Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 2. Criminal biography; Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XIII. Lesser Novelists

§ 2. Criminal biography; Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram

In the second quarter of the century, the writings of Pierce, Egan, Ainsworth, Whitehead and Moncrieff give evidence of a new lease of interest in criminal biography and low life; Lytton was quick to seize the opportunity. The character Thornton, in Pelham, is drawn from the actual murderer Thurtell; in The Disowned (1829), Crauford is a representation of the fraudulent banker Fauntleroy; Lucretia, or The Children of the Night (1846), is based on the career of the forger Wainewright. The point of view is different in Paul Clifford (1830), and Eugene Aram (1832), which all into line with The Robbers (1782), Caleb Williams (1794), The Monk (1795), The Borderers written 1795–6, Melmoth (1820) and other books concerned with the criminal’s justification of himself and demand for sympathy and understanding. Paul Clifford won the benediction of Godwin, who thought parts of it “divinely written,” and of Ebenezer Elliott; in its melodramatic way, it furthered the efforts of Mackintosh, Romilly and others for the reform of prison discipline and penal law; it provided, also, an example, not lost upon Dickens, of the novel of humanitarian purpose. The introduction of picaresque figures, among them the rogue Tomlinson, who stands for “all the Whigs.” and who becomes a professor of ethics—and, still more, the quips and personal caricatures in the book—rouse suspicions as to the depth of the writer’s sincerity. Paul Clifford, the chivalrous highwayman, has his counterpart in the philosophising murderer Eugene Aram; the obscuring of the plain issue of crime by sentimental, or, as in the case of Ainsworth, by romantic sophistry, nauseated Thackeray; in George de Barnwell, Thackeray described these heroes as “vituous and eloquent beyond belief,” and, in his unvarnished Newgate chronicle Catherine (1839–40), he put the whole matter in its naked and repulsive truth. The melodramatic law-court scenes of Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram are earlier evidences of the theatrical skill with which Lytton composed his dramas, chief among them Richelieu (1838), The Lady of Lyons (1838) and the comedy Money (1840). In the characterisation of Claude Melnotte, hero of The Lady of Lyons, again, the criminal fact is obscured by the veneer of sentiment.