Life and Death in the 19th Century Press abstract
Poisonous Corpses and Lurking Threats: Changes in the Representation of the Murdered Body in Ada, the Betrayed and The String of Pearls.
When penny bloods gained popularity amongst the lower-classes during the early Victorian era, members of the middle- and upper-classes were quick to express their concern with the description of murders in these novels, anxious that it would lead to moral degeneration. Although scholars have hitherto assumed that the authors of penny bloods paid little heed to such criticism, this paper shows that it actually did induce James Malcolm Rhymer to alter the way in which he represented homicides. By looking at Ada, the Betrayed [1843-44] and The String of Pearls [1846-47], I show that Rhymer initially relied on sensory and affective descriptions of murders and murdered bodies, but later decided to only implicitly refer to these subjects.
In Ada, the Betrayed Rhymer relies on descriptions of touch and sound to either supplant or supplement a visual description of a murder. By relying on such sensory descriptions, Rhymer appeals directly to the reader’s sympathetic nervous system. This allows him to intensify the emotion of horror which the murdered body instils in the reader to such an extent that it generates what I have termed an “affective overload”. This overload causes the emotion of horror to be transformed into one of rejection, in this instance one of disgust. The adversaries of penny bloods did not relish this new development of authors attempting to manipulate the reader’s emotions, and accused them of poisoning the reader’s minds. In a response to such criticism Rhymer omits descriptions of murder or murder victims altogether in The String of Pearls. However, it is the very absence of the corpses that made this text so very horrifying for his contemporaries. For, it mimicked the lurking threat which the corpse had come to represent to society.