The Newgate Novel
Newgate novels take their name from the London prison, destroyed by fire in 1780, whose more illustrious or infamous inmates lived on in popular broadsheets and ballads and in The Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactor’s Bloody Register, which can be accessed online. First published in 1773, but reissued in many editions in the early 19th century, The Newgate Calendar fed the popular fascination with crime and criminals with its accounts of their lives, trials, confessions, punishments, and, sometimes, escapes. The Newgate label was attached by (usually hostile) critics in the 1830s and 1840s to a relatively small group of extremely popular novels that focused on the lives of real or invented criminals. The most prominent Newgate authors were Edward Bulwer (later Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton), whose Paul Clifford (1830) was the first to receive the Newgate tag, and Harrison Ainsworth, whose Jack Sheppard (1839–1840) was the most popular and notorious of the Newgate novels; along with its numerous stage adaptations, the novel provoked “Jack Sheppard” mania. Other Newgate novels include Bulwer’s Eugene Aram (1832), Lucretia (1846), and Ainsworth’s historical romance, Rookwood (1834). Dickens became caught up in the Newgate controversy with his portrayal of his hero’s sojourn among the criminals in Oliver Twist (1837–1839), whose serialization in Bentley’s Miscellany overlapped with Jack Sheppard. Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge has sometimes been treated as a Newgate novel because of the nature of its crime plot and its depiction of the destruction of Newgate Prison during the Gordon riots of 1780. Thackeray, one of the genre’s main critics, produced his own parody of it in Catherine; a Story (serialized in Fraser’s Magazine, 1839–1840).
The most comprehensive and authoritative study of the Newgate novels and their social, political, and literary contexts is Hollingsworth 1963, to which all other work mentioned in this section is indebted. Another very useful and informative account of the history and contexts of Newgate narratives of various kinds is provided in the general introduction to Kelly 2008. The burgeoning critical interest in popular fiction—and, in particular, the literature of crime—has produced a number of useful shorter overviews of the Newgate novel since the 1990s. In the introduction to her six-volume library edition of crime novels by Bulwer and Ainsworth (John 1998), Juliet John provides a succinct, wide-ranging overview that both historicizes Newgate fiction and outlines some important 20th-century critical responses to the genre, as well as summarizes the plots of her chosen novels. John 2000 examines the Newgate phenomenon in relation to the complex politics of a developing popular literary culture. Several lively and informative essays in general guides to the Victorian novel or the literature of crime sketch the main features of the Newgate novel and the controversy it generated, as well as outline its antecedents and successors. The best of these, which have much to offer both the general reader and the specialist, are Schwarzbach 2002 and Gillingham 2010. Gillingham 2009 offers a good overview of the Newgate phenomenon in a spirited attempt to demonstrate the importance of the Newgate novel to our understanding of both the role played by minor popular genres in 19th-century transformations of the novel and the nature of cultural work performed by fiction. The Newgate novel has also been reexamined in the context of a new kind of literary archaeology that has been concerned to trace the development of the forms of the novel in relation to legal discourses and the practices of the law .