Behaving Badly: Social Panic and Moral Outrage – Victorian and Modern Parallels, edited by Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson; pp. xxii + 247. Aldershot, Hants, and Burlington VA: Ashgate, 2003. £47.50, $94.95.
The fourteen chapters of this book address a range of issues of concern to the Victorians and still, or again, causes of concern today. These involve ‘the essentially fluid boundary between the criminal and the anti-social’ (p. 1). This volume foregrounds the complex interactions between popular and media understandings of the point at which where offensive behavior becomes (or ought to be designated) crime, and the official response through legislation or policing practice within their broad social and cultural context. The approach is strongly interdisciplinary: contributors include academics from a range of areas. Several are also lawyers or solicitors, or have been involved in various aspects of law and policing.
Initial chapters look at broad general issues to do with legal systems, perceptions of the law, and the role of policing. David Bentley, a former QC, judge and legal historian, contrasts Victorian and modern trial systems. In spite of the lack of representation for poor prisoners, and of an effective appeal structure, confidence in the Victorian legal system was high, with a tacit assumption that there were never miscarriages of justice. The editors’ chapter on ‘Media and Legal Representations of Bad Behaviour’, argues that the Victorians manifested trust in their political and legal institutions, whereas in the present day the media uses ‘personal “exposures”... to undermine the individual professional’ (p. 33). They also find, however, significant similarities in ‘attention-grabbing sensationalism’, and the media’s ability to ‘make choate the incoherent fears existing more widely in society’. Kiron Reid, a lecturer in law, examines the enormous recent increase of criminal legislation and state intervention in the UK, independent of changes in the ruling party. The Victorians passed relatively few Acts relating to criminal justice, but this was less about liberalism than the presence of extensive powers enabling the police to deal with a range of bad behaviour. There is also continuing disjunction between the attitudes expressed through legislation by successive parliaments and how the justice system works in the courts.
The rise of a professional police force to assist in coping with the bad behavior of the populace was a nineteenth century innovation. In ‘Policing a Myth, Managing an Illusion’, Tom Williamson, a former Deputy Chief Constable and forensic psychiatrist, considers crime recording and the production of statistics, particularly in the light of the vast explosion in the numbers of criminal offences defined by the law since 1901. Roger Hopkins Burke looks at get-tough policing strategies then and now to remove undesirables - drunks, vagrants, beggars - from the public streets, a class particularly likely to be swelled in periods of economic upheaval and trade recession. He argues that pro-active dealing with these ‘rougher elements’ both in the Victorian era and today has commanded a good deal of support from the ‘respectable working class’, who were the most likely to be affected by the gross behavior, violence, and extortions of this excluded group.
Several chapters address particular forms of bad behavior. Sara Wilson, a lecturer in Company Law and financial crime, considers ‘white-collar’ crime . She suggests that financial crime in the modern sense was born and only then did fraud come to be perceived as undermining social and economic stability, and that. Blasphemy, the subject of historian of secularism David Nash’s article, may conversely seem like an ancient one. Nash argues that English jurisprudence in this area has, historically, generated significant paradoxes, through its unique ‘strange mixture of authoritarian defence of morals and protection of individual opinion’ (p.114). A similar point is made by Tom Lewis, a solicitor: the ‘lack of certainty and clarity’ (p. 151) about the line between art and obscenity in Victorian England, he suggests, was rooted in a central paradox: preserving the right to privacy and maintaining the right of protection from pollution. The problematic boundary between art and the obscene is also explored in Susan Edwards’ chapter on ‘The Pornographisation of the Child in Art, the Written Word, Film and Photograph’. She concludes that the operations of the law in regulating child pornography remain ‘contradictory, ambiguous and confused’ (p. 189).
Lewis also makes the point that increased anxieties over obscene representations were fuelled by the wider and cheaper dissemination of such materials enabled by technological developments. This theme is picked up in Gavin Sutter’s chapter on penny dreadfuls. As with the internet today, these were seen as making dangerous representations (sensational stories of crime and criminals) available to a vulnerable and corruptible populace.
A good deal of continuity can be seen in how the law has grappled with several of these issues, and this can equally be discerned in the attitudes to murder of husbands by wives described by Judith Knelman, a media historian. Acceptance of mitigation in cases of prolonged domestic abuse is still limited. Other issues, for example blasphemy, and discussions of the ‘Dangerous Obsession’ of gambling, as analysed by Mike Ahearne, appear to inhabit very different moral frameworks at the two periods. M. E. Rodgers is perhaps stretching a little in drawing analogies between Victorian attitudes towards infanticide (and fails to cite some significant historical studies on this topic) and contemporary cases of medical intervention in childbirth without the patient’s consent: the recent furores around cot-deaths, accident or murder, might have made a more coherent link.
Richard Stone’s chapter on issues of public disorder arising from a lawful activity perceived as provocative by other groups within the community, perhaps the most obviously political form of ‘bad behavior’ discussed in this volume, argues that simplistic models of ‘class conflict’ occlude the intricacies of complex interactions between competing interest groups.
Because of the constraints of length, there is a tendency to the dry and synoptic summary and a reliance upon secondary studies. It is undoubtedly a valuable exercise to historicize certain crimes or behaviours deemed to be deviant in various ways: when and why does ‘bad behavior’ become a crime, or something that ought to be criminalized? Certain phenomena are illuminated by their consideration in a longer historical framework: for example, the role of new technology and media in the rise of fears concerning the dissemination of materials believed to be deleterious or subversive is not a product of the internet superhighway but can be traced back at least to the explosion of cheap literature for the masses following innovations in printing technology during the nineteenth century.
A number of problems that might have been discussed are not included, though they might have proved particularly resonant: age of consent and adolescent sexuality, the anti-vaccination campaign and more recent furores over infant immunisation; prostitution; changes in matrimonial law. The collection deals with big issues rather than the individual and particular, but it might have been illuminating to look at some Victorian political scandals and more recent ones. Some important and pertinent studies are not cited.
Whether the ‘high concept’ of comparing and contrasting Victorian and contemporary reactions to various perceived problems of society is a useful one is not entirely answered by this volume. Is there something particular about the Victorian era which makes it especially valuable as a baseline against which to consider certain contemporary concerns: or is it just a useful limitation enabling the volume to maintain a degree of coherence? (Or is it just playing to popular notions of ‘Victorian values’?) The Victorian era and the present are, suggest the editors in their introduction, ‘both... ages of “social panic” and resultant “moral outrage”.’ But has there ever been an age that lacked moments of social panic and outbursts of moral outrage?
Lesley Hall is an archivist at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London. She is the author of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (2000) and editor of the anthology Outspoken Women: women writing about sex 1870-1969 (2005), several other books, and numerous articles, chapter and reviews.