Reformative Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction


  • Erica McCrystal (St. John’s University, New York)



Nineteenth-century British crime novels whose heroes were criminals redefined criminality, alerting readers to the moral failures of the criminal justice system and arguing for institutional reform. My research on this topic begins with William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams“ (1794) as a social reform project that exposes hypocrisy and inconsistency of governing institutions. I then assess how contemporary social criticism of crime novels contrasts with the authors’ reformative intentions. Critics argued the ‘Newgate novels’, like those of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and William Harrison Ainsworth, glorified criminality and were therefore a danger to readers. However, Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford“ (1830) and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard“ (1839) serve, like Caleb Williams“, as social reform efforts to alert readers to the moral failings of the criminal justice and penal institutions. They do so, I argue, through the use of sympathy. By making the criminal the victim of a contradictory society, Godwin, Bulwer-Lytton, and Ainsworth draw upon the sympathies of imagined readers. I apply contemporary and modern notions of sympathy to the texts to demonstrate how the authors use sympathy to humanise the title characters in societies that have subjected them to baseless mechanisation.