The title of this post, ‘The Highwayman as a Social Critic’ is borrowed from a book which has become my Bible over the past few years, Lincoln B. Faller’s Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987).
Highwaymen were, according to the eighteenth-century press, a common and frightening occurrence on Britain’s roads during that period; Henry Fielding wrote in 1751 that the streets of London were become “impassable without the utmost hazard”. Yet as Robert Shoemaker has shown, by the 1830s, the figure of the highwayman had almost vanished from Britain’s roads. Various reasons are attributed to this; Gillian Spraggs, argues that urbanisation around London eroded many highwaymen’s favourite haunts, as rural areas around the capital were built over. This is in additon to the extension of the turnpike system, which made it difficult for highwaymen to move around unnoticed, along with passengers’ increased use of traceable bank notes. According to official records, the last mounted robbery took place in 1831.
Beginning in the 1830s, however, a new literary, and briefly lived, literary genre emerged: the Newgate Novel, named after the infamous London gaol. The heroes of these novels were usually highwaymen, from the eighteenth century, and they buried the now-all-but-vanished figure of the highwayman in a cloud of nostalgia (for it is easy to romanticise a dangerous robber like a highwayman when the threat of being robbed has all but disappeared). So Newgate Novels, such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834) glamorised highway robbers such as the now legendary Dick Turpin (1705-1739), and another of his novels glorified the boy thief, Jack Sheppard, and, indeed, all highwaymen, evident in the ballad Ainsworth included in Rookwood:
Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, in danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.
Ainsworth called Turpin the great highwayman and explained that:
‘Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct…with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road.
But this is post is not about Ainsworth, whom I have written about many times before, but about another author, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873), and his novel, Paul Clifford (1830). Bulwer Lytton was an MP and social reformer, and his philanthropic mindset (might we say, ‘bleeding-heart-liberalism’?) comes through in his work. The hero of the novel is a fictional highwayman called Paul Clifford, living in the late eighteenth century, although the Georgian setting is merely window-dressing, a veneer, through which Lytton, and his character, Paul, can critique contemporary society and its harsh treatment of the poor. As a youth Paul is sent to gaol for a crime he did not commit. He escapes from gaol, and is forced to rob to survive. At the end of the novel he is caught but manages to escape to the Americas with his sweetheart. Lytton’s point is that it was society’s fault that Paul became a criminal. He gave the character an eloquent speech in the scene where Paul is tried at the Old Bailey:
My lord…seven years ago I was sent to the house of correction for an offence which I did not commit; I went thither, a boy who had never infringed a single law – I came forth in a few weeks a man who was prepared to break all laws! Whence was this change? – Was it my fault or that of my condemners? You had first wronged me by a punishment which I did not deserve – you wronged me yet more deeply when (even had I been guilty of the first offence) I was sentenced to herd with hardened criminals…The laws themselves caused me to break the laws.
According to Gillian Spraggs, Paul in his trial is the mouthpiece for a wider critique of society’s harsh treatment of the poor through disproportionate laws and punishments, and ‘denounce[d] the injustice of a society in which laws [were] invoked relentlessly against the poor, punish[ing] the robber, but protect[ing] the frauds and hypocrisy of tradesmen and lawyers’.
It is a social commentary that has its roots in the eighteenth century; in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), for instance, sees its protagonist, the highwayman Captain MacHeath, sing the following ballad:
Since Laws were made for ev’ry degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company
Upon Tyburn tree!
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men like us were to swing,
‘Twou’d thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree!
The essence of the argument is that laws are made by the rich, to protect the rich, and unjustly punish the poor.
The trial scene in Paul Clifford is the chance that Paul gets to fully lecture the judge and the jury on the current evils of society; trial scenes were all important in the Newgate Novel, creating a space for readers to reflect upon certain practices of the law, and to see for themselves how the application of the law in certain cases may lead to injustice. Indeed, the novel was published at a time when there had already been a twenty year campaign for the reform of the penal system. Lytton’s social commentary reflected ongoing contemporary debates, particularly over the correct treatment of juvenile offenders in the 1830s and 1840s. Paul Clifford displays an awareness of the ways in which the nineteenth-century criminal justice system could entrap youths from an early age into a life of crime; once youths had been inside an institution it was extremely difficult for them to find honest employment after their spell in gaol.
Another contemporary debate surrounded how young criminals should be punished once they had been sentenced. There was, as Heather Shore explains, ‘the problem of how to differentiate between “perishing” and “dangerous” juveniles’. Paul Clifford, having ‘never infringed a single law’ would have been a child worth ‘saving’ from the effects of being placed in ‘hardening punishment’. As Shore explains further, ‘the paradox of the situation was how to control the behaviour both of those children already labelled as criminal and those who were only on the periphery of the justice system’. In the novel it was Paul’s association with hardened criminals in prison that made him prepared to break the law, and this is what Lytton is trying to tell readers in his novel. Thus Lytton’s Paul Clifford presented the figure of the highwayman as both a hero and a social critic.