Victorian Literature The Newgate Novel
Lyn Pykett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0066


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).

General Overviews

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 courts: Grossman 2002 provides a rigorous and readable example of this approach.

  • Gillingham, Lauren. “Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Crimes of History.” Studies in English Literature 49 (2009): 879–906.

    Lively and detailed study arguing that the way the genre deals with issues of heroic agency and historical action enables it to experiment with the fictional representation of the subject in history at a time when the novel was still a very highly contested form.

  • Gillingham, Lauren. “The Newgate Novel and the Police Casebook.” In A Companion to Crime Fiction. Edited by Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley, 93–104. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444317916

    An accessible examination of the Newgate novel’s development in relation to penal reform and recent transformations of the gothic. Offers insightful and succinct critical analysis of the main novels, noting significant differences in tone, structure, ideology, and the ways they deal with the circumstances of crime and the causes of criminality.

  • Grossman, Jonathan. The Art of Alibi: English Law Courts and the Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

    This historically dense and conceptually sophisticated study of the role of 19th-century law courts and trial scenes in shaping novelistic form examines the Newgate novel’s use of climactic trial scenes and the merging of the perspective of the omniscient narrator with that of the criminal protagonist.

  • Hollingsworth, Michael. The Newgate Novel 1830–1847: Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens and Thackeray. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963.

    Essential reading, this authoritative study examines the development of Newgate fiction in its literary, legal, and social contexts, offering detailed discussion of the main Newgate novels and the biographical and cultural contexts of the critical and social controversies they provoked, as well as examining satires, parodies, and stage adaptations.

  • John, Juliet. “Twisting the Newgate Tale: Dickens, Popular Culture and the Politics of Genre.” In Rethinking Victorian Culture. Edited by Juliet John and Alice Jenkins, 127–145. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    This lively essay gives a succinct description of the Newgate novel and its relationship to a changing print culture and the democratization of reading as a prelude to exploring the ways in which Oliver Twist self-reflexively engages with and alludes to the Newgate genre.

  • John, Juliet, ed. Cult Criminals: The Newgate Novels (1830–1847). London: Routledge/Thoemes, 1998.

    A concise introduction linking the Newgate phenomenon to contemporary legal and social reforms and the democratization of print culture. Offers short but insightful introductions to Bulwer’s Paul Clifford, Eugene Aram, Lucretia, and Night and Morning and Ainsworth’s Rookwood and Jack Sheppard.

  • Kelly, Gary, ed. Newgate Narratives. 5 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008.

    A five-volume edition of street literature, parliamentary inquiries, melodramas, and novels, including Paul Clifford—exemplifying what Kelly describes as “Newgate discourse.” The informative introduction explores the interconnected social, cultural, economic, and political discourses and practices focused on Newgate Prison during the period of Britain’s formation as a modern state.

  • Schwarzbach, F. S. “Newgate Novel to Detective Fiction.” In A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing, 227–278. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    A full, detailed, and lively essay that locates the genre in its sociohistorical context, arguing that it was a political phenomenon that was overtaken by the “condition-of-England” novel. Also summarizes both the critical controversy orchestrated by Fraser’s and the moral panic sparked by the success of dramatic adaptations of Jack Sheppard.

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