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For Anyone Interested in Victorian Culture,
This review is from: Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations (Paperback)
Altick has been long acknowledged as acclaimed scholar who recreates the vivid views of lifestyle in Victorian era, and in this book he again shows his expertise as a professional. "Deadly Encounters" records two incidents that shocked and even grabbed the mind of Victorians in 1861, and according to Altick's view, became the epitome of the literary trend that flourished during the 1860s and after, namely, sensation novels, which includes Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
The two incidents, or "deadly encounters" are about the cases, one of which involved a retired major shot severely in a seedy room in London, later known as "the Northumberland Street Affair." The other incident is about a French nobleman who attempted to murder his son in order to, it was supposed, to get the latter's inheritance. But what is facinating about Altick's book is not the description of those cases themselve; it is the proceedings of the trials and the reaction of the excited press that Altick skillfully traces with detailed records and footnotes, and he never lets his readers bored all through the book. The cases themselves may not be as interesting as many other stories you might have heard -- such as William Palmer, Constance Kent, Madeline Smith, and other more notorious cases -- and some part of the both incidents are left unsolved even today, but still, the authentic look of Victorian life displayed by the pen of the author is simply gripping. What is interesting most to me is the extraordinary development of the trial, which can be found in Dickens and Collins' novels. In the Northumberland Street case, a mistress shows up in court to testify among the curious spectators; in French nobleman's case, the only eyewitness became suddenly unable to testify, because he happened to be fatally sick just before the trial began. These incredible things happened in reality, and Altick relates minutely them along with the eager response on the press's (and public's) side.
The book is, therefore, more about the sociological analysis on the growing interest of the public in those sensational events, and Altick devotes about 130 pages of the book to it. The remaining 25 pages are study about the trend of literature after the incidents, mainly about comtemporary popular dramas and novels. The latter part of the book also proves how the writers (both for drama and novel) used the immediate topic of "sensation" before the craze of the public. On this score, this book may help you understand some aspects of sensation novelists such as Collins and Braddon.
Skillfully written, and always convincing, "Deadly Encounters" will be an amusing reading experience for anyone interested in Victorian period. It's not only about crimes of passion, but also those middle-class, "respectable" people who avidly devoured their sordid flavor, just like us living in modern times.