Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Claire Harman has established herself as one of the premier biographers in modern literature, even going as far as receiving the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her work on Sylvia Townsend Warner. In her non-fiction work titled Murder by the Book, she strays a bit from her usual path, recounting the rather unusual story of Lord William Russel‘s murder, and how ultimately a novel ended up being at the centre of everyone’s attention.
Table of contents
Claire Harman Visits the Victorian Era
One can hardly overstate the power books have in our society, holding within them the potential to educate, enlighten, and make us feel virtually anything on the entire spectrum of emotions. Literature written thousands of years ago still guides us in some ways to this very day, and I don’t think it would be a stretch to say the written word played a major role in shaping our civilization. There are definitely reflections to be made on how far this power actually extends, and in Claire Harman‘s Murder by the Book we delve into a specific aspect of this: can a novel actually kill a person?
Claire Harman takes us back to May 1840 in Victorian-era London, where a brutal murder shook society down to its very core. Lord William Russell, well-known and respected in the highest social circles of the city, was found with his throat slashed, with the prime suspect being his valet, Courvoisier. As the investigation moves forward, an increasing number of strange rumours begin circulating as they usually do, but they pale in comparison to the direction real life decided to take… one revolving around William Harrison Ainsworth‘s Jack Sheppard.
When the criminal in this case was finally apprehended and put on trial, he named this novel in his defence. While today most people would roll their eyes at criminals trying to justify murder by using works of fiction, at the time this event was unprecedented and prompted many people in high standing, including Queen Victoria herself, to start wondering about the true power of novels and the printing press. Were the newly found easy access to literature and best-selling true crime stories to blame for this act of brutality? How far could this thing potentially go, and what does this mean for the future of literature?
A Curious Microcosm
To begin with, I will confirm a suspicion which I imagine you might be having: the events in this novel weren’t exactly Earth-shattering as far as shaping the future goes. I believe the ultimate consequence was the end of public executions in Britain some years down the line; it really depends on how closely interested you are in this topic. With this being said, however, for those who aren’t really interested in this historical connotation I don’t believe it detracts from the story the author set out to tell in all of its glorious details.
I’m guessing few will object to me referring to Claire Harman as a master biographer, and the one aspect it primarily shines through is the depth of the research she conducted into the matter. She has obviously looked at not only the case itself, but also virtually everything else surrounding it.
There is nary a detail about Victorian-era London we don’t become privy to, right down to the smallest details about the politics of the rich and the lives of regular citizens. Her writing prowess makes her numerous descriptions flow well together and I never felt bored or irritated from all the information I was bestowed, even if some of it didn’t have to do with the main subject.
Most of all in her depicting of 1840’s London I enjoyed the care with which Harman delved into the rise of the printing press and the litany of true crime novels it gave rise to. It was very interesting to simply wander around and explore a time when literature was king, entrancing everyone with stories from all over the world. If anything, it gives you a very good demonstration of just how deeply the written word can set its roots in a society and how it can guide their mindset over generations upon generations.
The Glorification of Crime
Descriptions of London life moved aside, the main focus of the book still remains the murder of William Russell and the subsequent trial focusing on Jack Sheppard. For those unfamiliar with the story, it tells about the exploits of a robber who managed to elude the law on a number of occasions thanks to his own ingenuity. At the time, many critics were concerned this story would contribute to a rise in crime by glorifying it, and Harman once again does a fantastic job at detailing precisely how different elements of society regarded it.
The author documents the crime and its trial quite meticulously, to the point where I legitimately believe she got her hands on all existing information pertaining to the case. We get an interesting look at Victorian-era justice and investigative techniques, following the police work every step of the way.
The trial itself, rife with misconduct from every direction imaginable, is also covered in its fullest detail, with Harman distinctly tracing the threads which ultimately led to the wider controversy surrounding Ainsworth‘s story. Even the eventual hanging of the valet is poignantly described, making us feel the heft with which everything culminated.
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While Murder by the Book is a historical account, it does push us to make some personal reflections. While we might not have to ask ourselves as to whether or not a book could make us kill someone, I believe it is worth giving a few thoughts to how much literature influences us. Ultimately, it’s the account of a relatively isolated and rather curious moment in human history, one any literature lover might learn a thing or two from.
The Final Verdict
Murder by the Book by Claire Harman is a very engaging and even relaxing read about a strange few moments during London’s storied history, depicting the Victorian epoch in uncanny detail and fidelity while relaying a rather unusual story, socially-significant at the time and still philosophically-significant today. I highly recommend this book to anyone treks through time to explore the surprising history of some books, even more-so if the Victorian setting is one you endorse.
Claire Harman is a British author, literary critic and book reviewer who has written for publications such as the Evening Standard and the Sunday Telegraph. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and had the distinction of teaching English at the universities of Manchester and Oxford.
In 1989 she was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her biographical work, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Some of her other biographies include Fanny Burney, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Bronte: A Life.