MASCULINITY, CRIME, AND SELF-DEFENSE IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE by Emelyne Godfrey, Reviewed by Tom Bragg
 

MASCULINITY, CRIME, AND SELF-DEFENSE IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE
By Emelyne Godfrey
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) vii + 201 pp.
Reviewed by Tom Bragg on 2011-07-11.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

In A Study in Scarlet, the first story about Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson is dismayed to learn that his new roommate is unfamiliar with the Copernican solar system and, having just learned it, will do his best to forget it so as to keep his brain uncluttered. "I consider," he says, "that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic...." If someone "takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across," then "the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it." Holmes continues:

Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. ... It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. (Doyle, Study [Oxford 1994] 15)

While a somewhat snarky remark, occurring in the early days before popularity necessitated Sherlock's transformation into a kinder, gentler detective, the analogy is nevertheless a pleasing idealization, one of the numerous Holmesian feats of discipline and acumen that we readers only wish we could attain. But if we can't hope to organize our brains so painstakingly, at least we can hope to do so with our books.

Emelyne Godfrey's new study examines the Sherlock Holmes canon along with two of Trollope's Palliser novels and some little-known Victorian farces. The book assembles a wide-ranging and impressive arsenal of fact on the subjects of personal defense, positive and negative exemplars of Victorian maleness, the London garroting scares of the 1850s, multiplex weaponry, Japanese martial arts and more. Topical variety is one of the book's selling points, according to the publisher's description, which cites its grasp of relevant topics "from the pistol duel to the Whitechapel murders" and claims that its many factual and fictional tidbits will be considered "from the seldom explored viewpoint of the civilian city-goer" engaged in "the self-defence scenario." Unfortunately, no such clear organizing principle emerges during Godfrey's study; despite its impressive research, the book seems dangerously close to realizing Sherlock's over-crowded attic of ideas in book form.

In many ways this book is worth reading. Packed into a trim and fighting-fit volume of just 159 pages of text, Godfrey's points are often insightful and solidly based on useful research. But the book has been confusingly organized and negligently edited. Though it claims to comment on a specific "scenario," its ideas are disparate and hard to access. What constitutes "self-defense"? Is it something that happens only between males, or can women take it up as well? If self-defense is the act of  “defending”  oneself  against an unexpected, unprovoked attack, why is much of the book focused on formal, ritualized methods of dealing with grievances? Even the dust jacket blurb makes this lack of focus evident, for the pistol duel is not really an instance of self-defence. Likewise, the victims in the Whitechapel murders--female prostitutes attacked by an as-yet-unknown assailant--are not really the "civilian city-goers" that Godfrey's study supposedly has in mind. Apart from dredging up some unsubstantiated theories that Jack the Ripper was a respectable medical man, this feint towards the famous murder case serves nothing to the purpose of masculinities, whether acting in self-defense or otherwise.

This sort of unevenness and lack of cohesion characterizes most of the book. At the least, it needs a more relevant, graspable thesis and clearer, more coherent organization. Its roughly chronological arrangement is just not meaningful enough to let the reader assimilate and digest its considerable data.

The book's first section considers the garroting panics of the mid-Victorian era--a series of attacks upon pedestrians by robbers who strangled their victims--through the quite interesting and novel lens of the "garroting farce," a type of play that problematized and mocked the public outcry over garroting. According to Godfrey, garroting farces mocked to perfection the immediate, panicky reaction of male citizens who "arm[ed]" themselves with ridiculous body armor and unwieldy, complicated weaponry, and the mockery of such armor eventually stirred "an interest in non-armed self-defence which continued into the beginning of the twentieth century" (14). Pleasantly juxtaposing the perceived threat of deadly attacks--accentuated by the press- - with the various farces written to cash in on them, Godfrey also situates the seminal work on the subject by Jennifer Davis and Rob Sindall against reflections on street violence from Dickens, W. D. Howells, and the neglected historiographer G. P. R. James. The plays (which Godfrey plentifully cites and skillfully analyzes) cut through the seriousness of the topic with delightful mockery, suggesting that farce in general deserves more attention in Victorian studies--as a counterpoint to the resoundingly earnest chords of weightier genres.

