Victorian Literature and Culture




EDITORS’ TOPIC: VICTORIAN AESTHETICS AND AESTHETICIANS

“THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MURDER”: THE TRANSGRESSIVE AESTHETICS OF MURDER IN VICTORIAN STREET BALLADS


Ellen L. O’Brien a1
a1 University of Connecticut

Abstract

To say that this common [criminal] fate was described in the popular press and commented on simply as a piece of police news is, indeed, to fall short of the facts. To say that it was sung and balladed would be more correct; it was expressed in a form quite other than that of the modern press, in a language which one could certainly describe as that of fiction rather than reality, once we have discovered that there is such a thing as a reality of fiction.

—Louis Chevalier, Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes

SPEAKING OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRANCE, Louis Chevalier traces the bourgeoisie’s elision of the working classes with the criminal classes, in which crime becomes either the representation of working class “failure” or “revenge” (396). Chevalier argues that working- class texts “recorded” their acquiescence to and acceptance of “a genuine fraternity of [criminal] fate” when they “described and celebrated [it] in verse” (397). Though a community of fate might inspire collective resistance, popular poetry and ballads, he confirms, reproduced metonymic connections between criminal and worker when “their pity went out to embrace dangerous classes and laboring classes alike. . . . One might almost say [they proclaimed these characteristics] in an identical poetic strain, so strongly was this community of feeling brought out in the relationship between the favorite subjects of working-class songs and the criminal themes of the street ballads, in almost the same words, meters, and tunes” (396) Acquiescence to or reiteration of worker/criminal equations established itself in workers’ views of themselves as “a different, alien and hostile society” (398) in literature that served as an “involuntary and ‘passive’ recording and communication of them” (395). Though I am investigating Victorian England, not nineteenth-century France, and though I regard the street ballads as popular texts which record resistance, not acquiescence, Chevalier’s work usefully articulates the predicament of class-based ideologies about worker and criminal which functioned similarly in Victorian England. More importantly, Chevalier acknowledges the complexity of street ballads as cultural texts..



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