all major retailers including Amazon in the USAUK, and CanadaBarnes & Noble in the US; Blackwell’s in the UK; and independent booksellers everywhere.

From the jacket copy:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

Victoriana2

Victoriana, Coming Soon

My second book, Victoriana, will be published later this month by Castle Imprint. The official release date is May 21. From the Castle Imprint website:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.