Nevertheless, this section could have benefitted from a more sustained engagement with at least some familiar sources, if only to anchor its ideas in relevant canonical texts (and therefore to balance this section with the remaining sections on Trollope and Doyle). Though Godfrey cites Dickens's Our Mutual Friend throughout the book, and though she still more often cites Tom Brown's School Days, she doesn't use them to substantiate her argument about the cultural response to garroting.

Did she even need to start with the garroting panics? Perhaps the "Newgate novel" of the thirties, with its controversial focus on criminals, might have led her to the topic of self-defense more gracefully and logically. Given her concern with the perceived "Thuggee" origins of the garroter, she might have wished to associate the advent of pedestrian violence with the foreign Other. If, however, Victorian self-defense is not merely a test of British manhood but also reveals the state or fitness of the social body to respond to crisis, then domestic crime is surely a crisis that predates the garroting scare and press reports of Thuggee. In the 1820s, the police reform that took place under Peel clearly betokened anxiety about urban crime.

Of course a book that examines too much should probably not be asked to examine even more. But the problem lies with shape rather than size. Rather than choosing a starting point that might have lent cohesion to what follows, Godfrey seems to have allowed the quantity and novelty of her material--the appealing mockery of the garroting farces, the body armor advertisements, sensational testimony--to determine the parameters of her study.

Part Two examines two novels of Trollope's Palliser series, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, in light of their concerns about personal safety. Here Godfrey thoughtfully and cleverly asks us, as it were, to reimagine the "parliamentary novels" apart from parliament. But without an explicit thesis that ties these novels to self-defense--Godfrey begins Part Two by simply plunging into a synopsis of Phineas Finn--what are we supposed to make of them? Having linked the opening of Phineas Finn to an account of the 1866 Hyde Park Riot, Godfrey claims that the focus of the Palliser series "is the pedestrian's encounter with crime" (67). The statement is too far-reaching, and a little puzzling in light of what follows: an examination of aggressive masculine behavior in both Phineas novels, including not just the protagonist's rescue of one character from garroters, but also Phineas's duel with Lord Chiltern, his threatening gestures to his enemy Bonteen, and his mistreatment of a horse. Apart from generally exemplifying violent male behavior, it is not clear what such incidents have to do with "pedestrian crime," with each other, or with the first part of Godfrey's book.

Her argument gets particularly confusing when she applies it to a speech made by Phineas' lawyer, Mr. Chaffanbrass. In defending Finn against a murder charge, she notes, the lawyer cites

examples of premeditated murders from literature through the ages, including Hamlet, Macbeth, Scott's Kenilworth (1821) and Bulwer Lytton's Eugene Aram (1832). Thus, Trollope places his own novel as one in the history of novels by well-known writers of which violent acts and the motivations behind them form a key part of the plot. (108, my emphasis)

This is an odd mix of literary precedents. Besides the fact that neither Hamlet nor Macbeth is a novel, just one of the two novels cited has any bearing on either Finn's plight or Godfrey's broader themes. The murders that occur in Hamlet, Macbeth, and Kenilworth--at least, the murders that "form a key part of the plot"--are politically-motivated assassinations that occur behind closed doors, well away from the street. Only Eugene Aram, first of the Newgate novels, features crimes that bear any significant relevance to self-defense.

Why should they, we might ask? After all, the author of Phineas Finn is not Chaffanbrass. But then, why bring up his speech at all? Godfrey concludes very little from it, apart from vaguely generalizing that Chaffanbrass's list of literary works aligns Trollope's novel with other stories featuring murders, that the Phineas Finn trial is another "sensational crime story," and that "the public will do anything to grab hold of a good story" (109). In fact, the court scene in Phineas Redux is a ridiculous one. When Mr. Bouncer, the witness in the dock, cites "Dirk Hatteraick's murder of Glossup in The Antiquary" (Trollope, Phineas Redux [Chapman and Hall, 1876] 460), he misremembers that Dirk Hatteraick kills Glossin in Scott's Guy Mannering. Might not Trollope's point here be less about murder and more about literature and the law?

Part Two strikes home in one respect. By highlighting cases in which the pedestrian criminal targeted the upper classes, it meaningfully shows how victims of this kind responded to street attacks. Noting, for instance, that the real life attack on Hugh Pilkerton, M.P., in 1862, inspired the attack on Kennedy in Phineas Finn, Godfrey usefully explains how Trollope changes and embellishes the incident to "show a hero fearlessly responding to violence using the minimum of force" (85).

