The Newgate Novel

Jacobs, Edward and Manuela Mourao.  “Newgate Novels.”

This is from chapter 2 of the Blackwell Companion.  Newgate novels focused on criminals as their protagonists, originating from 18th-century crime narratives.  The novels’ criminal focus angered many of the contemporary critics, who thought that the characteristically “lower-class” crime narratives didn’t belong in the more “middle-class” venue of the novel.  However, unlike its literary descendant, the sensation novel, the Newgate novel often seemed less subversive to middle-class readers because it located criminality in an alien and subordinate class rather than in the domestic hearth (the setting favored by sensation novelists).  Thus, middle-class readers could be shocked by the completely separate world of Newgate novels, without having the supposed integrity of their own class status violated.  Furthermore, most Newgate novels were set in the 18th century, so they were also temporally distant, and recent juridical reforms often seemed like a safe barrier between the lawless 18th century and the more stable, respectable 19th century.

Newgate novels often asked readers to sympathize with “good criminals.”  They constructed their criminal protagonists as “good” by attributing to them hegemonic middle-class values, and by representing them as victims of social injustice.  Social injustice was usually blamed for involving these otherwise “good” victims in a criminal underworld.  This chapter cites Peter Linebaugh and Simon Joyce, who argue that Newgate novels advance an “excarceral politics,” whereby the criminal protagonist’s numerous flights and escapes are represented as “evidence of their moral natures rather than as signs of immorality or rebellion against the status quo” (30-31).  Finally, some Newgate novels, like Oliver Twist, ascribed “middle-class” status to their criminal protagonists by revealing them to be secretly high-born, or by allowing their protagonists to rise in status at the end of the novel.  Critics, of course, attacked these elements of the genre as “unrealistic.”

The chapter goes on to detail three ways in which sensation fiction differs from Newgate novels.  First of all, sensation fiction focuses on the detection of hidden crime, whereas in Newgate novels, there is little to no secrecy surrounding criminality.  Second, Newgate novels focus much more on the process by which the criminal protagonist fell into a life of crime, while sensation novels devote most of their narrative space to the process of detection.  Third, Newgate novels focus ideologically on the structures of carceral institutions, while the sensation novel “ideologically foregrounds and naturalizes the inevitability of discovery and the pervasiveness of surveillance” (34).  Also, a section on gender highlights the differences in protagonists and readership between the two genres: sensation novels often focused on female protagonists, and had largely female readerships, while Newgate novels focused on male protagonists, and were read by a more varied audience.  Ultimately, sensation novels associate crime with femininity and the repressive strictures of domesticity, while Newgate novels associate crime with socioeconomic disadvantage.

Timeline for Newgate Novels:

1718: publisher John Applebee contracts with the ordinaries (chaplains) of the Newgate prison to publish accounts of condemned felons

1830-1847: heyday of the Newgate novel

1830: genre begins with Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

1832: Eugene Aram, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

1834: Rockwood, by William Harrison Ainsworth

1838: Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens (serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany with Jack Sheppard)

1839: Jack Sheppard, by William Harrison Ainsworth (serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany with Oliver Twist)

1841: Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens (although its contemporaries did not put it in the Newgate school)

1846: Lucretia, or Children of Night, by Bulwer-Lytton; Newgate novel ends as a viable fashion this year, after too much critical condemnation convinces Bulwer-Lytton, Ainsworth, and Dickens to abandon the genre


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