Book review: The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London, by Gilda O’Neill (Amazon / Book Depository)
Author and historian Gilda O’Neill, well-known for her social history books exploring the changing face of London’s East End, examines the problems that plagued the “good old days” of the Victorian era, using the thesis that problems of the present day really aren’t all that different from the past, and the past is far less rosy than memory and glorified history would have us believe.
Despite a perception of the Victorian age as a kind of golden era of prosperity and safety from a societal sense, bolstered by its developments in technology and advancements towards modernity, O’Neill argues that it was actually a time of extremes, leading many sections of the population to turn to crime in order to survive. She’s remarkably effective in drawing parallels with the world of Victorian vice and modern society, and meticulous about providing examples to illustrate her points. I particularly liked her debunking of blaming video games for violence in modern youth, a tired old argument we’ve been hearing my entire lifetime and probably longer. But learn enough about history and it turns out that nothing is really new, the details and circumstances change but the core of human nature, especially in conditions of social shifts and poverty, doesn’t change too much.
Chapters are divided by vice, and look at problems like drug and alcohol dependency, crimes involving children and child abuse, murder, prostitution, common street crime like petty theft, and perhaps most intriguingly the section on cons, fraud and psychic crime. O’Neill presents cases that sparked public interest and exemplified social issues of the day. And of course, no book on Victorian criminal history in London, especially with its heavy focus on the East End, would be complete without a chapter devoted to Jack the Ripper. Historical episodes and explanations of specific crimes and cases are interspersed with the author’s own familial background and their experiences in various colorful London jobs.
As interesting as the subject material is, I didn’t enjoy the structure – the author presents a fairly good argument then inserts a big chunk of source to back it up, making it read more like an academic dissertation than a well-told history or work of narrative nonfiction. Long sections of the text are direct quotes from other sources that seem like they’d be more effective if woven into the narrative instead of extracted and used verbatim.
And sometimes the individual episodes didn’t go into enough detail, they seemed to be over before I’d found out all I wanted to know. But that can be a positive: it’s a quick read so serves as a solid introduction to the history of crime in the era and a jumping off point for additional topics of interest.
I absolutely loved her somewhat cynical assessment that, just like in the present day, if you were healthy, wealthy, and male, things would probably work out just fine; but if you were any combination of the opposites of those three things, you face a much tougher time. Some things never change.
The Good Old Days:
Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London
by Gilda O’Neill
published December 1, 2016 (new ebook edition) by Endeavour Press
originally published September 7, 2006 by Viking
I received an advance copy of the new ebook edition courtesy of the publisher for review.