Personally, I most looked forward to the discussion of self-defense in the Sherlock Holmes canon that makes up Godfrey's last section--but here I was also most disappointed. Godfrey's take on Sherlock Holmes does not differ significantly from Joseph Kestner's and Diana Barsham's interpretations of the detective as "the policeman of masculinity" (Kestner, Sherlock's Men [Ashgate, 1997] 87), nor does she add to their work substantially. Like the rest of the book, this section offers vivid details, including many instances of firearm usage. But it is hard to forgive the many instances of careless editing, especially when they lead Godfrey to some wrongheaded conclusions.

For the simple reason that Conan Doyle himself was notoriously inconsistent, Conan Doyle scholars know they must be extremely consistent. Unless referring to the pseudo-critical analysis founded by Ronald Knox, they must avoid using the word "Sherlockian," as Godfrey does not. Also, they should understand the Sherlock Holmes stories not as an internally consistent system but as an inconsistent continuum, from which any number of contradictory examples may be drawn. Quite simply, one cannot argue very much from a very few of the stories.

Consider what Godfrey does with "The Speckled Band," which is probably--with the possible exception of "The Red-Headed League"-- the best-known short story about Holmes. Apparently guided by the economic fortunes of the Roylott family, though she does not make this especially clear, Godfrey construes the villain, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, as diseased, degenerate, and metonymically syphilitic. But since she is arguing about sexual contagion, metonymic or not, she needs to get the details right about Roylott's relationship with Holmes's client, Helen Stoner. She also needs to be consistent in referring to Roylott's phallic murder weapon, a deadly snake, and to any tropes deriving from it.

Consistency is not Godfrey's forte. Besides inconsistently identifying Dr. Roylott--she correctly calls him Helen Stoner's step-father on page 116, then incorrectly "her father" on the next page--she misreads his face. Confusing his snake with the snake-like features of Professor Moriarty in "The Final Problem," she generalizes about "the physiognomies of Roylott and Moriarty," and about Holmes's "snake-like enemies" (117). But according to Conan Doyle, Roylott's face resembled that of "a fierce old bird of prey" (Doyle, Adventures [Oxford, 1994] 182). Similarly, Godfrey remarks that Holmes "physically tackles the serpent-nemesis Moriarty" (137) in "The Speckled Band" (137). But "The Speckled Band" includes neither Moriarty nor this episode, which occurs in "The Final Problem."

While it may seem pedantic to note such errors, the snake in "The Speckled Band" is vital to Godfrey's reading of the story and of Conan Doyle's take on masculinity in the Holmes stories as a whole. Her confusion leads her to draw some shaky conclusions. Assuming that Roylott's sexuality has been shattered and concurring with the prevailing wisdom about Holmes's superior masculinity, Godfrey asserts that Roylott's use of the snake as a murder weapon betokens his "diminished virility": in the words of Catherine Wynne, which Godfrey cites, "the swamp adder symbolizes his limp phallus" (118). Furthermore, Godfrey argues, when Holmes unbends the fire poker that Roylott has bent in two, he demonstates his "capacity to correct the deformity in Roylott's family tree" (118).

Against this reading--clearly predicated on the idea that Holmes is Masculinity's Policeman and that he is more vigorous and virile than the shrunken, diminished Roylott--I would argue, simply, that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot assert that Sherlock Holmes polices normative masculine behavior in one place without accounting for his "beating off" Roylott's limp phallus in another--or straightening out his bent poker, for that matter. When Roylott secretly sends his snake through the ventilator shaft in the dead of night, into his step-daughter's bedroom, you cannot credibly claim that he has lost his virility. His serpentine penetration of her bedroom surely indicates excessive and improper sexuality, not its diminishment.

The mismanagement of significant detail in Godfrey's reading of this story exemplifies the defects of her method. In the Sherlock Holmes section as in the book as a whole, Godfrey seems to have gathered abundantly but arranged haphazardly. While quite interesting and occasionally thought-provoking, her book remains a jumble sale, a bird's nest of good but unwieldy ideas--a cluttered attic.

Tom Bragg is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Carolina -- Salkehatchie. His work has appeared in Victorian Newsletter and Studies in the Novel, and he is the author of the Oxford Bibliographies Online entry on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Leave a comment on Tom Bragg's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading