The strange Victorian murder of Lord William Russell

The crime was set up to look like a burglary gone wrong, but the police realised that the murderer had to be one of the household.

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Before the detective novel arrived in the mid-19th century, readers fed their appetite for crime and punishment with Newgate novels. Published in the 1830s and 1840s but set 100 years earlier, these tremendously popular works recounted the adventures of both real-life and fictional criminals whose deeds eventually led them to Newgate Prison. The most successful of these novels – almost all by writers virtually unknown today – was William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839), which depicted the many thefts and prison breaks of its hero. In the weeks following its publication, nine London theatres staged dramatisations of Jack Sheppard.

Criminals in Newgate novels are glamorous and daring, even noble; the authorities are misguided at best and tyrannical at worst. Critics fretted that such portrayals would destroy the morals of the newly literate working classes. In the summer of 1840, their worries seemed confirmed. Lord William Russell, uncle to the Duke of Bedford, was found in bed with his throat slit. The crime was set up to look like a burglary gone wrong, but the police realised that the murderer had to be one of the household, and arrested Lord William’s young Swiss valet, François Courvoisier. Having been convicted, Courvoisier declared that Jack Sheppard – both the novel and its theatrical adaptations – had inspired him to kill his master.

Courvoisier had been in the employ of the elderly, solitary, mildly eccentric Lord William for only five weeks and seemed to have no motive for murder beyond finding his new position rather dull and his master rather finicky. If a novel could inflate such mild complaints into reason for murder, could anyone with servants feel safe? (Whether Courvoisier was really inspired by Ainsworth’s work is unclear, as he changed his confession frequently. Furthermore, neither the real nor the fictional Jack Sheppard actually committed murder.) The arrest and trial gripped the public. Balladeers composed songs about the crime, around 40,000 people gathered at Newgate to watch him hang, and Madame Tussaud made a waxwork from Courvoisier’s plaster death mask.

Lord William’s murder was gruesome and bizarre in itself, but its connection to literary history is the chief attraction for Claire Harman, whose previous works include biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Brontë. Like Kate Summerscale’s best-selling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), Murder by the Book investigates a once famous Victorian murder. But where Summerscale delved into the political, legal and social developments of the period, Harman deals with such matters with a briskness that is sometimes frustrating. She dispatches such things as the Chartist uprisings, England’s new queen and the development of the railways in a sentence or two, the better to focus on the rise and fall of Newgate novels and novelists, and how they shaped a younger generation of writers.

Elizabeth Barrett (later Barrett Browning) wondered whether readers could detect Ainsworth’s morals from his book. The young, ambitious Charles Dickens monitored reactions to Jack Sheppard carefully. He was close friends with the older Ainsworth, and his recent novel, Oliver Twist, had been classed as Newgate fiction, thanks to its likable pick-pockets and prostitutes. As Newgate novels fell out of favour, Dickens took pains to distance himself from the genre and from Ainsworth, focusing more on contemporary social problems in his fiction and repeatedly revising Oliver Twist in order to emphasise the aspects that distinguished it from Newgate novels.

William Makepeace Thackeray, still almost a decade away from writing Vanity Fair, had been denouncing Newgate novels and their “absurd and unreal” romanticisation of criminals for most of the 1830s. By the time Jack Sheppard was published, he was busy writing his own Newgate tale, intending it to produce “a wholesome nausea” that would lead readers away from crime rather than towards it.

Nevertheless, both Dickens and Thackeray were fascinated by Lord William’s killing, even as the public’s interest in the affair disturbed and irritated them. In his letters, Thackeray declares himself sick of the murder before repeatedly returning to the subject. Both men attended Courvoisier’s hanging and published accounts of it.

Harman’s decision to engage with literary history as much as with Lord William’s death does not disguise the fact that the murder lacks the suspense and intrigue that animate detective novels and successful true-crime accounts. The police took a while to settle on the identity of the killer, suggesting either an abundance or an absence of individuals with motives. In the case of Lord William, it was the latter. The ingredients that satisfy armchair detectives – love, hatred, betrayal, revenge – seem oddly absent from his household.

Harman resists sensationalising the murder. When she speculates, she makes it clear that that’s what she’s doing, and she avoids pseudo-novelistic descriptions of her characters’ thoughts and feelings. Instead, she offers a long view of the circular relationship between crime and literature: 18th-century criminals inspiring 19th-century novels that inspired murders that fascinated 19th-century writers and, in the 21st century, produce histories like Harman’s. 

Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime
Claire Harman
Viking, 224pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow