British Curator Lucy Worsley solves the mystery of the Brits' fascination with murderHistorians in the News
tags: murder, mysteries
... How did the British population become so fascinated by untimely deaths? Lucy Worsley, chief curator for several of the Britain’s top attractions, including the Tower of London, has some answers. She explores the question in her new fascinating, morbid, and eerily enjoyable book The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.
“This pleasure taken in violence is timeless; it just takes different forms and emphases depending on the technologies and economy of an age,” she writes. “In the nineteen century, the rise of literacy and the fall of the price of print allowed a love of blood to flourish in new ways. But it was always there – and still is today.”
In an interview, Worsley explains about how the Industrial Revolution paved the road for an entire country’s trip down murder lane. She also describes the gruesome nature of 19th-century murder memorabilia and confesses an inappropriately gleeful moment of her own.
Q: What made you want to understand the history of fascination with English murder, both fictional and real?
When I was little, all I really wanted out of my life was to become Nancy Drew. I've always enjoyed fictional sleuths, especially Nancy. Part of the reason I like reading about detectives is the way that they, like historians – like me, even! – have to piece together what happened from small pieces and fragments of evidence.
And as a museum curator, I'm always looking for interesting, accessible ways into history. The history of murder grabs people, but it's also a way into the history of justice, gender, society, literature, literacy itself.
Q: As you write, the news media evolved in the 19th century while more people became literate. At the same time, there seemed to be a lot of interesting people out there snuffing other people. How do all these things tie together?
It all boils down to the Industrial Revolution. That was the impetus behind this new, 19th-century desire to read about murder in journalism or in fiction. It came about because people, in Britain at least, were moving from the country to the cities.
If you lived in 18th-century England, you probably lived in a village, worked on the land, and your greatest fears were probably dying in a famine or of disease or in a war.
In the 19th century, more like than not you had moved to a town. Life was cleaner and safer there, and violent death less likely. But you probably didn't know your neighbors in the same way that you'd have done in the close-knit community of the village, and perhaps your neighbor he looked a bit odd ... perhaps even like a murderer....
So, people began to have the luxury, and it is a luxury, of worrying about things as inherently unlikely as getting murdered. An obsession with murder goes along with paranoia, neurosis and anxiety – all the other things we “enjoy” about modern life in the city!
Q: Why do you think Britain in particular was such fertile soil for interest in murder?
Britain can claim to lead the world in murder because it was a country that industrialized early. Other countries, going through the same process later, caught up and produced their own genres of detective fiction. I imagine that detective fiction doesn't have the same appeal in the developing world: If there's a genuinely high chance that you might die violently yourself, I'm positive that reading about it would hold less appeal....
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